It was another one of those weeks in the capital when our leaders debated matters crucial to the survival of American civilization.
Did President Obama try to upstage the Republican presidential debate by asking to address a joint session of Congress that same night? And did House Speaker John Boehner dis the president, and the presidency, by denying him that slot?
Tempted though I was to weigh in on this important matter, I decided instead to head over to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to preview a small but immensely powerful exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
There, displayed for the first time, are sacred relics of 9/11: the crumpled piece of the fuselage where the American flag had been painted on the Boeing 757 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, a flight-attendant call button from the plane, a window shade, a landing gear strut, and a log book with the pages intact. The exhibit is simple and raw, without glass or showcases. Some dried mud caked on an airplane seatbelt was flaking off onto a tablecloth.
Nearby is the door from a fire truck crushed at Ground Zero and the beeper of a man who died in the South Tower. There’s a Pentagon clock frozen at about the time American Airlines Flight 77 struck the complex and the phone on which Ted Olson received the last call from his wife on the doomed plane. Most poignant, perhaps, is the postcard from another passenger, written to her sister the day before the crash to give the address of a new home in which she would never live.
The spare exhibit brought back the horror of that time. But it also reminded me of the pride in what followed, the national unity and sense of purpose.
The warm feelings didn’t last long, of course, destroyed by the war in Iraq and the politicization of homeland security. By now, we have lost all sense of purpose in politics, alternately distracted by Sarah Palin’s bus tours, Anthony Weiner’s private parts, David Wu’s tiger suit, Donald Trump’s birth-certificate campaign, and Dick Cheney’s broadsides.
Obama, whose uncertain trumpet has ceased to rally even his own troops, contemplated his long-delayed jobs agenda while lounging on Martha’s Vineyard last month. His leading Republican rival for the presidency talks of treason and secession. Another challenger arranges to quadruple the size of his California home (his defense: He’s only doubling the living space). Lawmakers play games with the debt ceiling and wound the nation’s credit rating but can’t agree on anything to put Americans back to work.
The political extraneousness of the moment, in other words, is like that of early September 2001. We spent those days amusing ourselves with Gary Condit and shark attacks. President George W. Bush spent August on a record-long ranch vacation. The biggest issue under debate: stem-cell research. Warnings about Osama bin Laden were ignored while the administration obsessed over rewriting a missile treaty with Russia.
What will it require to end the drift this time? A depression? Another attack? Or is there a less painful way to regain national purpose?
“For most people,” curator David Allison told me as I toured the Smithsonian exhibit, “Sept. 11 is only a media event.” The exhibit is a modest attempt at changing that, taking that day’s ruins out of storage and rekindling memory. The lucky few who see the exhibit during its short run will be reminded that there are things more important than whether the president addresses Congress on a Wednesday or a Thursday.
Consider the simple postcard, written by Georgetown economist Leslie Whittington to her sister and brother-in-law, as Whittington, her husband and their 8- and 3-year-old daughters headed off to Australia for a sabbatical. The card, postmarked Sept. 12 at Dulles Airport, must have been mailed just before the family boarded American Flight 77. The note says, in its entirety:
Dear Sara & Jay,
Well, we’re off to Australia. When we return we will have a new address (as of 11/30): 8034 Glendale Rd. Chevy Chase, MD 20815
We don’t know our phone # yet. While we are in “Oz”, email will work best for contacting us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Love, Leslie, Chas, Zoe & Dana
I thought about Sara receiving that postcard from her dead sister, and about those little girls who never made it to Glendale Road – because of 19 evil men and a government distracted by less important things.
Then I went out onto Constitution Avenue, where, across from the museum, a bus labeled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had just parked.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 2, 2011
Koch Industries Lobbying Aggressively To Allow Safety Loopholes At Chemical Sites At Risk Of Terrorist Attacks
One of the largest private companies in the country, Koch Industries, is fighting tooth and nail against regulations aimed at protecting the United States from a terrorist attack on chemical plants, according to a new report. Since 9/11, homeland security officials have worked to establish rules for top chemical producers to ensure that major American plants identify vulnerabilities and shore up potential risks. However, the safety rules are costly, and as Greenpeace reveals in a study released today, Koch has used its influence in Congress to loosen enforcement on its own sprawling network of chemical facilities.
There are two bills that deal with industrial chemical safety standards and terrorism prevention. One bill, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard (CFATS), will “exempt most facilities and actually prohibit the authority of Department of Homeland Security to require safer processes.” Another bill, the Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act (CCFASA), closes security loopholes and provides authorities the power to enforce the law on chemical manufacturers. Koch has pushed for an extension of CFATS and has unambiguously lobbied to kill the CCFASA bill.
John Aloysius Farrell, Ben Wieder and Evan Bush, reporters for iWatch News, have covered the issue and note the proximity of Koch’s most dangerous facilities to large population centers:
– An Invista chemical plant in LaPorte, Texas, where a spill and vaporization of formaldehyde could threaten almost 1.9 million potential victims within 25 miles.
– A Georgia-Pacific plant in Camas, Wash., where a chlorine spill and gas cloud could endanger 840,000 people within 14 miles.
– A Flint Hills refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, where 350,000 people living within 22 miles would be threatened by a hydrogen fluoride spill and vaporization.
– And a Koch Nitrogen plant in East Alton, Ill., where 290,000 people live within 11 miles, and face the potential danger of a poisonous anhydrous ammonia cloud.
Koch’s campaign donations appear closely aligned with their anti-terrorism prevention lobbying. For instance, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), the lead author of the flawed CFATS extension, blocked amendments to the bill that would “require facilities to asses their ability to convert to safer chemical processes, close regulatory loopholes, and involve non-management level workers in the chemical security process.” Lungren has accepted over $22,000 from Koch-related campaign donations.
By: Lee Fang, Think Progress, August 24, 2011
We have a tendency to elect presidents who seem like the antitheses of their immediate predecessors — randy young Kennedy the un-Eisenhower, earnest truth-telling Carter the un-Nixon, charismatic Reagan the un-Carter, randy young Clinton the un-H.W. Bush, cool and cerebral Obama the un-W.
So Rick Perry fits right into that winning contrapuntal pattern. He’s the very opposite of careful and sober and understated, in his first days as an official candidate suggesting President Obama maybe doesn’t love America (“Go ask him”) and that loose monetary policy is “treasonous.” (“Look, I’m just passionate about the issue,” he explained later about his anti-Federal Reserve outburst, before switching midsentence to first-person plural, “and we stand by what we said.”)
Yet the most troubling thing about Perry (and Michele Bachmann and so many more), what’s new and strange and epidemic in mainstream politics, is the degree to which people inhabit their own Manichaean make-believe worlds. They totally believe their vivid fictions.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Perry is even entitled to his opinion that states such as Texas might want to secede, as he threatened at a Tea Party rally two years ago. But he’s not entitled to his own facts. “When we came into the nation in 1845,” he’d earlier told some bloggers visiting his office, “we were a republic. We were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.” That special opt-out provision is entirely fiction, a Texas myth the governor of Texas apparently thinks is real.
Perry also believes in the fiction of intelligent design. Campaigning in New Hampshire, he said that in Texas public schools, “we teach both creationism and evolution” — an assertion that’s a fiction itself; last month the Texas Board of Education unanimously rejected creationist biology textbooks. In Iowa, Perry served up a fresh viral-Internet fiction as his what-the-hell example of federal over-regulation — a new rule forcing farmers to get special drivers’ licenses to drive tractors. In fact, the Obama administration had just taken the very opposite position, ruling that states should maintain “common sense exemptions” for tractor-driving farmers.
Sincere, passionate, hysterical belief that the country is full of (make-believe) anti-American enemies and (fictional) foreign horrors is the besetting national disease. And I’ve diagnosed the systemic problem: the American body politic suffers from autoimmune disorders.
It’s a metaphor, but it’s not a joke. I’ve read a lot about autoimmune diseases — the literal, medical kinds, also disconcertingly on the rise — because several members of my family have them. At some point, our bodies’ own immune systems went nuts, mistaking healthy pieces of our anatomies — a pancreas, a thyroid, a joint — for foreign tissue, dangerous enemies within, and proceeded to attack and try to destroy them. It’s as close to tragedy as biology gets.
Which is pretty much exactly what’s been happening the last decade in our politics. The Truthers decided the U.S. government was behind 9/11. Others decided our black president is definitely foreign-born and Muslim. Tea Party Republicans are convinced his administration is crypto-socialist and/or proto-fascist. The anti-Shariah people are terrified of the nonexistent threat of Islamic law infecting American jurisprudence. It’s now considered reasonable to regard organs and limbs of the federal government — the E.P.A., the education department, the Federal Reserve — as tumors that must be removed. Taxation itself is now considered a parasitic pathogen rather than a crucial part of our social organism.
Many autoimmune diseases of the literal kind, such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, are apparently triggered by stress. For the sociopolitical autoimmune epidemic, there are plenty of plausibly precipitating mega-stresses: the 9/11 attacks and the resulting wars, a decade of stagnant incomes, chronic job insecurity, hyper-connected digitalism, real estate wipeout, teetering financial system, take your pick.
Exposure to chemicals or infections also play a role in triggering autoimmune disorders. My pathogenic scheme’s got that, too: the new streams of iffy infopinion, via talk radio and cable news and the Web, seeping into our political bloodstream 24/7.
Of course, metaphors are just … metaphors. Maybe in 2031 we’ll look back and smile and shake our heads and see the pathology of this haywire age as more psychological than physiological, a temporary national nervous breakdown, like the late 1960s. But what if our current, self-destructive political dysfunction really is exactly like an autoimmune disorder? They are generally permanent, chronic conditions. Only some are debilitating, and most are treatable, but they are all incurable.
By: Kurt Anderson, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 19, 2011
A decidedly unremarkable event by past standards occurred yesterday. The U.S. government brought criminal terrorism charges in a New York City courtroom against a Somali man captured in the Gulf of Aden. This is the first prosecution in criminal court to happen during the Obama administration, but such cases have been a common and extremely successful feature of U.S. policy that passed without notice for decades. This move, however, has provoked the now-typical reaction from conservatives who reflexively oppose every Obama administration action as a radical departure from U.S. norms that threatens the security of the nation. That’s ridiculous, and these conservatives risk U.S. security by pushing to remove a very powerful weapon against terrorists.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was reportedly seized in April onboard a ship in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. He is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorist groups—in this case the Somali-based al-Shabaab and the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The Obama administration revealed that Warsame was held on a U.S. Navy ship for two months and interrogated by the High-Value Interrogation Group, the team drawn from numerous frontline U.S. government agencies established by the Obama administration specifically to question suspected high-ranking terrorists. This produced significant information outlining a deeper connection between al-Shabaab and AQAP than previously known. U.S. officials reportedly discussed all options for Warsame’s future and unanimously decided on criminal prosecution.
Warsame’s trial in New York City is like many previous instances when individuals were seized abroad and brought to the United States to face terrorism charges in criminal court. The most recent similar case dates from the Bush administration, when Afia Siddique was detained in Afghanistan by U.S. troops in 2008 for attempting to shoot U.S. military personnel. She was quickly brought to New York, convicted, and sentenced to 86 years in prison. During the Clinton administration, Mir Aimal Kasi stood outside CIA headquarters in Virginia in 1995 and murdered two CIA employees as they drove into work. He was captured in Pakistan in 1997 and brought to Virginia for trial, convicted of murder, and executed in 2002.
Neither of these cases or the others like them produced negative responses from conservatives. Once the Obama administration did it, however, conservatives were outraged.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that “Congress has spoken clearly multiple times … of the perils of bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil.”
What perils? There has never been a terrorist attack related to the trial or incarceration of terrorists in the United States.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said, “A foreign national who fought on behalf of al Shabaab in Somali—and who was captured by our military overseas—should be tried in a military commission, not a federal civilian court in New York or anywhere else in our country.”
Forcing all prosecutions of suspected terrorists into military commissions has political appeal because it sounds tougher than using criminal courts. But let’s look closer at that military commission option.
First off, Warsame has been charged only with conspiracy and military support for terrorism. Those offenses are available in military commissions but neither has ever been considered a war crime. For that reason, the Department of Justice believes that convictions on those offenses in military commissions are susceptible to being overturned on appeal.
Further, the extremely short record of military-commissions cases based on conspiracy or material support reveals that those convicted receive short sentences and are quickly transferred back to their home countries and released. The most famous of these cases was that of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, who was sentenced to only five additional months in custody. The Bush administration sent him home to Yemen soon after.
U.S. criminal courts, on the other hand, have an excellent record at convicting terrorists. In a case analogous to Hamdan’s, Ali Asad Chandia was convicted in 2006 of providing material support for terrorism for driving a member of Lashkar-e-Taibi from Washington National Airport to spots around the D.C. area. His sentence was 15 years. So bin Laden’s driver got five months from a military commission but driving an unknown member of a lesser-known terrorist group resulted in a 15-year sentence in a criminal court.
Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. criminal courts have locked up more than 200 individuals on terrorism charges while military-commissions convictions can be counted on one hand.
American presidents of both parties have relied on criminal courts for decades because they are extremely effective at convicting suspected terrorists and have an excellent record of producing reliable and actionable intelligence information. Today’s conservatives are trying to deny the U.S. government this valuable tool because they are more interested in using political weapons against President Barack Obama than counterterrorism weapons against America’s enemies.
By: Ken Gude, Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program, Center for American Progress, July 6, 2011
I’ve been mulling over a column by David Brooks on “The Politics of Solipsism” for the past couple of weeks. What he wrote is nervy to say the least. He argues that America has lost the republican virtues on which it was founded, namely, the curbing of self-centeredness in the interest of the public good. I too am a fan of Cicero, but Brooks fails in one of the primary republican virtues by not forthrightly acknowledging that Republicans, the adherents of Ayn Rand, are the ones who have most blatantly deserted these same virtues. Self interest has center stage on their platform.
Brooks praises Truman and Eisenhower, but he fails to mention that it was President Kennedy who repeatedly challenged Americans and asked them to sacrifice. He urged us to go to the moon because it was tough, not because it was easy. And when my father, Robert Kennedy, was running for president and medical students asked him who would pay for more health care for the poor, he quickly answered, “You will.”
Contrary to the Republican philosophy, summed up by Ronald Reagan, that government is the problem, John and Robert Kennedy considered politics an honorable profession and affirmed that government was the place where we “make our most solemn common decisions.”
Both my uncle and my father knew that America is at its best when its citizens are willing to give up something for others. That was the spirit in which they committed themselves to public service. Ultimately they both gave their lives in the service of their country.
Like my father and my uncle, I believe that serving the public good is the essential republican virtue. In fact I led the effort to make Maryland the first and still only state in the country where community service is a condition of high school graduation. I did this because I believe that virtue comes from habits developed, not sermons given. Aristotle said, “we become house builders by building houses, we become harp players by playing the harp, we grow to be just by doing just actions.”
Republican governors are making their mark attacking public servants. They’re laying off citizens who exemplify republican virtues like teaching in inner city schools, fighting drug cartels, and rushing into burning buildings. Why? So that those who make outrageous salaries can pay lower taxes.
Brooks says that Republicans want growth, but I see no evidence that they want growth for anyone but the most well off. Where is the commitment to education, to infrastructure, to science?
Brooks commends Paul Ryan for sending the message that “politics can no longer be about satisfying voters’ immediate needs.” And yet Ryan would give the rich even more of a tax break at a time when our taxes are the lowest in three decades.
George Washington, whom Brooks also praises, would be surprised that the rich are being asked to shoulder less of a burden. He supported excise taxes that would fall disproportionately on the wealthy. When he went to war, he brought his wife, Martha, to share the hard, cold winter of Valley Forge along with him.
The wealthy have a special responsibility. From those who have been given much, much will be asked. In a true republic, people of wealth and privilege are first in line to serve in government, go to war, contribute to the honor and glory of their country. They set the nation’s values. If what they value is money, money, money, then the country will follow.
After 9/11, George Bush asked us to shop. At just the moment when he could have called us to a cause greater than ourselves, he (apparently on the advice of Karl Rove) urged us to step up for new TVs and designer bags rather than for the public good.
So if Brooks really wants to put an end to the politics of solipsism, he must take on the Republican party itself, which has done so little to cultivate the virtues of service, sacrifice, and commitment to country.
Please don’t lecture us about solipsism and republican virtues when it’s Republicans who are the ones who have made such a virtue of self interest.
By: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Atlantic, May 22, 2011