Canada’s 10/14

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Two recent events in Canada have taken over the emotions both of Canadians and of people far and wide. In a more rational world these might not even have been news, but in our world they have become very big news, largely for the wrong reasons: the victims were in uniform and there is an association with Islam.

Americans and Canadians have been so conditioned to fear Islamic influence that even minor events related to Islam suddenly appear to be all that matters. They also forget that those in uniform take up jobs in which their lives may actually be at stake. Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

The state never loses an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. The indoctrinated, infantile population, deep in their being expecting a utopia where no one ever dies or even gets hurt, must beg and plead for a bigger state, more reductions in privacy, and a ramp up of war.

Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

In league with the United States, Canada has unilaterally declared war on several states or state-like entities in the Middle East, most recently on ISIS, an organization that no one, not even the “all-knowing” US spy agencies, had a clue about a few months back but that, ironically, for the convenience of the English speaking populace, has given itself an English name rather than scarier ones such as Abu Sayyaf, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, etc. The Taliban and al Qaeda are now old-fashioned. If what we have been told about ISIS is to be believed, it is trying to take over a region where what is supposed to work politically in the United States has not worked. Having removed Saddam Hussein, who kept stability and sectarian violence at bay, the US created massive chaos in the region.

The whole iteration of implanting democracies, removing democratically elected Islamists, funding and arming rebels who then become inconvenient, then going back through the sequence again and again, forever churning out more insecure sociopaths, hasn’t convinced the US that it should leave Iraq and Syria alone to deal with their own problems, organically evolving their own institutions, as Hayek would have suggested. The US and its groupies, Canada and the UK, must decide how others should live.

To say that there has been a lack of perspective concerning subsequent events would be putting it mildly. In Canada, the two murderers had opportunities to kill a few civilians on the way; they didn’t. Moreover, the fact that there was only one crazy who was involved in entering the Canadian parliament shows that he was unable to find more to join him in his “jihad.” Making the next step a rational response is too much to expect from indoctrinated Canadians. They will do exactly the opposite. They will work to increase the size of the state and its military effort. The guy working at Starbucks worries about the lack of driving rights among women in Saudi Arabia, not knowing that it is a US protectorate. In a generalized fear of all the strange things he hears, he sees massive civilian deaths by US drones as mere collateral damage; he acquiesces in the idea of killing women and kids to bring more freedom to women and better education to kids. People who are indoctrinated emotionally lose their bearings and their foothold on reality — and when it comes to the crunch, Canadians, the more indoctrinated and socialistic people, will exhibit a worse side than Americans.

We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden?

Stephen Harper will not let this overblown crisis go to waste. If sanity prevailed, Canadians would be protesting their entanglements in Iraq, Syria, etc., which have had horrible unintended consequences. But expecting rational actions would be asking for the impossible.

Post script: We must all watch what we say these days. What one says or writes ends up in the NSA or similar meta-databases. We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden? The Canadian government is contemplating a law to make it illegal for anyone to sympathize with terrorists. What “sympathy” means will of course be left to the judgment of the bureaucrat. My guess is that Canadians will take the pill of increased slavery without a murmur.

We often forget that governments can actually get away with a lot more than they do. The reason they do not increase regulatory control is not so much a fear of resistance from the citizens as a fear of hurting the economy, and hence their tax collections, as well as a realization that heavy-handed laws may increase corruption and the fragmentation of their control mechanisms, defeating the whole purpose. They always tread the thin line that helps them maximize control, tyranny, and privilege.




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Post-Traumatic Story Disorder

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The latest of our nation’s mass-media-broadcast shootings took place yesterday (April 2) at Fort Hood, where a gunman—according to reports, one Ivan Lopez—murdered 3 and wounded 16 before killing himself.

Given the ghoulishness of the 24-hour-cycle press, it’s unsurprising that their first, hopeful question was whether this was a terrorist attack. Given their stupidity, it’s also unsurprising that, once they found out poor Lopez was just some guy possibly suffering from PTSD following a stint in Iraq, they reached precisely the wrong conclusion: that this wasn’t about terrorism after all.

You idiots. Of course it’s about terrorism. It’s all about our government’s stupid, belligerent, macho response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, knocking over countries with little or no connection to those attacks, in the mistaken belief that we could run those countries better than they were already being run. It’s all about how Congress and the military have removed hundred of billions of dollars from the American economy in order to build and maintain palatial outposts of Empire, only to strand our people there at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about how we continued to recruit unfledged and underemployed men and women and dispatch them into conditions that favored the advancement of sadists and psychopaths, places where anyone of normal disposition would end up damaged in mind, if not also in body.

When the networks say it’s not about “terrorism,” what they mean was the shooter wasn’t Muslim, or they can’t connect him to any extremist groups at home or abroad—more’s the pity for them, deprived of their latest bogeyman, their newest Tsarnaev or Nidal Hasan. Lopez, if it is him, is just some schmuck they can’t fit into a preexisting narrative; at least, not one they’re willing to broadcast. But the story’s clear enough to anyone who doesn't purposefully blind themselves to it.



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TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Vaccinator

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As if the IRS, Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Verizon-NSA, and AP journalists scandals weren’t enough to damn the Obama administration and sour the public’s perception of its self-declared high ideals, along comes Vaccination-gate — a misuse of power that “may yet kill hundreds of thousands,” according to the May 2013 issue of Scientific American.

The magazine’s analysis states: “In its zeal to identify Osama bin Laden or his family, the CIA used a sham hepatitis B vaccination project to collect DNA in the neighborhood where he was hiding. The effort apparently failed, but the violation of trust threatens to set back global public health efforts by decades.” The administration has not denied the CIA plot.

The program started in a poor neighborhood of Abbottabad, “no doubt to give it an air of legitimacy,” SA opines. “Yet after the first in a standard series of three hepatitis B shots was given, the effort was abandoned so that the team could move to bin Laden’s wealthier community.” It is this lapse in protocol that betrayed the program for the bluff it was.

The deadly chickens are already roosting. “Villagers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border chased off legitimate vaccine workers, accusing them of being spies. Taliban commanders banned polio vaccinations in parts of Pakistan, specifically citing the bin Laden ruse as justification.” After nine vaccine workers were murdered in Pakistan last December, the UN withdrew its vaccination teams. Two months later, gunmen killed ten polio workers in Nigeria. Though other accusations may be at work there — such as a rumor of a Western plot to sterilize girls — it’s a sign that the violence against vaccinators may be spreading.

Leslie F. Roberts of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health says that the distrust sowed by the fraudulent campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred, with the victims “forevermore” blaming the US.

Humanitarian workers adhere to an international code of conduct that requires their services to be provided on the basis of need alone, not national agendas. NGOs, QUANGOs (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization)and such are already suspect, and occasionally banned, in some parts of the world. Using healthcare workers — protected noncombatants in conventional wars — to prosecute the war on al Qaeda can only make matters worse.

What might this administration’s fast and loose attitude toward international healthcare protocols presage for the implementation of our own Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act?

ldquo;forevermore




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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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The Threat of Impact

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I’m delighted by the news about the Benghazi memos. It seems that the CIA, the State Department, and the White House subjected those brief statements to more than a dozen revisions. Thank God — someone has finally learned the secret of good writing: revise, revise, revise.

That was sarcasm, what I just said.

But seriously, folks: people can do too much revising. In the words of Alexander Pope, “There’s a happiness, as well as care.” President Obama was not in the happiest vein when, on May 16, he entertained a question about when the White House found out about the persecution of rightwing groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He delivered an answer that probably took a battalion of White House counselors all night to produce: “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. [Inspector General’s] report before the I.G. report had been leaked through the press."So he didn’t know about the report? I assume, from this answer, that he knew about the thing. After all, Republicans had been complaining about it for years.

Anyway, this is more good news for Word Watch. If the president and his friends keep making statements like that, there’s going to be a lot more hilarity ahead. I just wish that Steven Miller, interim grand sachem of the IRS, had stayed in office a bit longer. Seldom have petulance and stupidity been so lovingly joined as they were in his congressional testimony. If Miller speaks, I will listen.

But Word Watch itself can bear some watching. The last column had issues. . . . And I guess that’s all you need to know.

Just kidding. If I were a government official or a corporate “spokesman” (an odd word — most appropriate, perhaps, for a potentate of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), issues would be the word I’d use to tell you, “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”

Issues, as I mentioned last time, is the universal word. It can mean anything, and nothing. Usually nothing. It’s a word that shuts off debate. Arguments, controversies, contentions, dissensions, everything but a burial at sea — issues will obscure them all.

When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

But let’s move on. Let’s get beyond that . . . I usually don’t respond to readers who have issues with what I write. I figure that after I’ve had my own say, which is plenty, they deserve to have theirs. And God bless them for noticing what I say. But Paul Bartlett was kind enough to respond at length to the last version of this column, and to respond in a way that strongly invites my own response http://libertyunbound.com/node/1045. He picks up on the fact that I condoned the use of “tweet” but “castigate[d]” the use of “snuck.” So, he asks,

Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.

Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?

Controversial words! Thanks, Paul.

Sure, language changes. So does the weather, but I’d rather have a cloudless sky and 70 degrees Fahrenheit than a blizzard bearing down on me. And the fact that Chaucer is dead (he died in 1400, which is helpful in remembering what’s what in literary history) doesn’t signify. Vice President Biden is alive — do you want to talk like him? As opposed to John Dryden (who died in 1700)? Or Oscar Wilde (1900)? You see what I mean.

But those are easy examples. Chaucer, Dryden, and Wilde were among the greatest wits who ever graced our language; the current vice president is a mere buffoon. When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

One consideration is the connotations of a word. If you want to sound like a backwoods character, sure, use “snuck,” because that’s its ethos and connotation, the bowl in which it swam (not swum) until quite recently. It’s never really left that bowl. It can’t leave, because whenever it tries to do so, it blunders into “sneaked,” which means the same thing, except that it’s associated with a more educated group of speakers and listeners. “Sneaked” is not arcane; it’s not like “sware” as the past tense of “swore,” or “bare” as the past tense of “bear.” But it was universally employed in formal writing and speaking until approximately 2008. There is no reason to replace it.

“Impact” is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction.

Thomas Jefferson, no mean judge of words, said that “necessity obliges us [Americans] to neologize.” He also said, “Certainly so great [and] growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

Tell me, what variety of climates, of productions, or of arts, what new circumstances impel us to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked”? Or “impact,” instead of all the things that would be better in its place?

And that is another consideration — not just the existence of a traditional word with established and appropriate connotations, but the existence of a variety of words that are obliterated by some new and brutal imposition.

Your boss sends you a memo. It says that your company is being impacted by something. It could be anything: the annual test of the fire alarm, the arrival of federal investigators, the news of China’s ability to market a 50-dollar widget for 50 cents (notice: I said “market,” not “sell”; “sell” is the older verb, but it has slightly different connotations). The “impact”could be serious or trivial. So why the hell doesn’t he say what he thinks it is?

Impact connotes violence. It’s a word appropriate to the sad results of a sudden lane change, or the landing of an asteroid on downtown Dayton. But here is a partial list of words for which impacted is regularly forced to substitute:

  • affected
  • influenced
  • attracted
  • allured
  • motivated
  • inspired
  • helped
  • hindered
  • shaped
  • ruined
  • devastated
  • destroyed

Impacted covers and obscures the individual meanings of all those words, and more. Often it’s intended to do so, by people who don’t want to specify their meanings, by people who have contempt for their readers’ intelligence or curiosity. But when that’s not the intention, impacted still prevents your audience from understanding what you mean to say — if you mean to say anything, instead of simply emitting some syllables that will relieve you of thought. Like issues, impact is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction. As such, it is to be rigorously opposed and mercilessly eradicated by all people friendly to language in its true and vital forms.

So much for pseudo- and degenerate neology. Unfortunately, I have other business left over from the preceding Word Watch — the peculiar affairs of the very peculiar Tsarnaev family, and what is turning out to be the very peculiar business of reporting on them.

Plenty of stuff has now appeared about how the elder of the Boston bombers was shellshocked (victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome) because of whatever went on in Chechnya (a place where, by the way, neither of the brothers ever lived), so naturally he had to become anti-American(!) and start blowing people up at the Boston Marathon. Not the Moscow Marathon, mind you, although you might have expected that, given the scunner that Chechens have against Russians. No, it was the Boston Marathon — as if anyone in Boston gave a damn about Chechnya. But I guess that’s where victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome flock, from all over the world — to Boston. They don’t stop on the way, in some Islamic country. No. They’re like all the other victims of American imperialism: they seek shelter in America. I heard an expert on the psychology of people under stress refer to the younger bomber as “this beautiful young man.” I’m not sure he’s as cute as all that, but so what? And this was on Fox News, the world headquarters of patriotic American anti-terrorism.

But let’s get to the intellectual and religious meat of this subject. On April 28 I found online an AP report on the mother of the Boston bombers. http://news.yahoo.com/mother-bomb-suspects-found-deeper-spirituality-224317582.htmlThe title attracted my curiosity: “Mother of bomb suspects found deeper spirituality.” Really! I thought. Is this the same woman, the woman who goes on television, spewing hysterical accusations against the United States? Indeed it was. But what was the evidence of this deeper spirituality, of its “finding,” and of its interesting effects? Was it a new conception of the cosmos, such as the Buddha attained at his moment of enlightenment? Was it a recovery of the Sufis’ bliss? Of the ethical vision of Muhammed? Was it something like St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? Or Sojourner Truth’s responsiveness to the call of God? Or the nobility of Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man"?

Interest increases when one recalls that “deeper” is a comparative term. This spiritual discovery — it was deeper than something else. Deeper than what? Deeper than the spiritualities just mentioned? Doubtful. Then perhaps it was deeper than the subject’s former spirituality? So what was that?

Well, forget it. It was nothing but a bunch of syllables in a press report. (And, you may ask, why is that any different from anything else the AP hands out?) It seems that Mrs. Tsarnaev was just a woman who “went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that — many followers of Martin Luther King were people of humble occupations, though of deep religious conviction, when they risked their lives and livelihoods in his campaign for a moral ideal. But in the case of Mrs. Tsarnaev, that was it. That was all. There wasn’t any more. That was the end. Period. You now know everything. There was no spirituality whatever in Mrs. Tsarnaev’s past.

Well, all right, never mind the comparative. At some point, she was hit by a deeper spirituality. You might say it impacted her. And what was that point? According to the article, it was the point at which she “began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.” Again, that’s it. That’s the deeper spirituality. She changed her clothes and started babbling nonsense.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tsarnaev says she found a deeper spirituality: “Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She's no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent. ‘It's all lies and hypocrisy,’ she told The Associated Press in Dagestan. ‘I'm sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children.’”

St. Francis couldn’t have said it better.

As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. T can say anything she wants. There are plenty of crazy people in this world, and several of them on my street at any given moment. But for a news organization to project this particular crazy person’s claims as valid — that’s another matter. It’s not just a question of fact; it’s a question of values. Calling her ideas “spiritual,” because she asserts they are, suggests an attitude toward spirituality that is roughly equivalent to a rural pastor’s concept of sex among the ancient Romans — it’s just as ignorant, only more contemptuous about the topic under discussion.

And worse, at least from a journalistic point of view — ignorant and contemptuous about the audience. If you publish a news report in which you examine the philosophical thought of Mickey Mouse and speculate about how he would have married Minnie, years ago, if he hadn’t been a victim of Hollywood’s traumatic impact on young stars, you are showing contempt for your audience. But even that would show less contempt than publicizing the notion of Mrs. Tsarnaev’s spirituality, or entertaining the idea that terrorism comes from stress, or — to recall another recent instance — taking seriously the claim that when the Internal Revenue Service selected hundreds of nonprofit orgs for administrative torture because their names included such terms as “Patriot” and “Tea Party,” this was simply a rogue, low-level, unauthorized training experiment and attempt at efficiency.

We meet this on every side: the assumption that we can be fooled. Political discourse is routinely motivated by that assumption. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Just try to have your computer fixed. Eventually, the fixers will call you with incomprehensible news about what went wrong and what they need to do about it, something that is invariably expensive, inconvenient, and mystifying. If you ask what they mean by the terms they use, they become offended. If you ask for an explanation, they tell you, “I just gave you one.”

But keep asking questions. Keep track of how long it takes the people on the phone to say they need to talk to their Chief Technician and get back to you. Then keep track of how many questions you need to ask the Chief Technician before he or she reveals a need to read the diagnostics. (What? Is this the Mayo Clinic?) “Oh,” you say, “you haven’t had a chance to read them yet?” Now observe the reluctance with which your collocutor responds. There was nothing behind that curtain of words.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value. This isn’t true of my carpenter, who tells me that he “just likes to fix stuff.” But it’s true of the millions who are employed to communicate. Some are hired by government, others by private organizations that seem, almost inevitably, to ape the style of government. But these millions can’t actually communicate much of anything, because they don’t know anything, and they assume that everybody else is as dumb as they are. Dumb — or dumber.




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Opening Gambit

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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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Nude No More

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The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it will begin removing the full-body X-ray scanners that have been in use at US airports for the past three years. It's about time. Europe outlawed them long ago for being too invasive. Overzealous TSA guards have used them as an excuse to get vicious with travelers who simply want to get to their planes on time, without having to provide a nudie show for the screeners hidden away in a darkened room somewhere with their hands on who-knows-what. I'm all for security when I travel, but these scanners have done little to thwart terrorism.

I love how the TSA announcement blames the decision on business instead of owning up to the fact that the things don't work and aren't necessary. Here's their official reason: "The maker of the scanner failed to meet a deadline for new software." Ha! It's never the government's fault.




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Killing bin Laden

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It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site of a boisterous springtime New Year’s Eve party, filled with people whooping, cheering, and singing American anthems. My daughter and her husband were among them. Osama bin Laden was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gripping film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. It is surprisingly apolitical, presenting the facts of the story in an evenhanded way. The film is told through the perspective of the young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), identified only as "Maya," who tenaciously investigated a particular lead until she discovered convincing evidence of where bin Laden was living — not in isolated wilderness caves, as we had been led to believe, but in a well-protected compound in the middle of a large city.

That "particular lead" was uncovered through "enhanced interrogation," a sanitized phrase for what amounts to little less than torture. As the film opens, Dan (Jason Clark), an American "intelligence officer," is using severe tactics to elicit the date, time, and location of an expected terrorist attack from a detainee (Reda Kateb). The detainee's face is badly bruised, and he is clearly in distress. Over the next few days he is chained, threatened, thrown around, waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and enclosed in a tiny box. As he resists, Dan tells him, "When you lie, I have to hurt you." Dan appears to enjoy his work.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent? I understand the argument that "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and music torture instill fear without causing actual injury; I recognize that breaking bones and cutting off fingers is worse. If there can be such a thing as "humane torture," the American intelligence community seems to have discovered it. Nevertheless, it still feels wrong, and degrading to the Americans who inflict it.

The next scene brings a different perspective. A group of al Qaeda terrorists opens fire on dozens of non-Muslims and Americans in a public mall, gunning them down mercilessly. Suddenly, getting that vital information from the detainee seems worth any cost in human dignity. Director Kathryn Bigelow provides many similar juxtapositions in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of finding the moral high ground, let alone maintaining it.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent?

Maya is convinced that someone named Abu Ahmed knows where bin Laden is hiding, based on information gleaned from several detainees who have mentioned this name. Others, however, believe that Ahmed is dead and the lead is a dead end. Much of the film focuses on Maya's indefatigable hunt for this mysterious Abu Ahmed, and her determination to continue with the lead even after her superiors have told her to move on.

Although Zero Dark Thirty is set in a war zone and culminates in an intense 25-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound, this is not a traditional war or spy movie. It is not about big burly men carrying big burly weapons, although there are plenty of big burly men in the cast. But in this film the military and the intelligence community play supporting roles. It is really Maya's story, and in a way it is Bigelow's story too — Maya is a woman working in what is traditionally a man's world, and she manages to pull off the coup of the century. (Bigelow was the first woman to earn an Oscar as Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker [2008], beating out the front runner Avatar, which was directed by her former husband, superstar James Cameron.) Maya is amazingly young, too, to have this much grit and authority. Recruited by the CIA just out of high school, she is in her twenties as she tracks down her lead.

The film ends with success — the Mountie gets her man — but it does not end with triumph. Too many people have been killed, and too much hatred continues to exist, to suggest that the killing of bin Laden was much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is a powerful film, one that will keep you thinking and talking for a long time. It is likely to garner many well-deserved nominations as this awards season heats up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Annapurna Pictures, 2012, 157 minutes.



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