On Warfare and Children
When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. With toy guns and imitation bows and arrows. We took our combat cues from the world of make-believe, the world Hollywood served up about the good guys and the bad guys in the Wild West. In those politically incorrect days of old, we had no doubt about who was who.
Today, in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen and Afghanistan and Libya and soon you might have to add Turkey, children still can be seen, pairing off in mock battle. But there’s no make-believe behind the game. These kids survive in a real-life state of chaos. And destruction. And displacement. And death. If they survive at all.
And it’s hard, if not impossible, to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
This was hellishly hammered home last week in Syria. Yet again.
It was in photos and video that went viral. Images of a five-year-old in Aleppo. Of this mop-haired little boy sitting alone, framed by his intensely orange chair in an overstressed hospital. Sitting alone after being rescued from the rubble of his home. Caked in blood and dust. Defenseless. Catatonic.
Who was responsible? Russia? Radical religious rebels? The boy’s own government? On a personal level, it’s moot. It happened.
I’m reluctant to utter the boy’s name, because it feels like I’d diminish all the other kids who’ve lost their homes, their schools, their siblings, their parents. All the other kids for whom an airstrike— or a pitched battle from door to door— robbed them of their youth. All the other kids just like this one but for one dramatic difference: the camera didn’t capture their despair.
But it doesn’t really matter whether I name him or not, because while the image might stick with you, you wouldn’t long remember the name. Can you conjure up the identity of the little boy washed up last year on a beach in Turkey? Not likely. The two-year-old son of a Syrian family fleeing the fighting looked like he was sleeping but he wasn’t. He was dead. That too was captured in a photograph which went viral. That too prompted global fury. Fury about the callous conduct of Middle East combatants. Fury about the desperate deluge of Middle East refugees. Fury after which… nothing changed. Yet again.
In my own coverage of conflicts, I have seen what happens to young survivors. Existence becomes a goal. Poverty becomes an expectation. Security becomes a memory. Suffering becomes a touchstone. Violence becomes a norm.
Two images forever stick with me. Neither is make-believe. In one, Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip throw stones at mock-ups of Israelis, spitting insufferable slogans at their unseen enemy. Some day those stones will be on fire, and those children will be out to kill. In the other, children in then-embattled Belfast, Northern Ireland, are playing their equivalent of cowboys and Indians, except it’s Catholics and Protestants. They are in an alley, slinging miniature Molotov cocktails at each other. And swearing the same foul slogans they could hear just around the corner, where a bona fide battle raged on the street. Hate was growing right there in that alleyway.
The tiny corpse on a sandy sanctuary in Turkey, the dazed child in an orange chair in Syria, the kids in Gaza and the kids in Belfast, they are part of the incalculable cost of war.
Is it avoidable? Sad to say, the answer is no. Power, greed, ideology, history, racism, religion; they, and more, are the drivers of war. So unless the failings of human nature some day disappear, we will always have warfare. And if we always have warfare, we will always have children whose lives it ruins for perpetuity. There already have been hundreds of thousands, maybe millions this time around. There will be that many more. Yet again.
On Rape and Justice
When a rape victim last week in Boulder asked the judge to “have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me… which was none,” she pleaded for the paramount principles of criminal justice: to remove dangerous offenders from the streets, and dole out punishment that is somehow commensurate with the crime. Rehabilitation? A second chance? Those might be society’s ultimate objectives, but the primary purpose of criminal justice is to protect the population and punish the perpetrator.
Judge Patrick Butler didn’t do that. Certainly not commensurate with the crime. Although CU student Austin James Wilkerson was smart enough and old enough in 2014 when he committed his crime to know the difference between right and wrong, his only penalties are two years of work-or-study-release, inclusion on the register of sexual offenders, and 20 years of probation. Wilkerson’s life won’t be easy– he will be a pariah– but for a crime that in some states once qualified perpetrators for the death penalty, it’s a walk in the park.
What in the world was the judge thinking? Who is our system of justice meant to serve?
Some would answer that Wilkerson does not necessarily fit the profile of an incorrigible rapist, and therefore should not serve a sentence that permits the state to keep him behind bars even beyond the end of his original sentence if he is not deemed rehabilitated. Excuse me, but yes he should. He still would have the chance to show that he’d learned his lesson, while also paying more of a fair price for his crime, and not just incidentally, giving his victim at least some sense of moral compensation. If someone deserves to get the sharp end of the stick, it is the criminal who consciously chose to offend, not the victim who had no choice.
Last weekend, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in an op-ed about a man who started selling drugs while a college student in Virginia, roughly Wilkerson’s age. He was caught and convicted and now is serving life without parole. Wilkerson raped a woman who told the court of nightmares and panic attacks, debts amassed, friendships lost. Yet while the drug dealer will likely die in his cell, Wilkerson will sleep behind bars for just two years, leaving each day to study or to work. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
Make no mistake, this young rapist’s once rosy future probably is destroyed. So forgive me for sounding callous, but I don’t care. His victim argued eloquently and who more than she deserves to be heard? “The rapist chose to ruin his life… My life has been ruined without my consent.” She was heard, but not heeded. That’s not justice.
On This New World Canvas
Both conventions are past now, yet no one at either hammered home this hard fact: When a terrorist turns something as tame as a truck into a grisly weapon of war, as one did two weeks ago in France, it means that in war and peace, as well as social upheaval and even presidential politics, we are painting today on a whole new canvas. The question is, do we have a clue how the new pictures will turn out? The alarming answer, judging from the conventions, is no.
First of all, how do we achieve peace when we don’t fully understand why we’re in the war? It is not as it once was, two sides in a struggle for land and power and dominance. It is about ideology, and when you think about the enemies who are now out to kill us, we surely don’t understand their ideology. It’s a war against adversaries with no front lines, no uniforms, no Geneva rules. And now, with weapons as simple as a truck. Or in Germany, an ax. Or in so many other places, a gun. They’re all easily accessible to terrorists, even the guns, especially the guns. Partisans at both conventions claimed they’ll kill ISIS, but none spewed specifics. No one told us how we win on this whole new battlefield.
Which is what American police officers must also be wondering. They no longer have to think about protecting themselves only when they race into an active crime scene. Now, they might race right into an ambush. Just going on patrol bearing a badge can be a magnet for a bullet.
Then there’s social upheaval. When the Arab Spring dawned, it grew from the ground up. That’s contrary to virtually every prior revolution in the history of the Middle East; they used to start at the top. But five years ago, Arab leaders had eyes and ears on every corner in town yet they never saw the revolution coming because it wasn’t the consequence of a coup, it wasn’t the product of foreign influence, it was the growth of a then-new phenomenon called social media. Now, in the blink of an eye, social media is an irreversible force for good but also evil. ISIS with its monstrous morality uses it, Palestinians with knives use it, and on this new canvas, we haven’t yet learned how to combat it.
Presidential politics have changed for sure, and for better or worse, Donald Trump is the catalyst. Different analysts put different spins on how he’s done it, but the one immutable fact is, he has. An egomaniacal schoolyard bully with a minimum of preparation to be President fought for a major political party’s nomination, and won. All Hillary Clinton can do is watch most days as her rival grabs the headlines yet again. She is trying to figure out how to respond and win the voters’ embrace, but dogged herself by distrust, she hasn’t cracked the case yet. 25 years in politics might have taught her a lot, but not how to paint on this whole new canvas.
There’s even the recent brouhaha in the United Kingdom over Brexit. A healthy alliance was weakened by an unhealthy fear. Respected experts were ignored. Powerful politicians were discredited. All of Europe— and by extension, the United States of America— is now moving in uncharted territory.
We are bombarded by barbarism. France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey. San Bernardino. Orlando. Dallas. Nowadays, whether an airplane crashes in the Mediterranean or a gunman shoots up a shopping mall, we don’t first wonder whether it’s some sicko. We wonder whether it’s some terrorist. We are assaulted, physically and psychologically, and no one at either convention really told us what it all means.
At this point, solutions are just guesswork. Plenty of people, from politicians to pundits, are telling you where we’re headed, but they’re just guessing. Everyone is. We’re all in the same fix, painting on a whole new canvas.
On Tom Sutherland
The only other time I can remember writing about a great man I knew who died was when I wrote about the long-popular radio legend Paul Harvey, for whom I worked as editor and sometimes writer for more than two years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He was conservative and I wasn’t, and he was talented and I wasn’t, but he shared his talents with me and inexplicably put his trust in me and treated me, young enough to be his son, as his equal. He helped shape me and contributed to whatever success I had, and I’ve always been grateful.
Now I write about another who died only last Friday night: Tom Sutherland. More people probably remember Paul Harvey than Tom Sutherland, so to remind you, I’ll tell you of his most unwanted claim to fame: along with journalist Terry Anderson, Tom was the longest held western hostage during the almost endless civil war in Beirut. And what made him great was that he was never bitter. For six-and-a-half years, he was blindfolded and chained to walls and moved to new prisons only at night and in all that time never— think about this: NEVER— saw the sun. And yes, he was mad and yes, he fought to punish Iran for sponsoring the terrorists who kidnapped and held him, but he wasn’t bitter. To the contrary, he could tell some of his stories about those horrible dark years with his native Scottish lilt and a smile on his face. He could even joke about the ways he got through that unimaginably dark period of his life.
I never met Tom Sutherland in Beirut. He had been the dean of the school of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, but that wasn’t exactly a part of my rounds when I went in and out of that troubled city covering the war there. We who spent time in Beirut all knew that he’d gone missing, along with our colleague Terry, and occasionally when roaming (or sometimes, to save our lives, running) through sections of the city, we’d remark to one another that maybe he was just on the other side of this wall, or that wall, or otherwise very close to us without us knowing it…. and without him knowing it either.
Where I finally met him was in Denver, probably a year or two after he was released, when some friends took me to hear him speak. Afterwards I went up to Tom and introduced myself and told him what I just told you, that we who were covering the war in Beirut thought about him during his captivity but never had a clue about where he was or how he was or what he was suffering as a hostage. As it turns out, what he suffered was worse than our worst imaginings.
Over the years we had lunch together a few times, and corresponded with some regularity until the last couple of years when his health went into decline. I never claim to have unique personal insights into the behavior of terrorists— to the contrary, the one thing I think I do understand because of whatever time I’ve spent with them is how little we actually understand about what drives them— but whatever I do know, if only secondhand, is thanks to Tom. Contrary to pundits and contrary to politicians and diplomats and academics and think tank analysts, Tom Sutherland has had his boots firmly on the same ground that was inhabited by terrorists. He got to know them in ways none of the rest of us possibly could, or would want to.
I’ll close with the story he told me about how he was kidnapped in the first place— or maybe more accurately, why he was kidnapped. He had come home to Colorado for R&R, and was returning to his post in Lebanon. As a favor, the president of the university sent his own chauffeured car out to Beirut’s airport to pick Tom up. Heading back north into town though, the car was cut off and men with guns jumped out and pulled Tom from his car into theirs and that was the beginning of his nightmare. What his kidnappers didn’t know yet was, they got the wrong guy. As Tom learned from them once he got to know them (albeit involuntarily, of course), they had been watching the university president’s car and when it headed for the airport, they followed it thinking they would take as their hostage the leader of the school. Instead, they got Tom.
And yet he wasn’t bitter. For all of his suffering, he knew how to count his blessings. As my wife eloquently put it when I told her that Tom Sutherland had died, “He had quite a soul.”
On Melania Trump
By the end of the first night of the Republican convention, the worst thing anyone had to say about Melania Trump’s talk was that it was lacking in the kinds of personal anecdotes that typically show up in such a soliloquy: anecdotes about her husband’s hidden traits, his soft side, his personal warmth. But I give her a pass; no one named Trump is known for doing things the way they’re usually done.
By the end of the first morning after, the worst thing anyone had to say about her talk was that she lifted not just ideas but in some cases word-for-word passages from Michelle Obama’s talk eight years ago at her own husband’s convention. Granted, in all likelihood Melania’s words were provided by professionals and she might not have known about the plagiarism— although that does raise the question of why she told NBC’s Today Show, “I wrote it with as little help as possible.” But I even give her a pass on that one; no one named Trump is known for telling the whole truth.
However, the issues inherent in this little incident go deeper than just to the originality or ethos of the woman who would be America’s First Lady. They go to the nature of the Trump campaign itself.
First, because what Donald Trump and his supporters have long howled about is what they call the incompetence of everyone in the Obama administration. They have assured us that a Trump administration would be different. He will hire the best people, he will execute the best policies, he will make America great again. Yet when the most important person in his life is about to give the most important speech in her life, neither he nor anyone around him can detect even a hint of theft? Geez, there’s even easy software out there that can find it. Maybe he’d better make Melania great again before he goes to work on the country.
Second, because of Melania’s very words (with a big assist from Michelle Obama): “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life: that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect.” Oh, you mean like Donald does? From what I’ve read, his word was no bond for the people he screwed over the years in business. And respect? My guess is, he couldn’t even spell the word when he heard Aretha Franklin belt it out. Mrs. Trump went on, “Donald is intensely loyal.” I’ll bet! Just ask his first and second wives.
Finally, Trump’s wife’s plagiarism was a danger sign, a metaphor for the phony, misleading, uninformed, and incurious nature of Trump’s candidacy. It was empty. Just like Trump.
On Gun Regulation
Do you realize, nowadays, we name but a single place, and instantly we all know what it’s about. Like Columbine. Orlando. With so many massacres in-between: Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino. Now mournfully, we add Dallas. We hear the names of these sites of slaughter, we are reminded of our national shock. And, our national shame.
In the aftermath of Orlando, I heard an interview on NPR with Anne Marie Hochhalter, a victim of the carnage at Columbine. She is paralyzed for life. What she insightfully observed is, while the circumstance of each massacre was different, they have one thing in common: “A crazy guy with a gun.” Crazy, or angry, or both.
Yet in seventeen years since Columbine, after so many bloodbaths, what has been done to mitigate them? Almost nothing.
Moreover, in all that time, short of banning human birth, no one has figured out how to keep “a crazy guy” off the streets. But plenty of people— politicians, police, pundits, just plain citizens— have figured out how to shrink the number of guns on the market, the number of guns available to “a crazy man”: make them harder to get. However, they face obstacles that continue to cost innocent lives.
Like the argument from the guns rights crowd that advocates more weapons out there in our world, not less. Consider Donald Trump’s assertion after Orlando that it would have been great if someone in the nightclub had shot the killer “right smack between the eyes.” Yes it would, absolutely.
But here’s the fatal flaw. A couple of weeks ago on a TV newscast I saw police-cam video of an officer ordering a guy out of his car. Instead of obeying, the guy began to drive off. So this trained policeman fired seven shots, from about ten feet away. He hit the guy exactly once. Yet the NRA and Trump and others think untrained civilians, already probably panicked, ought to be firing toward a madman in a crowded nightclub… or movie theater… or school? There is more than one kind of madman among us.
Those who still believe in common sense control over the pellmell sale of guns shouldn’t give up. Millions of Americans don’t want to. If polls are accurate, most Americans don’t want to.
Yet barriers still are built by people who don’t justify their opposition, beyond their blind belief that the Second Amendment is impervious.
So go back to the Constitution, the very Constitution we all treasure, and reread the Second Amendment, always at issue when calls for gun control crop up. Its precise wording, including punctuation, is, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The Founding Fathers had to mean one of two things by that key word, “regulated.” Either that the militia bearing arms would be regulated by someone or something, or that the bearing of arms themselves would be regulated.
Yet today, opponents of any gun control keep up their calamitous campaign. Do they seriously believe they are the very militia the founders had in mind?
So let’s change one term in the debate: don’t use “gun control” any more; use “gun regulation.” Then we’re abiding by the Constitution, just as the Founding Fathers wanted.
Speaker Paul Ryan last week deceptively declared, “We can have security and keep to the Constitution at the same time.” But a fellow Republican, Senator Lindsay Graham, responded more reasonably, “The Constitution’s a sacred document, but it is not a suicide pact.”
These are legitimate issues. With life-and-death import. They deserve a reasonable debate. It cannot be left to wither. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would let it, saying last week, “Clearly, we have got to move on.” Wrong. If we “move on,” debate will not be the only thing that dies.
On Elie Wiesel
I met Elie Wiesel once.
It was at Auschwitz. On the 40th anniversary of its liberation.
He was there to remember it. To mark his people’s liberation from the Holocaust. To mark his own liberation from its horrors.
I was there to report on it.
One could have no delusions about how this man had suffered in that insufferable place. Not after he wrote in his own Auschwitz account called Night, “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”
But at the same time, one might have thought that Elie Wiesel also, somehow, could have been happy, 40 years later, in that singularly sad spot. Happy that the degenerate dregs of Auschwitz no longer were a death camp but a muscular monument to his people’s survival. Happy that by becoming the archivist of arguably the most malicious mass murders in the history of mankind, he was rich, he was revered. And that because of what he wrote, the rest of us might never forget.
But he didn’t look happy. He didn’t talk happy. He didn’t act happy. He was sad.
Sad that necessity had forced him to put pen to paper, sad that for many years after the war, relatively few among its survivors dared to speak of the Holocaust, let alone write about it for the sake of time immemorial.
Sad that some men of hate had reduced others of innocence— men, women, and children of innocence, to be sure— to the most primal of instincts and the most minimal form of survival. And reduced others to ash.
Three times I’ve walked through the ashes of Auschwitz, the most meaningful being that day with Elie Wiesel. I emerged looking not just at the big picture of persecution, but also looking at the small one. Asking questions like, how would I have handled it if someone stole my shoes? For inmates slavishly worked to the edge of extinction, shoes could be the margin between life and death.
Wiesel’s unforgettable words, “Never shall I forget that night,” became in the civilized world’s conscience, the simpler injunction, “Never forget.”
And yet we do. Whether it’s a bully in a schoolyard or the occasional racist cop or the ubiquitous selfish thug or a madman with an assault weapon in a room full of innocent people, we forget. To say nothing of the ruthless terrorists who threaten the civilized order of today’s western world.
Elie Wiesel’s obituary in The Denver Post said his greatest disappointment was that after the war, “Nothing changed. Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was.”
In some places, in some ways, it is still night.
I met a pair of 60-something Scottish tourists the day before the United Kingdom ditched Europe. They had cast their votes before leaving home. Both opted to go independent.
Not wanting to debate the demerits of their nation economically and diplomatically outside the orbit of Europe, I simply asked why. “Because 80% of our laws are made in Brussels,” the man told me. “How would you feel here in the States if someone else were writing your laws?”
Putting aside the possibility that his figure might be inflated— given abundant inaccuracies from our own politicians, who are we to preach?— I had to admit that many Americans these days would substitute “Washington” for “Brussels” and angrily if illogically ask the same question.
But I also had to wonder, aren’t the laws actually working, no matter where they’re written?
In Britain, that didn’t seem to matter. As The New York Times put it, “Parts of Britain felt that its national identity was under assault.” That’s a reference to immigration, not just the ongoing crisis of immigrants from war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East, but also the onslaught of immigrants from poorer parts of Europe to richer parts.
But “national identity” also is a reference to something much more basic, whether in Britain or anywhere else: nationalism. Nationalism means pride in your country. Pride in its history, its achievements, its culture, its power. I’ve seen it all over the world.
In Egypt for example, although with little to show today, citizens are proud of their ancestors’ achievements, like pyramids whose engineering we don’t understand to this day. In France, people are proud of their culture, from food to fashion, from art to architecture. In Venezuela, it’s about their history, when their nationalistic leaders created sovereign states and ended Spanish rule. In Russia, it’s their powerful past, the superpower status they once had. As a measure of nationalism in China, students are taught to recite their dynasties going back millennia.
Not every nation is nationalistic. Potent though they are with their bounties of oil, countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, comprised of tribes whose loyalties are not defined by borders, are not deeply nationalistic. In fact in most of the 80+ nations where I’ve covered news, on every continent but Antarctica, waving the flag is not a national pastime and nationalism is not a driving force.
Furthermore, where it is a driving force, it is not always a force for good. The foundation of Saddam Hussein’s nationalism was, Iraq was a great empire once, and it will win the world’s respect once again. That helps explain his aggressive actions, from his occupation of Kuwait, which sits on sand once ruled by his ancestors, to the proud if ultimately imprudent picture he painted of weapons of mass destruction.
Russia’s President Putin ceaselessly stirs the pot of nationalism. His message is, we were a great power once and we will be again. This helps explain his belligerent behavior everywhere from Ukraine to Syria. It also keeps his popularity ratings enviably high.
And now, the self-destructive vote in Britain. As one British writer snidely said, “We’re being congratulated by Donald Trump, (French National Front party leader) Marine Le Pen, and nobody else.”
Already, nationalistic factions in other parts of Europe are feeling their oats, including racist political parties in Europe’s other major powers, Germany and France. Typically they never pull more than about 25% in national elections. But just as Americans have tossed “typical” off the cliff in this aberrant political year, Europeans might follow suit.
It’s an object lesson for us all. Whether conservatives or liberals, we want the best for our nation. We just have different ways of getting there. The United Kingdom, driven more by emotion than pragmatism, has let nationalism take it toward the unknown. I don’t want to go there too.
On Gun Control
It’s hard to believe that the Democrats were so cowed. Cowed by the NRA, cowed by the GOP. Although generally once advocates of consequential gun control, they were reduced in Monday’s Senate debate to arguing over whether suspected terrorists should be banned from buying semi-automatic weapons (which most on the other side, unbelievably, still oppose).
Here’s why this was barely productive: Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 26 children and teachers in Newtown, wasn’t a suspected terrorist. James Holmes, who murdered 12 Batman fans in Aurora, wasn’t a suspected terrorist. Even the radical Muslims who mowed down 14 people in San Bernardino weren’t previously suspected of terrorism. They all got their hands on these weapons.
Back when I was a talk show host on KOA Radio, I used to argue for gun control myself. My thinking, supported by statistics that hadn’t been twisted by the NRA, was that guns do more harm than good. I still think so.
But I got countless calls from gun owners saying, “Hey, I hunt,” or “My sport is target practice,” or “I have a right to protect my home.” Valid arguments for sure. But not against limits on some level. And because the Second Amendment is not absolute, we do have limits.
Hunting is fine, but you don’t need to do it with a tank, so we can’t own tanks. Target practice is fine, but you don’t need to lob a grenade at a target to test your skills, so we can’t own grenades. And protecting your home is fine, but do you need an AR-15 to do it?
What’s more, if you have an AR-15, do you really need a magazine with 30 cartridges? Here in Colorado the limit is fifteen and that’s absurd too. Are we better off because a mass murderer can only kill fifteen people at a time?
If more guns really made us safer, which is the fantasy argued by guns rights groups, we would be the safest nation on earth. We’re not. Do you realize that although the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, we have almost a third of its mass murders? And guess what: semi-automatic assault rifles are the mass murderers’ weapons of choice.
Look at Israel. It faces the threat of terrorism like few other nations on earth, yet there’s no codified “right” to bear arms. To get a license for a gun, you must need it for work or security, and you must go through mental and physical exams, then pass shooting and safety tests too.
Here in our country though, the right to bear arms is settled law. So be it. However, it is at loggerheads with another cherished right from our Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which means, today, the right to live and not to be killed by an armed maniac.
Of course, the genie’s out of the bottle— the guns are out there, everywhere, and it’s too late to get them back. That’s why the assault weapons ban of 1994 failed to move the needle. But now, everyone’s talking about a spectrum of measures to reduce violence, especially in the form of home-grown terrorism. How can anyone argue that keeping additional assault weapons out of the marketplace won’t help?
Both politically and pragmatically, old-fashioned notions of gun control are moot. But are our politicians really willing to confine themselves to this narrow debate about terrorist watch and no-fly lists?
Semi-automatic assault rifles are byproducts of the military. They are offensive weapons, not defensive, designed to kill a lot of people. When we’re at war, that’s what I want. But they have no rightful place when we’re at home. What politicians should plainly say to gun owners is, we don’t want to take away all your guns. Just your semi-automatics.
If only the Democrats had the guts.
On Trump’s Response to Orlando
Of the many stressful lessons from the massacre in Orlando— that codifying gay rights hasn’t blunted the bigotry, that easily obtained semi-automatics have become mass murderers’ weapon of choice— the most alarming for me has been the post-carnage performance of the Republican Party’s candidate for President.
What it proves is that Donald Trump is even more unfit to lead our nation than I already thought he was— and between his vengeful temperament, his precarious proposals, and his unconcealed contempt for consistency and truth, I already thought he was pretty darned unfit.
When the sun had barely risen on the bloody slaughter, before anyone knew anything definitive about the murderer or his motives, Trump characteristically was jumping to conclusions, tweeting, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
“Right?” It’s true that the killer called 911 from a nightclub restroom and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. But it’s also true that a former cop who once worked with him said the killer was “unhinged and unstable,” constantly ranting against gays, blacks, Jews, and women. Notably, not just infidels. And that the killer’s father said his son was angry at the sight of two men kissing. And that his ex-wife called him bi-polar, “mentally unstable and mentally ill.”
Trump didn’t know all this, but to a reckless blowhard like him, that doesn’t matter. The wildly-deranged mass murderer fit Trump’s playbook and he ran with it. And don’t try telling me that the man is prescient. He’s not. He’s just pompous. Perilously so. Yes, radical Islamic terrorism played a role, maybe the major role, but given the scope of the killer’s sick hatreds, it was way too early to draw uncompromising conclusions. Conclusions lead to responses, and our responses had better be right.
Trump quickly concluded that the massacre affirmed the ban he proposes for Muslims entering the United States. Which underscores something else: the killer didn’t “enter the United States.” He was born in New York; his parents emigrated from Afghanistan more than 30 years ago. Is this really what Trump means by the “second generation” of refugees who could be radicalized? Once you jump to conclusions, don’t let facts get in the way.
Like Trump’s conclusion that American Muslims bear blame for the massacre because they don’t “turn in the people who they know are bad.” If he has any facts on that one, he knows more than the FBI.
Then there’s Trump’s conclusion about President Obama’s place in all this. Because the President doesn’t publicly pronounce the words “radical Islam,” Trump says he’s ignoring reality. But he’s not; he’s recognizing reality, the reality that indicting every Muslim everywhere by proclaiming a clash of civilizations could impair, not improve, our security, not to mention our Constitution.
It’s Trump who impudently ignores the facts. Obama has put Americans back in harm’s way to fight the Islamic State, used drones relentlessly to target terrorists, and yes, he did get Bin Laden. You don’t have to applaud everything the President has or hasn’t done— I don’t myself— but you can’t call him soft on terrorism… unless you’re an egregiously unapologetic “birther” named Donald Trump. He opined ominously of the President, “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands.” That’s Trump’s cowardly way of suggesting that Obama is a terrorist sympathizer without being accountable for asserting it.
Finally, there’s Trump’s freedom-chilling conclusion about the media. Citing “incredibly inaccurate coverage” in The Washington Post of his notions about Obama, he canceled its credentials to cover his campaign. So presumably as President, he would banish not just Muslims but any media whose reporting he dislikes. Wow.
Trump has jumped to disconcerting conclusions, and shamelessly poured politics into the pathos. It’s not just disrespectful to the dead, it’s downright dangerous. What we eventually learn about Orlando should determine what we do next. What we learn, not just what we think.
On Network TV News
These days, I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed by the industry in which I proudly made my living: network TV news.
It’s not that there weren’t embarrassing episodes in the trade while I was part of it. Maybe the most egregious was back in 1992 when NBC News staged a fiery gas tank explosion to deceitfully reinforce their report about dangerous GM trucks. CNN’s more recent and shamefully wrong newsflash that Chief Justice John Roberts was striking down Obamacare wasn’t so hot either.
Then there was the day even farther back when John Lennon was murdered. ABC News sent me to Liverpool, England, to do the “Here’s where it all started” story. Nothing wrong with that, until I learned that my piece would be one of five about Lennon that night… including then-correspondent Geraldo Rivera’s self-serving claim that he once coaxed Lennon out of retirement.
That didn’t rise to the level of the exploding gas tank, but there was other equally earth-shaking news that day: Iran saying the hostage crisis was closer to being solved, the Soviets calling up reservists reportedly to suffocate Poland’s Solidarity trade union, Chrysler begging for another $350-million in federal aid to stay alive. ABC’s disproportionate focus on celebrity in a short nightly newscast was a personal embarrassment.
Why bring this up now? Because if anything, things are getting even worse.
Just for example, on NBC Nightly News last week, the day when North Carolina sued the federal government over the controversial “bathroom law,” and Donald Trump brazenly broke his duplicitous pledge to run an issue-based campaign unless the other side didn’t, the lead story was? A tornado south of Oklahoma City! Granted, weather counts in all our lives, but this was a local story without immediate national impact. So why did they lead with it? Well, they had riveting video (although, ironically, the funnel they first showed next to anchorman Lester Holt’s head was Colorado’s hair-raising twister the day before).
Equally annoying, they obscured the video at the bottom of the screen— the destructive tip of the Oklahoma twister— with a banner saying in big bold letters, “Breaking News: New Tornado Outbreak Strikes.” Excuse me, but that’s what the correspondent was reporting on and the video was showing; even an idiot didn’t need a banner to spell things out. (Maybe worse, CNN will banner “Breaking News” darned near every time a newsmaker sneezes.)
It’s called pandering. CBS News comes closest to a panderless evening newscast, while NBC, although it also credibly reports serious news, is prone to pivot to crime, children, animals, and weather when they’ve got video to entice us. Or, the celebrities. NBC’s the network that paid high six-figure salaries to two totally unseasoned correspondents named Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush. For its closing story the same night as the tornado, Bush interviewed Britain’s Prince Harry, comparing notes on whose grandmother is the toughest. (I think Jenna wins.)
I’m only picking on NBC, by the way, because I’m too embarrassed by the downmarket priorities at my old network ABC to even tune in to the news there any more.
What’s it all matter? Well, for one thing, it results in phenomena like the celebrity-centric exposure all the networks gave Donald Trump, for free— one estimate says, $2-billion-dollars worth— which arguably tilted the whole campaign and could change the course of history.
There are good explanations for the decline in the quality of coverage: more competition than ever before to be first, smaller audiences and less ad revenue than ever before to keep quality high, and the money-and-soul-sucking sway of technology. Good explanations, but not good excuses.
Most Americans still get news from television. It should be more about what they need than what they want. If, collectively, the networks understand that, they’re not showing it.
On The Presidential Candidates
It could be painful, but look at the presidential candidates we’re down to. There are— there must be— redeeming traits in each. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be the last ones standing. But there also are questions about all three of them that scare people.
With Hillary Clinton and her vacillating sincerity the question is, can we trust her? With Donald Trump and his vague command of coherent policy, credible preparedness, or his own temper (just imagine him with the nuclear codes), can we (or any nation) tolerate him? As for Bernie Sanders who promises the sky, does he live in the real world?
Then again, when’s the last time we had a perfect candidate? One with perfect integrity, perfect temperament, perfect transparency, a perfect grip on reality. Not as long as I can remember.
So as a nation, come November, we’ll swallow our standards and hold our noses and vote. It won’t be the first time.
But I’m still scared, because none of the three, I fear, can successfully, effectively, lead. Not after the nastiest contests in modern memory and especially not if we end up again with what we have now: one party in the White House, the other controlling Congress.
Clinton? Republicans hate her. Maybe even more than they hate President Obama. They would say she can’t tell a truth from a lie. They would stand in the way of everything she’d try to do. Think about this: Obama entered office without the 55% negative nationwide rating that Clinton carries like an albatross, yet Republicans brazenly built barriers meant to block virtually every policy he pursued. Can anyone seriously imagine that Hillary Clinton could charm them down?
Trump? Despite the passion of his proponents, his own negatives are the highest of any presidential candidate in history; he’d be lucky if they sank to Hillary’s level. Sure, more than ten million primary voters have taken him seriously, but most of the more than 320 million Americans still don’t. Trump assures us that if elected, he would be so “presidential” that we’d all be “bored,” but since his trademark since the got-go has been to degrade and denigrate every detractor in his path, his pledge to act presidential is no more believable than the color of his hair. Given the open animosity from leaders in the very party he purports to represent— from Mitt Romney to John McCain to Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz—the odds of Trump even winning the heart of the Republican party, let alone anyone else’s, are low. Why, even popular Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said just yesterday, he’s “not ready” to endorse Trump.
Sanders? This one’s not hard. He calls himself a “democratic socialist” but if you properly define the word, socialism means government ownership of the means of production. Sanders advocates more government intervention than we’re used to, but that’s a far cry from socialism. (In the Soviet Union, I once did a story about the fact that even the kits used by sidewalk shoeshine men belonged to the government. That was socialism!) But do conservatives care about the difference? He’d be tagged with a dirty label of his own making, which would scare off almost any elected legislator who might want to support his policies but also wants to be elected again.
What’s more, for many of us, none of these candidates has the capacity to inspire. Donald brags, Hillary shouts, Bernie repeats himself. Can we expect our next president to deliver stirring oratory that might bring us around, like JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” or Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill?” Hardly.
Given their undeniable negatives, whatever positives these candidates have to offer probably won’t compensate. Not with the citizenry, maybe not with the legislators whose patronage a president needs in order to lead.
Which leaves us where? We’ve all heard the political chant “Four more years.” This time, it takes on a whole new meaning: four more years of gridlock.
On Saudi Arabia
I’ll never forget being stopped for speeding in Saudi Arabia. It was the middle of a hot night. The Saudi officer told a cameraman and me to follow him to the police station. But when we pulled in, so did another squad car with sirens screaming and that’s when everyone forgot about us because a better show was about to start. Two cops went to the back door of the other car to pull out a suspect, but they couldn’t get him to stand. Each time they jacked him up, his legs turned to jello. Then, someone told us why. He’d just been arrested as a thief and he knew what was coming: he probably wouldn’t leave the place with his right hand, or either hand if it wasn’t his first offense.
So while President Obama might have changed “regional security” for the better after his trip to Saudi Arabia last week, more there will stay the same. However rich and sophisticated the Saudis have become, their practices will still be barbaric.
Women still will be oppressed. Stonings and beheadings will persist. People still will risk the lash if they so much as look the wrong way at the king.
And, despite the mushrooming controversy in the U.S. over whether to hold the Saudi government responsible for any role in 9/11, some Saudis will still send support through the back door to terrorists, while their leaders disingenuously affirm their alliance with us.
That’s the bad news. But there’s good news too.
First, we’re not beholden to them as we once were. They still sit on the world’s second biggest known supply of oil, but since we’re on the edge of energy independence, we don’t need it like we once did (although many American allies still do).
Second, their economic muscle has atrophied. With oil worth only about a third of what it once was, Saudi Arabia for the first time ever face spending limits. Citizens’ subsidies for electricity, water, and gasoline are being cut. They’re even contemplating taxes, which is revolutionary in a nation where there has never been a tax, and that is fomenting a demand that must scare the Saudi dictators: No taxation without representation.
However, here’s more bad news: we still need Saudi support. We keep military stations on Saudi sands. We get permission for military missions to overfly Saudi territory. As a muscular regional power they usually back us diplomatically, and contentious or not, they are our biggest customer for military arms.
Make no mistake, the Saudis are bad dudes. But if their standing shrinks, let alone disappears, whoever replaces them in this increasingly radical region will be even worse. For us.
On The Middle East
Here’s why the cauldron we call the Middle East is so hard to understand. But why we must.
Picture a pot of spaghetti which you’ve just boiled, then poured through a strainer to discard the water but preserve the pasta. There are a few strands still stubbornly stuck to the bottom of the pot, billowing in every direction, right?
Picture that, then picture a flow chart showing alliances and animosities that define the Middle East.
The pictures will look pretty much the same. Today, anyway. Tomorrow, based on the old adage in the region that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they might shimmy out in whole new directions.
That’s why— presidential contenders’ tough talk notwithstanding— the United States can’t simply have its way throughout the Middle East by dint of our superpower strength, whether military or moral. Virtually every conflict on earth these days might have implications for our national security but one lesson we need to understand is, often it’s not about us. And often, our leverage is limited.
Today’s best example: Yemen. You might have to pull up a map to even find the place; until not so long ago, though on a strategically important waterway for much of the world’s oil, it existed in relative obscurity. When I first set foot in Yemen, I remember thinking that while I never expected to see anyplace that could make Afghanistan look modern, Yemen did. It was a nation with no paved roads outside the capital. And less than a half dozen doctors nationwide. It was so remote, its borders were missing from many maps because nobody knew for sure where the lines of shifting sand actually were.
But Yemen is obscure no more.
Today, it is the locus of a war as vicious as any in that whole pitiful part of our planet. Why so vicious? Because major combatants don’t even have a stake in Yemen. Iran (in league with Hezbollah) is there to strengthen Shiite forces fighting to control the country. Saudi Arabia (along with other Gulf oil states and Sudan— yes, Sudan, as if Darfur never happened) is there to strengthen Sunni forces fighting for the same. And did I mention, al-Qaeda and an affiliate of the Islamic State are both up to their necks in this war, plus, for good measure, the man who was deposed after ruling Yemen for decades as an American ally now is allied with Iran?
So, many of the fighters are imports. According to the United Nations, they are indifferently using explosive weapons in populated areas; they couldn’t care less whether an already primitive place is reduced to rubble. And the Saudis, who we are supporting and whose air strikes are supposed to turn the tide? Reportedly their crack pilots have been so afraid of fire from the ground, they fly too high, which means their bombs miss their tactical targets and instead take out homes, hospitals, markets, water supplies, even schools. Which means many civilians killed. The latest U.N. estimate in the past year alone? More than 6,000 deaths. Fifteen-percent were kids.
To most Americans, I’d guess, the implications for us seem indirect. But they’re not. For one thing, the Shiites are putting themselves in a close enough position to attack and destabilize oil-rich Sunni-led Saudi Arabia. Think what that would do to the world’s economy. For another, this has become a classic proxy war for control of the region which— like the proxy wars in Syria and Iraq— could spread like the shifting sand.
A cease fire is supposed to take hold Sunday. With peace talks to follow. Pray for progress because without it, the cauldron could boil over even more. Do we have the resources to combat yet another breeding ground, another safe haven, for the world’s most fanatical terrorists? It’s debatable, at best.
We talk a lot about democracy in this country, especially during this poisonous presidential campaign. But put twelve of us together and ask each to describe “democracy,” you’ll probably get twelve different definitions. Not all that different though, because there will be at least one common link: if you say the sun comes up in the east and I say it comes up in the west, aside perhaps from ridicule, neither of us pays a painful penalty for our disagreement.
The ancient astronomer Galileo wasn’t so lucky. Just for promoting the theory that the earth revolved around the sun, he was convicted of heresy and sentenced, until his death, to house arrest. Amazingly, that kind of mental myopia still exists in much of the world, where people have no notion of the meaning of democracy and even where some think they do, it’s a far sight from ours.
You’ll find egregious examples in today’s Middle East. Remember all those purple-stained fingers people proudly displayed only a decade ago in Iraq, having just participated in their first real election? That was democracy all right, but look what followed: the once-oppressed Shiites won, the once-dominant Sunnis lost, and it became “winner-take-all” democracy. That legacy lasts to this day.
Then there’s Egypt, where presidents like Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat before him were routinely elected and reelected to office with more than 90% of the vote. Because democratic elections were seen as a sham, citizens had to be convinced after the Arab Spring to buy into the promise of truly free ballots. But the process produced a regime that the generals disliked, so it was fiercely overthrown. Egyptians have told me it will be generations before they ever again trust in the dream of democracy.
In Russia, President Putin over the years has slowly but surely diminished the democratic liberties for which Soviet citizens long yearned and, after the Soviet collapse in 1991, briefly acquired. How has he gotten away with it? A dissident politician (whose own political party has since been “disqualified”) explained it to me in his Moscow office: “Russians in the ‘90s had key problems: the economy fell down, incomes fell down, corruption grew up, many things were terrible, and the name for that was ‘democracy’.”
So put aside the other Constitutional provisions that govern us and the candidates who unnerve us. The meaning of democracy in this unsettling era for America hasn’t changed; we can say what we think, no matter how ignorant, no matter how offensive. The sun still comes up the next day, and the day after that. In the east, in the west? That’s for you to figure out.
More On Donald Trump
Donald Trump might be repellent to many of us… I mean, now he’s tastelessly threatening to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’s wife, whatever that means… but he also is compelling, and that’s been mystifying me: what is it about this guy that makes it impossible to take our eyes off him?
My epiphany came one night last week, when I was lying on the couch at home while recovering from some surgery on my gut, and I picked up the remote to catch some kind of escapist fare on TV. Frankly, a simple chick-flick like When Harry Met Sally would have suited me just fine. But when I hit the “on” button, the TV was set to CNN— it was Super Tuesday #3, I think, it’s hard to keep track— and there was Trump at a podium, just beginning to crow about that night’s primary election conquests.
Now, trust me, the way I was feeling, When Harry Met Sally would have made my gut a whole lot happier and a whole lot calmer (except, perhaps, for Meg Ryan’s Oscar-worthy restaurant orgasm scene). But I didn’t change the channel. It’s strange, really, because watching Donald Trump— let alone picturing him in the Oval Office— gives me no pleasure. Zero. But I kept watching because I wanted to know: would Trump be Dr. Jekyll that night, or Mr. Hyde? Or maybe both, showing the civil side that sometimes (perhaps only accidentally) slips out?
And you know what? He was pretty civil. Shallow, but civil. And you know what else? I was pretty disappointed. I’m sorry to say that, in fact I am embarrassed to say it, but we’re focused on Donald Trump for the explosion. It’s like the Indy 500. If we’re honest about it, we’ll admit that we’re not watching for the tedious thrill of seeing drivers do hundreds of repetitive laps around the oval unscathed (I’ve been there and trust me, it’s not all that exciting). No, we’re watching for the possibility of a crash where flames erupt and shrapnel flies and all the other drivers dodge and weave to somehow steer clear of the mess.
Or think about a boxing match. Sure, maybe a few enthusiasts get excited about one boxer beating the other on points. But the rest of us? It’s the knockout punch, the spectacle of one fighter giving the other not just a bloody nose but a punch that puts him down for the count. I mean, even in baseball, what would you rather watch: a pitchers’ duel, or a home-run derby?
All of this is just fine when we’re talking about cars and boxing and baseball. But it’s not so hot when we’re talking about politics, especially when it’s not just politics but the political leadership of the free world, and the imbroglios keep piling up.
Trump continues to insist that he knows how to behave himself, that although he has made little slips like calling the Pope “disgraceful” and openly wishing he could “punch (a protestor) in the face” and belittling everyone from critical journalists to political competitors to war heroes, he would know how to be presidential.
But just how “presidential” could he be? Here’s his own answer: “I would say more presidential… than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?”
I feel better already. What Trump’s telling us is, he knows “presidential” when he sees it. What he’s saying is, he can get a grip. However, fellow columnist David Brooks begs to differ: “He insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa.”
Trump for President? If you think this guy might slip up even just once and cost us dearly for his recklessness and unpreparedness, vote for someone else. Almost anyone else. People die in those crashes.
On Donald Trump
Since his plain-spoken censure of Donald Trump, I like Mitt Romney better now than I ever did before. Still though, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley earns top honors for saying, “Donald Trump is everything we hear and teach our kids not to do in kindergarten.”
Think about it: Did your mom or dad ever teach you, don’t be a schoolyard bully? Don’t call kids bad names, don’t threaten others with violence, don’t brag at others’ expense, don’t mock people for their shortcomings?
Mine did, not that I always deferred to their advice… but then I grew up and knew they were right.
If Donald Trump’s parents ever told him how to act, either he tuned them out or he just never grew up.
I’m beginning to think it’s the latter.
It wouldn’t matter if Trump had just stayed where he was for most of his life, as hard-driving developer, where anyone who didn’t want to do business with a man whose behavior could be crude and confrontational didn’t have to. Or even as reality-TV star, where everyone to whom he said with his sadistic sneer, “You’re fired,” had all but asked for it.
But it does matter if someone like that moves on to the White House.
Nothing in the Constitution says a president has to be a role model for a whole nation’s behavior. But if the president isn’t, who is?
That’s why, while life was pretty good in the years that Bill Clinton served, I’ll never look back and call it a great presidency. His sexual liaisons…not to mention his semantically distorted denials… were a disgrace.
Now, as Trump’s steamroller keeps moving, we could be looking at a new kind of bad role model in the Oval Office: a tough-guy, a vengeful thug, a leader who believes it’s as suitable to strong-arm an opponent as it is to shake his hand and search for common ground.
We’re not talking here about policy conflicts. Candidates have always taken tough stands against their opponents’ political positions and public contradictions. That’s healthy.
But we’re talking now about a presidential prospect who makes everything personal. Marco Rubio is “a low-life,” Ted Cruz a “soft weak little baby.” Who knows, maybe he’s right. But that’s beside the point. Anyone who mentions anything about Trump’s many achilles heels is “a liar.” To say nothing of Trump’s repellent response after Fox New’s Megyn Kelly asked in the first debate about his characterizations of women as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “disgusting animals.” Using coarser terms, he implied she was on her period.
Schools across this country are trying to build anti-bullying programs and reduce abuse that some kids suffer. But now we have a whole new phenomenon that threatens all that: the role model as a bully himself. Trump’s notion of role modeling is saying, when a protestor interrupts a rally, that he wants to “punch him in the face.” Or uttering of another, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
That’s not healthy. It’s sick.
But if Donald Trump goes the distance, that’s what we’re looking at while he claims to “make America great.” And it’s gone on so long, we can’t just blame Trump; we’ve got to blame every gullible American who thinks he’s the way out of our nation’s woes.
A recent news report quotes a memo written by two veteran Republican advisors, saying, “We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips.” It’s not inconceivable that the worldwide confrontation they’re talking about would be of Donald Trump’s own making. That’s what we’re looking at too.
There are honest differences between candidates about how they’d run this country. Between his outsized ego, his uncontrollable insolence, and his inclination to attack anyone he doesn’t like, Trump would run it straight into the dump.
On Nancy Reagan
Others can speak to the strong political influence that Nancy Reagan had over her husband’s presidency.
I can only speak, from firsthand experience, to what a phenomenal political wife she was.
I probably watched her watch him give his “stump speech” five hundred times. Just about every presidential politician has one; it is the speech— make no mistake, the same speech— from campaign stop to campaign stop. Other than launching with something local like “HELLOOOOO, DES MOINES,” the candidate morphs almost instantly into the stump speech in which he covers taxes and the economy and education and the military and veterans and everything else that might win votes.
Then a plane ride later it’s “HELLOOOOO, DALLAS,” after which all the same topics get all the same attention. But in all the presidential candidates I’ve covered and there have been a lot, no one did it better than Ronald Reagan. Why? Because time after time as he said the very same things, he managed to look and sound like he was saying them for the very first time.
And here’s the thing about Nancy: she watched and listened and reacted, nodding at the right ideological lines and roaring at the right laugh lines, as if she was hearing them for the very first time. She wasn’t.
It couldn’t be easy. But if the day began with “HELLOOOOO, BOSTON,” then went through “HELLOOOOO, MIAMI,” “HELLOOOOO, CHICAGO,” “HELLOOOOO, LAS VEGAS,” then finally “HELLOOOOO, SEATTLE” before all of us on the campaign plane could finally say for three or four hours “HELLOOOOO, PRECIOUS PILLOW” before restarting the whole routine again, Nancy would always be on the first stage that next morning, fresh and ready to let people know that her husband was as smart and clever and funny to her as he was to them.
You tell me if you see this quality today in any of the spouses who are hoping to live in the White House.
And I’ll tell you something else I admired about Nancy Reagan. I did a story for the ABC show 20/20 about her anti-drug “Just Say No” campaign. Fair to say, it had mixed results. But Nancy Reagan didn’t. Here was this woman who could go home and sit on chairs once filled by the likes of Mary Todd Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy, but in the inner-city New York School where we filmed the First Lady, she brushed by the chair set aside for her and squatted on the floor with the kids. She related to them; they related to her.
Say what you will about her political influence; Nancy Reagan could be very down to earth. Her successors could learn a thing or two from what she did right.
On Political Realities
People sometimes call me a pessimist. It comes from me seeing not just best-case scenarios, but worst-case too. Makes me sound surly, but if “pessimist” equates with “realist,” I plead guilty.
Over my almost 40 years periodically covering the Middle East, I’ve never been hopeful about prospects for region-wide peace. Sad to say, I’ve been right. Over the dozen or more trips I’ve made to cover news in the Soviet Union and now Russia, I’ve never been confident that our nations will ever see eye-to-eye. So far, I’m right. Over the seven American presidential campaigns I’ve covered, not to mention the victors on whom I’ve reported, I’ve never found perfection in a president. Sorry, but that’s an irrefutable fact.
Which brings me to this year’s race, especially since Colorado is now briefly in every candidate’s crosshairs.
The two contenders generating the most passion are also generating— in some of us, anyway— the most pessimism. Remember, in my book, pessimism is a synonym for realism.
Take Donald Trump’s seductive slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Sure, it has a nice ring to it. Only trouble is, America’s already great. Yes, we have problems domestic and foreign and some are getting worse, but here’s the thing: we’ve always had problems, we’ll always have problems, no population in human history has ever prospered without problems. While it would be wonderful to wave a wand and simply make them disappear, Trump doesn’t own such a wand and neither does anyone else.
If that doesn’t sound realistic, you haven’t been paying attention.
Some of our problems can be laid on the doorstep of President Obama, some are the fault of George W. Bush (which then fell into Obama’s lap, little things like war and recession), and some are simply the inevitable upshot of a diverse democratic society that historically is governed by imperfect compromise as opposed to dictatorial certitude.
That’s a ration of realism too.
However, after covering news in more than 80 nations around the globe, I can say with grateful certitude that we’re still the greatest on earth. Does everyone agree? Not at all. But are we still admired around the world for our unending innovation, our moral compassion, our generous sacrifices, our limitless opportunities, and above all, our incomparable liberties? Yes we are, I have heard it from citizens standing on the world’s highest and lowest rungs, and seen it firsthand. As long as we don’t allow those attributes to ebb, we will be the greatest for generations to come.
And now to the Democrats. We have two running for their party’s nomination, and each is burdened with significant shortcomings. Hillary’s, while not to be discounted, are about her past. Bernie’s are about his future.
Free college all around? And single-payer health insurance? And a markedly higher minimum wage? And an epic war on Wall Street? Personally, my preference would be to live on the perfect planet that Sanders envisions. But that’s not going to happen. President Obama has run into roadblocks just trying to implement Sanders-lite. Do you actually think this White House hopeful, tagged with the damning label of “socialist,” has a snowball’s chance of success? Let’s get real.
What Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common is this: they articulate an illness, but beyond unfulfillable elixirs, neither seems to have a clue about creating the cure. Or if either one does, he is keeping it very well hidden.
If more Republicans are backing Donald Trump than any other candidate, they are being snowed, plain and simple. If more Democrats are excited about Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton, they are setting themselves up for a blizzard of disappointment.
It’s pitiable that presidential elections sometimes come down to who’s the least bad, instead of who’s the most good. But they often do, and we’re there again this year. That’s not pessimistic; it’s just realistic.
On Assisted Death
Many years ago while covering a story in Seattle, a man sat on his living room couch and with his disconsolate but lucid wife right beside him, showed me the plastic dry-cleaner’s bag that she would soon use to suffocate herself. She had an irreversibly terminal disease, she lived a life of utter anguish, she wanted to die. But since the law said no one could legally help her accomplish her final aim without being subject to prosecution, she would have to do it on her own. What’s worse, she was quickly losing the ability to execute even the smallest independent act, so in the cruelest of incongruities, she would have to kill herself while physically she still could, before she was even ready.
That single experience, that one mournful morning, meeting a loving couple faced through no fault of their own with nothing but agonizing options and dismal decisions, shaped my support for the movement that generally is known as “Death with Dignity.” There would be little dignity dying in a plastic bag. But there would be even less if this woman were forced to slowly, painfully, cruelly crumble away until her final natural breath.
Today, Washington is on a roster of states— with Oregon, Vermont, Montana, California— that have legalized the right of a patient like her to die with help and with dignity, the right of everyone who lives within those states’ borders to save themselves from what might correctly be called a fate even worse than death. But while Republican opposition is strong, a bill this month in the Colorado legislature gives us the chance to join that compassionate roster.
The bill is called the “Colorado End of Life Options Act.” Simply put, it would make it legal for doctors to prescribe medication that would hasten death for terminally ill patients who want it. Although opponents are offering up all kinds of speculative scenarios, it wouldn’t force anyone to take a pill; to the contrary, it has significant safeguards built in.
For starters, to even be prescribed what was called an “aid-in-dying” medication, patients would have to attest to the final stages of a terminal illness, with professional physicians’ second opinions to confirm it. They would have to be judged of sound mind and personally make two oral requests for the fatal prescription, separated by at least 15 days, to prevent the temporary temptation of someone, say, who’s depressed, or the involuntary participation of someone, say, with a costly disability who’s feeling forced to consider suicide. Adversaries call it “assisted suicide” but even that isn’t accurate, because ultimately, anyone wanting to take advantage of the law would have to administer the medicine by themselves.
Just a few years ago, I produced and reported a whole hour-long program on the subject. We traveled to Switzerland, which has far more permissive laws than anything contemplated for Colorado. People don’t even have to justify their desire to die with dignity. In a nation that defines death as a human right, the only caveat in their law says that whomever assists in someone’s death cannot do so for personal gain. The police investigate every case.
We also traveled to the city of Leeds, in the United Kingdom, where a woman named Debbie Purdy had lived with multiple sclerosis for fourteen years. It had eaten away at her strength, her eyesight, her independence. And it hurt. She told me the time was coming when it would be more than she could bear, and that’s when she’d want to die. But as with the woman years earlier in Seattle, if her husband helped her in even the smallest way, he would be tried for “aiding and abetting” and face imprisonment.
Ms. Purdy told me what she told the British government when she successfully petitioned for permission for her husband to help: “It’s not a choice between life and death, it’s a choice between a painful prolonged and difficult death or a death that we are in control of and is less painful and traumatic for both us and the people all around us.”
The Colorado bill serves the same purpose. It would permit people doomed to a fate of only misery and no joy, to painlessly stop their suffering. To die with dignity. Death by suffocation in a plastic bag doesn’t come close.
On Jeb Bush
Note to Jeb Bush, who must be perplexed by his substandard standings in the first two electoral tests: for years I roamed around the United States with television news camera crews. Because the big camera made us pretty visible, we often got stopped by people pointing fingers (and sometimes jabbing them), saying stuff like, “You guys are making the President out to be…” and now, depending on who the president was at the time, you can fill in the blank: “a liar,” “a crook,” “a klutz,” “a fool.” It happened a lot when Nixon was President, but he wasn’t the only one. The accusation came from Right and Left alike.
My response to the charge that we were making a president seem like something he wasn’t was always pretty much the same: “Mister,” (or Madam), “we can’t make him look like a liar” (or a crook, or a klutz, or a fool) “without his help.”
Which brings me to the plight of the once-aspirational Bush Dynasty. Not so long ago, Jeb Bush was expected to dominate the nominating process. But Iowa, then New Hampshire, essentially became contests between candidates not-named-Bush. In Iowa, Jeb scored less than 3% of caucus support; it can’t feel good when news organizations name the post-caucus leaders but you’re listed with “others” (especially if you’re a Bush). In New Hampshire, he came in fourth; his percentage of the vote barely made it into double-digits. As one analyst put it, “It is not a good sign (for a campaign) when you have to drag in your 90-year-old mother.” Especially since the plain-spoken matriarch already had publicly proclaimed, “We’ve had enough Bushes.” Well, she might be getting her wish.
And that brings me to a New York Times report last month, when Jeb’s campaign already was teetering, entitled, “As Jeb Bush Struggles, Some Allies Blame His ‘Super Pac’.” Critics of the pro-Bush Political Action Committee said it had gone too far attacking some opponents with its $100-million war chest, and not far enough attacking others.
Translation: an often anemic aspirant like Jeb Bush can’t gain a grip but somehow it’s someone else’s fault, not Jeb’s. Look, personally I find Bush the most capable and maybe most likable of Republican candidates (although that’s not a high bar to meet in this field), while frontrunner Trump’s the most shallow and offensive. But it’s hard to deny that Trump’s oft-repeated anti-Bush attack-line seems accurate: “Jeb is low energy.”
Which brings me to my point here: Jeb can’t look “low energy” without his own help; the rest of us are just the messengers. After the GOP debate before Iowa, Politico’s chief political correspondent drew this unflattering picture: “Jeb Bush is like a Shakespeare protagonist wandering through a Charlie Sheen sitcom.” A week later, a friend and I were skiing but she wasn’t feeling her strongest, so she joked that she was having “a Jeb day.” Once the stigma starts to stick, it’s hard to shake it.
The race obviously isn’t over but Jeb’s momentum might be because times have changed. Candidates have to reflect their audience, a lot of it anyway. Sadly, today’s audience lives in a short-attention-span, quick-fix, celebrity-centric, high-energy society. Low energy just doesn’t cut it. Stirring simplicity— “It’s gonna be great”— evidently does.
Critics rail against the news media for putting the obnoxiously egocentric billionaire Trump center stage. But you know what? We can’t make him interesting (like a car wreck is interesting) without his help. I’ll give Trump credit for that one thing: he makes his own breaks.
Jeb Bush doesn’t. Don’t blame his PAC, don’t blame the media, don’t blame his mother, don’t even blame his brother. Just blame Jeb. So, note to all politicians: we can’t make you look poor in the eyes of voters without your help.
On the Colorado Department of Transportation
Back in the 1990s when I did a talk show on KOA Radio, if I was in my car and heard a blatantly bad road report (which could lead listeners to make misguided decisions based on wrong information), I could call KOA’s newsroom and tell them what they got wrong and almost immediately I’d hear it corrected on the air.
It’s not so easy with CDOT, the Colorado Department of Transportation, even though, with everything from maintenance to snow plows to guidance, helping us get around is its primary business. Putting out good information is important every day of the year but especially in wintertime when snow is flying and ice is forming and accidents are happening.
Not that we can’t quickly get information from CDOT. To the contrary, it’s as simple as calling 5-1-1 on your cell phone. In a typical storm, 15,000 to 20,000 motorists make that call; occasionally the number is twice as high. The trouble is, I check with CDOT’s 5-1-1 hotline a lot, but almost as often as not, the information in the recorded message is wrong.
What happened last Saturday night is typical. My wife and I were driving west on I-70 and snow had been falling full force for more than an hour. Eventually, visibility and road conditions got so bad, we called 5-1-1 to see if it was even prudent to keep going. And what did the recording say? “The road between Vail and Glenwood Springs is dry.”
Dry? We were on that very stretch of road in a full-scale blizzard. I couldn’t see either edge of the highway, let alone the lanes, and only barely the taillights in front of me. Then, as we were passing Eagle-Vail, there was a sheet of lightning— I didn’t even know you could get lightning in a winter blizzard— and all the lights in the business strip went out. But to hear CDOT tell it, it was smooth sailing.
Obviously, the report was outdated. But think about that: Outdated??? Sorry, but drivers don’t call 5-1-1 at six in the evening to find out how how things looked at three o’clock.
The solution? For one thing, every time CDOT updates a recording, give the time of day so we know how old it is and can evaluate it in that context. For another, CDOT’s got cameras, it’s got sources in law enforcement, so get it right. I know CDOT has a lot of issues to handle when the weather’s bad, but the tens of thousands of motorists who depend on its expertise to make safe choices about when and where to drive ought to be among them.
On Options in the Middle East
You’ve heard prescriptions for peace in the Middle East from plenty of high-profile pundits and politicians, and corresponding calls for conflict from others. But personally put to the test, some might have a problem pinpointing the region on a map.
Ambassador Dennis Ross isn’t one of them. As an advisor to four U.S. presidents (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Obama) and chief Middle East negotiator for two of them, he knows the area and its actors as much as anyone in America. Ross is qualified to paint an accurate picture of where this roiled region is headed and what, if anything, the United States can do about it. Last week he spoke to WorldDenver, which promotes our international profile, and because he’s an old friend, we talked together before the speech.
One verdict from the ambassador: if we are to combat the likes of the Islamic State, we can’t go it alone. Another verdict: notwithstanding some presidential candidates’ carpet-bombing bombast, we are in this mess for the long haul. Neither conclusion is comforting, but as I often preach, life isn’t always a fairy tale with a happy ending.
Ambassador Ross knows that firsthand. Although he was on President Obama’s first-term team, he just wrote a piece for the online magazine Politico with the headline, “How Obama Created a Mideast Vacuum.” Ross says of the president’s pursuit of proactive options for Syria, after he’d agitated to get us out of wars, “When he looked at Syria, he saw Iraq.” And while the president rightly asked with regard to each option, “Tell me where this ends?”, he failed to ask the other key question, “Tell me what happens if we don’t act?” We didn’t, not decisively, and what happened, in addition to barrel bombs and death and demolition throughout the country, was the spread of the Islamic State.
But while it can be instructive to look back on blunders by past presidents— especially if we could have any faith that succeeding presidents might be mindful of such mistakes and avoid them in the future— our challenge today is to figure out how to deal with the hand we’re holding now.
I’ve made it clear in preceding columns that I subscribe to the credo also articulated by Ambassador Ross: “Our choices… should not be reduced to doing nothing or putting massive numbers of troops on the ground.”
For example, he says, one choice still open to us, which falls between impotent inaction and inserting infantry, is to use air cover— “no fly zones”— to create a safe haven for refugees on accessible Syrian soil. Surely the Europeans would help, if only in their self-interest to diminish the deluge of refugees across their own borders. This not only could curtail the humanitarian crisis that this woeful war has produced, but it could provide a single place where Sunnis who abhor the jihadists, who also have Sunni roots, might speak against them with one voice. In other words, for the first time anywhere, organize the opposition.
Then, using that one clear and conspicuous voice, trigger a campaign to discredit the Islamic State. That doesn’t mean everyone would shout to the rooftops that the Islamic State is a bunch of brutal barbarians; we’ve tried that but recruits keep rolling in. What it means is, we’d marshall our Sunni allies to warn the world that for all its apocalyptic acclaim, it is a fringe sect of Islam that misreads and mistreats the Koran.
America’s options are lamentably limited. There is no guarantee that we could successfully orchestrate a safe haven or an effective Sunni-based propaganda campaign— or that Sunni leaders would make this a priority— or that it would work— but the alternative is to cede to the terrorists of the Islamic State and al-Queda and others, and let them spread their evil unabated. Which is no option at all.
On North Korea and the H-Bomb
Are we supposed to find some sort of comfort in the Wednesday news alerts telling us that western experts don’t believe North Korea’s claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb— what the Hermit Kingdom called “An H-bomb of justice?” I sure don’t.
The New York Times headline was, “U.S. and South Korea doubt North Korean Hydrogen Bomb.” On CNN.com, “North Korea claims to test hydrogen bomb; U.S. not so sure.” On The Denver Post’s website, “North Korea says it tested H-bomb to widespread skepticism.” As The Times put it, “The seismological data from the test was more in keeping with a simpler uranium- or plutonium-based atomic device.”
And that’s supposed to make me feel better? Here’s the problem with that: if it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb, it was still nuclear. If it didn’t even pack the punch of the atomic bombs we dropped over Japan in World War Two (experts estimate the equivalence of 6 kilotons of TNT in the North Korean device, versus 15 in Hiroshima), it’s still enough explosive energy to do us a lot of harm. Hardly cause to take comfort.
And here’s how they might most likely do us harm. Not by sending a warhead toward our mainland. We have good reason to believe that North Korea is prioritizing the production of long-range missiles, but our experts don’t believe they have the technical ability yet to create a warhead that could withstand the heat of launch and the speed of transit.
Mind you, the experts could be wrong. But a political analysis would conclude that while North Korea’s leadership is ditzy, it’s not suicidal. We leave that for the radical Muslim terror groups.
And even assuming the experts are correct, warheads delivered by missiles aren’t the only way North Korea can try to hurt us. Intelligence sources, while they don’t want to alarm the American people, say they’re more worried in the near future about something coming out of North Korea far more portable and far more likely: a so-called “dirty bomb,” or something similar whose name tells the whole story, a “suitcase bomb.”
Suffice to say, terrorists are in touch with North Korea, which intelligence analysts believe might be putting weapons like these, or at least their technology, in the terrorists’ hands. Think of the possibilities. You can bet the bad guys are thinking about them every day of the week.
So it’s all about context. North Korea exploded something that registered seismically on the Richter Scale. Uranium, plutonium, hydrogen, “just” nuclear, it doesn’t matter. I hope the United States is not putting all its eggs in one basket, on the wrong side of the world.
On Jefferson and the Constitution
Every president in modern times has said something memorable. In matters sometimes momentous, sometimes mundane.
Ronald Reagan, probably the most persuasive president of the 20th Century, determinedly demanded in a divided Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Franklin Roosevelt calmed the country in the depths of the Depression by insisting in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
John F. Kennedy set the inspirational tone of his short-lived leadership when he implored Americans during his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It’s not certain that Harry Truman ever actually uttered his four most famous words formally, but the sign on his desk was one to remember (although over time, some leaders have carelessly forgotten it): “The buck stops here.”
Of course other presidents have produced unforgettable quotes about their personal misbehavior, which they wished we could forget. Bill Clinton’s emphatic if evasive assertion at a news conference, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” And, never to be forgotten, Richard Nixon’s simple if dishonest declaration, “I am not a crook.”
George W. Bush might have wished he could retract his confident claim under that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner that “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” which he proclaimed in May, 2003, when combat ops were anything but ended. His father had his own unforgettable oath that he wished he could take back, from his acceptance speech after being nominated for President: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” His lips lied.
I bring all this up because none of these quotes, meaningful as they are, holds a candle to the words of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. It’s not something he said— beyond the Gettysburg Address, relatively few presidential speeches have stood the test of time— but something he wrote, a letter to a fellow Virginian in 1816. When you read Jefferson’s words, apply his wisdom to the body politic today, and to the seemingly insurmountable acrimony over the implications and intent of the Constitution. Think everything from federal sovereignty (the wildlife refuge in Oregon) to natural born citizens (Ted Cruz) to guns (everywhere).
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country.”
You can see Jefferson’s quill pen beginning to drip with disenchantment.
“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects.”
Although a “strict constructionist,” Jefferson got it right. The trouble today is, some imperfections are far from moderate. Which he seemed to see coming.
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
In this era when we clash over the connotation of certain clauses in the Constitution, we might well benefit from the views of the man who wrote its precursor, the Declaration of Independence. Two hundred years ago, he saw what some of us can’t see today: that our world would change, and our Constitution must breathe enough to accommodate it.
On the Lesser of Two Evils
When debating her Democratic rivals about Syria, and whether the United States should be battling the barbaric Islamic State or the brutal President Bashar al-Assad or both, Hillary Clinton said last Saturday night, “I wish it could be either-or.”
Mrs. Clinton, it could be. What’s more, it has to be. And the reason came from the candidate whose prescriptions sometimes are more quixotic than practical, Senator Bernie Sanders, who put it in the starkest of terms: “It is not Assad who is attacking the United States.”
What Sanders was saying was, let’s get real. Yes, Assad indiscriminately kills his own citizens without losing a night’s sleep— a quarter million and counting, by Clinton’s accurate account— but as atrocious as that is, it is not a direct threat to our own security. As we saw in San Bernardino and will likely see again, the Islamic State is. Put in my own stark terms, Assad is out to get his own people; the Islamic State is out to get us.
It pains me to say this, to suggest that for now anyway, we should save our energy and leave Assad where he is. I’ve covered too many savage dictators, from Assad’s own father in Syria to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya to Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the Shah of Iran, tyrants who would just as soon torture you as shake your hand. I’ve seen some of their horrible handiwork with my own two eyes. It wasn’t pretty. Nobody has to tell me what bad guys they were. When each one died, I didn’t shed a tear.
But in each case, look what replaced them: barrel bombs in Syria, anarchy in Libya, chaos in Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is the world better off? Are the sorry souls of those very nations better off? Are we better off? The answer, unapologetically, is no.
This is the foundation of realpolitik: relationships based on our practical needs, not on our moral ideologies.
Take the Shah, for example. He was a bad guy, but he was our bad guy. He gave us an eye into the missile fields of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And a guarantee, when we needed it, of oil. Realpolitik.
Or our present-day alliance with Saudi Arabia. The men who run the country are two-faced swine. But you know what? When we need a base of operations in the Middle East, or diplomatic influence in the Arab world, they’re on our side. Or would we prefer to see the Islamic State breathing down their necks too?
So we turn the other cheek. We have to. It’s still about the lesser of two evils. Whoever becomes president needs to see the world this way. There is no choice.
On Fear & ISIL
Almost 20% of Americans now put terrorism at the top of their index of anxieties, more than the percentage perturbed about the economy, healthcare, climate change, crime, or anything else. Only a month ago in the same poll, the number was just 4%. Another nationwide poll says almost 30% of Americans believe that they, or a loved one, will be the victim of a terrorist attack.
Which is no surprise. We’re scared. After San Bernardino, it’s not just someone else’s problem any more. It’s the enemy within. And there might be more. That’s the scariest part of all.
The Islamic State has an almost inexplicable appeal for alienated young people. I reported on the disaffected masses over the years from the Middle East but now we’ve got some here too. The allure is rooted in an aspiration for otherwise unimaginable power and acceptance, retribution and religion. And for some sickos, savagery. Can we contain it, let alone wipe it out? With its culture, and suicidal zeal, now contaminating almost every continent, that will be somewhere between terribly punishing and near-impossible to accomplish. If you heed history from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll see that Ted Cruz’s “carpet-bombing” plan won’t do it, nor Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims. Nor, by the way, will Islamophobic hostility toward local Muslims, as reported last weekend by The Post.
Meantime, President Obama has clairvoyantly claimed, “ISIL will not pose an existential threat to us.” No, human existence itself might not be threatened, but as individuals, our very existence can be snuffed out in an instant if we are caught in the next San Bernardino. The President was careless to convey a false sense of security by implying that our intelligence agencies and domestic defenses can incontrovertibly protect every last one of us. His subsequent Oval Office speech further failed to allay our angst. And don’t expect his appearances this week, meant to strengthen the case for his strategy against Islamic terror, to turn those pessimistic poll numbers around.
Not that he could, because the Islamic State-inspired attacks in California came out of nowhere and for that alone, they were scary. But here’s some advice: don’t act scared. Not because of the oft-heard opinion that “If we change the way we live, we’re letting them win,” although there’s some merit to that. No, the reason is, acting scared won’t do you any good. Should you act wary? Sure. Observant? Absolutely. Maybe even ready, whatever that means. But scared? Not unless you want an ulcer.
I could back that up philosophically by simply saying, it’s useless to worry about things you can’t control. What are you going to do if you agonize that an attack might occur around every corner you turn? Sit out the next Broncos game? Stay away from your workplace Christmas party? Keep those shabby shoes another year because your mall might be the next target?
Sure, in woeful retrospect, that kind of crowd avoidance would have saved some lives in San Bernardino. But no one had a crystal ball then, and no one has one now. All we can assess to make decisions about our daily lives are the odds of being the next victims of murderous madmen. Based on those odds, crowd avoidance is almost pointless, not to mention unproductive. If you start breaking it down into percentages— the number of people victimized the day of the shootings versus the number in San Bernardino overall, or the number of San Bernardinos attacked that day versus the thousands of communities untouched— the odds are higher that you’ll be struck by lightning. What are you going to do with that; just never go outside?
The fact still is, the chance that you or I or anyone we love become the next victims of Islamic terrorists (or any others) are comfortably, almost infinitesimally low. We win by not running scared.
On Reporting the News
Right on the front page of The Denver Post Wednesday morning, you could read that Donald Trump’s proposal to prohibit Muslims from entering the country “marked a sudden and sizable escalation… in the inflammatory and sometimes dangerous rhetoric of the candidate.” The article went on to compare Trump’s rhetoric to “the racially based appeals of then-Alabama Governor George Wallace,” and “the anti-Semitic diatribes of the radio preacher Charles Coughlin.”
Remember, this wasn’t here on the op-ed page where it should have been; it was on the front page of the paper. And those phrases weren’t quotes from Trump’s widening class of critics; they came from the author of the piece himself, Dan Balz, the chief correspondent for The Washington Post, where it originally had been published the day before. Mind you, The Denver Post labeled it “analysis,” but given that Balz is a reporter, not a commentator, the point might be lost on a lot of Page One readers.
That same day, NBC Nightly News ended its broadcast with a story about Trump’s proposal, which anchorman Lester Holt introduced this way: “History is replete with examples of what happens when fear and intolerance take hold and an entire category of people is marginalized, as Tom Brokaw remembers.” Then former anchor Brokaw said, “Trump’s statement, even in a season of extremes, is a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law, and the foundation of America itself.”
Sadly, you’ll find this kind of thing almost everywhere. This past week in The New York Times, reporters referred to Trump’s “divisive phrases” and “the dark power” of his words. In news stories, not opinion columns.
Excuse me, but if reporters do their jobs right and give us just the facts, can’t the audience decide what’s dangerous and what’s not, what’s dark and what’s not, and whether Trump’s rhetoric resembles “racially based appeals” or “anti-Semitic diatribes?” Although I think it’s absurd to even hint at anti-Semitism in Trump’s case, I can buy the rest and personally agree with the deluge of denunciation from both ends of the political spectrum. But once reporters tell us about it, it’s our job to figure out what we think about it. Not theirs’.
As a reporter myself until getting into the business of commentary, I have tried to defend my profession from the widespread impression that we put our biases into our stories. Sometimes I have tried by example (as best I could), and sometimes by argument. This week though, my efforts have been trashed, by the very people I’ve long tried to defend.
The issue at stake here isn’t whether Trump’s proposal would be effective (who knows?!), or constitutional (some scholars say, maybe it would be), or even moral (you’ll get a split decision in this country on that). The issue is whether we want someone else, namely journalists, to “steer” us toward our conclusions. For the greater good of the nation, we don’t.
The people who report the news have one job and one job only: to collect the facts and deliver them. They should stick to it.
On Extremist Candidates
I just saw a cartoon where one character says to the other, “One surprising thing about having an uninformed opinion is finding that so many people agree with you.” That might help explain why support is still so strong for the preeminent Republicans in the presidential race. I don’t really have to name names, do I?
What’s unnerving is, the most uninformed also are the most extreme. From economics to the exercise of American power to the elimination of American altruism, pragmatism is out, extremism is in.
Anyone could assert that this is true on both ends of the spectrum. Arguably, Democrat Bernie Sanders preaches extremely quixotic social shifts. Arguably, Hillary Clinton seems extremely untrustworthy.
But for all their many flaws, the leading Democrats don’t hold a candle to Donald Trump or Ben Carson, where extremism shows up in everything from populism to preparedness. Both are extremely loose with the facts; both are extremely unprepared to lead the free world.
Not that extremism in modern American politics is anything new. In the 1960s, right-wing Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater proudly proclaimed as the Republican party’s presidential candidate, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Politically though, it was. Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson, although he was expanding the Vietnam War, crushed him.
Then in the 1970s, left-wing South Dakota Senator George McGovern vaulted to the Democratic party’s nomination. I covered that campaign, watching him win primaries by tapping into increasingly angry opposition to the war in Vietnam. But McGovern ideologically was so far from his own party’s mainstream, let alone the nation’s political center, that he was trounced by incumbent Richard Nixon, winning only one liberal state. (Old-timers might remember the bumper strip as Nixon subsequently pulled the nation into a political sinkhole: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”)
In several parts of Europe, I’ve covered a different kind of extremism, like France’s racist, anti-Semitic political party, The National Front. European nationalists always attract a noisy crowd. But in national elections— although regrettably this could change after the massacres in Paris— they never win even a quarter of the vote.
And so it goes, I prophesy with caution, with Carson and Trump. Time Magazine says of American voters today, “They want a fighter, not an expert witness.” Fair enough, these guys are fighters. The question is, if they win the fight, what do they do with the trophy? Carson usually seems extremely confused; he didn’t understand the difference between the nation’s deficit and the national debt and, according to a cynical description on Politico, he thinks the Kurds “are a special kind of Wisconsin cheese.” And Trump? He’s not just extremely nasty and rude, but his answer to how he’ll fix our predicaments still sometimes comes down to, “It’s gonna be great,” and “They’re gonna love me,” and “I’ll hire the best.” Says who?
As almost every pundit has finally figured out, these guys are tapping into something that defies conventional wisdom and reflects public contempt for the status quo. So a significant slice of society skews toward these extremists. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says with undeniable understatement, “The American people… want decisive change.”
The trouble is, “decisive” isn’t necessarily “better.” Or even as good. “Decisive” has appeal because it sounds like a synonym for solutions. But they often are simple solutions. Unworkable solutions. And ultimately, unacceptable solutions. That’s what extremism means in the presidential race today.
There certainly are signs that I’m misreading it, but I cling to the belief that the mainstream of Americans, like the mainstream of Europeans, repudiate extremism. Right now, Trump and Carson have set fires to traditional thinking. But if history repeats itself, they will run up against a firewall, namely, the time-honored temperance of the American people.
Firewalls usually protect us in the cyber world. Hopefully, they protect us in the political world too.
On Bad Wars
Some Americans are agitating for war. Not a war we chose, not even a war we can afford, but maybe a war we can’t afford to avoid. It would be a war executed in our own self-defense, and in defense of the West. A war whose aim would be, to quote the French prime minister, to “annihilate” the enemy.
I only wish it were that easy.
Philosophically, I’m not against war. Sometimes there is no choice, and with the Islamic State triggering its sadistic global jihad in the short space of two weeks, this might be one of those times.
But, I am against bad wars. Sometimes that means wars fought on false premises— Vietnam and Iraq both qualify. And sometimes, even when the cause is valid, like this one, it means a war we really can’t win. This might be one of those, because our enemy isn’t only the Islamic State. It is its cells, its affiliates, its wannabes spreading their onerous ideology around the world. It is also still al-Qaeda, the Islamic Front, the al-Nusra Front, and literally hundreds of other odious armies that awaken with a savage smile every time any of them takes a fatal swipe against the West.
And it only gets worse, because our more potent enemy isn’t an army, it is an ideology, an evil ideology that now makes every man, woman, and child in the Western world a target— whether or not they’ve ever fired a weapon in war, or dropped a bomb in war, or even set foot in a zone of war. This is the definition, the very epitome, of terrorism. Carpet-bomb Syria, carpet-bomb Iraq, put boots on the ground, assemble the biggest coalition ever seen. Fine. The raging and retributive side of me is on board. But the rational side of me says, with history as our guide, bombs and bullets won’t annihilate omnipresent evil.
At the very moment Friday that victims started dying in Paris, I was giving a talk about terrorism to several hundred people, sponsored by the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, CELL, and I told them two things about practical problems with this war on terrorism.
One is, the Islamic State doesn’t just hold sway over parts of Iraq and Syria. It has reared its ruthless head as far south as the middle of Africa, as far east as Uzbekistan, as far north as the Caucuses in Russia… and then throw in the rest of the Middle East.
The other thing is, American intelligence assets on the Islamic State’s turf are limited. And because journalists can lose their heads just for showing up, Western news organizations simply don’t any more. The upshot is, firsthand information about the tactics, the strategies, the membership, the aspirations of these terrifying groups is next-to-none. That can lead to ill-informed decisions in the West and even worse outcomes.
Remember, we put as many as 140,000 troops into Afghanistan, bolstered by thousands more from allied governments. The result? Afghanistan is still a mess, the Taliban is still alive and well, al-Qaeda has safe havens in a dozen other places, and more than 2,300 Americans are dead.
Paris, Beirut, the Sinai, they are a whole new chapter in this war, probably just the start of a scary new chapter that we don’t know how to close. Since 9/11, the chilling chant of “Death to America” has basically been bloodless. But today, we hear machine-guns and bombs and grenades and they are not bloodless. The whole of the Western world is now part of the war zone. With more blood, and no happy ending, in sight.
I’m not against a full-fledged attack. I just don’t know if it will cost us more than we gain. And as history also tells us, neither do the politicians, the generals, or the President.
On the Metrojet Airbus Tragedy
Did you notice, the two nations with the most at stake if a bomb brought down the Metrojet Airbus last week over the Sinai— Egypt and Russia— were the most ardent in looking for any explanation but a bomb.
Egypt’s motives are pretty obvious: if its security can’t stop something like that, then tourism will stop cold, period. Dependent on tourism for roughly half of its foreign currency reserves, not to mention more than one out of every twenty jobs, Egypt can’t afford that.
Russia’s motives are more covert. And point straight at its president, Vladimir Putin.
Far be it for me to psychoanalyze Putin. But let’s go this far, anyway: those cold eyes, that cold heart, they don’t give us the warm fuzzies but they aren’t the measures of the man. His actions are. Like Crimea, and Syria. Like Crimea, and Syria. And his inaction too, like Metrojet. Blaming a “terrorist bomb” is simply the last resort for President Putin.
That’s because the thinking behind it is, ISIS planted a bomb on the Russian plane in retaliation for Russia’s robust swoop into Syria. Russia’s aviation minister scolded Metrojet for asserting that the cause of the crash couldn’t have been either mechanical or human error and must be blamed on “external influence;” there were certainly some strong signs to impugn that assertion, but there were equally strong signs to support it. From holes protruding outward through the fuselage, to Israel’s intercepted ISIS communications, to the declaration by ISIS itself that “We downed it, so die in your rage.” This is hardly a group whose word we trust, but the fact is, they’ve proved themselves smart enough in the past not to make claims they cannot support.
The trouble for Putin is, that’s the last thing in the world he wants his people to believe. His motives for involving Russia in the Middle East mess are manyfold— from protecting its assets in Syria to making the United States look impotent to simply getting skin in the game— but from all the reporting I’ve done from Russia, I’m convinced that the single strongest reason is to wave the flag of nationalism, which his people suck up. He reassures them that “We were a superpower once; now we have retaken our rightful place on the world stage.”
And it seems to work. Putin’s newest reported approval rating in Russia, albeit subject to skepticism, is nearly 90%.
So although finally last weekend, the president suspended flights from Russia to Egypt, you can expect that he will only be dragged kicking and screaming to a public conclusion that an ISIS bomb killed 224 of his kinsmen. None of us should jump to conclusions, but Putin has seemed reluctant to for all the wrong reasons.
On Troops in Syria
So President Obama is sending “fewer than 50” Special Ops troops into Syria. I know he wasn’t even born yet when we sent our first troops to Vietnam, and wasn’t yet a teenager when we finally pulled out. But he must know the facts: more than half-a-million Americans on the ground at the peak of the war, almost 60,000 killed, more than 150,000 wounded, many still dysfunctional to this day.
Which raises these questions: What has the President learned from history? And, are we condemned to repeat it?
A common phrase that characterized Vietnam was “mission creep.” First we had a few hundred advisors, then we sent in combat GIs, then we staged air raids, and then, when we still weren’t achieving our goals (which, like Iraq 40 years later, kept changing), the United States abruptly raised its troop levels from 23,000 one year to 185,000 the next and eventually to that peak number of half-a-million-plus.
And yet, while it’s still not popular to say it bluntly, we lost anyway.
Today? President Obama seems to be ignoring the lessons briefly learned from the treasure we lost: When you’re trying to fix something bad, there are lots of things you can attempt, but precious few that you can achieve.
So now what we’re doing is supplementing local soldiers who are fighting ISIS (which the White House calls ISIL). The way White House press secretary Josh Earnest put it was, “The responsibility that they have is not to lead the charge to take a hill, but rather to offer advice and assistance to those local forces about the best way they can organize their efforts to take the fight to ISIL or to take the hill inside of Syria.”
The problem is, it’s not just ISIS fighting for each hill. It’s the Islamic Front. And the al-Nusra Front. By one estimate, there are about a thousand rebel groups in Syria, all battling for a piece of the action. Including, for good measure, al Qaeda.
Which means, there will be a lot of hills to take. A lot of hills to defend. And if history is any guide, a lot of hills that fall back into enemy hands. Press secretary Earnest also said last week, “These forces do not have a combat mission.” What that means is, they don’t… until they do.
Look at more recent history. In Iraq, ISIS overran the American-trained-and-funded Iraqi army to capture major cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. In Afghanistan, the Taliban overran the American-trained-and-funded Afghan army to capture the provincial capital of Kunduz.
There’s simply no denying, what we’ve done in both those countries hasn’t worked. Some will disagree with that conclusion, but I base it on something I’ve seen in each of the eight wars I’ve covered: Passion trumps everything else. It doesn’t have to be passion for anything we believe in as Americans, it just has to be passion to fight, passion to triumph, passion to die. Somehow, the jihadist fighters from ISIS and al Qaeda and the Taliban and others have shown an intensity of passion that the poorly paid soldiers of our allies haven’t shown. That helps explain why, they haven’t won.
I’m not a dove. I’m a hawk if 1) The cause is just, and 2) The gains are likely to mightily outweigh the losses. Well, you can put a checkmark next to #1; the cause is just. But #2? With mission creep like this, history is not on our side.
Which comes full circle to the question: Why are we now about to do something else that probably won’t work?
What President Obama doesn’t seem to see is, for a variety of reasons, allied armies tend to lose the war if we don’t fight it for them. So, if we’re not all in, we ought to be all out.
I don’t get it. I really don’t get it.
President Obama has decided to slow down— actually, for a while, stop— our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Toward what end?
At the peak of our presence there, we had 100,000 American troops on the ground. More than 2,300 died. Several times as many came home physically or mentally maimed. And what did it buy us? A temporary lull in the terror of the Taliban, that’s all. They didn’t disappear, they weren’t obliterated, they just went underground in some parts of the country and continued to persecute other parts and now they’re back in fairly full force, assaulting remote Afghan cities and murdering citizens who in any way worked with the West and threatening progressive Afghan women and reintroducing brutal governance that makes us shudder.
To be fair, our invasion did give us the temporary satisfaction of putting Al Qaeda, which was hosted by the Taliban and the central target of our attack, on the run. But what they did was run to almost a dozen different countries in the Middle East and Africa. In other words, the savages who attacked us on September 11th fled from a remote safe haven in one of the most primitive parts of Asia to several safe havens in other countries with gateways closer— and thus more threatening— to the West.
By imposing a temporary halt on our withdrawal, can we turn that around? I don’t think so. I just saw in a news report that this war, which began just a month after the 9/11 attacks, has now lasted longer than World War One, World War Two, and the Civil War combined. That alone ought to tell us— and the President— that it’s probably a lost cause.
But my point isn’t just that we haven’t defeated the enemy in fourteen years and therefore we aren’t likely to defeat them now (with a much reduced American force, no less). It is that the President’s stated purpose for staying longer than planned is to support the Afghan Army.
I’m sorry, but have you been watching the Afghan Army? Just a few weeks ago, they couldn’t keep a ragtag regiment of only a few hundred Taliban from the city of Kunduz. I don’t like to make predictions— it is a departure from fact-based reporting and runs against a journalist’s grain— but call me pessimistic; I wouldn’t expect to see them suddenly turn into a fighting force worth fearing.
Why not? Because I’ve been in Afghanistan and unlike, say, the United States of America, Afghanistan is not the kind of place where nationalism runs so deep that it’s worth your life to preserve it. Nationalism means you are proud of your country for its history, its culture, its power, its achievements. Through no fault of its own, you won’t find that kind of pride, that kind of nationalism, in Afghanistan. Many soldiers join the army there only for a paycheck. When the Taliban offers more, some defect.
Look at it this way: America is a principle. A set of principles, really. Politics notwithstanding, when Americans die for their nation— whether to preserve its principles or to safeguard its security— they know what they are dying for: liberty, morality, democracy, decency.
Afghanistan is a tribal society. As I’ve seen in other backward nations, tribes are a stronger bond for people than their borders. So when Afghan soldiers are asked to die for their nation, it is hard for them to know why. They might detest the dark designs of the Taliban, but that doesn’t offer the same level of motivation to put their lives on the line as the principles that motivate us. It’s the difference between having something to fight for, versus something to fight against.
I support President Obama’s longtime wish to get us out of these endless wars. He should stay the course.
On the Reporting of Mass Murders
Make a list of all the ways anyone thinks we can reduce mass murders. It will run from less violence in entertainment to more mental health services, and cover the irreconcilable spectrum from “fewer guns in society” to “more guns.”
But the potential (if only partial) solution that’s getting more attention now with each successive mass murder— what a pathetic four words to have to write— is something that only the news media can implement: stop paying attention to the murderer. Don’t examine his background, don’t publicize his motives, don’t even mention his name.
This sentiment has grown so strong that the sheriff whose officers responded last week to the Oregon shooting said afterward, “Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter.” He appealed to the media to act the same way, to avoid “any glorification and sensationalization of him.” As a related analysis in The Post put it this past Sunday, law enforcement officials hope that such a stance “will reduce the chance of (mass murderers’) notoriety and keep their actions from inspiring others.”
Maybe. With the Oregon mass murderer, evidence supports it. The New York Times cited “a string of online postings that showed he had become increasingly interested in other high-profile shootings,” and quotes a recent entry: “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
But as the Post analysis also said, investigators sometimes use what they learn in news reports about these mass murders to better understand the signals that someone might have missed and, hopefully, better comprehend what it will take to prevent more massacres down the road.
I want to add another argument— at risk of supporting an increasingly unpopular policy— why the news media should not suppress anything it uncovers about the villains who perpetrate these massacres (while also reporting on the innocent victims of their violence).
The argument is simple: we already make countless subjective but unavoidable decisions about the news you get. They are decisions without which the pages of this newspaper would be empty. They run from what stories to cover to where to place them in the newspaper or broadcast; from who to interview to what questions to ask to which parts of each interview to use in the story; from what to say at the top of the piece to how to end it; from what to include amongst the facts to be reported, to what to leave out.
Do you really want us to also make decisions about what to report and what to ignore, based on our perceptions of your morality, your politics, or in this case, your security? If a journalist thinks abortions are a moral malignancy, would you really want him or her to curtail coverage of the controversial topic? If a political reporter concludes that Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is a travesty, do you really think he or she ought to stop reporting on it?
Which brings us back to mass murders. Will you be satisfied if someone like me, or another journalist out in the field or back in the newsroom, makes a godlike decision that society will be safer if we don’t report on certain aspects of the crime? A letter writer to The Post over the weekend says yes, writing, “… maybe somewhere down the line someone won’t follow through on their evil plans because they don’t think it will bring them the notoriety they crave.”
Maybe, or maybe not. But it can become an awfully slippery slope.
Over the weekend, The Denver Post ran this question on the op-ed page: “Should the news media refrain from using the names of shooters when reporting on mass shootings such as Thursday’s attack in Roseburg, Ore.?” Although not a scientific survey, the sentiment was clear: XX% said yes.
The citizen part of me agrees. The journalist part is still not so sure.
What Would Jesus Do?
“What would Jesus do?” That’s the question many people ask when trying to figure out the right way to act. But for now, forget that. With the inundation of immigrants still putting Europe into panic, let’s make it more personal: “What would you do?”
But I’m not asking what you would do if you were a citizen of Europe, let alone a leader. No, what I’m asking is, what would you do if you were one of those poor souls from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or any of the dozen other nations where war and terrorism have made life not just unbearable, but untenable? Would you flee with your family, or would you just wait where you are and take your punishment?
For many who’re running from the horrors that invaded their world (for which, by the way, we bear some blame either because of what we’ve done or, with Syria in particular, because of what we haven’t done), those are the only choices they have.
And yet one of my friends, responding to my last column about these refugees, wrote back, “Immigration without assimilation is invasion.” How very charitable. But I’m sure he speaks for many. My response is, these people had to make a choice: death at the hands of one invasion, or life as a part of another. Perhaps said more simply, they chose to let their children live, not die.
Put in their shoes, I’d do exactly the same thing: get away, get anywhere that gives my family and me a chance not just at a decent life, but a chance at life, period. We can quibble about how oppressive life would have to be before we’d abandon everything we know, and own, to strike out for a strange land that’s not likely to greet us with a smile. But that’s just a matter of degrees.
Of course it’s the scale of this migration that makes it all so difficult. If there was just a handful of families fleeing, they would be charitably absorbed and we’d never hear a peep about it. But the scale shouldn’t matter. Either helping people who have fled for their lives is the right thing to do, or it’s not.
People escaping death are the most desperate souls on earth. The only reason we’re not in their shoes is that we’re luckier than they are, not smarter, just luckier, by virtue of our birth.
So if you’re among those who are slamming these migrants for “invading” Europe, try to think about it that way and see if it changes anything.
If it doesn’t, then all I can say is, I hope this kind of thing never happens to you.
I just saw a sign on a door that said, “Refugees welcome.” It was last week when I was in Bosnia. Bosnia, in which an estimated hundred thousand people were killed, and from which several hundred thousand became refugees themselves, during the brutal Balkan wars in the first half of the 1990s.
Then I saw a huge poster along a highway that said “Refugee Humanitarian Concert.” This was the next day driving into Croatia, parts of which were bombarded with bullets and artillery during those recent years of conflict, leaving twenty thousand Croatian citizens dead, many murdered in a mad maelstrom of ethnic cleansing.
Bosnia, Croatia, two of the half dozen nations whose wounds from that round of religious and ethnic warfare still haven’t wholly healed. Yet today, they are in the middle of another mess, with Croatia the newest choke point in the flight of desperate people from the wide arc of warfare in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
These are two nations that understand what it means to be a refugee. What it means to escape with your children, your spouse, your parents, the clothes on your back and nothing more. They know what it means to run from hate and hunger and enemies whose only grudge against you is the ethnicity in your DNA, or the religion to which you were born. They are nations with a painfully recent firsthand perspective on what it means to escape with your life… if you are lucky. And now, they have a firsthand view of other human beings in the same frightening flight.
I don’t know what I would do if I were a leader in one of the many European nations like these, besieged by citizens from another world, suddenly surging like a raging river into mine. I’m glad to see the small signs I’ve seen that there is at least some level of human compassion that transcends the practical issues of how to actually handle this flood of people who have no home, no food, no job, not even the basic language skills to survive in my society. Would I make it my country’s policy to welcome all who cross my borders? Would I even post a small sign on my door that reads, “Refugees welcome?” Like I said, I just don’t know.
But what I do know is, my own good fortune of birth in the United States of America wasn’t thanks my superior intelligence or driving ambition or anything else. It was thanks to my grandparents, all four of them, who courageously came to America a hundred years ago in the boiling bellies of big boats because they were fleeing from religious pogroms in Russia and Poland. They were refugees.
And I’m far from the only American like that. With everyone from Irish-Americans to Vietnamese-Americans to Somali-Americans to Hispanic-Americans to Afro-Americans, chances are that your life in America has its roots in refugees. In fact today in our nation there are citizens who fled from almost every corner of the earth because they would starve, or be oppressed, or enslaved, or killed if they chose to stay. Even descendants of the Pilgrims are descendants of refugees.
Despite seemingly impossible odds— like the Third World refugees who are descending on Europe right now— our ancestors didn’t turn back. And thanks to the compassion of others who’d come before them or had the lucky break of being born in the USA, they found their footing and acquired some skills and learned the language and eventually became thoroughly American.
Today’s refugees in Europe, coming in such a torrent, are sure to change the very face of the societies in which they end up. It’s not what anyone would choose. But that was also said about your ancestors, and mine. In the end, our society changed for the better. We are the proof.
The Essential Role of the Journalist
Why do you think it is that you know anything at all about ISIS? Or Al Qaeda? Or the war in Syria, the war in Libya, the war in Yemen, the war in Gaza, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine?
Journalists, that’s why.
Journalists of course aren’t the only ones whose lives are on the line in wars. There are professional soldiers and homegrown militias, aid workers and medical personnel, and just plain civilians caught in the line of fire. But the people day in and day out who are risking their lives to tell you what’s going on in the big bad world out there are the journalists.
I worked wars for a long time, dodging everything from artillery to bullets to machetes. In one particularly bad year, I was lucky and made it through but lost three different journalist friends to warfare: in Nicaragua, in Lebanon, in Iran, where a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was shot to death right next to me and the only reason the bullet didn’t hit me instead of him was just my own dumb luck. Last year was an awfully bad year for journalists in general: the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 61 of them killed in the line of duty. Most died in the middle of wars.
That’s what makes one small part of a very long report issued by the Pentagon earlier this summer, the “Department of Defense Law Of War Manual,” so dangerous. Most of the directives in the manual are necessary and constructive, calling for “self-control… under the stresses of combat,” and “prohibitions on torture and unnecessary destruction.” They are about a soldier’s duties and a soldier’s rights.
But then there’s the part about journalists. It uses language meant to describe the role journalists play and define the risks journalists face. But it ends up giving authoritarian leaders— which certainly includes any of our enemies today, whether sovereign governments or not— a ready-to-use set of charges against any journalist they don’t like. In many parts of the world, that means all of them.
One example from the manual: “In some cases, the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” Another: “Civilian journalists who engage in hostilities against a State may be punished by that State after a fair trial.” And yet another, which to me is the worst: “Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying.” Imagine those phrases in the hands of our enemies when they have a journalist in their sights.
In many nations around the world, journalists actually work for their governments and are obliged to “collect intelligence,” some because if they don’t, they simply don’t work, some because that’s who actually signs their paychecks. What this leads to in those places is an automatic assumption that every journalist from around the world is really just working for his or her government, an automatic suspicion that Western journalists, like their own, are no more than spies themselves.
In my own experience, I’ve had to fight that perception. When American diplomats in different war zones approached journalists like me asking for information about what was happening “out on the streets,” they were putting us at risk of being suspected of, and charged with, espionage, even by the mere fact that we might be seen talking with them. That’s what makes the language in this new Defense Department manual so frightening.
With last year’s barbarous beheadings of journalists by ISIS, reliable news coverage from that part of the world already has been drastically diminished. If the Pentagon believes in the value of information it can’t collect itself, not to mention the right of all Americans to a free flow of information, it should erase what it wrote.
More On Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Given my belief that almost always there are two strong sides to every issue, I’ve waited a couple of weeks, hoping to hear convincing arguments against the Iran nuclear deal. But all I’ve heard is a drumbeat of half-truths.
Like, the deal itself. The simple truth— the full truth— is that major production limits, significant stockpile reductions, and increased international oversight— even if not everything we want— are better than none at all. My question to all who oppose the nuclear agreement is, have you ever made a deal for a business, or a car, or a house, or anything else? Did you get everything you wanted and leave the other side with nothing? Not likely, because that’s not how it works. I regret it if I appear to lend an ounce of credibility to his name, but even Donald Trump in his book The Art Of The Deal said, “I always go into a deal anticipating the worst.” That’s what the United States did. “The worst” meant a totally unshackled Iran, ready to build a bomb tomorrow. Now they can’t.
And, like the sanctions. Yes, sanctions took their toll on Iran and brought them to the table, and yes, they will be thrilled to be rid of them. But the truth is, their economy has been on life support; inflation soared to 40%. Iran needs those tens of billions of dollars that will fill its coffers to get healthy again, not just to add to its support of terrorists outside its borders. And anyway, according to the respected analyst Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the groups that Iran supports are in no position to absorb, let alone spend, a lot more money than they’ve already been getting.
And, like the verification. The half-truth here is that the 24-day window for U.N. inspectors leaves the Iranians with plenty of opportunities to mask their movements. The greater truth is, traces of the materials they would be secretively working with don’t disappear in 24 days…or 24 months, or 24 years. They have a multi-million year half-life, which means if the Iranians try to cheat, then as Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate.com, “it’s very likely to be detected.”
And, like the politics. Begin with this alarming fact: virtually everyone who is against the deal was against it before they’d actually confirmed a single fact about it. Members of Congress were sending out denunciatory news releases before the first briefing on Capitol Hill; House Speaker John Boehner promised to “do everything possible to stop” it… before he’d heard the first word about it from Secretary of State Kerry. The best quote about all this came from Maine independent Senator Angus King: “If these people who announced (their opposition) an hour after the deal was announced were in a jury pool, they’d be disqualified.” They already were saying that they wanted to vote the deal down and maintain our sanctions. But the truth is, if Congress gets away with that— or a future Republican president just scraps the whole thing— then the United States, as Secretary Kerry warned last week, will be on its own, because the other western powers, for their own selfish reasons, want the sanctions to end, which would render American sanctions next to moot.
And, like the “options” to the deal. Well, we’re really only talking about one: war. On the face of it, that’s pretty unappealing these days, because in the wars we’ve fought the past decade-and-a-half, we’ve already spent a treasure in human lives and financial resources. And it’s especially unappealing if you face the truth that as smart and powerful as we are, we don’t always achieve all our aims when we go to war. Not to mention the inevitability that any such war would spread.
And that’s the truth.
On Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Here’s what the critics of the Iran nuclear deal that still might be worked out have right: it’s not the deal we wanted. In fact if you focus as the critics do only on what it wouldn’t achieve rather than on what it would– it’s a dud.
But here’s what they have wrong: for all its shortcomings, this deal would still be superior to no deal at all for the security of the United States and its allies (from Israel to Saudi Arabia). Pull out whatever clichés you like: the glass is half full rather than half empty; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; half a loaf is better than none.
What are the critics thinking? That by declining an imperfect deal, we’d be punishing the Iranians who would, in turn, buckle and backtrack and give us everything we want?
I’ve got news for the critics. They’re dreaming.
The people of Iran aren’t soft. From the citizens I watched decades ago as they threw themselves into the bullets of their government during the Iranian revolution, to the soldiers I saw in hand-to-hand combat during the primitive eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, to the inmates I met who tolerated torture in their country’s brutal prisons, to the refugees I’ve known who trekked across deserts to escape persecution, these people can endure punishment.
Sure, Iran’s leaders would love it if we lifted all our sanctions against them and they’d be tens of billions of dollars richer. But money is not the root of all evil, at least not in Iran. Their policies also are rooted in ideology and Islam, historical rivalries and regional power, and nationalistic pride.
Of course some American critics believe the Iranians eventually would dial back their nuclear program not only because of stressful sanctions but because they know that ultimately we might resort to a military solution. The problem with that argument is, there is no military “solution.” There is only the military “option,” and there are a couple of reasons why that wouldn’t win us what we want.
First, because while the facilities we have here at home to produce nuclear weapons were built beginning back in the 1950s and are mainly above ground, Iran’s nuclear facilities were built in the modern era of bunker-buster bombs, and according to intelligence analysts, are believed to be buried beyond our ability to destroy them.
Second, because building the bomb from cradle to grave is a multi-step process: there’s design, enrichment, production, parts, testing, and storage, not to mention the entirely separate issue of manufacturing and maintaining delivery systems– missiles– that can tolerate the weight and heat of a nuclear device. In the U.S., we have done these things at a variety of locations, each playing a different part in the process, like Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Savannah River in South Carolina, and of course our own Rocky Flats plant northwest of Denver, where the weapons’ plutonium triggers were produced. The trouble is, in Iran, we know where some of these facilities are, but not all of them. So just how effective would a military assault actually be? That is open to argument but we must accept, our record of shock-and-awe isn’t perfect.
The other day, the headline on a piece in The Washington Post by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was, “The worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history.” He wrote, “With every concession (to Iran), Obama and Kerry made clear they were desperate for a deal. And they will get it. Obama will get his ‘legacy.’ Kerry will get his Nobel. And Iran will get the bomb.”
And without a deal? Simple. Instead of buying us time, during which we could keep at least half an eye on Iran’s bomb-building abilities, we would have no eye at all, and the Islamic Republic of Iran could build the bomb that much sooner. Which almost inevitably would lead to nuclear arms in the hands of its Islamic rivals in almost every direction.
And this would make us safer?
The Speed of Change
Times change. But it hasn’t always been so obvious.
For millennia, no one on earth saw much change at all in a single lifetime. Not until the start of the 19th Century when, thanks to the invention of the train, man for the first time could move faster than the speed of a galloping horse. Think about that: man had never gone that fast before.
Today, times are still changing, but at warp speed.
Look at how long it took even in many of our lifetimes for certain changes to rock the world. As recently as the mid-1990s, same sex marriage was banned in almost every state in the union; President Clinton even signed a law in 1996 forbidding the federal government to recognize it. (A local milestone: in 1975, Boulder’s County Clerk issued the nation’s first same sex marriage license. But the District Attorney quickly revoked it.)
Yet even before the Supreme Court spoke late last week, same sex marriage already was legal in more than two-thirds of the states and now, it’s legal everywhere. As social issues go, that’s warp speed.
Look at how long it took before Confederate flags were acknowledged for what they really are. Yet now, in Alabama, the governor ordered four of them removed from a Confederate memorial at the capitol. This is Alabama, where in 1963 Governor George Wallace infamously declared at his inauguration, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In Mississippi, where Freedom Riders were murdered just for campaigning for civil rights and Governor Ross Barnett declared that “The Good Lord was the original segregationist,” everyone today from the state’s Speaker of the State to both United States Senators has called for the confederate symbol to be struck from the state flag. In Mississippi, for God’s sake!
And of course there’s South Carolina, whose legislature voted unanimously after the election of Abraham Lincoln to become the first state to secede from the union; historical and cultural pride there runs deep. But now, after the racist murder of nine black citizens in Charleston, elected leaders came together, liberals and conservatives, and the state House voted overwhelmingly to talk about finally removing the confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse.
South Carolina’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, said, “This is a circumstance where the people led the politicians.” What a concept. (Maybe the politicians should take their lead from the likes of Target and Sears, Amazon and Walmart, which almost instantly removed all Confederate merchandise from their stores.)
Do all the people want that kind of sea change? No; the 103-10 vote in South Carolina’s House proved that. Likewise, do all the people want to sanction same sex marriage? Again, the answer is no— the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion proved that. But clearly, public opinion has shifted on both.
This is hardly the first era in which there have been cataclysmic shifts like this. Think about just the second half of the last century— Vietnam, Civil Rights. But on those issues and others, it took years, even decades of massive demonstrations and violent confrontations, tear gas and sometimes bullets, before the public moved the politicians to… well, to move.
What’s changed? It’s impossible to wrap it all up in a single reason, but today’s users of social media have replaced yesterday’s marchers on the Mall. That’s what turned the Arab Spring into a firestorm, albeit ultimately a disappointing one. Issues move at the speed of communication. Today, communication is instantaneous, and it has transformed our nation and our world.
This doesn’t mean that tomorrow, cultural homophobia and institutional racism will disappear from our lives. After all, the killer in Charleston didn’t shoot up the church because the confederate flag flew in front of the statehouse. But if he even felt some kind of subconscious support because society seemed to sanction such a symbol of hate, maybe now, we’re a little closer.
On Energy Independence
I’ve long thought longingly about “energy independence.” You know, putting the U.S. in the position of not having to depend on anyone else for anything. Not having to owe anyone anything either. Goodbye to Saudi Arabia. Venezuela. Iraq.
You’ve probably wanted the same thing too. And no wonder. Every American President clear back to Richard Nixon has set “energy independence” as a goal. Of course beginning with Nixon, they’ve also all set “peace in the Middle East” as a goal. So much for goals!
But there’s a difference between the stated objectives of “energy independence” and “Middle East peace.” Peace is desirable— good for our federal budget, for our military burnout, for our national security. The trouble is, it’s next to unachievable.
Energy independence, on the other hand, is achievable; depending on how you measure it, the United States today is either the biggest or second biggest energy producer on earth (we are neck-and-neck with the Saudis). Colorado’s contributions from the newly expanded fracking industry, while controversial, have played a role in getting us there. So energy independence is achievable, but the trouble is, it’s not desirable. It’s a deceptive dream.
I’ve come to that conclusion after five straight years moderating a conference called “Energy Moving Forward,” put on again last week by the Global Energy Management program of the Business School at the University of Colorado Denver. In doing my homework each year about energy— what we have, what we use, what we’re working on— I’ve learned more and more about the consequences of true “energy independence.”
In its purest form, being energy independent would mean nothing in, nothing out. We would consume whatever energy we produce— oil, gas, coal, renewables, and everything else— but export none of it. Likewise, we wouldn’t import an ounce of energy from outside our borders. But here’s the catch: energy is the single biggest sector of the American economy; we either buy it from or sell it, including Colorado’s, to literally dozens of other countries. Can you imagine what the purest form of energy independence would do to America’s financial system? Not to mention unemployment.
What about the political ramifications? Sure, it sounds plenty appealing to break the bonds that bind us to governments with which we wouldn’t otherwise deal but for the commerce of oil and gas. But can the United States of America really afford to disengage from regions like the Middle East because we no longer have the oil-based motives that got us there in the first place? Yes, that would have its upside, but besides the manifest motive of national security, the other reason why the U.S. is politically— and often, militarily— involved in the Middle East is that if we aren’t, someone else will be. Would we be better off if Russia replaced us as the go-to nation trying to play an influential role in every event? Or China? The world they’d shape would be worse than it is now.
It hurts to admit that we are better off with the status quo. For years I covered OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The representatives from the major producers strutted around like they owned the world. Which, in a way, they did. When OPEC’s Arab members imposed an embargo on us in 1973, the price of oil almost quadrupled, and the world’s economy took a huge hit. It hurt.
But today’s status quo is better than it was. We have reduced our petroleum purchases to the point where, if they cut us off, we’d hardly notice. We import more oil these days from our friends Canada and Mexico than we do from the combined members of OPEC. As one panelist said at last week’s conference, we now have options we didn’t have before. And as renewables grow, especially solar, we’ll have even more. That is all the independence we need.
How would you like it if ISIS took control of Colorado Springs? Or Silverthorne? Or the northern edge of Fort Collins? They’re all about as far from the heart of Denver as the desert city of Ramadi is from Baghdad. Suddenly, seventy miles doesn’t sound so safe.
Yet now that ISIS has overrun Ramadi, seventy more miles is all those barbarians would have to cover to clobber Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. Suddenly, ISIS can confidently covet the country’s crown jewel.
And thanks to the feckless Iraqi Army, they are in a plausible position to take it. Not only because they now hold sway over an even bigger piece of Iraq, but because when Iraqi soldiers ran from Ramadi as fast as their legs could carry them, they surrendered more military equipment to the Islamic State— tanks and trucks, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Mostly supplied, by the way, by us.
It’s part of a petrifying pattern. A few months ago, in a column about the futility of ending the nightmare that is ISIS, I wrote,“The Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul.” But then I asked, cynically, “How’s that going?” The answer was, and still is, nowhere. Back in January, both Iraq’s leaders and America’s were talking tough, saying that by now the good guys would be back in charge of that city, which had first been stormed by ISIS when Iraq’s soldiers, and this will sound familiar, fell back in a frenetic retreat.
Well guess what: they still don’t get it. Right after the rout in Ramadi, White House press secretary Josh Earnest cavalierly asked, “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” The answer ought to be, “If we don’t, they might.”
To be magnanimous, maybe the myopic optimists who expect Iraq’s forces to put up a fight just don’t understand this: the soldiers don’t capitulate because they’re poorly trained, poorly armed, or poorly led; they capitulate because they’re poorly motivated.
Back during the first Gulf War, I was with a platoon of American GIs in Saudi Arabia moving toward Kuwait. But our transport broke down, and we were stuck on the desert until the next day when we could be rescued. It wasn’t so bad; some of the soldiers did target practice with their bayonets every time a desert tarantula surfaced from a hole. We slept (although hardly soundly) on the sand, and saw more stars than I thought the sky could hold.
But the best part was, it gave me a chance to talk with these soldiers about what motivated them to join the Army. This was before 9/11, so it wasn’t to go after people who had attacked us. It was to learn motor pool skills on Uncle Sam’s dime, or kitchen skills, or maybe qualify for the GI Bill. When they’d volunteered for service, we weren’t even fighting a war.
But when I asked each soldier whether he’d be willing to rush a bunker if Saddam Hussein was inside, to the last man the answer was yes. When I asked why, everyone responded as if it was obvious: they were patriots, they would do whatever America needed done.
Having spent many years in the Middle East, I’m telling you, you won’t find much of that in the Iraqi Army, or frankly, any other army in the region. In that part of the world, people are loyal to their families, their tribes, their religions. But their governments, their nations? Not so much. The army’s just a paycheck. When a madman with a Koran strapped to his chest starts chasing you, you don’t stand and fight; you run.
That’s why ISIS might take those next seventy miles to Baghdad. And then, if they establish an Eden for extremism, our own security becomes shakier than ever.
Genetics and Politics
The very first words from the very first caller during my very first talk show on KOA Radio were, “You are such a jerk.”
It was a rude awakening. But it also was an instructive education. You see, I had watched other talk radio hosts to see how they approached each show and what I learned was, first say hello, then say what you think about the hot-topic-of-the-day, then open the phones and let listeners chime in on what they think about what you think.
This was almost 25 years ago and I don’t even remember what my very first topic was—probably some liberal rant— but what I do remember is, I figured that once I’d done my carefully crafted, unassailably logical, inarguably intelligent 15-minute monologue on it, no one on earth could possibly find fault with my reasoning and all would proclaim in unison that I was God’s gift to civilization… or to talk radio, at least. Until the first guy I put on the air called me a jerk.
And that got me to wondering, why do so many of us, who otherwise probably share a lot of the same values, see the world so differently? I wonder about it to this day when I argue issues with personal friends, whose backgrounds, and educations, and family lives, and IQs, and places in the middle class, are all pretty much like mine. Whether it’s the sanity of stockpiling guns in our homes, the soundness of universal health care, or the security of a nuclear deal with Iran, somehow we see the issue with very different points of view.
I used to think it was as simple as nature versus nurture, with nurture playing a paramount role. But today I think, not so much. My own parents, who my siblings and I loved and respected, by and large politically were on the right side of the center-line, yet each of their kids ended up on the left side. Yet I know plenty of families where the kids turned out as their parents’ political clones. And yet others where some of the offspring ended up conservative and some not.
Which leaves nature. That doesn’t mean our politics are hereditary; experience proves they’re not. But are they genetic? Could there be a gene that somehow shapes our view of the world?
A growing body of university researchers thinks so. Either a gene, or a psychological characteristic, or a personality trait.
For example, at the University of Nebraska, they studied the responses of conservatives and liberals to different kinds of images— one example given is of a very large spider on somebody’s face— and found that conservatives spent more time anxiously studying the images and felt more threatened than liberals.
Meanwhile, at University College London, researchers studied the part of the brain that lights up when we’re anxious or scared, and found that it is larger in conservatives than it is in liberals. This would help explain conservative fears when it comes to issues like guns, health care, and Iran.
I don’t mean to make conservatives out to be more contrary or panicky than liberals; clearly there is more grey matter in these equations than absolutes, and clearly there are innumerable exceptions to the rule (like climate change, where it’s the left that fears the sky is falling). So maybe a better word for conservatives than “anxious,” or “scared,” is “prudent.” Maybe some people are born with more inherent prudence than others. Which by contrast makes liberals less prudent and bigger risk-takers. Which, some would argue, might not be a good thing when it comes to guns, health care, or Iran.
The upshot of all this is, maybe we are blessed at birth with our political proclivities. Maybe the disturbing divide in America between liberals and conservatives cannot easily be overcome. Maybe I am both God’s gift to civilization, and a jerk. Maybe it depends on who you ask.
This isn’t the dream of South Africa
I gave away a pretty nice pair of jeans the other day.
I gave them to a man in South Africa, a real good guy who was a lot of help while I was there. He is quite smart, he works very hard, and he always has a smile on his face. But he lives in a place where people grow up without quite enough food in their tummies and thus my waist is a good three inches thicker than his. Yet he wanted the jeans anyway, because he’s black.
What that means is, he is achingly poor. He lives in a tin shanty town on the edge of Cape Town, one of more than a million black citizens squeezed into the same sad settlement. You’ll see similar shanties on the outskirts of virtually every town you pass, large or small. In my friend’s, they only recently got their own electricity. Some have a cold-water tap inside their shacks, but most people still haul heavy buckets from communal water wells. Last time I was there, a few years ago while shooting a documentary, almost everyone had to use public cinderblock outhouses; the ratio was 129 people per privy. It’s not a whole lot better today.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t the dream of South Africa.
Until only two decades ago, apartheid callously codified racial superiority for the nation’s white minority, subsistence and subservience for everyone else. As the novel called Tandia so succinctly says, apartheid was the rule of law, but it made a mockery of justice. When I covered South Africa on and off in the 1970s and 80s, everyone expected that black majority rule eventually would come, followed by a richer life for people long oppressed. But only through a bloody civil war.
Thanks mainly to the inclusive instincts of Nelson Mandela, that didn’t happen. Mandela argued (against the impulses of most of his comrades) that the equality they had long envisioned meant equality for all citizens, not just black citizens; that it could be violently counterproductive to punish their oppressors; and that through no fault of their own, the nation’s blacks didn’t have the training or schooling needed to actually run the country’s institutions, which meant educated and experienced whites must be kept on. Which is why, although war had seemed inevitable, apartheid came to a surprisingly peaceful end, stimulating a dream in the minds of the majority not just of a nation where all men were free but where, relative to how poorly blacks had long lived, now they would prosper.
Despite black majority rule, it’s still just a dream. For the documentary, I asked Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu why, in everything from housing to politics to education to economics, why is there still such a gap between rich and poor? He self-consciously laughed and said, “You know, original sin has in fact also infected us.” In other words, incompetence and corruption are colorblind.
Racial injustice is no longer legal in South Africa, but that’s just the letter of the law. In spirit, I learned last week, life still seems to be framed for most people— of every race— in terms of black and white.
My friend kept saying, with patience I’d never be able to muster, that it’s only been 20 years. But there’s no denying, the dream has faded. Some in the majority have grabbed the brass ring, For the most part though, it’s still South Africa’s blacks who are opening the white man’s doors and mopping his floors.
My friend now dreams of a better life for his daughter. And she might yet get it. But as he told me, his mother had dreamed of a better life for him. Yet he still wants blue jeans from a visiting American. Even though he’s too skinny to fill them.
On Cairo Today
(CAIRO) I’m only here in Egypt for a few hours, changing planes in Cairo’s airport to fly farther south across this African continent. But my mind is flooded with memories, not just of what I experienced over the years in dozen of trips to this exotic if chaotic and troubled region, but of what I saw and felt the very first time I landed in this ancient empire, and not even in the city of Cairo itself, but right here in its airport. It played no small role in shaping my view of how the world works.
It was 1977, just as Egypt and Israel, after three decades in a state of war, were about to shake hands, which would lead to an historic if troubled peace (which was then opposed for many years by almost every other Muslim nation on earth).
ABC News sent me over from the U.S. to help cover it. So after transiting somewhere in Europe, I landed here in Cairo. In those days, you walked from the plane down portable stairs to the tarmac; the “gates” were outside and with the airport’s proximity to the desert, you were sweating from the sun and sandblasted from the Sahara before you even got halfway to Passport Control.
But I didn’t pass right through; as a journalist, I had to get a special visa and ended up in a holding area near the gate for about four hours. And that’s when I began to notice the men— all men, apparently all Egyptians— dressed in dusty desert robes, carrying in one hand all their possessions, wrapped in a sort of towel-like package; picture an American hobo during the Depression. It was the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make before they die. For these guys, it was their turn. Most of them looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together but a lot of them had their package of possessions in one hand….and a boom box in the other.
And that’s where my view of how the world works began to take shape. Because the boom boxes weren’t playing music; they were carrying booming and, to my ear, angry-sounding voices in Arabic. Mind you, I didn’t really know that they were angry; Arabic is not, let’s just say, the gentlest smoothest sounding of languages. Kind of like German, where the soft word we use for the colorful creature that emerges from a cocoon is “butterfly,” while the French use the musical word “pappillion,” but in German it’s the harshly, guttural, almost metallic sounding “schmetterling.”
But I digress. The voices blasting from these boom boxes, rattling along at a mile a minute, sounded angry, or harsh at the very least, but you know what? To me it didn’t really matter what they were saying or how they were saying it. What mattered was, everyone could hear it; whatever the message was, it was going (as we now say) viral. And how big was that? It meant that people who never before even knew how anyone in the next village lived suddenly could find out how people in the rest of the world lived.
The transistor radio wasn’t brand new, of course; I had one as a kid and in Sunday School in the late 1950s, once the Giants moved from New York to my home town of San Francisco, I carved the interior pages out of a textbook so I could conceal my radio between the book’s covers and run an earphone wire up the long sleeves of my shirt and hide the other end in my ear and listen to baseball games (although God help me if I cracked the book open when the teacher was pacing around the classroom).
But the luxury of the transistor and the availability (for people who didn’t even have electricity) of affordable batteries took another generation to make it to the Middle East, so the whole idea of opening a window to the world for people who had never before been ten miles from home and had no idea what anyone’s lives looked like beyond that perimeter was pretty darned new. (Parenthetically, I once did a story about a woman from a small Jewish tribe in one of three isolated Jewish villages in the middle of Ethiopia, and her people had no idea that the other two villages even existed; they thought they were the last people practicing their religion on earth.)
So this novel new accessible form of communication was life-changing for the people who used it. Because, as I kept learning more and more as I made trip after trip to the Middle East, what they saw through that window was how much we had and how little they had. Whether wealth or community or liberty, we in the West were the haves; they were the have-nots.
Now, of course, the world has changed. Most of the animosity and aggression we are fighting today have their roots in a variety of causes, from religion to politics to power to territory to nationalism to greed. But when you think about it, it still often comes down to the haves and the have-nots. Someone has land that someone else wants. Or resources that someone else wants. Or riches, or weapons, or power, or a subservient population, or a history of dominance…. or, of course, an ideology or a culture or a set of religious beliefs that someone wants to bury.
Mass communication has evolved in ways no one could possibly predict only two generations ago when I was having my epiphany in Cairo. I have seen television satellite dishes in desert outposts in the MIddle East, in jungle settlements in shanty towns in black Africa, in roadside villages high in the South American Andes, in backward towns in Russia, in rural communes in Vietnam.
And it can be hard to assert that this is a bad thing. You can extrapolate all kinds of arguably good things from it; think about the Arab Spring, albeit sadly short-lived. But for better or worse, change has come, and will keep coming in this world, more with the speed of a kilobyte than a caravan. Which probably means, revolutions won’t necessarily live or die any more on the strength of their leaders. Because of modern communications, which these days means social media as much as or even more than anything else, revolutions will quickly become the property of the people. Or as they say, “The Street.” Which, I repeat, might be for better and might be for worse.
I think what I saw that first day of my first trip here to the airport in Cairo was the seed of something we still don’t fully understand. But that’s not the scariest part of it. The scariest part is, it was the seed of something that is now completely out of our control. Those boom boxes might have been easy to see, but they have been replaced by something we can no longer see coming.
“The Muslim world won’t let it happen,” a friend told me the other day, referring to the stated goal of ISIS to dominate all Muslims. His reasoning was, most Muslims don’t want to live under the cruel control of a Caliphate.
I couldn’t agree more. From many years covering the Middle East, I feel certain that most Muslims don’t want to live in the Dark Ages. The trouble is, up against the merciless militias of ISIS, that doesn’t necessarily make much difference. As history sometimes shows, even if the preponderance of a population loathes its leadership, nothing changes, at least not for generations.
Exhibit A: The Soviet Union. I never worked there without meeting citizens who wanted out from under the repression. And from the drab, deprived, fretful lives they lived, I could only guess that they were the majority. But in a police state like that, what could they do? They had neither open elections nor the liberty to call for their own liberation. If flagrant dissidents got too brazen, they might find themselves slogging through the gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Exhibit B: South Africa. During the era of apartheid, I didn’t even need to ask anyone in the black majority there how they felt about minority white rule. All I had to do was look at the unconcealed contrast between lives lived in luxury in all-white suburbs and lives lived without electricity or running water in all-black townships. If blacks got too rebellious, they might find themselves working a limestone quarry with Nelson Mandela.
Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, Chinese civilians under Mao Tse-Tung, probably the bulk of North Koreans under Kim Jung-un, maybe even most ordinary German citizens under Adolf Hitler, they all might fall into the class of the silent majority. They have no army, no political power, no voice.
Which brings us back to the question, who’s going to rise up against ISIS? The John McCains of the world assert that if the United States puts more muscle into this war, we can kill the cancer. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I’m not a dreamer either. Look at the facts on the ground. We fire a hundred-thousand-dollar missile, they lose a ten-thousand-dollar truck. We kill ten zealots, they recruit twenty.
Sure, we have allies: the United Arab Emirates have resumed their off-again-on-again air campaign against ISIS in Syria; Egypt took out some ISIS assets in Libya; now Jordan’s talking tough; the Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul. But how’s that going? Tens of thousands of weapons the United States says it already has sent to the Iraqis (with more on the way) are missing, and their parliamentary defense committee chairman is quoted saying that without those weapons, “any operation would be fruitless.” Some of our Arab allies look at us and complain that we’re not pulling out all the stops. But are they? Would they ever? And if they did, would they win? Qatar’s emir said last week that Arab leaders must commit “to the values… in the Arab Spring.” Dream on.
Or maybe it’s more like a nightmare, because ISIS isn’t even a single entity any more, operating only in Syria and Iraq. In a case of “déjà vu all over again,” remember how in Afghanistan, we chased out al-Qaeda only to see lookalikes turn up in a dozen different countries? Well today, intelligence identifies ISIS-like units, whether official affiliates or aspiring wannabes, in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, as deep into Africa as Nigeria, and yes, Afghanistan. ISIS has even tweeted, “We will conquer Rome,” (meaning, the West).
If we have learned nothing else since Vietnam, we have learned that even though we are mightier and hopefully more moral than our enemies, we don’t always win. There are too many variables in war. And too many enemies we just don’t understand.
On Public Use of Cameras
We were in an open-air light rail station in Miami, a TV crew and me. A guy who lived nearby and led us there took several small cameras into the station to make a point about his rights. He made it with a bang. As soon as he lifted one of his cameras to take pictures of a security guard, the guard and her partner went after him.
They told him to stop taking their picture. He didn’t. They told him to leave. He wouldn’t. They told him to surrender his cameras. He refused. They took a swipe at the cameras, knocking one to the ground, then another swipe at him. He fought back.
Was this guy a pain in the neck? Yes. Was he rude, intrusive, provocative, even offensive? Absolutely. But here’s the key question: Was he breaking the law? The answer is no. This matters because a bill being drafted in the Colorado legislature would “clarify” when and where you can and can’t use a camera. It shouldn’t require clarification but maybe it does, because cameras nowadays are a ubiquitous and sometimes unavoidable part of our daily lives. And it’s hard for some people to believe that you and I have the right to all but stick a camera in their face.
But we do. You see, unless we’re talking about a handful of explicable exceptions, like interfering with a crime scene, or prejudicing a trial, or a breach of our national security (but trust me, there was none at this light rail station), this guy in Miami had every right to take the guard’s picture. She could have turned away, she could have put up her hand to block the view, but what she couldn’t do, not legally, was order the guy to stop.
Why not? Because the light rail station is a public place. Just like any park, any sidewalk, the airport, even city hall. These are public places where, as courts have put it, you and I have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” And this applies to the police as much as anyone else.
Think of the implications if it were otherwise. If a policeman could claim that cameras are intrusive as he performs his job and thus prohibit their use, so could a politician, so could any public official. Then, anyone who regrets having his appalling behavior captured by a camera could try in court to prohibit its public release.
Now let’s carry it a step further. Think about people who meet in sidewalk restaurants or on park benches to discuss pending divorces, or contracts, or anything else that seems sensitive. They probably would argue that they have the right to a private conversation. But they don’t, not there. If they want to ensure their privacy, they should remove themselves from the public place.
Does this apply indiscriminately? No. A grocery store, a restaurant, a department store, these are different. Absent blatant bias, private property owners have the right to set the rules about who can take pictures on their property and when. And rest assured, no one has the right to take pictures of you while inside your home. But even there, there’s a caveat: if you’re standing in your window in your underwear, beware the camera held by a citizen out on the street because you are fair game.
Of course the proposed legislation isn’t just meant to clarify the use of cameras for those being recorded; until all of us with those cameras understand how far we can go, and, where we have to stop, it’s clarification for us, too.
But the burden must be on the police, the politicians, and others to justify keeping something out of the public view. For the rest of us, short of never going out, the best way to preserve our privacy is just to tell someone with a camera to quit being so nosy and leave us alone.
It might surprise you, but after a week’s worth of sympathetic stories in the media last week, all related to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, there’s still more to say. The anniversary has passed, the world has moved on… but still, because the import of Auschwitz and all it symbolizes shouldn’t be revived only on a ten-year anniversary, there’s more to say.
There are two little words, in fact, that speak volumes about why we should keep talking about Auschwitz, and Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Two words, immortalized by the aging author and archivist of the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel, in his own firsthand Auschwitz account called “Night.” The two weighty words are, “Never forget.”
I wasn’t even born when the dark dust of Europe’s Jews rained from the sky, yet I’ll never forget the cold chill I’ve felt walking through Auschwitz, which I’ve done three times as a reporter, once with Wiesel himself. Not just because I knew what had happened there— more than a million hapless humans gassed until they were gone; thousands subjected to sadistic and unscientific tests by the merciless Dr. Mengele; tens of thousands starving and suffering as slaves for the Nazi war machine.
No, the chill that ran through me on each visit was borne from my effort to even slightly imagine what it actually felt like to be there which, for all of us who weren’t, is impossible. But I tried anyway. I tried to imagine being imprisoned there. And waging a struggle not to die. Arguably, death was the less frightening fate; the supreme struggle was to survive. A struggle not to starve. Not to collapse. Not to freeze. Not to surrender.
And simple though it sounds, not to lose your shoes.
Shoes, I’ve been told, were an inmate’s salvation. The margin between death and life was so thin, it was defined in the precarious existence of every inmate by his shoes. If he could keep his shoes, he might tolerate the bitter, bleak, dark, dismal climate of the camp. If his shoes were worn through, or lost, or stolen, it was a death sentence as sure as the ultimate abuse bestowed on those who went straight from their train to their execution.
Never forget. The words are easy to utter, more difficult to uphold. Just look around the world since World War II and see how forgetful mankind has been. In conflicts I’ve covered from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan, from the Sahara to Northern Ireland, man kept forgetting the meaning of humanity. In a way, the incitements aren’t even important: power, greed, territory, nationalism, and maybe more than ever before, racism and religion. For whatever reason, man forgot.
A piece of me pretends that today, with global dependencies between nations and instantaneous links between peoples, we would no longer let these things motivate us to subjugate and brutalize our fellow man. But then the other piece kicks in. I think of Ukraine, where indiscriminate shells rain down and innocent citizens’ lives are shattered. Or Syria, where whole neighborhoods have crumbled, turning whole populations into wretched refugees. Or Nigeria, where fanatics have forgotten that life has any value at all. Or even Paris, where both Muslims and Jews reportedly now live in fear for their safety, and their families’.
In last week’s anniversary observance at Auschwitz, one survivor said, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.” But somehow it could be, if “never forget” continues to be forgotten.
That’s why there’s more to say. And why we should keep saying it.
Yemen’s In Trouble
Yemen’s in trouble. So we’re in trouble too.
If rebels were able to wrest control of one of the most backyard nations on earth from its U.S.-friendly government, then the sky’s the limit in that part of the world for anarchy and animosity against the West.
But it’s only Yemen, right? Why worry about a country which has few paved roads in, let alone outside, its two main cities? A place so remote, its desert borders are missing from many maps because nobody really knows where they are. A nation so backward that citizens who can afford it travel over those undefined borders to Saudi Arabia to shop!
Maybe most revealing, men in Yemen aren’t even clear-headed for much of the day because at midday, they chew on a narcotic-like stimulant, a local leaf called “khat.” You can always tell when it’s lunchtime because almost every man has fluid as green as the forest primeval, dripping from his lips. Could it just be coincidence that “khat” rhymes with “pot?”
Once, when covering a story there, not long after a trip to Afghanistan, I wrote that Yemen was the only society I’d ever seen that makes Afghanistan look modern. Which brings us back to asking, why the big deal? The answer is complex but the headline might be, shoppers aren’t the only Yemenis who have their sights set on our political partner— however odious the partnership— Saudi Arabia.
American intelligence says that terrorists from the Yemeni group widely considered the most dangerously anti-Western of all the al-Qaeda spinoffs, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have snuck into Saudi Arabia to position themselves to attack the kingdom. And although our alliance with the Saudis is based only on mutual interests, which realistically means mutual enemies, an attack on Saudi Arabia is as good as an attack on us, because with so much oil so easy to get at, Saudi leaders influence the global price of oil and thus the economy— and therefore the stability— of the planet. Unless they are thrown off their feet and someone far more hostile stands in their shoes.
And now, al-Qaeda might not be the only force with its eyes on that prize. The Iranian-backed sect in Yemen, the Houthi Militia (all Shiites), has moved to the front. Which means al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (mainly Sunnis) no longer has the whole place to itself. Adding to the mayhem, ISIS reportedly is elbowing its own way into the chaos. Is it plausible that the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS— by his lights, the leader of all Muslims— has designs on the holiest domain in his faith?
All told, this can’t be good. Between religious, tribal, and territorial objectives, each of these groups probably will fight fiercely with one another for a piece of the spoils. Viewed in a vacuum, nothing would make America happier. But warfare among terror groups in a place like Yemen has its downside, not only because it’s likely to ravage the nation, but because in a case like this (unlike Syria, where the beleaguered government has muscle that the Yemeni government never had), someone’s likely to win. Then that victor would stand taller, and stronger, and probably meaner than ever.
Which makes the upheaval in Yemen an even more potent potential threat not just toward the sands of Saudi Arabia, but toward the American homeland. Because the Yemeni intelligence that helped us fight terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula now might end up in the hands of the terrorists themselves, which forces us to suspend that fight. Which means three factions hostile to our interests have fairly free reign. Sure, they don’t like each other, but when anti-government demonstrators in Yemen last week chanted “Death to America,” they voiced a common passion. That makes them a collective threat. Another impermeable terrorist refuge might just have been born.
Which is why we’re in trouble.
On the Massacre in Paris
When the chief of the United Nations said of the sickening Paris massacre last week, “It should never be seen as a war of religion, for religion, or on religion,” it sounded like a predictable platitude. Kind of like the Pope on Christmas calling for peace in the Middle East. I mean, of course that’s what they’d say!
The fact is, any of us who believe we accurately understand what motivates Muslim madmen to murder innocents ought to cover our keyboards, mute our microphones, and zip our lips. As I wrote in a column on these same pages only last month, “There are so many behaviors in the Middle East today that we just can’t explain, no matter who we are.”
But this time, the U.N.’s Ban Ki-Moon might have gotten it right. Because from my experience, many of the acts allegedly executed in the name of religion— indeed, some of the wars fought between members of different faiths or different sects of the same faith— do not in fact have much if anything to do with religion at all. Radicalism, yes. But that’s not religion.
Probably the best example is what we’ve witnessed for more than a decade now in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded, we lifted the lid off a long-repressed rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. While we fought a war against terrorism, they fought a war against one another. But were their nasty battles really based on the ancient debate about which of Mohammed’s descendants were entitled to lead Islamic society, which has had the two sects at each other’s throats for more than 1,300 years?
I’m afraid not. They were based on the haves and the have-nots. Under Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, almost all positions of power (which also made them positions of wealth) were in the hands of his Sunni brethren; call it his tribe. Shiites could hardly even get a private’s position in the Iraqi army, let alone the stripes of an officer. In almost every way, Shiites in Iraq were second-class citizens. So when Hussein was upended, so was his tribe… and then the Shiites did to the Sunnis what the Sunnis had done to them. It was about ranking, not religion.
Likewise, the revolution in Iran. I spent the better part of two years covering that chaos, and when asking people why they wanted to oust the Shah, the word “religion” never came up. A brutal secret police force, corruption with the profits from oil, and distaste for the Western culture the Shah was introducing to his people, these were the root causes of their revolt.
And when it comes to hatred cloaked in the cloth of religion, we can look well beyond the Middle East. In the 1970s and ‘80s, I covered “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants ambushed one another and blew up each other’s pubs. 3,000 people died.
But just a couple of years ago, when I was back in Belfast and wrote a column referring to “religious warfare” there decades ago, a local friend who I asked to fact-check something said to me, “It was never ‘religious warfare.’ Most of the terrorists on both sides never darkened the door of a church.”
His point was, it was a clash between Catholics and Protestants, but only because the majority there, the Protestants, had long oppressed the minority, the Catholics, who couldn’t get a well-paying job anyplace important, from the shipyards to the police force. Sure, religion was in the background there, as it has been in Iran and Iraq and Syria and Israel and so many other troubled nations, but religious inequality breeds resentment, which breeds terrorism. Which can have nothing to do with religion.
I don’t know what mad notions led the murderers in France to their rampage. We may never know. But if we automatically pin it primarily on religion rather than radicalism, we might miss signs of more madness in the future.
Optimism and Pessimism going into the New Year
At heart, especially at the start of a brand new year, I am an optimist. Life is good. But when I saw the headline of a commentary in The Post the Sunday before Christmas asking, “Is peace on Earth even possible?”, my answer was a pessimistic “No.”
That’s why, whether addressing a contemporary challenge like defeating ISIS or the age-old challenge of finding a path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians, I wouldn’t bet a dime on our success. Not that we shouldn’t try; if we don’t have our hand in the game, some other power will replace us and the world it shapes will likely be even worse. But I have precious little hope. Which you might call pessimism personified.
However, after I said all that to an audience at DU last month during a talk about American options in the Middle East, I heard optimism personified. One man stood and asked, What about globalization as a solution to these struggles? His point was, people who’ve long lived pathetic lives in the Middle East, thanks to their own glimpses of globalization, now can see what the world offers people like us and seize similar opportunities for themselves.
Then another man stood and asked, Why did I address everything from brutal combat to religious creed in my pessimistic analysis but never mentioned the power of economics? His point was, if we took the money we spend to wage war and put it instead into economic development, we would elevate people to the point where they would see little benefit in continuing to fight.
From experience, I’m convinced there are pragmatic reasons why economics and globalization aren’t going to bring the monsters of ISIS to heel— nor adversaries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rivals in Syria’s civil war, Iranians bent on building nuclear weapons, or Sunnis and Shiites battling for influence in Iraq. But thank goodness, especially now when we want so much to hope for something better, there are people out there who do.
Remember Luke Somers, the hostage of Islamic terrorists, who died during an attempt to rescue him last month in Yemen? A friend of his told the Associated Press that Somers “would have wanted issues of extremism and terrorism to be addressed by stepping up the dialogue instead of resorting to conflict between nations.”
The pessimist in me says, nations can do dialogue until the well runs dry; it’s not going to make violent clashes vanish. I came to this cynical view years ago while covering the United Nations, where dialogue is just about the only thing they do. The U.N.’s member nations couldn’t even agree most days on whether to change the toilet paper in their public restrooms from one-ply to two, let alone on how to make the world a peaceful place.
But the optimist in me takes comfort in one land where I covered deadly warfare for many years and never believed that hostility and hate could be overcome… but I was wrong. For 30 years (and that’s just in modern times), Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were at each others’ throats; each side felt browbeaten by the other. As a reporter, I’ve seen nothing that pits people against one another more feverishly than religion.
Yet both sides tired of their bloody battles, and looked for a way out, and through a power-sharing arrangement that has lasted now for a decade-and-a-half, they found it. Sure, there are still bitter feelings in some parts— only two years ago I saw fresh murals on the walls of Belfast buildings, glorifying armed militants— but overall, amity has overcome acrimony.
Is there anything to learn from Northern Ireland that could apply to the world at large? Maybe not. But it does show that no matter how pessimistic some of us are about Peace on Earth, there is always hope. How sad… how hopeless… if that were to disappear.
On Russia under Putin
Sure, Russia’s in trouble. But predicting President Putin’s playbook is a fool’s errand. Between Western sanctions over Ukraine, the plunging price of oil on which his economy heavily depends, and the pervasive and proliferating perversion of the nation’s economy, the value of Russia’s ruble and thus the value of every Russian’s bank account has dropped. But Americans who predict that this will moderate Putin’s behavior, on Ukraine or anything else, might be the fools.
The first thing to remember is, Russia isn’t the U.S.A. What that means is, the kinds of public protest that lead to policy changes in our nation don’t— make that, can’t— go far enough to force a revolution in Russia. By tightening up on the freedoms that Russian citizens briefly possessed after the fall of the Soviet Union— like disqualifying political parties he didn’t like and putting dissenting media out of business— Putin has crafted a political system that pretty much ensures his power for as long as he wants to wield it.
The second thing is, by all accounts, Putin’s popularity is still at sky-high levels that American politicians can only dream about. That’s because of something Russians have told me every time I’ve been there: he has given them pride again, pride that they lost almost a quarter-century ago when their status as a superpower vanished. By reminding his citizens that in the good old days, the world trembled when their leaders spoke (or in the case of Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 at the United Nations, pounded the table with a shoe), he never stops sending the message that Russia deserves a place again on the world stage. This strategy is called nationalism, and Putin plays the card constantly. It helps to explain why his foreign policy is basically built on flipping the bird to the United States.
The third thing to remember is that in Russia, when the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going; they just sit back and take it. This is a society where suffering is almost a part of their DNA. As George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years puts it, “They can endure things that would break other nations.”
My favorite metaphor for that is snow. In many parts of the United States, including the City of Denver, homeowners are required (once the snow stops falling) to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes. And even if it weren’t the law, many would do it anyway; that’s just who we are. In Russia? A few years ago I spent some December days at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside of Moscow. This place is the heart of that nation’s proudest high-tech achievements: the first satellite in space, then the first human being in space. And it’s still on a roll; since the demise of the American space shuttle, every one of our astronauts heading for the International Space Station spends several months there training to launch in the Russian Soyuz capsule.
So what happens there when it snows? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Which means, when you’re driving on the network of narrow roads coursing through the complex, your wheels slide into ruts half-a-foot deep. When you’re walking, the steps leading into every building are treacherous with clumps of ice. Unlike us, they don’t try to mitigate the inconvenience and discomfort of their weather; they simply adapt to it. It’s as if something as simple as snow actually defines the culture of the country.
Who knows? Maybe with the ruble tumbling into the toilet and people’s buying power plummeting with it, Putin will finally pay the price. Surely, Russia’s citizens have grown to like a higher level of prosperity and economic choice and won’t like what’s happening today. But half the population has lived with less and, like our own “Greatest Generation” that endured the Depression, they could do it again. And Putin might just let them.
What do these positive proclamations have in common?
“We are stopping Ebola in its tracks.” (Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Tom Frieden)
“Don’t underestimate the Iraqi troops; they are well-trained and ready to protect their nation.” (Paraphrased from a recent Denver presentation by retired four-star General David Petraeus)
“In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores… we’re prepared here at home.” (President Barack Obama)
There is no sign that ISIS is “actively plotting against the homeland.” (General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
“Mission accomplished.” (Former President George W. Bush)
The answer’s easy. What they all have in common is that each one was flat-out wrong. Whether said with naïve confidence, unsupported self-assurance, or deliberate inflation of the facts, each was meant to assure the American public that everything’s going to be alright. But it isn’t. Coming from leaders with the highest levels of medical, military, and political know-how, what they actually ended up assuring us was, we really don’t know who to believe any more.
And they assured us of something else too: just because people are smart enough to rise to the top in their chosen fields, they aren’t necessarily a whole lot smarter than the rest of us. Or sometimes, any smarter at all.
You could chalk it up to a couple of modern phenomena in this 21st-Century media-driven, short attention span, quick-fix world: better to paint a pretty picture first, then see if you can back it up. And better to give an answer even if it’s wrong, rather than no answer at all.
That might be fine in a different era— when there’s time to repaint the picture, or rephrase the answer— but these days, what we need to know is not that everything’s going to be alright (when it’s not), but rather, what’s wrong in our world and are we really able to fend it off? Since life is not a fairy tale, sometimes the answer is no.
But if we feel like this phenomenon of leaders painting misleadingly positive pictures is something new, rest assured that it’s not.
Records— and actual recordings— have been released from the days of Lyndon Johnson in the White House. And they are shocking. While publicly building our troop strength in Vietnam to more than half-a-million (many of whom came home in coffins), LBJ privately told insiders, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for.” While publicly predicting an ultimate American victory over the peasant armies battling against us, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara privately and despondently told the President in a phone call that we keep throwing everything we’ve got at “these half-starved beggars” but they keep coming back for more.
If I want to feel good about my world, I’ll do the easy crossword puzzle on Mondays. If I want to feel informed about my world, I need to trust the people who feed us the information. These days, that trust runs thin.
When you’re in the Middle East and you are talking about political alliances, which today are at the core of the American campaign to create a coalition to decimate ISIS, there is an adage that you will hear as much as any: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Note that I use the word “alliances,” not “friendships,” because there really aren’t many genuine friendships between neighbors in that part of the world. To wit, back in the day when I roamed the region, the stories I covered included Iran’s eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq, potshots across the border between Egypt and its neighbor Libya, Lebanon’s entrapment in the clutches of its powerful neighbor Syria, and of course Saddam Hussein’s army rolling across the frontier to occupy its neighbor Kuwait. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Thanks to a long history of religious, cultural, financial, and petroleum rivalries, the Saudis are more frightened of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands than in Israel’s. But here’s why a scorecard won’t help you: back during the Gulf War, Iraq threatened to invade Saudi Arabia, which is at loggerheads with Iran, which fought that long war with Iraq. Who’s on first?!?
The point is, as the United States gears up yet again for war in the Middle East, no matter how necessary for our national security, we can only hope that the Obama administration understands the bitter relationships between nations, and leaders, who would be our allies. It would have been helpful if someone in the administration had been with me once when I reported on an Arab summit in Morocco where, from my vantage point overlooking a “welcome reception” in the garden of one of the King’s palaces, most of the region’s leaders stayed stone-faced in just one corner or another, never crossing to different corners to greet their Arab brothers.
It would also be helpful if someone in the administration could just take a look at the facade of the magnificent Burj Al Arab on a man-made island in the tiny but tenacious Emirate of Dubai; it might be the single best metaphor for the hostility that is almost palpable between Middle East neighbors. This thousand-foot-high hotel (the Royal Suite, approximately $19,000 per night) can be seen across the Persian Gulf on the shores of Iran, and Iran doesn’t like what it sees: megawatt lights within the facade in the shape of a 50-story high Christian cross, not officially acknowledged by that description but unofficially said to be western-oriented Dubai’s way of flipping the bird at its Islamist neighbor… every night.
So yes, if the adage is true and the enemy of our enemy is our friend, we have a lot of friends today in that unfriendly part of the world. But last week I went to hear a presentation by General David Petraeus, sponsored by the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL), and this man who has commanded our armies in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows the Middle East as well as anyone in Washington made me think about things in a whole new way, and he did that by turning the adage on its head: remember, he warned, that in that part of the world, the enemy of my enemy is also still my enemy.
That’s what makes our campaign against ISIS so complicated. We certainly aren’t cozy with Iran, yet we’re on the same side in this newest war (and to complicate matters, our friend France, which is part of our coalition, wants to invite Iran to join it too, which we don’t). We surely don’t have an alliance with Hamas, yet when it comes to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, we find ourselves on the same side: we both want him out. Carrying these complexities to the extreme, Assad’s Syria is more threatened by ISIS than we are, but we’re sure not joining hands with a dictator who’s close to some of our adversaries just because we have this one enemy in common.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, American foreign policy has often failed to understand the nuances of different religions, different cultures, different alliances. If ISIS truly does threaten to be a haven for terrorists the likes of which the world has never seen, then our national security depends on us understanding all those differences, better than we ever have before.
Art in a Nutshe….um….Tortoise Shell
Since I was in Aspen anyway, I thought, Well, might as well go see the tortoises. I’ve been in Colorado’s richest boom town many times but, to be sure, this was the first time that the words “tortoises” and “Aspen” have popped up in the same moment in my mind.
The tortoises I’m talking about, of course, are the three African tortoises on display at the new and newly controversial Aspen Art Museum. Note that I say the tortoises are “on display” rather than “in an art exhibit.” That’s because, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t fit them into any established definition of art.
Let’s start with the title of the display: Moving Ghost Town. That’s because the exhibit consists of these three tortoises moving around their enclosure— of course you have to stand there quite a while to actually see them move but that’s a different issue— with two iPads balanced like sandwich boards atop small wooden platforms on each tortoise’s back. Each iPad apparently displays video images of Colorado’s ghost town heritage.
Note, once again, that I say that each iPad “apparently” displays these pictures. That’s because the enclosure is up on the rooftop level of the museum, and since the tortoises were out in the glaring sun, I couldn’t see a thing on the screens of the iPads. I have an iPad myself, and have long known that in bright sunlight, you can’t see anything on the screen, save perhaps the reflection of the sun. Having raised roughly $70-million to build this new museum, couldn’t someone have popped for an experimental iPad before commissioning the exhibit to see if it would even work?
Then there’s the small paper plaque describing the exhibit itself. Usually in a museum if materials are described, it’ll say something like “Oils,” “Charcoal,” “Acrylics,” “Watercolors,” “Paper Maché,” something to give us some background we might not otherwise recognize. But for MovingGhost Town, the words are, and I kid you not, “Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.” Sorry, but that was something I already could see for myself… even if I couldn’t actually see the video I was supposed to see on the iPads (which according to the alleged artist, was taken by the tortoises themselves, which might explain why I wasn’t all that disappointed to miss it).
Note, one more time, my choice of words: “alleged artist.” That’s because I haven’t yet figured out how Tortoises, iPads, and Grass fit into any definition of art. I was in the area because I’d just moderated a symposium at the Anderson Ranch art center in Snowmass entitled“Making the Change They Want To See.” It was about artists as activists, artists using their art to effect change in society. In my book that’s a good use of any artistic medium, as opposed to producing art strictly for profit, or for a creative outlet, or personal satisfaction, or simply for impact. Someone at the symposium described art as “anything that makes us see the world in a whole new way.” Fair enough. But I’m not sure the Aspen exhibit even does that.
The last piece of controversy about the tortoises is thanks to the radical group PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Frankly, when I see them inveigh about an issue with animals, and I don’t have to tell you that they consider anything that puts iPads on the backs of tortoises totally inhumane— or should theword actually be “intortane?”— I rush to join the other side. Look, my family and I once toured a turtle farm in the Caribbean, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that two of them were mating in a pool as we walked in and when we walked out 90 minutes later, they were still… um… going at it. Although I never did find out which one’s on top, I’m convinced that these guys can take the weight of two iPads.
I’m also convinced, if Aspen could raise $70-million for its new museum, it could dobetter things with the money than Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.
On Israel and Hamas
It can be exasperating to see more than one side to a story, especially a story like the war between Israel and Hamas. But that’s what journalists have to do to do our jobs right: whether on a battlefield or at a ballot box, our job is to report on what each side in a conflict endures and what each side thinks. It doesn’t mean we don’t have ivory-tower opinions about who should win and who should lose. It just means, our opinions aren’t the story; the facts on the ground are.
That’s why I’m tired of pro-Israeli Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Palestinian, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate coverage of Israel’s conflict with Hamas… disproportionate, in their view, because there has been so much more news about suffering Palestinians than about suffering Israelis.
Sure, that’s true, but here’s why: there are more Palestinians suffering today than Israelis. Although much smaller than Israel in both population and geography, Gaza’s casualty counts from the war— the dead, the injured, the homes smashed, the childhoods shattered— dwarf the numbers in Israel. If you appreciate as I do from years of reporting in that part of the world that many Palestinians whose lives have turned tragically upside down are not sympathizers of the “anti-Zionist” zealots of Hamas, you understand that human misery, no matter where, is mournful. And part of the story.
But I’m equally tired of pro-Palestinian Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate destruction on the Palestinian side of the border. Sure, it’s been disproportionate, but here’s why: Israel is stronger. That’s the nature of war. It’s not Israel’s fault that the rockets Hamas has haphazardly hurled into Israel are far less precise than the missiles Israel targeted on Gaza (although still often imperfect). Putting aside issues of injustice during the settlement of the American West, just because the Indians’ traditional ammunition was the arrow, the white man wasn’t obliged to set aside his bullets and pick up a bow. The white man had rifles, he was stronger, and he won.
Another complaint by pro-Israeli Americans is that the news media doesn’t report on what pushed Israel into this war in the first place. Trouble is, that just isn’t true. It has been and continues to be widely reported. If you don’t know that Hamas dug dozens of tunnels for terrorists to infiltrate Israel (I’ve been in them and reported on them; they were years in the making) and amassed thousands of rockets to fire into Israel and, by the way, that Hamas calls in its charter for a holy war against Israel, you just aren’t paying attention.
But another complaint by pro-Palestinian Americans isn’t true either, the complaint that Israel’s oppressive policies pushed Palestinians toward terrorism. Yes, Palestinians rightfully feel oppressed— I’ve reported on frustrating hours spent at roadblocks myself, simply trying to cross the border (and I’m not even Palestinian). But Israel’s motives must be acknowledged: with a history of attacks against them, they are like the TSA, treating every human being as a possible terrorist, to stop the one who is. The trouble is, like other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda and now ISIS, Hamas is driven by two things that have little to do with Israel: religious intolerance and anti-Western hatred. From my own reporting, they’ve been passed down from generation to generation. And are still being taught.
Pro-Palestinian Americans rightfully complain, though, that a weighty ratio of the Palestinian death toll is non-combatants, women and children. But pro-Israeli Americans rightfully complain that by placing its warriors and weapons amongst them, Hamas callously keeps them in harm’s way.
What it comes down to is, there is anger on both sides. And pain. And fear. And the belief that combatants on the other side disregard the safety of non-combatants on your side and thus are terrorists. That is the story. It is all reported.
This could get me in trouble. Big trouble. Because it’s going to sound like I long for the days of dictators. Dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Marshall Tito, the Shah.
I don’t. But I do wonder, from the standpoint of national security, were we somehow better off when they were still around? In some cases, were even their own citizens better off too? Hard to say, but also hard to dismiss.
So, as Americans for whom freedom is a precious principle but security is a prime priority, it’s a question worth asking. If our geopolitical strategy amounts to choosing the lesser of two evils, and it often does, then arguably, the world was a better place… for us, anyway… when there were dictators who controlled their people because however malicious their means, terrorists couldn’t operate within their borders and thus, couldn’t threaten us. We have plenty of counterterrorism tools at our command, both military and civil, but none works better than containing the threat at its source.
Iraq is the poster boy for this kind of thinking. Believe me, Saddam was a bad guy; I was among a handful of journalists who got to one of the Kurdish villages he gassed, leaving hundreds of grotesque corpses as a warning to others who harbored dreams of rebellion. So if nothing else, morality prevents me fromcalling Saddam’s ruthless reign the good ol’ days.
But here’s the other side of the coin: notwithstanding the flimsy grounds for the U.S. invasion in 2003, was Iraq then a breeding ground for terrorism as it is today? The fact is, we invaded Iraq to drive out terrorists who were not actually there until we went in to drive them out. Think ISIS, which is trying to establish and expand what would amount to an anti-Western terrorists’ haven. That is Iraq, post-Saddam.
To carry the argument further, neither are most Iraqis plainly better off. I made a few trips there when Saddam was in charge, and while Iraqis didn’t live lives we’d envy, they were able to go about their business pretty much without interference as long as they didn’t get on Saddam’s bad side. Today? There is no good side to be on. If you’re Sunni, the government is shutting you out of civil life in Iraq. If you’re Shiite, ISIS is shutting you down. Citizens can’t go to the market, kids can’t go to school, mourners can’t go to a funeral, without the threat of a car bomb that might kill them all.
Hindsight is a wonderful tool. And it’s only with hindsight that I raise these questions. In fact, if another dictator was brutally mistreating his people today, I’d probably be agitating to go in and get him. But not before asking, who’s likely to replace him? Would a new regime be worse for our security than what we have now? Likewise, would it be worse for its own people than what they have now? Then the final question: morally, can I support him because he’s still not as bad as whatever or whoever might replace him?
Life doesn’t always offer a happy ending. What we need to figure out is, which ending is the least unhappy, when it comes to who we fight and who we back.
On US Space
Now it’s getting serious! Because of Ukraine, the last visible vestige of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which