The sifting cloth is binding

18 08 2013

I’m not much disappointed in the Obama’s administration’s approach to national security.

I hate it, but I never expected anything else.

I’ve said in the past that presidents are so keen to go overboard on national security issues because a) they can and b) because they’ll be punished if they don’t. I think “a” still holds: presidents have far more leeway in foreign policy and national security matters than they do in domestic policy, not least because Congress is (in part due to fear of “b”) almost always willing to go along with the president when he says certain powers are needed to protect the (sigh) “homeland”.

President Bush almost certainly acted outside of the boundaries established by Congress when his administration authorized the torture of prisoners, but everything else by Bush and Obama? Okey-dokey by them. Detention. Rendition. A FISA court which never says no. Restriction of oversight to, well, oversight rather than overseeing. The gulping down of any and all data transmitted electronically. And who do you think authorized the expenditures for that massive data-storage complex in Utah?

This is not confined to the US: Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained by the British security service for the full 9 hours (which almost never happens) allowed under the horrendously loose provision of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000—passed by Parliament a year before the September 11 attacks.

I’ve also argued in the past that we, the people, basically authorize Congress to authorize the president to grope around in our private lives: we want to be safe, are willing to give power to those who promise to do everything possible to keep us safe, and will punish those who are unwilling to do everything possible. We won’t tolerate failure, I’ve asserted, so will tolerate almost everything else.

I’m no longer so sure that’s true, at least the part that we’ll punish leaders if something bad happens. In fact, I think I was badly, grossly, wrong about that in ways that should have been obvious.

What have been obvious failures of security in the past century or so? William Randolph Hearst trumpeted “Remember the Maine!” and pushed McKinley toward war, but was McKinley himself punished for the alleged Spanish perfidy? Pearl Harbor was attacked on FDR’s watch, and, again, the result was war—but not punishment for the president. LBJ trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led, yep, to war, but not to a diminution of his power.

Carter was considered weak in the wake of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but it’s not at all clear that the determination of weakness was due to the takeover itself rather than the long siege or the lousy US economy. The Marine compound was attacked in Beirut under Reagan and the Black Hawk Down incident occurred under Clinton, but because both presidents chose to cut the US’s losses, it’s not clear to what, if any, extent either man was punished: each was re-elected after these events.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing? Again, Clinton wasn’t punished for that, easily winning a second term the following year.

And, of course, there’s the example of President George W. Bush. The worst attack by foreign terrorists on US soil and not only did he not pay a price, his approval ratings went up.

Now, it is common to talk about a rally-round-the-flag effect in response to national crises, but if this effect is real, then the punishment thesis doesn’t really work: they’re mutually exclusive.

This is just so goddamned obvious I have no excuse for having missed it.

I do think it’s possible that politicians are afraid they’ll be punished by constituents, but the real threat is less from constituents than political opponents, and from worrying that they’ll be called “soft” on terrorism or crime or drugs or whatever. If they don’t have any response to that charge, then they might get tagged as weak—but the weakness (if it is really even a weakness) may be due less to the alleged softness than to the lack of response itself.

Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Bush responded with war; presidents Reagan and Clinton responded with cut-and-run, and President Carter, the one considered weak, didn’t seem to have a clear response. In Carter’s case, that lack of clarity was read as lack of competence.

There’s a lot I’m throwing out, here, and much that I likely should be considering and am not. But on that basic point, that politicians act aggressively so as not to punished for [the consequences of alleged] softness, I’m pretty damned sure I was wrong.

I may be wrong on this, too, but I now think the issue isn’t punishment for an attack or even for lack of aggression following that attack, but lack of clarity  in the response.





Every move you make

1 08 2013

Move along, people, nothing to see here.

Yeaaaah, not so much:

Because who wasn’t reading those stories [about the Boston bombing]? Who wasn’t clicking those links? But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters.

[snip]

What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.

Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

“Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.

They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search.

[snip]

Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he  from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.

They searched the backyard. They walked around the garage, as much as one could walk around a garage strewn with yardworking equipment and various junk. They went back in the house and asked more questions.

[snip]

They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.

45 minutes later, they shook my husband’s hand and left.

[snip]

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.

Hey, if Michele Catalano, her husband and son weren’t doing anything wrong, well, then, no harm, no foul, right?

Right?

~~~

h/t Melissa Jeltsen, HuffPo;  *Update* on the men-in-black, see this piece by Philip Bump of the Atlantic Wire (tip to Sullivan’s Daily Dish on Bump bit)





Hit me with your best shot

24 06 2013

Quick hit:

I think the reason most Americans don’t seem to care about the massive secret agency info-suck is the same reason most Americans don’t seem to care about the massive numbers of us imprisoned for long periods of time in inhumane conditions.

Actually, two, related reasons. One, we don’t think “we” are at any risk of having info used against us/imprisonment and thus don’t feel any sympathy for or solidarity with “them”, who are justly targeted.

Two, we punish legislators who are “soft on crime/terrorism”, not those who are harsh—again, because those legislators are protecting “us” against “them”.

At its worst, this kind of thinking means that any questions of responses to crime/terrorism opens the question-er to intimations that she might not be one of “us”, not to be trusted, and, perhaps, should come under the same type of treatment as “them”.

Damned effective at keeping “us” in line.





Whisper to a scream

6 06 2013

Why aren’t I screaming?

After all, one guy points his camera at the windows of a nearby building and I rant about privacy and presumption; Google wants to equip people with awkward glass and I grouch about techno-coercion; and surveillance drones? Oy, don’t get me started.

So you’d think the revelations of NSA scooping up basic phone information on everyone as well as everything that’s posted online, would cause my ears to blow clean off of my head.

Except, nope.

Not because I don’t think it’s a big deal—I think it’s a very big deal—but because this is all completely unfuckingsurprising.

This isn’t about Obama or Bush, but about a dynamic of presidential politics wherein the executive will grab as much power as he can, especially when the Congress orders him to do so. Some constitutional scholars have speculated that the Obama administration’s actions are unconstitutional, but it’s not at all clear that a Supreme Court which thinks swiping some DNA from every arrested person is okey-dokey by the Fourth Amendment is going to push back against both the president and Congress on NATIONALSECURITY!!!! matters.

Will Congress do anything? Ha. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) might now be ‘extremely troubled’ by revelations over the extent of data-hoovering, but just what the fuck did an author of the execrable PATRIOT Act think would happen when said Act howled ‘AAAARRGGHH! SAAAAVE US!’ to the president.

And We the People? We want to be safe and secure, so if we have to take off our shoes at airports or belts before entering federal buildings or open our bags before getting on trains, then that’s what we’ll do. Oh, sure, we might grumble, but will we press our representatives and our senators to chop back the national security apparatus or reign in the president? We will not.

In fact, if, say, two young men happen to set off two bombs at a city celebration we’ll wonder where was the FBI and the CIA and the Dept of Homeland Security and what more can be done to keep this from ever happening again.

This is overstatement, of course: many of us will say, Hey, this couldn’t have been prevented, there are limits as to what can or should be done. But this shrug (or stoicism, if you prefer) won’t go much further than our living rooms, and those motivated to take their security-skepticism to the halls of Congress might meet a few sympathetic legislators, but not enough to change anything.

Maybe the courts will manage to rouse themselves from the stupor induced by NATIONALSECURITY!!! hypnosis and remember that the Constitution also has something to say about liberty and due process and, oh yes, ‘the right of the people to be secure in their own person‘—but I ain’t counting on it.

This, then, is why I’m not screaming: It would be a waste of perfectly good breath.

~~~

h/t for Joshua Foust link: James Fallows





“If we don’t stand for what we believe in, we fail.”

30 07 2012

Read this, Sean Flynn’s piece on the massacre at Utøya: “Is he coming? Is he? Oh God, I think he is.”

Two of Freddy Lie’s three daughters are on Utøya. Cathrine, who is 17, is there for the second time, and Elisabeth, who is a year younger, is at her first island camp. Sometimes Freddy thinks his girls joined the AUF just so they could go to Utøya, but that’s not completely true: Elisabeth believes she can change the world. She wants to help people, and especially she wants to help animals. Oh, yes, the animals. Very important. She would say, “The fur, it stays on the animals.” She is also a number-one picker, a top recruiter, for the AUF in the østfold southern district.

Freddy’s girls are worried about him. He drives a dump truck in Oslo Monday through Thursday, but he’s added a few Friday shifts lately. Cathrine and Elisabeth don’t know if he’s in the capital when the bomb explodes. They call his mobile. Freddy always answers. If they call me one hundred times, ninety-nine I take it. Freddy is at home, in Halden, a border town south of Oslo, but he’s left his phone in the car. He misses the call. On the island, his daughters start to panic. They are certain he has been blown up. By the time Freddy retrieves the mobile, just before five o’clock, there’s a message from his ex-wife. “Call Elisabeth.”

He dials her number. She is giddy with relief. Through a window in the cafeteria building, Elisabeth sees Cathrine walk by outside. Cathrine points a thumb up so her little sister can see it, but tentatively, more of a silent question than a statement. Elisabeth smiles, gives her sister a thumbs-up in return. Their father is safe in Halden.

Freddy and Elisabeth talk for sixteen minutes and forty seconds. Elisabeth complains about the rain, teases that she might want to come home if the sky keeps emptying on the island. If it’s still raining Saturday, Freddy teases back, he’ll bring her a survival suit, and maybe a pair of goggles, too.

He tells her not to worry. He’s safe.

You know what happens.

The police emergency lines in the North Buskerud district start ringing just before 5:30 p.m. on 22 July. There are only four officers on duty in the entire district, which is headquartered ten miles north of Utøya in the little city of Hønefoss, and the calls come faster than the operator can answer. The senior officer, a sergeant named Håkon Hval, has been watching news of the Oslo bombing and waiting for his shift to end. He picks up a line. “There’s a guy in a police uniform,” a hysterical voice tells him, “walking around Utøya shooting people.”

Håkon does not believe this. He has worked in North Buskerud for eight years, and he has never been to Utøya, because there’s never been any need. Also, police in Norway do not shoot people. This is a sick joke, he thinks. But the phones keep ringing. Phones are ringing in South Buskerud and Oslo, too. He realizes, very quickly, that this is not a joke.

The cinematic moment, in awful reality.

Boats are launched. Toril climbs into one with a man who steers out into the lake to fish kids from the water. Hege stays at the jetty, waiting for people to come ashore. Within minutes, she helps two girls, wet and shivering, onto the jetty. “A policeman is shooting,” they tell her. She begins to walk them up the path to the café at the top of the camp, then detours to her trailer to retrieve her cell phone. One of the girls spoke to her mother less than an hour before and told her she was safe on Utøya. She needs to call her back.

Boats bring more campers, dozens, then hundreds. The people at Utvika gather blankets for wet survivors. Hege loses track of how many kids borrow her phone. One is a girl, maybe 18 years old, with long black hair. She is nearly hysterical, and she wraps herself around Hege. She refuses to go to the café, refuses to leave the jetty, because she left her brother on the island and she won’t leave until she finds him. She uses Hege’s phone to call her brother, over and over, but he does not answer, and Hege does not leave her.

Toril and Hege were engaged; it’s not clear if they are any longer.

There are ten kids on South Point. Five are dead; the other five are wounded. One of them, a girl, is in the water, upright but limping. Adrian helps her out of the lake and sees a wound in her right leg. There is no blood, just a hole deep and round as a golf ball. They sit together. The blue lights are still flashing across the water, but the helicopter is gone. Adrian tweets: “Shot on Utøya. Many dead.”

He turns to the girl. “It would be really nice,” he says, “to have a cigarette now.”

“Yeah,” she says without looking at him.

“Do you think the shop is open?”

The girl laughs and Adrian laughs, and then they laugh about their water-wrinkled fingers and the cabaret scheduled for tomorrow night that probably won’t happen, and they keep laughing, because there is nothing else to do until someone finally gets them off Utøya.

He gets his cigarette, at the hospital.

He’s missing some muscle, and there are seventy or so fragments still embedded in his flesh that work their way up to his skin every now and again. “So there’s always a reminder,” he says, “that there are pieces of evil in me.”

He smoked a lot over the winter. He got hate mail from right-wingers, and once, down by the water behind the mall, a little thug told him, “You weren’t killed then, but someday I’ll make sure you are.” When he went out, he left notes in his apartment saying where he’d gone and who he was meeting in case that person turned out to be a lunatic assassin and the police had to search his apartment for clues. He also wrote a book, with a Norwegian journalist, about his hours on Utøya. It’s called Heart Against Stone, which is a reference to his desperate effort to quiet his pounding heart in the moments before Breivik tried to kill him. He often wonders why he is still alive, why the man with the gun didn’t put a bullet in his chest when he had a clear shot, and how he managed to miss the head of a still body at point-blank range. Adrian decided it was luck, and that perhaps all of life is endless luck.

Maybe that’s true. On the sixth day of his trial, Breivik explained exactly why he didn’t shoot Adrian when he had his first chance. “I thought,” he told the court, “that he looked right-wing.”

Of course, Breivik came back to shoot him, mangle him. Luck, good and bad.

Read it all, all of the way to the banal and beautiful and awful end.

h/t Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic Monthly





Letting the days go by

10 09 2011

I wasn’t there.

But I still have a story, so here it is:

I was in Montreal, and many mornings I rode my bike up Mont Royal before showering at the nearby medical building and heading to my office on Peel Street. The Biomedical Ethics Unit was still in the old red mansion on the west side of the street, and my office was on the ground floor, separated from the main office on the third floor. I had just walked in, maybe turned the computer on, when the phone rang.

I heard my mom, not recognizing me, asking to speak to me. She and my dad were scheduled to leave for their first-ever trip to Europe (I had long pestered them to go), so I wondered if something had happened with their plans.

The trip was cancelled, she said. All the trips are cancelled. What? I said, why? Are you rescheduling?

I don’t remember exactly what she said next, but something about planes, multiple planes crashing in New York, in DC, no one knows what’s going on, we might be at war, haven’t you heard?

Haven’t you heard?

I do remember standing in my office, one hand on my forehead, not comprehending what was being told to me. Not comprehending at all.

Then D., my fellow post-doc, filled my door-frame. Did you hear, he might have said. Something about planes, multiple planes, crashing in the US, A. has the t.v. on up in the office.

At some point I got off the phone and headed up. There it was. I don’t know how long I stayed, watching, before heading over to the Shatner (the student union) for coffee. The t.v. was on there. Students were crying. People were crying. I don’t know if they were Canadian or American. I don’t remember if I cried.

At some point I heard the borders were closed. Closed! I was locked out! I knew, not forever, but I started to know I was on the outside.

Later I was at lunch with the director of my unit (a dual citizen), a colleague, and that colleague’s girlfriend. The girlfriend got into it, I don’t remember over exactly what, but probably over the question of war. I do remember that I took an immediate stance against any immediate action. Let’s wait, let’s not make things worse. Something like that, probably something like that.

Oh, and probably something about how this probably connected to something the US had done. Yes, this was terrorism, and no, the people killed didn’t deserve it, but given how the US acts in the world, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the world reacts. Something like that, probably something like that, is probably what set off the girlfriend. Or something the girlfriend said set this off in me. I don’t remember the specifics, “who started it”, just that we got into it.

Later, not much time later, the director said to me, quietly, that perhaps it was too soon. And I thought, even if I didn’t say it (tho’ I might have said it), that we have to speak now, before everything hardens, and further thought isn’t possible.

Later, maybe later that day, maybe the next day, I rode back up Mont Royal, stood at the terrace near the top and looked toward what I guessed was New York. Could I see the smoke? Could it reach Montreal? Were we all now breathing in the dead?

Melodramatic, I knew, even as I thought it. Besides, everyone would breathe the dead, they would soar around the world and we’d all breathe in everyone’s dead, the way we always had, the way we never thought we had.

A week later I was at the border, a black strip of fabric hanging from my rearview mirror, on my way to see M. & E. in Vermont. I thought it might take hours; it took minutes. No problems, no problems at all.

M. was still working, so E. and I tooled around, running errands, before picking her up (or maybe we ran the errands after we picked her up; I don’t remember). We had to stop at a store E. hated, thought was terrible. “I wish a plane had crashed into that store,” he muttered, and then we both sputtered with laughter. We were terrible, laughing at a terrible joke about a terrible event.

Later, over a year later, hundreds of thousands of us marched down St. Catherine and Rene Levesque; millions around the world marched against the march to war. For naught. I watched the CBC in disbelief as the President led the Congress, and the nation, into war in Iraq. I couldn’t believe it: it was all so transparently false, so obviously wrong, they couldn’t actually pull this off, could they? Yes. And no.

There’s more, of course; ten years, after all. And while I’m in New York now, having not been then, my memories are of the outsider, still.

Which is why I told my story today; let tomorrow be the day for the stories of those who were there.





Hold on

23 07 2011

Bombings are not rare.

Karachi, Mumbai, Kabul, Mogadishu. . . people are murdered every day by criminals and terrorists who see  their fellow humans  solely as means to their own bloody ends.

I don’t know why I’m particularly affected by the Norwegian killings. Do I find it easier to identify with white Europeans? Is it that this is so unexpected, as if it matters more when horrific things happen to people who live in safe places than those who are under constant threat? Is it that a bomb in that city makes me wonder about a bomb in my city? Why pay more attention to this than to what happens in Baghdad?

I don’t know why it matters more, why all those bombings and shootings don’t matter more. They all matter.

So my sympathy to all of them, all of their friends, all of their families, their communities.

This is the least we can do for each other.

_________

Credit: REUTERS/Berit Roald/Scanpix








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