Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hysteria v History

Breaking news: Hey, it's winter. Sometimes it snows, sometimes a lot.

This just in: Media and government weather hysterics in New York and New Jersey look a little foolish today (again) as the snowstorm, widely hyped in dramatic government and media accounts yesterday as being "historic," well,  the damn thing failed its history test.

We're used to seeing politicians like the excitable New Jersey Gov. Chris (Thar She Blows) Christie   all in a frisson about some impending crisis or another, when he's not chasing around the country in the delusion that he might become president, or yelling from behind his bodyguards at a Jersey teacher who had the temerity to ask him a pointed question. (I awarded Christie the "Thar She Blows" moniker some time ago for his tendency to overreact and blow his stack during past impending forecast weather disruptions, not to mention pointed questions from the public -- and not because of his size, incidentally).

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo might be given a pass for his overreaction this time, because the poor fellow is stuck in Albany, N.Y., and that's enough to affect anyone's good sense, especially during the dead of winter.

The New York mayor, Bill de Blasio is a new entry in the Chicken Little derby that transpired as the fairly routine, if big, winter snowstorm developed yesterday, and the implications of his own reactions and especially exclamations are troubling. De Blasio, who knew nothing more about the impending weather than what he read in the papers or saw on TV, all based on urgent National Weather Service bulletins, basically shut down the city Monday night and into Tuesday morning.

De Blasio will long be remembered for telling New Yorkers that, not only could they not drive a car or ride a bus or subway, or pedal a bicycle to deliver Chinese food, they shouldn't even be on the sidewalks. The Boston mayor said the same, but made it sound more like an order under martial law -- but that's just Boston again. Remember how they ordered all citizens to remain indoors when the cops were looking for the Marathon bombers, who were found, as I recall, cowering in a stored boat in someone's backyard?

De Blasio made several painfully memorableutterances yesterday, and the best one (as the New Yorker magazine pointed out today without being so rude as to make note of 9-11, the Draft Riots, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or the Giuliani Administration) was: "prepare for something worse than we have seen before,"

Even today, under fire for overreacting yesterday, de Blasio seems to be continuing with the overly dramatic language. "We dodged a bullet," he said.

"Sweety, get me rewrite!"
Of course the media were crucial players in the Chicken Little Derby yesterday. Reading and watching from a continent away, I was amazed at the high degree of excitement in media accounts. The media fanned the official overreactions, tripping over themselves not only to dramatize a weather forecast but to do so with endless updated bulletins, each more urgent that the previous, all characterized by overly dramatic language including, in several online accounts I saw yesterday, the use of the word "tragic" to describe the likely effects of this forecast storm.

City halls and the state houses are probably hopeless, and the National Weather Service, where I believe the origin of the word usage "historic" will be found from yesterday, seems to have been a basic part of the problem. Still, I do hope someone starts looking more closely at the propensity of government officials who anticipate a crisis by invoking various measures of what can accurately be called martial law, like ordering citizens to "shelter in place." We're probably going to want to have some checks and balances on those martial impulses, the next time there is a genuine civil crisis to deal with.

The apologists are at work today, pointing out that it did in fact snow hard east of the New York area and, of course, in Boston -- where a routine big snowstorm didn't used to be treated as the end of the world.

I think the essential problem was the alarming language used yesterday in this endless incremental news-updating,  the incessant lunges for immediate attention that the online world has created, and which will never be un-created, So as we assimilate these realities, let's hope the better elements of the media reflect on this poor performance, The bright rookie "web design" whiz-kids constantly updating online news reports to incessantly grab attention definitely do know one big thing, but the reporters and editors who have been around the track a few times know a lot of little things. The two should talk more often.

(And just as a side note: When an editor describes a rookie's reporting on breaking news as "breathless," that is not meant as a compliment about the reporter's enthusiasm.)

The New Yorker online today reliably has a sensibly humorous take in a piece by Colin Stokes. [Here.] Among the suggestions for city dwellers "braced" for winter's worst: "Wear ice skates all the time." Also, "When the blizzard doesn't actually happen, take the day off work."

But let me offer some serious media post-mortem suggestions, for starters:

1. Let's definitely avoid using the word "historic" when there is no actual "history" to report yet.

2. Other words to avoid in weather-forecast advance reporting: Barrel ... Fury, usually accompanied by "unleashed" .. Bear down. ... That list is longer, but you get the drift. (So to speak, since the subject is snow).

And be wary of  anyone today who says "Better safe than sorry." That excuse is posted at the trailhead of a long, slippery slope, even if there is no snow underfoot to speak of.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Those "Je suis Charlie" proclamations are sprouting within the Worthy Media like American flag lapel pins in the House of Representatives. Hoist 'em high!

Are we all in fact Charlie? 

Maybe you are, and if so you have my profound admiration.

But me, alas, I am not brave enough to be Charlie Hebdo, and I guarantee you that few of those worthy journalistic organizations rushing to hoist their logos are Charlie either. The massacred editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, practicing biting satire of a kind that has been vibrant in Paris since the run-up to the French Revolution, had the guts to continue pissing off murderous Islamicist thugs, even after Charlie offices had been previously firebombed. 

Would I have that kind of brazen, defiant courage in this kind of a situation? I consider myself a stand-up guy and have some scars to prove it, but I am damn sure that I would not have had the guts to stand up as boldly and bravely for editorial freedom -- yes, for the right to be a smart-ass when the stakes are very, very high -- as those slain journalists did in Paris. 

Already, some of the usual suspects in the media are equivocating, to make sure no one is offended by the "Je suis Charlie" bumper stickers they've slapped on. After all, religious insensitivity is abhorrent, they say. Take USA Today, which arrives today running this op-ed piece by a self-described "radical Muslim cleric and lecturer in sharia." The radical Muslem cleric declares essentially that the Charlie Hebdo infidels had it coming because they recklessly chose to ignore the clear consequences of causing offense to certain quarters of Islam. The editors posit this as a way to provide "balance" and "perspective" in their mission to defend free expression and encourage robust debate! There are two sides to every story, they say in effect.

Are such editors defending freedom of expression, a la Charlie? Nobody's questioning your right to print ravings that the French satirists got what they deserved for causing offense. What's in question here is your judgment and your adherence to a discredited journalistic concept called "balance" (the next time someone mentions that the world is round, I will look forward to the opposing viewpoint that it is actually flat).

Would would those same editors publish, or even allude to, serious opinion pieces like this one today by Jeffrey Taylor, in Salon, which has the headline, "We must stop deferring to religion," and states in part that Islam is "the prima facie yet material motive" for modern terrorist barbarities that invariably commence, as of course the one yesterday in Paris did, with bellowing of the war cry "Allahu akbar!"

I doubt it. They'll give a terrorist-apologist a say with impunity, because the mullah is so obviously an idiot with no constituency among our readers, but let's not cause the Archbishop to get upset about any suggestion that religion itself might be a problem.

Overall, what is the sensible response? "For starters, we need to cease granting religion, and not just Islam -- an exemption from criticism," Taylor writes.

But oh, if we do that, the letters we would get!  

The murdered cartoonists, writers and editors at Charlie Hebdo worked in a tradition that extends back to the earliest days of mass-circulation print, and encompasses the biting satire of Paris radicals who vilified poor hapless Marie Antoinette and ridiculed the king and helped to create the emotional atmosphere that brought down the ancien regime. (OK, the revolution was followed closely by the Terror, by Napoleon and the rape of Europe, but it did all eventually work out somewhat better).

Being a provocateur against the ancien regime in 18th Century Paris was relatively safe, even in the last throes of an absolute monarchy. 

(And let's not overlook a basic fact in today's France, a country that has been enthusiastic in legislating political, cultural and religious correctness. As law professor Jonathan Turley notes in this piece in the Washington Post, "if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation." (At least for starters, I would add, please try to define what "insults, defames or incites hatred" means specifically.))

Doing what those who were murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo did was clearly dangerous. Their bold exercise of free expression took guts and, as USA Today's radical Muslim cleric and lecturer in sharia so piously points out from his protected pulpit in London, it demonstrably had consequences.

For a perspective on roughly the same issues from a respected voice in mainstream religion, kindly see this terrific piece today by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.

And also this, from a Moslem point of view.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Waiting For Piety in the Free-Speech Furor

It's gratifying, I suppose, to see so many organizational journalistic worthies hoisting their logos high to rush out statements condemning the massacre by Islamist religious terrorists at the offices of the infamously rascally French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Good for them. Let's hope they all stay on course and affirm their unequivocal support for free speech, including speech that might offend a religious sensibility to the degree that the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo chose to push it, for the sake of satire.

But let's just say I'm skeptical.

I remember back in 1989 when American journalistic worthies convened symposiums and arranged somber press conferences after a panjandrum of fundamental Islamists in Iran issued a "fatwa" against -- on my old block in Philly we would have called it "put a contract on" -- Salmon Rushdie,
for the crime of blasphemy.  At one press conference in New York that still stands out clearly in my mind, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese, along with lesser solemn cynosures of the Manhattan literary establishment, spoke in condemnation of the threatened violence -- but nevertheless managed to cough up empathy for the aggrieved zealots at the same time.

Each man clearly stated, while we media wretches scribbled respectfully, affirmation of the precept that while freedom of speech is paramount, free speech also needs to avoid showing undue disrespect for the sensibilities of ... well, of bat-shit crazy religious screwballs who will threaten to kill you if you are known to have said something offensive to their well-tended sensibilities.

When I ventured a surprised question to Mailer -- Mailer! -- as to whether he truly believed that free speech came with restrictions not to offend those who are perpetually poised to be offended, the great man glowered darkly while the other assembled media reacted as if I were Helen Thomas barking an inane question to a baffled Ronald Reagan.  My question went unanswered.  Mailer and his even tinier but exquisitely well-tailored companion Talese turned instead to the better behaved among the questioners.

So excuse my cynicism now in anticipating similar reactions from some elements in the higher echelons of media respectability, all currently wringing hands over the massacre of the French journalists. Just watch,  As soon as the horror fades and it's less shockingly rude to note that these murdered French journalists and cartoonists were essentially merry, noisy, wise-ass journalistic provocateurs, the grand declarations of support for free speech from some of the dreadfully serious editorialists will come forth with well-considered admonitory caveats.

(The New York Times tonight has a compelling paragraph in its sidebar on the exploits of Charlie Hebdo: "Week after week, the small, struggling paper amused and horrified, taking pride in offending one and all, and carrying on a venerable European tradition dating to the days of the French Revolution, when satire was used to pillory Marie Antoinette, and later to challenge politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds."  

--That brilliantly distilled ounce of history is very crucial to the debate.)

But basically, I fear that we soon will again hear stated a proposition in some of the media that I still can hear Mailer -- Mailer! -- making that day, which is that religion in any of its astonishing variations somehow must be ceded exemption from ridicule, harsh criticism, disdain. Because, well, because we're talking about religious belief, is why. And we must respect religion after all.

And that will be an insult to the memory of those murdered French journalists, who believed no such thing, and died horribly, practicing what they preached.


Here's an interesting short documentary, released in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum, called "Collision: Free Speech and Religion," which addresses the right of free speech as a foundation of freedom itself, as opposed to "the supposed right not to be offended:"

COLLISION: Free Speech and Religion


A Magazine and a Massacre

Undoubtedly shrieking that all-too-familiar war cry "Allahu Akbar!" religious fanatics massacred at least 12 people in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Here is a link, via the Daily Beast, to some of the covers that the magazine has run in its ridicule of medieval religious fundamentalism.

Charlie Hebdo covers

And here, from 2012, is a prescient and important article in the New Yorker

New Yorker and Charlie Hebdo


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The War on Festivus and the Rest of Us

Bill O'Reilly, the only character from that institution for the emotionally disturbed called Fox News whom I find both amusing and appalling, rather than simply appalling, has been on his annual pious crusade about the so-called War on Christmas.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast invented the modern image of Santa Claus in the 1880s

Not that I watch Fox News, there being certain things I just will not do. But one does tend to get a sense of the nuggets they're pumping out of Rupert Murdoch's gold mine at any given time. O'Reilly and his War on Christmas are as much a holiday perennial as the Rockettes and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

What is this war on Christmas, exactly?

The casus belli, it seems, stems from an angry belief that Christmas, which nominally celebrates the birth of a historically dubious personage at a time in the year that even the believers concede bears a not entirely coincidental relationship to the lusty pagan Roman winter-solstice celebration of Saturnalia, is under attack by hordes of infidels. These infidels -- they are largely unnamed, but historically we know who the aggrieved faithful mainly have in mind here -- are alleged to have commercialized the sacred holiday and torn from its focal point the Little Baby Jesus, an infant-god born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem during the reign of Augustus near fields where shepherds tended their flocks and angels sang on high while three heathen kings, buddied-up on an inexplicable road trip, proceeded anon under guidance of a mysterious brilliant star in the winter sky ... yada, yada, yada.

A large number of people persist in believing this, despite the indisputable fact that none of these and other associated events described in the contradictory accounts in various sacred tracts, composed much later, were actually noted by the contemporary Romans, who controlled the territory and who were well known for paying careful attention to unusual occurrences on their watch. In much later centuries, but especially in the last two, the Christmas narrative -- traditionally a distant runner-up to the primary Christian holiday of Easter -- was more firmly imposed on the winter solstice, partly to offset riotous seasonal celebrations that may have called themselves Christmas but actually owed their origins to Saturnalia.

Hence the perennial lectures about the "true meaning of Christmas," which the believers, claiming they are persecuted, insist has been defiled by others who, for through common sense or contrary dogma, find the accepted religious narrative to be implausible -- and who, truth to tell, become uncomfortable when we hear, or in some cases are expected to join in the singing of, unctuous hymns with pious themes that were composed in 19th century parsonages or 20th Century tin pan alleys.

Back to Bill O'Reilly -- who incidentally fancies himself a historian and whose most recent book has as its central character the World War II hero General George Patton. Of course, General Patton himself would have slapped around an armchair warrior like Bill O'Reilly, who graduated from high school at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 but somehow managed to dodge the Vietnam draft and avoid service during a war he continues to vocally defend and support. (O'Reilly, along with his colleagues at Fox, Roger Ailes and Carl Rove, is ranked with the execrable Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and other warriors-sans-service on a list, well known to those who did serve, of famous Chicken-Hawks.)

As to the historical origins of Christmas, O'Reilly's said last year, "that's what the U.S.A. celebrates on Dec. 25, the birth of the baby Jesus..." It's a holiday sanctioned in 1870 by the federal government that, O'Reilly said, "acknowledges the country's Judeo-Christian tradition."

It's clever how O'Reilly worked the Jews into that one because, in this country, the religiousness of Christmas has always been a bit of a concern to others who might be tempted to join more enthusiastically in these joyous winter-holiday festivities -- if they didn't have rather long historical markers, as the Judeo portion of the tradition certainly does.

(Incidentally, there's an amusing piece in the Washington Post today on "The War on Jewish Christmas. Here.)

In 1997, under the aegis of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the so-called Festivus episode (its actual title was "The Strike") was aired on "Seinfeld," a show that was of course actually about a group of very funny New York Jews, George's Italian surname notwithstanding.  Festivus was cast as the year-end holiday for "the rest of us." The episode's conceit was that Festivus had been invented as an alternative-Christmas by George's excitable, miserable father. But the real message of Festivus -- for the rest of us -- has been enduring.

The growing numbers of us who don't believe the religious narrative still enthusiastically celebrate the winter solstice -- and what a beautiful and pagan thing a Christmas tree is! What joy there is in coming to Rockefeller Plaza on a cold December day! -- even if Saturnalia's distant descendant, the drunken office Christmas party, has also long ago faded into oblivion.

And as to that "happy holidays" palaver that the media and earnest organizations like Pew Research constantly fret over, I say the hell with it. Who says we have to ironically invoke "Festivus" or refer to this time as a generic happy "holiday," or in fact to call it anything other than what what it has been commonly called since the Council of Nicea?

And so Merry Christmas to all. Even  O'Reilly.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Independent Movie Theaters Take a Stand

Given the pitiful way the U.S. multiplex movie theater industry folded like a cardboard suitcase after North Korean threats about screening "The Interview," it's very nice to see that independent movie theaters are taking a stand. The movie will now open at independent theaters all across the U.S. on Christmas Day.
Kim Jong-un, ready for his closeup?

The independents, represented by a trade group called Art House Convergence, had petitioned Sony to release the film, which Sony had previously indicated would be shelved permanently because of grandiose, ungrammatical threats of violence issued by the North Korean hackers. You know, the people who threatened to set the White House on fire and reduce the East Coast to a pile of embers.

 Here's the petition the independent theaters signed.

The comedy, which sounds fairly weak, frankly, would have faded from public attention after a few weeks -- if the North Koreans hadn't made a marketing case for it with their criminal internet hacking of Sony. Yes, perhaps using their one working computer on the single day of the week they have electricity, the North Koreans -- who can't feed their people, even the ones who aren't locked up in concentration camps -- managed to make a grand mess at Sony Entertainment by hacking and releasing private emails at Sony's movie division, which is located in the old MGM studio complex in Culver City. At least I now know what Sony execs think of Angelina Jolie and her plans to remake "Cleopatra" (the previous version of which sank the old 20th Century Fox, incidentally). Also that Ms. Jolie thinks the way you abbreviate "et ectera" is "ect".

The Wrap, by the way, also reports -- without providing details -- that the movie will be made available for on-demand viewing.

The independent movie houses that will now show the movie starting Christmas Day include the Loft Cinema in Tucson, the Plaza in Atlanta and the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas based in Austin and dozens of others.

These are theaters that are helping to keep alive the art of cinema in all of its forms, while the corporate multiplexes grasp at straws amid declining attendance.

And now let's watch local newspapers and TV stations try to stir up hysteria about those North Korean threats to theaters playing the movie. You can bet they're working on that right now.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

State Dept. Travel Warnng: Israel, Gaza, West Bank

Here's the full text of a new State Department travel warning for Israel, Gaza and the West Bank:
"The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza due to ongoing hostilities. The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirms the longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning issued on February 3, 2014.
The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the risks of travel to these areas because of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel. The Department of State continues its longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against travel to the Gaza Strip; U.S. government employees are not allowed to conduct official or personal travel there. Please see the section below on the situation in the Gaza Strip. Because of the security situation, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and its annexes are currently operating at reduced staffing and the Consular Section of the Embassy is providing only emergency consular services. The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem is currently maintaining normal operations, including consular services.
Long-range rockets launched from Gaza since July 8, 2014 have reached many locations in Israel – including Tel Aviv, cities farther north, and throughout the south of the country. Some rockets have reached Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Hebron. While many rockets have been intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, there have been impacts that have caused damage and injury. In light of the ongoing rocket attacks, U.S. citizen visitors to and U.S. citizen residents of Israel and the West Bank should familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter or other hardened site, if available. Visitors should seek information on shelters from hotel staff or building managers. Consult city municipality websites, such as those for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for lists of public bomb shelters and other emergency preparedness information. Visitors should follow the instructions of the Home Front Command on proper procedures in the event of rocket attacks.
Travelers should avoid areas of Israel in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip due to the real risks presented by small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets, and mortars, as attacks from Gaza can come with little or no warning. Both Embassy and Consulate General personnel are currently not permitted to travel south of greater Tel Aviv without prior approval. On July 17, 2014 Israel announced the commencement of ground operations in Gaza. Visitors to these areas should remain aware of their surroundings and should take note of announcements and guidance provided by the Home Front Command.
Ben Gurion Airport is currently open and commercial flights are operating normally, although delays and cancellations can occur. Travelers should check with their airline prior to their planned travel to verify the flight schedule. U.S. citizens seeking to depart Israel or the West Bank are responsible for making their own travel arrangements.
We are not evacuating U.S. citizens out of Israel. U.S. government-facilitated evacuations occur only when no safe commercial alternatives exist. Evacuation assistance is provided on a cost-recovery basis, which means the traveler must reimburse the U.S. government for travel costs. The lack of a valid U.S. passport may hinder U.S. citizens' ability to depart the country and may slow the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General's ability to provide assistance.
U.S. citizens who do travel to or remain in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza should take into consideration the rules governing travel by U.S. government employees:
U.S. government personnel are not permitted to conduct official or personal travel to the Gaza Strip;
U.S. government personnel are restricted from conducting personal travel to most parts of the West Bank; travel for official business is done with special security arrangements coordinated by the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem;
Currently, because of the security situation, U.S. government personnel are not permitted to travel south of greater Tel Aviv without prior approval;
U.S. government personnel must notify Embassy Tel Aviv’s Regional Security Officer before traveling in the areas of the Golan Heights and are prohibited from traveling east of Rt. 98 in the Golan Heights;
U.S. government personnel are not permitted to use public buses anywhere in Israel or the West Bank due to past attacks on public transportation.
Major Metropolitan Areas in Israel
Personal safety conditions in major metropolitan areas, including Tel Aviv and Haifa and their surrounding regions, are comparable to or better than those in other major global cities. Please see below for specific information regarding Jerusalem. Visitors should observe appropriate personal security practices to reduce their vulnerability to crime, particularly late at night or in isolated or economically depressed areas, including in the countryside. Visitors are advised to avoid large gatherings or demonstrations and keep current with local news, which is available through numerous English language sources.
The Government of Israel has had a long-standing policy of issuing gas masks to its citizens and, starting in 2010, it began issuing replacement masks. It stopped this distribution process in early 2014 in response to regional events. Visitors and foreign residents in Israel are not issued masks and must individually procure them, if desired. The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General do not provide gas masks for persons who are not U.S. government employees or their dependents. For further emergency preparedness guidance, please visit the website of the Government of Israel's Home Front Command, which provides information on how to choose a secure space in a home or apartment, as well as a list of the types of protective kits (gas masks) issued by the Government of Israel to its citizens.
Gaza Vicinity
The Department of State recommends against travel to areas of Israel in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip. Travelers should be aware of the risks presented by the current military conflict between Hamas and Israel. On July 17, 2014 Israel announced the commencement of ground operations in Gaza. Travelers in the regions immediately bordering Gaza may encounter small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets, and mortars launched from inside Gaza toward Israeli cities and towns. These attacks can come with little or no warning. Visitors to these areas should remain aware of their surroundings and of the location of bomb shelters and should take note of announcements and guidance provided by the Home Front Command.
Travelers should also be aware of the heightened state of alert maintained by Israeli authorities along Israel's border with Egypt. There have been cross-border incidents from Egypt, including rocket attacks and ground incursions, such as an attack that took place in August 2013 and one on January 20, 2014. Rockets were fired from Sinai in the direction of Eilat on July 15, 2014.
Northern Israel
Rocket attacks into Israel from Lebanon have occurred without warning along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Tensions have increased along portions of the Disengagement Zone with Syria in the Golan Heights as a result of the internal conflict occurring in Syria. Sporadic gunfire has occurred along the border region. There have been several incidents of mortar shells and light arms fire impacting on the Israeli-controlled side of the zone as a result of spillover from the fighting in Syria. Travelers should be aware that cross-border gunfire can occur without warning. Furthermore, there are active land mines in areas of the Golan Heights, so visitors should walk only on established roads or trails. The Syrian conflict is sporadic and unpredictable. U.S. government personnel must notify the Embassy's Regional Security Office in advance if they plan to visit the Golan Heights and are prohibited from traveling east of Rt. 98 in the Golan Heights.
U.S. citizens should be aware of the possibility of isolated street protests, particularly within the Old City and areas around Salah Ed-Din Street, Damascus Gate, Silwan, and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Travelers should exercise caution at religious sites on Fridays and on holy days, including during Ramadan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from entering the Old City on Fridays during the month of Ramadan due to congestion and security-related access restrictions.
U.S. government employees are prohibited from transiting Independence Park in central Jerusalem during the hours of darkness due to reports of criminal activity.
The Consulate General notes that recent demonstrations and clashes in several East Jerusalem areas, such as Shufat, Beit Hanina, Mt. of Olives, As Suwaneh, Abu Deis, Silwan, Shuafat Refugee Camp, inside the Old City (near Lions Gate), Issawiyeh, and Tsur Baher appear to have diminished, although the possibility exists of renewed clashes in the same areas during evenings. We note that the clashes and demonstrations have not been anti-American in nature. The Israel National Police (INP) continues to have a heavy presence in many of the neighborhoods that have had clashes and may restrict vehicular traffic to some of these neighborhoods without notice. We advise citizens not to enter any neighborhoods restricted by the INP and to avoid any locations that have active clashes ongoing.
The Shufat neighborhood of Jerusalem remains off-limits for official U.S. personnel and their families at night until further notice. The Old City of Jerusalem is also off-limits every day after dark for official U.S. personnel and their families until further notice. Official U.S. personnel are restricted from the Old City of Jerusalem at all times on Fridays during Ramadan. The Friday restriction is part of our standard policy, due to overall congestion and large crowds, and is not related to recent events.
The West Bank
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the West Bank. Demonstrations and violent incidents can occur without warning, and vehicles are regularly targeted by rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire on West Bank roads. U.S citizens have been killed in such attacks. There have also been an increasing number of violent incidents involving Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers in the corridor stretching from Ramallah to Nablus, including attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages in which U.S. citizens have suffered injury or property damage, and attacks by Palestinians on settlements. U.S. citizens can be caught in the middle of potentially dangerous situations, and some U.S. citizens involved in political demonstrations in the West Bank have sustained serious injuries. The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens, for their own safety, avoid all demonstrations. During periods of unrest, the Israeli Government may restrict access to the West Bank, and some areas may be placed under curfew. All persons in areas under curfew should remain indoors to avoid arrest or injury. Security conditions in the West Bank may hinder the ability of consular staff to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens.
Personal travel in the West Bank by U.S. government personnel and their families is permitted to the towns of Bethlehem and Jericho and on Routes 1, 443, and 90. Personal travel is also permitted to Qumran off Route 90 by the Dead Sea, as are stops at roadside facilities along Routes 1 and 90. All other personal travel by U.S. government personnel in the West Bank is prohibited. U.S. government personnel routinely travel to the West Bank for official business, but do so with special security arrangements.
The Gaza Strip
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization. U.S. citizens in Gaza are advised to depart immediately. The security environment within Gaza, including its border with Egypt and its seacoast, is dangerous and volatile. Exchanges of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and militant groups in Gaza take place regularly, and civilians have been caught in the crossfire in the past. Although the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt normally allows for some passenger travel, prior coordination with local authorities -- which could take days or weeks to process -- is generally required, and crossing points may be closed for days or weeks. Travelers who enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing must also exit through the Rafah crossing, and those entering the Gaza Strip may not be able to depart at a time of their choosing. Many U.S. citizens have been unable to exit Gaza or faced lengthy delays in doing so. Furthermore, the schedule and requirements for exiting through the Rafah crossing are unpredictable and can involve significant expense. Because U.S. citizen employees of the U.S. government are not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip or have contact with Hamas, the ability of consular staff to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens, including assistance departing Gaza, is extremely limited.
Entry/Exit Difficulties
Some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or who are of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank. U.S. citizens planning to travel to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza should consult the detailed information concerning entry and exit difficulties in the Country Specific Information.
Contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy for information and assistance in Israel, the Golan Heights, and ports of entry at Ben Gurion Airport, Haifa Port, the northern (Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein) and southern (Arava) border crossings connecting Israel and Jordan, and the border crossings between Israel and Egypt. An embassy officer can be contacted at (972) (3) 519-7575 from Monday through Friday during working hours. The after-hours emergency number is (972) (3) 519-7551.
Contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem for information and assistance in Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, at (972) (2) 630-4000 from Monday through Friday during working hours. The after-hours emergency number is (972) (2) 622-7250.
For More Information
The Department of State urges those U.S. citizens who live in or travel to Israel, the West Bank or Gaza to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to obtain the most current information on travel and security within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Enrollment in STEP makes it easier for the Embassy or Consulate General to contact U.S. citizens in case of emergency.
For information on "What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis," please visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Emergencies and Crisis link atwww.travel.state.gov
For the latest security information, U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State’s Internet website where the Worldwide Caution, Country Specific Information for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found, including the current Travel Warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. You can also follow the Bureau of Consular Affairs on Twitter and on Facebook. Up-to-date information on security conditions can also be accessed athttp://israel.usembassy.govhttp://jerusalem.usconsulate.gov or on the Embassy and Consulate General Facebook pages.
Up-to-date information on travel and security in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada, or, for callers outside of the United States and Canada, on a regular toll-line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays)."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Borat Called ...

...and he wants his wig back.

Meet the exquisitely named Igor Girkin, the military genius who commands the pro-Russian separatist rebel group in eastern Ukraine that seems to have been responsible for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Indications are that these commandos accidentally shot the Boeing 777 airliner down at 33,000 feet, thinking it was a Ukraine Air Force Antonov An-26 military transport, a lumbering twin-engine turboprop with a maximum altitude of 24,000 feet.

Commandante Girkin -- channeling Chico Marx's "Who you gonna believe? Me or your lyin' eyes?" -- is suggesting that the bodies on the ground in the horrific debris field where the Boeing 777 came down "aren't fresh," and maybe were planted there by the Kiev regime. Because look at these guys. They couldn't possibly be dumb and criminally reckless enough to have accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, could they?

Here's the story.

And just for future reference, Commandante Girkin, here's the difference between an An-26 transport and a Boeing 777:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Malaysia Air 777 Crash in Ukraine

[Updated, and see link to MSNBC falling for a Howard Stern prankster at end]


If a ground-to-air missile did indeed bring down the Malaysia Airlines 777 that crashed in Ukraine today, killing 295 on board, it would have had to have been a sophisticated military system like the Soviet-designed Buk M3 or its later models. Most ground-fired missiles can't reach an airplane at 33,000 feet, but the Buk certainly can.

Here are the some specs on the Buk.



The radar positions etc. are followed in detail on the website Flightradar24.com (it's overwhelmed right now; Flightradar24 says it is adding servers to handle the demand)

The breaking media coverage has been intense of course. The Drudge Report has the expected hysterical links in red type. The Washington Post went out with a very early breaking news report the plane had been shot down by a surface to air missile, that report based on a Ukranian official who had what struck me as an oddly detailed amount of information at that stage, including the type of missile. The Post has now backtracked a bit on that one.

The New York Times has been a lot more cautious on the "shootdown" report, not leading with that and carefully attributing the claim to the Ukranian official. Good for them, of course.

The Wall Street Journal has some excellent breaking news reporting, including some sober insight into the surface-to-air missile question. Like this: "...If a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, attackers would have had to use a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, not the shoulder-fired weapons that are more accessible and easier to use. ... Those weapons, nicknamed manpads, have been used in attacks against commercial aircraft in the past. But their range is much lower than the 30,000-feet cruising altitude."
And there's this from a reader commenting on the main New York Times story: "If the plane was over Ukraine, then it was probably not close to landing airport and flying at between 35000 and 40000 feet over ground (6 to 7 miles above ground). It is doubtful that any country has the capability to shoot down a plane at that altitude, leave alone the rebels in Ukraine."

(The Malaysia 777 was reported to have been at 33,000 feet when it crashed.)

We'll see how this sorts out. But the WSJ item looked a litte off-base by afternoon, when "U.S. officials," who were not identified in reports in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, confirmed that the plane was in fact shot down by a missile. Other reports have come clarification on the capacity of surface-to-air missiles. A shoulder-fired SAM couldn't hit a target that high, but a sophisticated military one could. Still, an air of speculation remains.

If it was in fact a shootdown, let's hope that some hysterics in the media avoid the temptation to try to "localize" this horrific disaster with pointless "what-if" speculation on a threat of surface-to-air missiles. This appears to have been a unique situation to eastern Ukraine if it was actually a shootdown by a ground missile.

There have been NOTAM directives issues in recent months about flying over Ukraine, but the relevant one seems to have been about air-traffic control issues, rather than danger from the ground. It's unclear now what the status of those was because as Twitter and other reports have it, air space in eastern Ukraine had lots of commercial airline traffic at the time of the crash.

If it was not a shootdown but rather a bomb on that airplane, stand by for a nightmare air-travel scenario this summer, with a widespread security crackdown even in the U.S. on laptops and other personal electronic devices.

Meanwhile, the Howard Stern Brigade of pranksters struck again, this time making a dope out of MSNBC anchor Krystal Ball, who aired an interview with a man identified as a soldier in "the U.S. embassy in Ukraine." Even after the prankster said clearly on air that the plane "appeared to have been shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern's ass," Ms. Ball pressed on credulously, until the prankster himself told her, "Boy, you are a dumb-ass, aren't you."

This is what happens when TV .... oh, never mind. Cable TV news is just hopeless, and we all know it.

Here's the link:


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bananas in Brazil

After a six-month hiatus, I'm back to the blog today, inspired once again by the evidently congenital emotionalism in Brazil, and wondering if Folha and the other media will find a way to assign blame to Americans for Brazil's 7-1 loss yesterday in the World Cup games. (Which many found notable mainly because 8 points were scored in a single game, rather than the usual 1 or 2).

Today's Daily Mail, the UK tabloid that has made interesting inroads in the U.S., leads its Brazil wrapup today with a screaming headline (well, to be fair, Daily Mail headlines are always screaming): "Brazil's Darkest Hour: National Mourning; Riots in the Streets ..."

Just sayin'



Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Airlines Blame Everything and Everybody

The Fall of Saigon, 1975

Given the rolling fiasco of airline cancellations in the last six days, with travelers still stranded at airports around the country, unable to book alternate flights sometimes till days later, there's a lot of public anger toward the airlines. Well, a lot more than usual, let's say.

The airlines, of course, are blaming everything and everybody except themselves for the mess, in which flight cancellations legitimately caused by horrible weather in the Northeast and Midwest have developed into huge numbers of cancellations and delays throughout the air travel system. There were 3,600 new cancellations today, for example, bringing the total to well over 25,000 since last Thursday.

One villain the airlines were quick to finger is the Department of Transportation, which in 2010 addressed the scandalous problem of airlines stranding passengers for hours and hours on idled planes on tarmacs by imposing stiff fines for excessive tarmac delays. The problem disappeared virtually overnight, but the airlines have always hated the rule,  and are widely blaming it now for the excessive number of cancellations in recent days.  After all, the airlines and their various amen-choruses argue, why risk stiff fines valiantly trying to get planes into place to depart, when weather might cause backups and passenger dissatisfaction in getting those planes onto runways within prescribed time frames?

The airlines and various elements of the media that accept that line of reasoning seem not to consider the obvious fact that a great many of the massive number of flight cancellations since last Thursday have occurred at airports where the weather was not bad, for departures to other airports where the weather was not bad. (And in many cases, involving aircraft that had originated in places where the weather was also fine). So where was the tarmac-delay fine threat in those cases?

The fact is, the current fiasco is a direct consequence of an air transport system that has been significantly shrunk by the airlines in their quite reasonable drive to maintain profitability. Routes have been cut, crews are stretched thin, backup aircraft are unavailable, customer service and reservations agent workforces have been slashed and outsourced, while planes are all flying nearly full -- meaning re-booking after a canceled flight is daunting, even if you can get an agent on the line or get the online systems to work. So because there is no slack and there is no backup in the systems, weather disruptions immediately roll out through the whole network, with one result being that some terminals have resembled the Fall of Saigon in recent days.

Yesterday, meanwhile, JetBlue Airways came up with a new excuse when it shut down its operations at the New York airports and Boston: While the weather meant delays, cancellations were greatly exacerbated, JetBlue said, by new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration that limited duty-hours of pilots as a safety measure (partly in response to that horrific accident that killed 50 when a Continental flight operated by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo. Pilot exhaustion was one of the causes of that disaster.) Other airlines are now also invoking the FAA rule as an excuse.

Well, the nation's pilots have something to say on that. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union that represents 50,000 pilots in North America, issued this statement today (the underlining is mine):

ALPA Statement on Flight Delays and Rollout of New Pilot Flight/Duty Time Rules
Record bad weather and poor planning to comply with new regulations by a few individual airlines should not distract from the tremendous advancement in safety that has resulted from this past weekend’s implementation of the FAA’s new science-based flight- and duty-time regulations for airline pilots who fly passengers. Airline companies have had two years’ advance notice and the proactive safety culture that ALPA pilots have helped to develop at many airlines. Implementation of these long-overdue regulations has gone smoothly in all but a very few cases. These new pilot fatigue rules are a significant accomplishment in enhancing safety for the traveling public.

Where the safety achievement does fall short is that the new regulations do not apply to pilots who fly cargo. While the new rules make historic progress for pilots who fly passengers by taking into account a pilot’s work schedule, aircraft equipment, human physiology, and travel distances, the deliberate exclusion of cargo airline pilots clearly indicates there is an illogical conclusion that cargo pilots do not deserve the same protection from fatigue. For that reason, ALPA will never stop advocating for one level of safety and for Congress to pass the Safe Skies Act (H.R. 182/S. 1692), which will bring all airline pilots under these important safety regulations. When these regulations are applied to all-cargo operations, our industry will take an enormous stride toward achieving one level of safety to the benefit of all who fly.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Target's 'Guests' Get Royally Hacked

[UPDATED Dec. 27]

I never cease to be amazed by corporate PR responses to their companies' fiascoes. Latest case in point, Target, the big retail chain where the various credit and debit cards of 40 million customers ("guests," in the sanctimonious, insincere corporate mind) have been hacked since the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Target, incidentally, did not publicly disclose this eminently disclose-worthy fact until today, after a tenacious blogger, Brian Krebs, broke the startling news on his blog, KrebsOnSecurity.com

Target's PR response, which most of the corporate-friendly media rushed to slam high into their breaking stories on the hacking scandal, was notable for its obfuscation. Here it is in full. 

And so far, no reporting on what really needs to be done, by Target, to fix this: The company should be required to pay for credit-monitoring services for the the millions of people whose credit cards were hacked through Target's fault, and who need to monitor their credit card accounts and credit ratings because of it. Instead, Target (and the lickspittle media) are merely advising the victims to do this on their own, at their own inconvenience and expense.

Today, the media had barely reported the actual news -- Hey! 40 Million of Us Have Been Hacked at Target! -- when in the impossibly corrupted routine of the 24 hour news cycle the Target response to the heist, and not the heist itself, became the "late-breaking" news. And reporters scooped Target's palaver right up, long before they asked: Just how the holy hell did this happen, Target? What kind of schlock point-of-sale security do you have? And yo, how come you have a schlock data-security system at your stores? What are you going to do to make things right by your customers (I mean "guests"), other than to provide them with boilerplate tips on the laborious process required for them, the customers ("guests!") to examine their accounts and, if something is wrong, to go about making it right -- including phone calls to credit card companies, investigations of statements and even credit reports and, of course, the annoying chores of getting new credit cards issued, and duly notifying all of those auto-pay accounts of the new information, so their bills won't become delinquent? You may not be responsible for fraudulent charges on your card, but fixing it ain't easy, folks.

[UPDATE: Now Target admits that PIN numbers on the 40 million cards were also stolen, a week after it had denied this. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/27/target-pin-data-stolen_n_4508670.html]

Point-of-sale security hacking is one of the under-reported scandals in the retail world, including the world of hotels and restaurants, which are notorious for cheaply maintained and supervised front-end credit-card security operations. The big online retail operations generally have high-grade central security against hacking of credit card information, but at the retail local level -- you know, where you physically swipe your card -- hackers are increasingly busy stealing personal data by the boatloads.

I've written a couple of columns about point-of-sale hacking at hotels and restaurants. And I'll post more on the overall problems, as well as the likelihood that fiascoes like the Target Heist will spur the introduction of chip-and-pin credit cards (like they use in Europe). Let's hope this latest hacking scandal will spur retail companies to spend the money they need to spend to bolster data security at the point of sale. You know, where they actually take your money.

Here, annotated by me, is some of the insultingly phony language in Target's statement today, the statement -- issued only after the news of the heist was broken by a blogger -- that so many reporters are treating with respect:

"Target today confirmed it is aware of unauthorized access to payment card data that may have impacted certain guests making credit and debit card purchases in its U.S. stores. Target is working closely with law enforcement and financial institutions, and has identified and resolved the issue.
“Target’s first priority is preserving the trust of our guests and we have moved swiftly to address this issue, so guests can shop with confidence. We regret any inconvenience this may cause,” said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Target. “We take this matter very seriously and are working with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.”
Approximately 40 million credit and debit card accounts may have been impacted between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, 2013. Target alerted authorities and financial institutions immediately after it was made aware of the unauthorized access, and is putting all appropriate resources behind these efforts.  Among other actions, Target is partnering with a leading third-party forensics firm to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident.":

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Big Storms Snarl Air Traffic in Midwest

That's the air travel delay mess currently illustrated on Flightview.comhttp://www.flightview.com/ after tornadoes and thunderstorms raked central Illinois and elsewhere in the Midwest today.

The red dots indicate severe delays. The yellow ones show how the Chicago delays push out into the Northeast.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Those Conspiracy Theories

The media are going to be driving us to distraction in coming week with endless reprisals of the Kennedy
saga, now that we're up against the 50th anniversary of that awful day when those shots rang out in a hotbed of virulent right-wing hatred that was the city of Dallas in November of 1963.

And the rehashes of the conspiracy theories are at full volume. Thankfully, sensible voices are among them, like this one by Fred Kaplan in Slate that discusses why the "magic bullet" didn't really have to be so magic at all.

Myself, I firmly believe that there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy, a man who had many dangerous enemies and whose reckless personal behavior nurtured still more..

I also firmly believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot and killed Kennedy from the assassin's pitiful perch at a window on the Sixth Floor of that school book warehouse where he worked (and lurked) on Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

What say?

Well, I regard my theory as the only one that accounts for all of the indisputable actual evidence (as opposed to the distorted or false assertions and outright lies) that has accumulated to support the idea that there was in fact a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

The man, lifted to sainthood in the Camelot mythology that his widow and disreputable family, abetted by the worshipful media, worked so hard to maintain all of these years, had powerful enemies. Some of them, without doubt, hated him enough to be classified as potential mortal enemies. among them were elements of the mafia, institutionally and personally aggrieved (Kennedy's pathological philandering encompassed mob girlfriends, let us not forget, definitely a complicating factor in one's mortality). So the likely suspects include elements of the mafia, perhaps in league with rogue quasi-military elements tossed seething onto history's sideline with the the Bay of Pigs fiasco. There were also fanatic right-wing radicals who coalesced in Dallas, partly under the aegis of the oil billionaire crackpot H.L. Hunt, and probably in cahoots with anti-Kennedy zealots who had military backgrounds and simmering resentments about the way things were going in Washington. I don't even include Fidel Castro & Company on this list, though Fidel & Co. certainly had motive and, arguably, at least some means and opportunity, given the loony careening that Lee Harvey Oswald did through various communist precincts in the years before he focused his hatred onto one shining uber-celebrity and crouched at a window on Dealey Plaza ready to fire.

I am, incidentally, persuaded that forensic science has adequately explained the so-called "magic bullet" that was the main sticking point for many of those otherwise believed what the Warren Commission said: That Oswald did it, and did it alone.

Every single cogent objection to that theory can be explained and accounted for -- if you accept that there was one, and perhaps more than one, actual conspiracies in the works in 1963, perhaps in semi-organized form -- at that exact time that Oswald did the deed by himself.  And when Kennedy was killed that day, my guess is, those other conspirators were dumbfounded, because they somehow thought they had a part in it.

One can see them phone one another feverishly asking, "How did it go down?" Or, "Who said it was going to be Dallas?" Or "Who the fuck is this Oswald guy?" (The answer to which might have been, "So-and-so ran into him a few months ago, that's all I know.") And another suggestion might have followed: "We gotta shut him the fuck up!"

Entry the compliant and eager-to-please Jack Ruby.

To me, with some knowledge from many years as a reporter how the mafia actually works, the Mob is the most likely candidate for at least the lead role in a botched conspiracy, though I certainly suspect that Dallas right-wind fanatics might also have had an operation in the works on their own. As to the mafia, I once in the early 1990s spent some days interviewing a prominent mob hit-man in the witness protection program, a man who had murdered many colleagues on orders -- and I recall how amazed I was at his recounting of various dastardly and infamous deeds that were accomplished only after numerous botched attempts, some of which ended in failure in circumstances that can only be described as farcical.

Before it disappeared in the late 1990s, the mafia was insidious and extremely dangerous. But it was also made up of basically lazy (though violent) men with limited IQs and minimal skills in the sort of social communications that would be needed to successfully manage and complete an intricate, delicate, complex, high-level conspiracy followed by a decades-long cover-up.

So, even though the mob never pulled the trigger that day, this conspiracy or separate (but perhaps overlapping at some points) conspiracies was gloriously botched at every step of the way. So was the cover-up, but the true details of it I am certain have long been hidden in plain sight, woven into in the quite visible thicket of conspiracy, fact, supposition, wishful thinking, false lead, deception, and modifications of deception.

To this very day, I believe, there are old men with murky pasts who suspect, but have never known for certain, that they had a role in a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.

Who was killed, I am willing to bet money, by Lee Harvey Oswald, a pathetic loner with a grudge and delusions of grandeur, acting by himself that day.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Disturbing News on Drones

There are two important stories about attack drones in the two newspapers I read today. One's a major piece, fully reported out, in the New York Times about the very serious legal, ethical and security issues posed by the C.A.A. drone campaign in Pakistan.

The other important drone story is half-baked, in the local paper here in Tucson (Here) -- evidently simply repeating information from Tom Horne, the Arizona state attorney general and a well-known right-wing hack. That story reports the indictments, by Horne's office, of 21 members of the Arizona Air National Guard -- including their commander, a colonel -- on charges that they operated a fraudulent scheme in which the military personnel used phony addresses to receive $1.4 million in "additional benefits" to which they were not entitled. They are said to have falsely claimed living outside the Tucson area while on federal active duty in order to qualify for extra pay.

The mission of the unit, within the 214th Reconnaissance Group: Operating Predator drones from inside the sprawling Davis-Monthan Air Force base in Tucson on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is, this gang -- the indicted ones include eight officers and 13 enlisted personnel -- was on active combat duty, but more than 8,000 miles away, inside an Air Force base deep in the dusty desert of southern Arizona.

What? You might ask that, as anyone I know who read the story did today. The indictment says that the whole gang of them were operating a criminal scheme, with their commanding officer, while actively engaged in combat duty for United States military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq? Really?

All's I know on this is what I read in the papers, as Will Rogers used to say. But this one is a sleeper, it seems to me -- assuming some smart national reporting ensues.

The commanding officer was the only one named in the indictment: Col. Gregg Davies. The names of the others indicted were not made public.
Attorney General Horne's story is interesting, at least the little of it that we see so far. He says his office got involved in the investigation into the fraud -- which occurred between November 2007 and September 2010, (quoting today's Arizona Daily Star here, my italics): "after the FBI asked him to intervene when the case only involved two guardsmen, and the federal prosecutor's office declined to pursue charges."

Uh-oh. Where have we heard about "shenanigans" (the state AG's office word to describe the current unholy mess) involving the Arizona attorney general, the federal prosecutor's office in Phoenix and a military agency accused of malfeasance? Oh, maybe that politically tangled "gunwalking" mess called Operation Fast and Furious?

I can't imagine how the details will work out, but I sure do have a big hunch that Politics Phoenix Style is driving at least a part of this story, although the other part is obviously almost as complicated. That is, why are state National Guard personnel involved in remote combat drone ops from an Air Force base in Tucson? Maybe I am ill-informed, but I thought that sort of thing was done by actual U.S. military troops. And what the hell was going on in that air National Guard unit -- and at the command of that Air Force base?

Brewer Wags the Finger
More to come, I would hope, on this big mess in the Arizona Air National Guard, nominally under the command of one Jan Brewer, governor.



Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Republicans to Nice German Couple I Met Today: Drop Dead!

The closing of Saguaro National Park is neighborhood news where I live, adjacent to the park, on the east side of Tucson. Everything's shuttered, including access to hiking and horse trails.

But in a way it's also international news. As I was taking a photo at the main gate of Saguaro National Park this afternoon, a nice German couple drove up in a rental SUV with Texas tags and were surprised and very disappointed to find it shut -- as, of course, all other national parks are.

"Since today?" the woman asked. "We have been driving all day from Texas."

I apologized to her, as an American citizen appalled by the Republican radicals' attempts to continue a rolling coup d'etat and, ultimately, overthrow the government. (Something that at least older Germans might have some terrible familiarity with.) That coup began with the asinine impeachment of Clinton on spurious charges, reached full speed with the outright theft of the 2000 presidential election, indulged itself in the incompetence that allowed 9/11 to occur, followed by lying us into a war, and of course has been at full speed in the last five years trying to delegitimatize the 2008 election and destroy Obama, since they couldn't defeat him in a national election.

Or maybe it's the logical continuation of the cynical, antidemocratic Southern Strategy policies based on paranoia, criminal conspiracy and racial hysteria, accompanied by shrew gerrymandering, that were cooked by the Nixon cabal.

[Andrew Sullivan addresses that well today: "How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections  -   think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way...? ...[This] it is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States....When ideologies become as calcified, as cocooned and as extremist as those galvanizing the GOP, the American system of government cannot work. But I fear this nullification of the last two elections is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the American system of government as we have known it cannot work. It cannot, must not work, in the mindset of these radicals, because they simply do not accept the legitimacy of a President and Congress of the opposing party. The GOP does not regard the president as merely wrong – but as illegitimate. Not misguided – illegitimate...."
... This is not about ending Obamacare as such (although that is a preliminary scalp); it is about nullifying this presidency, the way the GOP attempted to nullify the last Democratic presidency by impeachment. ...]

Today's Republican right-wing anarchists who cynically engineered the government shutdown because they didn't like the health care law and were unable to change it through democratic means would never apologize, of course. Because their goal is failure of the U.S. government, and as things are going, the anarchists could well succeed one of these days. Unless we stop them.