Friday, April 28, 2006

RFK's greatest moment.

Robert F. Kennedy was a complex figure. Beloved by many, but in many respects he was beloved more after his death than he was when he was alive.

Early in his political career he was known as an avid cold-warrior... secretive, manipulating, and ruthless. A tough little S.O.B. He also authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr., and reportedly said of King during his brother's time in the White House, "Martin Luther King... Oh, he's not a serious person".

JFK's assasination changed him profoundly (perhaps it was in wondering if his own actions had led to it in a sort of "blowback" operation). What changed him even further were his visits to the poor in Appalachia, Missisippi, and the migrant farm workers he met through Cesar Chavez.

In 1968, he announced his candidacy for the presidency. On April 4, on a campaign stop in Indianapolis, he learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier that day. He was warned by the police that he may not want to address the crowd, made up largely of African-Americans, who were as yet unaware of the news.
Kennedy decided to go ahead and address them anyway, and to break the news to them himself.

This audio clip is of his impromptu, off-the-cuff speech, which defined his greatest moment.

Quoting the poet Aeschylus:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Two months later, he himself was assassinated.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Why can't Chloe O'Brian ever see a host error?

Man... She's good. She's real good.

I'm a big fan of the hit TV series '24', which calls for a lot of suspension of disbelief, but nowhere more so than the systems they've got running up at CTU. Not only is their system tight, but everyone else's in the world that they connect to is tight too.

Old Chloe can hack into anything in about 18 seconds. Pull up a schematic of this, show me the layout of that, get past this firewall, uplink from this cellphone... but to make it just a little more real, couldn't they have her sit for several minutes seeing an hourglass once in a while? A blue screen of death, host not found, server not available, 404 page not found, an error has been found running scripts on this page, etc.. etc...?

Osama bin Laden: Dead Man Talking?

See the man on the left? I’m speculating that this was a dying man.

Just one day after a purported audiotape from bin Laden surfaced early this week, a terror attack took place at an Egyptian beach resort, killing more than 20 people.

I just started doing this blog, and I don’t like to come out right off the bat sounding like I subscribe to conspiracy theories. I certainly don’t. I just happen to suspect that Osama bin Laden never made it out of Tora Bora alive in December of 2001.

Not that it really matters much in the larger scheme of things. This isn’t whistling past the graveyard. I don’t say this out of fear or denial, or out of hope that any threat from Al Qaeda diminishes in his absence. Al Qaeda does not depend upon him for its survival. I don’t claim to even know it for sure. I’m merely speculating, but the evidence and my gut instinct suggest to me that he has been dead for quite some time.

For one thing, I can’t understand why he would only make statements via audiotape rather than videotape. There’s no way we could pinpoint his location if he was videotaped in front of a bedsheet. IMHO, the videotape that was played on Al Jazeera just before the 2004 presidential election was questionable. It was distant, murky, and seemed uncharacteristic of the bin Laden we’d always seen, both in gesture and in manner of speech. I don’t want to get into the whole matter of which intelligence agencies considered it authentic and which ones did not. Besides, bin Laden has dozens of brothers and Al Qaeda has plenty of technical savvy. I wouldn’t say it was outside of their capabilities to put together audio and/or a crude video that could pass a voice-analyzing test.

Second, there was this report from a source in the notoriously undisciplined Taliban right after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001 regarding bin Laden’s death and funeral. Its closeness to the events at hand lend it a certain credibility.
"The Coalition troops are engaged in a mad search operation but they would never be able to fulfill their cherished goal of getting Usama alive or dead," the source said.

Bin Laden, according to the source, was suffering from a serious lung complication and succumbed to the disease in mid-December, in the vicinity of the Tora Bora mountains. The source claimed that bin Laden was laid to rest honorably in his last abode and his grave was made as per his Wahabi belief.

About 30 close associates of bin Laden in Al Qaeda, including his most trusted and personal bodyguards, his family members and some "Taliban friends," attended the funeral rites. A volley of bullets was also fired to pay final tribute to the "great leader."

If it happened this way, Al Qaeda would never let the world know.

It increasingly appears that the mantle of leadership is being shared somehwat uneasily between Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is probably in hiding somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is in charge of Al Qaeda operations in Iraq. Zawahiri is the more senior figure, but he is vulnerable to a challenge to his leadership in that he has to remain in hiding in isolated spots and doesn’t have access to mountains of cash like the younger Zarqawi. Like bin Laden, Zawahiri would prefer to see all muslims united. Zarqawi, on the other hand, is a Sunni who has been absolutely sectarian in his attacks against the Shia. This has caused no small amount of tension between the two men. This is the biggest reason why I think bin Laden is not around anymore. I don’t think he would have stood for the attacks on the Shia mosques, and he would have had enough clout to stop it.

In July of 2005, a letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi was intercepted. Zarqawi is being scolded for the beheading of hostages and for the sectarian attacks against the Shia. (Apparently, there really are deep Sunni – Shia divisions. The Shia await a messiah-like figure called the twelfth imam, which the Sunni consider a heresy):
The position on the Shia: This subject is complicated and detailed. I have brought it up here so as not to address the general public on something they do not know. But please permit me to present it logically:

I repeat that I see the picture from afar, and I repeat that you see what we do not see. No doubt you have the right to defend yourself, the mujahedeen and Muslims in general and in particular against any aggression or threat of aggression….

People of discernment and knowledge among Muslims know the extent of danger to Islam of the Twelve'er school of Shiism. It is a religious school based on excess and falsehood whose function is to accuse the companions of Muhammad of heresy in a campaign against Islam, in order to free the way for a group of those who call for a dialogue in the name of the hidden mahdi who is in control of existence and infallible in what he does. Their prior history in cooperating with the enemies of Islam is consistent with their current reality of connivance with the Crusaders.

We must repeat what we mentioned previously, that the majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it. For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques, and it increases more when the attacks are on the mausoleum of Imam All Bin Abi Talib, may God honor him. My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.

Indeed, questions will circulate among mujahedeen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the mujahed movement in Iraq gets stronger? And if some of the operations were necessary for self-defense, were all of the operations necessary? Or, were there some operations that weren't called for?

And is the opening of another front now in addition to the front against the Americans and the government a wise decision? Or, does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won't this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth?

And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia? And do the brothers forget that we have more than one hundred prisoners — many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries — in the custody of the Iranians? And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take countermeasures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?

Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable — also — are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

Zawahiri, however, might not be the more powerful man at this point. After the latest round of attacks in recent months, Zawahiri has backed off, and is singing a different tune:

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Desert One Debacle and the start of the Reagan Era

The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in” – Delta Force intelligence officer Wayne Ishimoto.

Twenty-six years ago, on April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave the green light for Operation “Eagle Claw”, the plan to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran.

In this month’s Atlantic Online, there is a riveting interactive article authored by Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down, Bringing the Heat, and Killing Pablo) about the ill-fated mission.
It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom.

Now, I’m not a military man, and I take nothing away from the extraordinary bravery, professionalism, and superb skills of the men involved… but I’ve worked as a systems analyst for years and have become well-acquainted with Murphy and his Law. Even I can see all of the high-risk, multiple points of failure here. Even if the rescue team had managed to make it into Tehran, it is hard to imagine how it could have been accomplished successfully.

I remember this day and this incident very well. At the time, I was safely isolated from such things as a junior at Babson College. We were just finishing up classes for the year, and our fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, held an evening ceremony to initiate its pledges into the brotherhood. We held a theme-party afterward as we were accustomed to do; this one ironically dubbed the “End of the World Party” (See photo. Note the snippet of writing on the chalkboard - “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand”). How little we knew.

In the small hours of the morning, one of the brothers came down and related to us the news he had heard on the radio about the failed mission. We were stunned and sobered by the news, literally and figuratively. The next day in the papers, and on the television news, we saw the pictures of the wreckage, the charred bodies of the pilots, and the malevolent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gloating and chortling as he actually handled the bones and remains of the dead American servicemen.

It was at this point, that we noticed a sea-change in people’s thinking, on campus and around the country. Babson College is a business school, and Democrats were hard to find there as a general rule of thumb anyway, but there were in fact some of us with enough youthful idealism and loyalties shaped by ethnicity and upbringing to be partial to that party anyway. There had been a great deal of frustration with the “malaise presidency” of Jimmy Carter, to be sure, but this incident was the last straw. There was a widespread feeling that America had pretty much lost its edge. How could a country that spent billions on national defense every year botch a mission because of a lack of durable and serviceable helicopters? People turned with a vengeance on the feckless, hapless Carter, who had been confounded by an old man who seemed to do nothing but issue fatwas while sitting on his prayer rug all day. When Iranians took to the streets and chanted "Death to America", we didn't take them seriously. What could they do to us? We never dreamed we'd be facing the danger we see today.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t elected until November, but that April, for better or for worse, was the real beginning of the Reagan era and the real end of the New Deal era. If the mission had been successful, who knows what would have happened next? How different a country would this be? How different a world?

Word of the catastrophe reached the White House just before the force left the ground in retreat. The president was in his study, surrounded by his advisers, still absorbing the shock of the abort decision. He received a call from General Jones. “Yes, Dave.” Jordan watched the president close his eyes, and then Carter’s jaw fell and his face went pale. “Are there any dead?” Carter asked.The room was silent. Finally the president said softly, “I understand,” and hung up the phone.

He calmly explained to the others what had happened. The men took in the awful news quietly. Then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had submitted his resignation earlier that day because he objected to the mission, said, “Mr. President, I’m very, very sorry.” Jordan ducked into the president’s bathroom and vomited.

America’s elite rescue force had lost eight men, seven helicopters, and a C-130, and had not even made contact with the enemy. It was a debacle. It defined the word “debacle.”

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Body and the Blood: Part II. If someone strikes you on the right cheek...

As a follow-up to the previous post, I thought I'd post a bit of exegesis that Sennott had included in his book on the New Testament passage of Matthew 5:39. It was an interesting take on it that I had never heard before:

"Jesus's message was that of creative resistance to oppression, against a power with overwhelming military superiority-a message that drew on all of the existing Jewish sources that were part of his life. His goal was to identify ways in which the powerless of his time and place-for the most part, Jewish peasants-could challenge the economic and social and political inequalities they faced in their daily lives. The most obvious, oft-quoted, and misunderstood axiom of Jesus's idea of pacifism comes from the Gospel According to Matthew: "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39). I heard this notion literally laughed at in the West Bank and Gaza, and snickered about in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, by members of all three faiths, by politicians and peaceniks and plenty of reporters. It was generally viewed as ridiculously irrelevant in this land, and impossibly idealistic in general. But what exactly Jesus meant by "turning the other cheek" in the context of his time and in the context of his land has been reexamined by theologians and biblical historians, and their reinterpretations of Jesus's message seem very relevant to the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.

To hit someone on the right cheek assumes that the aggressor has hit the person with the back of his right hand. In the ancient customs of the land, this was considered a deep insult; this was how the powerful struck the powerless, the way a master struck his slave, or a Roman struck a Jew. But a blow administered with an open hand on the left side of the face was a blow struck at an equal. The difference between the two types of blows was actually codified in Jerusalem's local law at the time according to some historians. A backhanded slap to the right cheek of a man's peer was grounds to sue for punitive damages. The fine for a backhanded blow to a peer was 100 times the fine for a blow with a forehand. If a backhand was delivered to an underling, however, there was no fine. So when Jesus said to offer the left cheek, by this historical interpretation he wasn't prescribing a blind, masochistic pacifism. He was telling his followers, effectively, "Confront the person offending you, forcing him to face you as an equal, but do not respond with violence in return." That, in the context of Jesus's time and The social and legal codes that existed then, was a radical act of defiance. It turned the tables, forcing the striker to accept the humanity and the equality of the one he was striking, even if he was not legally (or militarily, or politically, or economically) recognized as an equal."

The Body and the Blood, Part I

Around 1900, Christians made up approximately 20% of the population of the Holy Land. One hundred years later, they comprise approximately 2%.

Back in 2000, Reporter Charles Sennott was in Israel, witnessing the complete collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the renewal of the horrific violence that was ushered in with Ariel Sharon’s visit to the temple mount and the massive Palestinian uprising that followed. In his book, The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of the New Millenium, which was published shortly before the events of 9/11, Sennott chronicles the increasing isolation and pressure on the indigenous Christian communities in Israel, Lebanon, and the occupied territories, which has led to mass emigration and the diminishing influence that the Christian community may have been able to contribute in serving as a bridge between the two sides.

As a case in point, he focuses on the Christian principle of forgiveness and how the lack of a Christian voice and influence in the region has contributed to making reconciliation difficult, if not impossible. He tells of a visit to a liberal Jewish religious center in Jersualem by the South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was speaking about what the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been able to achieve in his country. After his talk, Bishop Tutu asked, “Look, we were able to do it. Why can’t it happen here?” Sennott reported that the congregation met the question with an awkward silence. Neither side in the conflict sees the South African or Northern Irish experiences as models that fit their particular situation and the history of the conflict. Sennott writes:

In his own death on the cross, Jesus offered a radical notion of forgiveness that sought to alter the relationship between a tribe and its enemies, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Even as he hung dying, he said, "Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do." At the time of Jesus, the "peace process," to use today's term, was mired in mistrust and cycles of violence, just as it is now. Romans and Jews were wrestling with justice and peace. Jesus's insistence that occupiers, enemies, even his own killers, must be forgiven in order to break that cycle of violence is an idea as radical today as it was back then.

Whereas Islam and Judaism spell out preconditions for forgiveness, Christian teaching views the situation in reverse: forgiveness must come first, and reconciliation will open the way toward resolution of the practical details of getting along. Christian theologians in the Holy Land believe that the peace process will be doomed until each side is willing collectively to recognize the pain endured by the other, and then to forgive the other side for the pain inflicted on it.

Judaism and Islam place forgiveness largely under the governance of God. In contrast, the radical notion in Jesus's ministry was that forgiveness could and should be a way to bring the presence of God into human relations on this earth. This was most clearly expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus stood on a Galilee hillside and taught a large crowd to value human reconciliation over false piety. saying, "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24 ). Of all Jesus's teachings on forgiveness, this one seems the most practical and applicable to this conflict…

The truth is, Christianity has centuries of history in relation to Jews and to Muslims that is anything but forgiving, and they greet Jesus's message of forgiveness with understandable suspicion. To Jews, forgiveness sounds too much like forgetfulness. To Muslims, forgiveness sounds too much like giving up and relinquishing their claims.

It had become clear to me that the Christian notion of forgiveness had little resonance and therefore no practical applicability among the people of this land. To respond to Tutu's question of whether a South African-style reconciliation commission could work, the answer in most Jewish and Muslin corners is a resounding "no." Reconciliation here will be defined by Judaism and Islam, and it must be practical and clearly spelled out within the established political and religious traditions. Western Christianity's notions of forgiveness will have to give way to the more local sense of pragmatic justice. Justice will have to resonate from the people of this land alone; and they will inevitably face the same struggle and obstacles that Jesus did in trying to make their ideal of justice work within the local context and within the messages of their own faith. But still the Christian presence and the teachings of the faith had a role in the Middle East's search for justice and reconciliation.

Six years later, this seems more far away than ever. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, pray for them and for us.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Offshoring, layoffs, and disposable Americans

A note on a couple of recent radio interviews… On WBUR, Tom Ashbrook hosted an On-Point program on Offhsore Outsourcing. I thought Ashbrook did a good job of holding the participating economists' feet to the fire on just what the future holds for American workers. If the future of the American economy is to be built upon face-to-face personal services, can we all make a living as massage therapists to each other? Did we all get college educations so that we could tell our children to go into a career in plumbing? I was a bit startled about how blithely unconcerned some of these economists seem to be. It must still be difficult to offshore economists at this point.

On a related topic, a few days ago NPR ran an interview with Louis Uchitelle, the author of The Disposable American: Layoffs and their Consequences.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Why Senator Rick Santorum had it wrong

Old news, but an article in the Boston Globe last summer had this to say about comments Rick Santorum had made about Boston and the sexual abuse crisis in 2002, and how he later defended those comments:

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, refused yesterday to back off on his earlier statements connecting Boston's ''liberalism" with the Roman Catholic Church pedophile scandal, saying that the city's ''sexual license" and ''sexual freedom" nurtured an environment where sexual abuse would occur.

''The basic liberal attitude in that area . . . has an impact on people's behavior," Santorum said in an interview yesterday at the Capitol.

''If you have a world view that I'm describing [about Boston] . . . that affirms alternative views of sexuality, that can lead to a lot of people taking it the wrong way," Santorum said.

Santorum, a leader among Christian conservatives, was responding to questions about remarks he made three years ago on a website called Catholic Online. In those comments, Santorum said, ''It is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm" of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

The junior senator is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and is considered a possible candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 2008, if he wins reelection to a third Senate term next year.

''I was just saying that there's an attitude that is very open to sexual freedom that is more predominant" in Boston, Santorum said yesterday. Reminded that the sexual abuse occurred across the country, Santorum said that ''at the time [in 2002], there was an indication that there was more of a problem there" in Boston.

I’ve always found the double-edged view held towards Boston by people in other parts of the country to be fascinating.

One the one hand, there is the old “Taxachusetts” label, and the association of the state with tax-and-spend liberals, Kennedys, Barney Frank, John Kerry, Gerry Studds, Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton. There’s the Big-Dig federal boondoggle. There’s the Kremlin on the Charles and all the "pointy-headed socialist professors" to be found not only at Harvard, but elsewhere among the elitist colleges and universities. There is certainly some truth in this stereotype, although it has become a somewhat dated perception in that it ignores the fact that the Republicans have had a lock on the governorship since 1991, and the democratic hold on the other levers of power in state government are being slowly and systematically broken. It is also true that Boston has a large and activist gay community, and the gay marriage bill has once again shot Massachusetts up to the top of the list of alleged blue-state notorieties.

Then there is the other Massachusetts, or rather, the other image of Boston... Ethnic. Bigoted. Parochial. Insular. Clannish. Rude. Racist. Stand-offish. Unfriendly. Bog-Irish. Catholic.

The busing crisis of the 1970’s left an indelible mark on the city that has been hard to shake, especially when it had been built upon a perception already held.

Back in the NBA heyday, it was a common refrain to hear from Los Angelenos what a racist city Boston was. Unfortunately for us, the glory days of the Celtics ended before the L.A. incidents surrounding Rodney King, Darryl Gates and the LAPD, the riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial fiasco, so we were never able to return the favor in full.

The point I’m getting at, is that the community that was producing both those who were doing the victimizing and those being victimized in the sexual abuse crisis was clearly associated with the latter “Boston” than with the former.

The Catholic Church in Boston has always had an emphatic Irish stamp, from the time that the Irish first started arriving here in big numbers in the 1840’s. It was militant, triumphant, and had a whiff of Jansenism about it that is common to Irish Catholicism. Back in the day, they were happy to try to out-Puritan the Puritans. This staunchly Irish character made Church life difficult at times for Catholics of other ethnicities.

The Cardinals were for the most part (with the exception of Umberto Medeiros) proud of being hardnosed types of men. O’Connell, Cushing, Law… They don’t come much more conservative than that. We had Fr. Feeney here. Before WWII, Boston was arguably the most Coughlinite city in America. After Vatican II, the only place where I heard about clown masses and excesses in liturgical abuse was at the Paulist Center (btw, I’m not aware of any Boston Paulist fathers being accused). For the most part, the liturgies were staid. Boston Catholics are notorious for not wanting to sing during Mass. Unlike the Midwest, they’ve never been much into holding hands during the Our Father and making the run of the whole Church in order to exchange the Sign of Peace.

Back in the days of William Cardinal O’Connell, Catholics lived within a siege mentality in a sea of hostile Yankees, and they were proud to set their priests and bishops up in great digs as grand men. It was a way of thumbing their noses at those who looked down on them with such scorn. You couldn’t show any weakness in front of the foe. O’Connell said to the flock “Just trust me and do what I tell you”, and people did. This defensive closing of the ranks was ingrained over generations.

Therefore, if Catholic parents trusted their sons to be alone in the presence of a priest implicitly, it was not because they were liberal about sexual mores. It was because of their nascent traditionalism. It was because it was absolutely unthinkable to them that a Catholic priest (mostly local, home-grown priests brought up within the community) would and could ever do anything to betray their children, them, the Church, and God. Their clerical status was exalted. No one thought of questioning them. If the priests who committed these crimes and the bishops who protected them acted the way they did, it was for the same reasons. The story is long, well-known and documented about how the hierarchy reacted when priests were caught.

The problem was excessive clericalism, not excessive liberalism, and advocating a return to a more extreme form of traditionalism in the Church will only increase clericalism.

This is why I think Rick Santorum was wrong, and why he should have offered the Catholics in Boston an apology when offered the opportunity instead of defending his earlier remarks. I don’t know much about his opponent in the upcoming senatorial election in Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr., but his father was a fine man, and the son seems to share many of his views. If I lived in Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr. would get my vote.