Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Who is a terrorist?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I’ve been reading a bunch of interesting takes on the question of whether Joe Stack (the guy who flew the plane into the IRS building in Texas) is a “terrorist” and whether the word has any meaning at all.

I think there’s a lot of truth in Glenn Greenwald’s argument that as actually used by the American media, the word has become racialized, and essentially means “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”   But I think the more interesting question is whether it is possible to set that definition aside and draw a line someplace that makes sense.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any question that the 9/11 perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh, the IRA bombers of the 1980s,  and the Beslan murderers all qualify as terrorists.

On the “just nuts” side of the fence, I’d clearly put Amy Bishop and the Columbine murderers.  In both cases, the attacks were aimed at people known to the killers, and were not politically motivated.

The government was pretty quick in the case of both Nidal Hassan (the Ft Hood murderer) and Joe Stack to reassure the public that these were “not terrorist acts,” by which I think they mean “were not linked to a larger network of terrorists.”  By contrast, Najibullah Zazi, who just pled guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the New York City subways, is considered a terrorist, because he was recruited and trained by al-Qaida.  I’m not sure I buy that distinction — which would put McVeigh on the “not terrorist” side — but at least it makes some sense and isn’t purely racial.

I think I’m inclined to say if you’re killing people — especially civilians — you don’t know, and are politically motivated, I’m ok calling you a terrorist, even if you’re acting entirely alone.  That would make Stack and the Unabomber terrorists.  I don’t know enough about Hassan’s motivation or Bruce Ivins’ (the alleged anthrax killer) to say with any confidence which side they’re on.

That said, I sort of agree with Jill in thinking that some actions — flying an airplane into a building, bombing a public building or public transportation — are maybe inherently terrorist, regardless of your motivation or whether you’re part of a network.  But my examples (Beslan on one side, Columbine on the other) suggest that other things , eg. shooting up a bunch of kids at school — are not.

What do you think?  Does the distinction matter?

Not W

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Does anyone really doubt that what Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for is not being George W. Bush?  The US hasn't made a huge amount of progress towards creating peace in the past 9 months, but at least we're no longer driving full speed in the wrong direction.

The interesting question is whether being chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize on a "aspirational" basis will actually make it easier or harder for Obama to accomplish his goals — nuclear disarmament, effective policies on climate change, a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, a US exit from Iraq.  I'm not at all sure — what do you think?

I didn't think Obama's speech was great, but it hit the right general notes — appreciation, recognition that this wasn't for anything he's done yet, a statement that the US can be a leader but the whole world has to be involved.

Tiananmen plus 20

Monday, June 15th, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a great blog post about the iconic image of Tiananmen Square— the unarmed man facing down a line of tanks.  It described four photographers' versions of the same photo, the differences between their angles, and what they went through to get their film out of China, in those days before digital photography.  I remember vividly watching the television coverage of the uprising — my sister was graduating that week, and so I remember getting dressed in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, watching the coverage unfold.

I'm not a basher of the "MSM," but it really does seem like the coverage of the protests in Iran is fundamentally not at the same level.  I think that I have to agree with Megan McArdle (gasp) — this is what happens when you close all your foreign bureaus.  There's still information coming out via tweets and other sources, but I'm having trouble piecing it together into a story, since I have a full-time job and can't spend my day online.  But it does seem like "At least one killed in election protests in Iran"  (which is the Washington Post's current headline) doesn't quite capture the moment of what's going on.

in memoriam

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009


small world

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Did you know that there are horrific wildfires burning in Australia, with several small towns totally consumed?  Did you know that temperatures in Melbourne have been in the 115-range (Fahrenheit) over the past week?

I wouldn't have known either, except that I have an online friend who lives in Melbourne, and her parents live in Marysville, which is one of the towns that has been devastated.  She's been sitting up all night, posting reports. The last she heard, their house was one of the few still standing and the Red Cross reported that they had checked in.

I went looking on the Post and Times websites for more news, and all they're carrying is the AP and Reuters stories, although the Times does have a slideshow of the fires.
On the Australian newspaper's sites, it's the top story of course.

Just makes me think about how many things like this happen every day around the world, and that they don't qualify as news unless they're nearby, or unless we happen to know someone in the middle.  My thoughts and prayers go out tonight to all those who are in danger, or waiting for word from their loved ones, wherever they may be.

Haunted by Mumbai

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

I'm somewhat surprised that there hasn't been more discussion of Mumbai on the blogs that I read.  I guess it's because once you've said "how awful," there's really not that much more to add to the conversation. But I found myself repeatedly borrowing my dad's computer this weekend in order to check whether there was any more news.

I'm not sure why this story got to me so much more than any other horrible attack.  I think the uncertainty of the situation, and the fact that it's still not clear who did it, or why, kept me looking for more information.  And while I've never been to Mumbai, I have been to India, and stayed in another hotel in the Taj chain.

In spite of the early reports that the attackers were targeting Americans and Brits, the overwhelming majority of the victims were Indian.  In some cases, the attackers just fired into crowds, but in other cases (e.g. the chefs at the Taj), they clearly could have le Indians go, and chose not to.  As far as I'm aware, they never made any specific demands.

We were in NYC for the holiday, and took the subway all over the place. And no, I didn't worry about the possible threat against the system, although there were cops everywhere, especially on Thursday morning.  I take the DC metro every day, and I just can't manage to stay worried all the time.

TBR: A Most Wanted Man

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Today's book is A Most Wanted Man, by John LeCarre.  I'm not going to give away the ending, but I don't think it's possible to talk about the book without spoiling it a little bit, so if  that's going to make you crazy, stop reading now.

Like all of LeCarre's books, this is a spy novel, although only one of the main characters is a spy master in the sense of LeCarre's cold war novels.  A young man half-Russian, half-Chechen with a history of imprisonment in Russian and Turkish jails finds his way to Hamburg.  Is he a terrorist?  A humanitarian refuge?  Just an ordinary illegal immigrant?  The novel never shows his point of view, so the reader is as much at a loss as the people who move in his orbit — an idealistic young lawyer, a pragmatic spymaster, a middle aged banker who is not as jaded as he thinks he is.

The characters were interesting, but never quite fully developed.  (The banker is the most fleshed out, and I think is LeCarre's stand-in in the novel.)  What interests LeCarre is the situation, and the philosophical questions: is the leader of a charitable organization where 5 percent of the money is diverted to terrorists entirely bad, or 95 percent good?  Does it matter?  (See today's headlines.)  Does old-fashioned spycraft still have a role to play in world of electronic eavesdropping and bombs on public transportation?

The ending approaches what a teacher of mine used to call a "beer truck ending" — an ending that comes out of nowhere, without connection to what has come before.  But it's not a matter of laziness on LeCarre's part.  He's making a very specific point about the fact that we live in a world where people can get run over by beer trucks in spite of their best laid plans.

WBR: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

I seem to have fallen out of the routine of doing regular weekly book reviews.  I’m going to try to get back into the habit, since they often provoked good discussions, and the deadlines helped me control my bad habit of reading five books at once and not finishing any of them.

This week’s book is The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.  The discussions of this book that I’ve seen mostly treat it as a dancing bear — e.g. they don’t criticize its skill in dancing, because the impressive thing is that it dances at all.  But I don’t think the idea of rendering a serious topic as a comic* is such a radical idea.  So, I’m taking it seriously, and asking whether this is an effective use of the medium.

The first chapter of the book absolutely blew me away.  Telling the stories of the four flights that took off on the morning of September 11, 2001 as four parallel stories playing out horizontally across the page is a very effective move.  I’ve always been a little blurry on the timeline of that morning — I spent it alternating between television and trying to contact people in NYC, and never sorted out what I was seeing live and what was replayed — and this made sense of it.


Unfortunately, the rest of the book didn’t live up to this start.  The main problem is that, while the format is that of a comic, the rest of the book doesn’t conform to Scott McCloud’s definition in Understanding Comics — the sequencing of the images does not contribute to the narrative; they simply illustrate the text.


Even as illustrations, the images don’t always contribute to our understanding. I totally don’t understand why the statement that Bin Ladin drew terrorists from at least 21 countries is followed by half a page of flags, rather than by a map of the world.  And in at least one case, the images confuse the story — a discussion of what went wrong in the evacuation of the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing is accompanied by a picture of the towers on fire, an image from from 2001.

The book includes a forward from the chair and cochair of the 9/11 Commission, praising it strongly.  It is, by all accounts, a fair and honest abridgment of the report.  And I do think that making the key findings of the report accessible to people who would never pick up a 1000 page book is a valuable and important task.  But as a work of graphic narrative, it doesn’t quite work.

* I’m calling it a comic because it’s clearly not a graphic novel and we don’t have a better word in English to use.  And because McCloud calls the whole category comics.

matters outside my area of expertise

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to testify before a Congressional subcommittee.  It was quite exciting, even though the room was more than half empty, and only four of the members of Congress were present.  The whole thing was a little surreal, though, because the witness invited by the Republicans used all his time to argue that the biggest challenge facing American families is high energy costs, and so that we should expand domestic production of oil (in ANWR and offshore).  The ranking member therefore asked each of testifying whether we’d support expanding domestic production.

While those of you read this regularly can probably guess what I personally think of that, my organization certainly doesn’t have a position on the matter.  So when it was my turn, I responded that I would decline to offer a position on an subject outside my area of expertise.  Representative Davis then commented that I had disqualified myself from ever running for Congress, as having opinions on topics that you know nothing about is an absolute prerequisite for members of Congress.

This week has certainly proved the truth of that observation.  I haven’t been blogging about the bailout because I don’t know what the right thing to do is, and I wish I had any confidence that anyone else really does.  I’m afraid that they’re all making it up as they go along, and we’re going to be left holding the bag at the end.

While I recognize the symbolic appeal of limiting executive pay, I think I’d actually rather see the banks commit to opening no fee bank accounts — tied to debt cards, but programmed not to allow overdrafts — for everyone in the country.

This made me laugh.  (No video, safe for work).

Is Christopher Cox the new Michael Brown?

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Until today, I had never head of Christopher Cox.  He’s the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and he seems to be becoming the poster boy for the total failure of the regulatory agencies to do anything to try to prevent the Wall Street meltdown.

Well, that’s not quite fair.  As I learned this afternoon by listening to This American Life, he acted to ban naked short sales (e.g. the practice of selling stocks that you don’t actually own and haven’t borrowed from anyone) but only for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman, and 18 other financial institutions, and only for a limited period this summer. 

I’m not defending the idea that you should be able to sell things that you don’t own (and it’s apparently illegal in any case), but what this says to me is that he wanted to shoot the messenger.  Short sellers aren’t what’s bringing these institutions down.  Bad lending standards, massive leverage, and generally really bad judgment are.

When specifically asked by Senator Shelby (who is not exactly known for being an advocate for government intervention) if he wanted more regulatory authority, he said no.

John McCain says that Cox should be fired.  Bush says that he’s doing a great job, Brownie.  (And as in FEMA, I think the problems go much further than the top leadership…)