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Various bits of current news that either didn't make the mainstream press or that I thought didn't get enough attention.

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In-Depth Reports

The "War Against Terror"

  Location # Dead
  World Trade Center,
  New York City
(conf.) 2,716
(est.) 3,000
  The Pentagon,
  Washington D.C.
  Aboard UAL Flight #93,
  Rural Pennsylvania

October 23, 2008

This is my first comment on political issues in a couple of years, and I want to draw your attention to recent statements by two great Americans: General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, and Orson Scott Card, science fiction and fantasy writer. Ironically, one of them is voting for Barack Obama although he's Republican, and the other is voting for McCain although he's a Democrat. (OB Note: I'm an old-time McCainiac, have been since before Bill Clinton left office.) They both had things to say that matter regardless of who you're voting for, however, things that any thoughtful and honest person should pay attention to and take into consideration.

Most Americans are aware of the gist of what General Powell said, but most probably did not pay attention to the details, and the details of his statement are what make it worthy of our attention. In it, General Powell gives, not just his endorsement, but his reasons for that endorsement. The reasons matter; without them, an endorsement is just another campaign sign with the names of one set of candidates posted on someone's front lawn.

"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] party say -- and it is permitted to be said --, such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no: that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists."

This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

           -- Gen. Colin Powell, Former U.S. Secretary of State
              October 19, 2008

Specifically, I wanted to express my agreement with and complete approval of what General Powell said about the accusations that Barack Obama is Muslim. These accusations are nonsense, of course. Senator Obama converted to Christianity as a young adult and was an active member of his now-former church for over 20 years. But the accusations are also something much worse than nonsense: they're an expression of religious bigotry and fear of a type that has no place in American public discourse or politics.

Unless there were reason to believe that Barack Obama has been lying for his entire adult life about his actual religious beliefs, his religion is irrelevant to his fitness to be president. There is no such reason. His having been abandoned at two years of age by a (non-practicing) Muslim father and partly raised by a (non-practicing) Muslim stepfather is no reason to doubt his Christianity. I was raised by agnostic parents, one of whom was hostile to any organized religion when I was a child. I am also a convert to Christianity. I reject the very idea that an adult conversion is somehow a suspicious thing or reason to doubt the sincerity of someone's religious beliefs!

What if, instead of Barack Obama, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota had won the Democratic nomination? Would his being Muslim make his love for this country and his commitment to its good somehow doubtful? No. I probably would not vote for Rep. Ellison; our political views differ in too many ways. But there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that he is a loyal and committed American. If anything, his remaining committed to this country in spite of the open bigotry shown by some Americans against anyone who is Muslim speaks very well of his character.

General Powell's statements overall were unusually thoughtful and unusually articulate. They reminded me of things I heard from my mother's father, Captain Reed ("Brick") T. Roberts, a career naval officer and WW II veteran who had a second distinguished career as an educator. While I came to a different decision on whom to vote for as president, I agree with at least 90% of what Gen. Powell said and almost 100% with his criticisms of the direction taken by the Republican party in the last few years.

"This housing crisis didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a vague emanation of the evil Bush administration.

It was a direct result of the political decision, back in the late 1990s, to loosen the rules of lending so that home loans would be more accessible to poor people. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were authorized to approve risky loans.

What is a risky loan? It's a loan that the recipient is likely not to be able to repay.

The goal of this rule change was to help the poor which especially would help members of minority groups. But how does it help these people to give them a loan that they can't repay? They get into a house, yes, but when they can't make the payments, they lose the house along with their credit rating.

They end up worse off than before. "

           -- Orson Scott Card, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer
              October 23, 2008

Most Americans probably are not aware of what Orson Scott Card said in the statement published today in one of his church's magazines. If Drudge hadn't linked to it, I probably would not have heard of it for a week or two, although I regularly check Card's own web site and probably would have seen it mentioned there.

We voters need to read what Card wrote, regardless of who we support for president. In his statements, he points out that the news media in this country is not reporting critical facts about the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and subsequent severe economic downturn. He asserts that they are failing to report these facts because the facts cast their preferred presidential candidate and political party in a poor light. He concludes that most journalists in this country are functioning as the public relations wing of the Democratic party instead of as journalists.

If Karl Rove or Mary Matalin had said these things, they might have been telling the truth, but I would not be particularly impressed. These facts support their beliefs and ideologies. I frankly doubt that either one would be as forthright if the facts cast their candidates and their party in a bad light.

Card, however, is a Democrat and a political liberal whose economic views I consider to border on socialism. As best I know he would not find that description inaccurate or insulting. Unlike the vast majority of people who hold strong political opinions, however, Card also believes that telling the truth is more important than upholding his opinions or ideologies.

Anybody who cares about the facts and the truth needs to look for people who care more about the truth than about their opinions, and then needs to listen to what they say. They're your friends. They're on your side, even when they disagree with you. Character really does matter, and Card has it in spades.

In the midst of the mudslinging and other idiocy that pervades the political process and the airwaves at this stage in any U.S. presidential election, it is also refreshing to hear or read straight talk and common sense. Here, without further comment, are links to the full text of what both these men had to say that caught my attention:

Now, perhaps Gen. Powell could respond to what Card said, and perhaps Card could tell us why he is voting for McCain. And we should listen to both of them on those subjects as well; they might have something to say that we need to hear. That's the annoying part of valuing the truth over ideology; you have to be open to hearing the stuff you didn't want to hear as well as the stuff you did.

November 9, 2006

Well, the election is over, and it looks like we booted a bunch of politicians from office. I'm not sure they were all the right ones, or that we replaced them with anything better, but my fingers are crossed and I'm praying that this will work.

Somebody over on the private news server at SFFNet posted a quote from Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and the third president of my country, that I think we all need to see. Talk about bringing some perspective to the battle of maintaining civil and human rights during war.... It's easy to get frustrated and depressed when you look at how things are, and loose sight of how far we've come and how often this battle has had to be fought in the past.

"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the mean time we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war & long oppressions of enormous public debt. ... If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, & then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are the stake."

           -- Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President, 1801-1809
              speaking about the "Alien & Sedition Acts",
              June 4, 1798

Among the American founding fathers, it wasn't just Jefferson who understood the value and importance of what we now view as the basic freedoms in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Benjamin Franklin did not like Jefferson very much by all accounts, but largely agreed with him on civil and human rights. Ditto John Adams and his brother, Samuel Adams (who isn't just a good microbrew beer, folks), who didn't like Jefferson much but largely agreed with him about civil and human rights. I often think that, if a novelist wrote a book set in a world that had as many utterly brilliant visionaries all cooperating to form a new society as we had during the American revolution, nobody would believe it. It's too improbable.

Sometimes I'm still proud to be American. This is one of those times.

November 2, 2006

It's now early November, 2006, over five years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. I just reread what I wrote below. I still don't see any reason to change it, but I also have some things to add.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure anything I add will express my opinions as well or succinctly as what Philip Bobbitt said to Mathew D'Ancona, columnist in "The Spectator", quoted below.

I don't always agree with Philip Bobbitt, although I do in this case. I'm not really comfortable with the phrase, "War On Terror," as he is. I think that what we're dealing with in Al Qaeda and other religiously and ideologically driven terrorist organizations is different enough from the classic idea of war that we need a new word for it. But, new word or not, he is RIGHT when he asserts that we are loosing battles and in danger of loosing the war because our civilian leadership has shown an increasing contempt for the law -- both international law and the laws and constitution of this country. Of course, no government based on popular consent and the rule of law can fight a war without running up against the limitations of both. Popular consent tends to waver with the news from the battlefront, and that is inevitably often grim news. The rule of law inevitably limits those prosecuting a war, forbidding actions that carry a risk of injuring or killing too many innocent people when short-term military goals would benefit from bending (or breaking) the rules.

You must bring the law into the closest possible coordination with strategy, and what this administration has done (and I support the war in Iraq), what they have done is heartbreaking, because they have steadily removed the greatest source of their power, which was the rule of the law. You may think of Abu Ghraib as a battle and we lost. Guantanamo is a battle that we have lost. It will cost us lives, it will cost us political influence, and above all it may cost us, our strategic objectives. Not simply by ignoring it but by having a studied contempt of the law, and not just international law, which needs desperately to be reformed, but for even our domestic laws. The administration has kicked away what should have been its strongest prop. It baffles me. And it angers me.

           -- Philip C. Bobbit, Ph.D.,
             The Spectator, May, 2006

The other side of the coin is that the same government looses legitimacy when it violates its own laws. If it violates its own laws frequently and badly enough, the system of law ceases to work, and the foundations of a free and democratic society are destroyed.

Fortunately, it isn't necessary to sacrifice the foundations of this country's legitimacy to fight terrorism and terrorists, whether you call it a war or something else. Abu Graib was horrible and sickening, and it would never have happened if the current administration hadn't fostered an atmosphere of "don't ask, don't tell" about torture, and if a few military officers had simply done their jobs and supervised the rank-and-file to ensure that they treated their prisoners properly. From where I sit, it looks like U.S. soldiers of most ranks and in most places are desperately trying to follow the law and minimize civilian casualties, however. It's their political leadership that is busily engaged in pushing the rules to their limits and beyond (insisting waterboarding isn't torture, that kind of nonsense) and thereby weakening and cheapening what this country is all about in the first place.

In case you hadn't guessed, I'm not happy with the current administration. <wry grin> I'm a dyed-in-the-wool political independent who has never been a member of any political party, nor registered to vote as one. I vote issues and candidates, not political parties. Candidates in Congress who have looked the other way while the President was allowing "extraordinary renditions" (what a contemptible euphemism for outsourcing torture) and "aggressive interrogation (another contemptible euphemism for abuse that often crossed the line into torture), or who -- worse yet -- voted to let this outrageous conduct continue, deserve to be booted from their positions and sent packing. The majority of those candidates are Republican this time around.

A word of caution, however -- it isn't as simple as voting against Republicans and for Democrats. A number of Republicans, including but not limited to Senator John McCain of Arizona, raised the alarm as soon as they realized what was happening. And, unfortunately, a number of Democrats are deeply implicated in allowing this situation to develop. So do your homework, please, and then on next Tuesday, vote your conscience. You can do it. ;)

July 2005

It's mid-July, 2005, just under four years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. I just reread what I wrote below. I don't see any reason to change it, so let it stand.

I do have some things to add, however. To the surprise of nobody who knows me, I've been deeply concerned about many actions of the U.S. Congress, and (even more) the Bush Administration, that I feel compromise or outright violate the Constitution, multi-lateral human rights treaties that the U.S. has signed, and domestic civil liberties laws. Some of those activities have taken place outside of the United States, some inside the country. Those concerns led to my voting against George W. Bush for president in the 2004 election because I could not vote for an administration I feel was accepting, if not encouraging, torture and other unconscionable acts in my name.

Outside this country, my greatest concerns are abuses at U.S.-run prisons and internment camps, and an apparent policy of deporting suspected terrorists to countries that allow torture and mistreatment during interrogation, a practice called extraordinary rendition by the current U.S. administration. See the Human Rights Watch Report to the Canadian Commission of Inquiry for a detailed analysis this practice and on one specific case in which it was used. Inside this country, my greatest concerns are widespread monitoring of political opponents of the current administration, and scrutiny of Muslim citizens and residents that often leads to unfair and unjust treatment of innocent people.

I have reservations about the Iraq war, but can't condemn it outright. If (and this is a fairly large if at the moment) the administration did not suppress credible evidence against there being weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq in 2002, then I feel that the original decision to invade was justified. Saddam Hussein had built and used WMDs in the past; a large body of independent evidence confirms that. While this administration came late to the table in its support for human rights <wry grin>, Hussein's record of atrocities against his own people and the laws of war was also firmly established.

It would have been nice if the adminstration had not largely ignored the realistic appraisal it got from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on what it would take to win that war. :/ (For those unaware of Powell's background and record, he is a retired General and Viet Nam veteran who was in charge of U.S. military operations in Kuwait and Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.) I also wish the administration would give up its overly optimistic public pronouncements about the progress of the war. I am unsure whether that overly optimistic tone is due to bad public relations decisions and a failure to understand what the U.S. public needs to hear, or (much worse) the administration actually believes the war is going as well as its public statements imply.

However, my overall belief is that the U.S. had and has no choice but to pursue and war against Al Qaeda and its allies wherever they may be. The continued string of atrocities (atrocities such as the bombing in Bali in 2003, in Madrid in 2004, and in London in 2005) Al Qaeda and its allies have committed against non-military targets and with the clear aim of killing as many people as possible make it clear that there's no negotiating and no compromise with this particular enemy. And, unfortunately, Al Qaeda and its allies are in Iraq and responsible for much of the violence there. Even if the U.S. should not have gone (a point I'm not convinced of), I don't believe we have the right to leave now, before we deal with the enemies we attracted.

6With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

           -- Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

I also don't believe we will win the war against Al Qaeda and its allies (forget the "War Against Terror" euphemism; that isn't what is going on) unless we realize that the battlefield for this particular war is hearts and minds, not Afghanistan or Iraq or any other country. Al Qaeda is powerful because its message is attracting (mostly young) Muslims. We need to understand why they find Al Qaeda's message compelling, and (even more) why many other Muslims who do not support or approve of Al Qaeda are nonetheless ambivalent instead of on our side because they also believe that the U.S. and the western world are their enemies.

Al Qaeda hates what the western world holds as its values, not just how it puts them into practice. We aren't going to win them over and shouldn't try; we merely should understand them so that we know what we're dealing with. Most Muslims, however, do not hate what we value. Justice and peace are not western traditions, Jewish traditions, or Christian traditions only; they're Islamic values that have found expression in many parts of the Islamic world. Most Americans believe that this country is about providing a peaceful and just society for its citizens; Muslims want that too and they do not mean something essentially different by those words than the west does.

And there's the problem. We allow our businesses and, to some extent, our governments to accept and condone injustices that are absolutely forbidden inside our borders. Sure, we say that we're just dealing with these governments "realistically", but what that has meant is that we do business with tyrants who steal from and abuse their own citizens, and thereby profit from their theft. (Cheap oil, anyone?) We maintain the fiction that the leaders of most Muslim-majority countries were chosen by and represent the wishes of their people, although that is not the case and we know it. So do Muslims living in those countries.

This is equally true of our attitudes towards business interests in these countries. We maintain the fiction that the businessmen in countries run by tyrants who take bribes and use force (often military force) to keep workers from demanding a just wage and decent working conditions are the equals of businessment working in countries that pay a fair wage and protect their citizens, although we know better. We give these businesses access to our system of capitalism and free entreprise, although they have not earned that access because they do not play by the same rules. We treat what are essentially fences selling stolen goods as honest businessmen, and we know it. So do Muslims living in those countries.

Muslims aren't stupid. They know a double standard when they see it. They don't like hypocricy, and they see it from western governments and western business. If we're honest with ourselves, I think we'll see their point.

I'm not optimistic about this happening, though. The U.S. and the western world are no better than human beings anywhere at facing their own faults and accepting that they might have given legitimate offense to others. (The Islamic world has shown no great talent at nor interest in facing its faults, either.) Granted, no amount of offense justifies what Al Qaeda does or is, but it surely helps explain why Al Qaeda gained a hearing from people that otherwise would have rejected it and everything it stood for. If we use Al Qaeda's fundamental ethical and moral bankruptcy as an excuse to avoid some soul-searching, I don't think we can win this particular struggle.

January 2002

It's now mid-January, 2002, nearly four months since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington changed my world and that of everyone in my country, the United States. While I have always been aware that safety, security, and peace are relatively uncommon things in most places and at most times in human history, these attacks brought it home. The attacks also reminded me that there are those so full of hate and so sure of their own righteousness that they will kill anyone whom they believe to be in their way, or who inconveniences them.

The problem with a criticism of American foreign policy is that it presumes that there is an American foreign policy, and there isn't....

           -- P. J. O'Rourke, The Telegraph, Sunday, October 7, 2001

Shortly after the attacks, I wrote that I felt the United States had to hunt down and stop the perpetrators, even though that meant going to war in a country most of whose citizens were innocent of these attacks and (as far as I knew) of any bad intentions towards the United States or the people of any other country. I was convinced that the terrorists responsible for the attacks on September 11 were not going to stop there, would not negotiate, and were not restrained by even the most fundamental moral principles. I believed they were dangerous -- to the United States and to anyone else that got in their way.

I also said that, regardless of whether the Taleban were themselves guilty of terrorism, or were merely supporting the terrorists through misplaced loyalty and misunderstanding of the situation, we had to go after them too. Their motives mattered in determining what their actual guilt was, but judging their guilt was not America's concern. America's concern was to put a stop to their support of terrorists, regardless of their reasons for supporting them.

It would have been nice to be wrong about all this, but the events of the last couple of months, and the behavior of the Taleban and especially the Al Qaeda fighters, have convinced me that I wasn't. The suicide attacks committed by Taleban fighters after they surrendered in northern Afghanistan show that at least a significant number of them will lie, violate the conventions of war, and commit any crime to hurt and kill those who oppose them, regardless of the effect on uninvolved and innocent people.

They won't stop. We can't negotiate with them because they do not keep their word. They must be stopped, and that probably can't be done without killing at least a significant number of them.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

           -- Romans 12:19 (RSV)

I wish it had been possible for us not to go to war, though. Human beings who try to take vengeance for evil done to them by other human beings inevitably screw things up, and I doubt that many people in the United States (including me) were free of a desire for vengeance against those despicable murderers. But human beings are not omniscient -- unlike God, we don't know, and cannot know, what was in the hearts of our enemies when they committed their evil acts. (Chances are that they don't know themselves -- how many people really know what's going on in their heart of hearts?)

In the Bible God reserves vengeance to Himself. As a Christian, I accept that. Perhaps more to the point, I also can see the wisdom of this from a purely human standpoint. Most human beings, including myself, don't think things through when we're angry. A lot of generations-long conflicts and wars around the world and throughout history have resulted from relatively minor matters that escalated because the people involved assumed the worst about the other side's motives and intentions, and did not think things through or consider other possiblities.

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

           -- Psalm 81:3-4 (Septuagint)

The reaction of the people in Afghanistan to the defeat and expulsion of the Taleban was telling, and heartwarming. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when we went to war over there. I should have had greater faith in my fellow human beings; cultures differ, but the differences are not so great that the people of any country would approve of or like the Taleban. Dancing in the streets....

And make no mistake about it -- most Americans were rejoicing along with the people of Afghanistan. They aren't our enemies; they never were our enemies. It is wonderful that going after the terrorists who attacked America resulted in freeing another country as well, or at least giving them a chance at freedom.

So far, though, it's only a chance. If America wants this war to result in freedom for Afghanistan in the long run, we had better focus, not on vengeance, but on working towards helping the Afghan people form a stable, strong, and fair government. Such a government will benefit all the innocent people harmed by the terrorists, not just ourselves, by removing the conditions that let the terrorists grow strong in Afghanistan.

That sort of outcome is going to require a great deal of patience, many resources, and probably the lives of yet more American soldiers and civilians, unlike simply slapping on sanctions and bombing. While I don't think America, and the United Nations, intended the damage they've done to innocent civilians and civilization itself in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) the former Yugoslavia, the results speak for themselves. Sanctions and mass bombing used against a dictatorship end up killing innocent civilians, and largely leave the dictators unscathed.

People living under a dictatorship are largely powerless. Treating them as if they can control the actions of their tyrants, punishing them, and trying to force them to revolt against their oppressors through sanctions and bombing is wrong. It also doesn't work.

America is going to continue to hunt down the members of Al Qaeda, and should. In doing so, however, we must not act with the same disregard for innocent civilians that they did, or we will become like them. Respect for non-combatants is at the base of civilization -- it's largely what separates soldiers from murderers.

...after the Oklahoma City bombing, funny thing, I don't remember ANYBODY calling for racial profiling of white guys from the midwest....

           -- Mitch Wagner (journalist, pundit)

While this is going on, we also need to keep an eye on things at home. I'm relieved and grateful that the U.S. President has made public, repeated statements supporting American Muslims, most of whom have no more sympathy with terrorism than any non-Muslim American does. Unfortunately, there are too many in my country who are racist or religious bigots, and are taking the terrorist attack as an excuse to attack their Muslim or dark-skinned neighbors.

Worse, there are calls for racial and religious profiling, and attempts to legalize indefinite detention of non-citizens on suspicion of wrongdoing. Both racial profiling and indefinite detention without charge violate the fundamentals of our system of government and society. They're also dangerous precedents for a society built on the principles of individual freedom and individual responsibility.

"Once people have been subjected to such thoroughgoing government surveillance, all relations between the government and the public are transformed. Whether the rulers be revolutionary despots or democratically elected officials, every citizen knows that 'they' know all about him and his affairs, and hence no one dares to step out of line. In such a situation, the sociopolitical system will gravitate ineluctably toward totalitarianism."

           -- Robert Higgs, editor
              The Independent Review

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent comments supporting indefinite detention of non-citizens, questioning of individuals solely because of their race or religion, and accusing those who oppose these actions of offering aid and comfort to terrorists and terrorism, were disgraceful. I do not doubt Mr. Ashcroft's intentions are to save lives, but he appears to have forgotten that, in Benajmin Franklin's words, "Those who sacrifice liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Mr. Ashcroft also appears to have forgotten that dissent is not treason. I find that more than a little worrying in this country's chief law enforcement officer.

Below are some resources for those trying to keep up with the news, understand what happened, figure out what they, and we, should do about it, or just gain perspective. I didn't include the obvious links -- I figure you can find the White House and FBI web sites without my help. :) There are many large web sites with information about terrorism, Islam, and other issues of interest, and I have not attempted to include links to them. What I put below are links to specific articles or pages I felt you might enjoy or learn from and might not otherwise find.

Worth Thinking About....

Everything you've learned in school as "obvious" becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe.... There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.

           -- R. Buckminster Fuller

A list of various articles about all sorts of subjects that I thought were worth sharing.

Other News Sources....

This stuff maybe not what you usually think of as news....

Last modified on Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 8:40 AM PDT.