Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Culture of Organized Panic

By: Michael Akerman

Bombings in a crowded mass transit system; an innocent man gunned down in front of stunned bystanders; discrimination based on income, race, and religion; ultimately, a conscious decision to become evil in an effort to fight evil.

This is a familiar pattern: it sounds, to the uninformed, like something out of one of the despotic theocracies of the Middle East. The system has spiraled in such a way in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and every other tyranny that has stained the face of this globe. But this is not happening in a dictatorship, this time (or, at least, not as we've known dictatorships to be). No, this is happening in the country with perhaps the closest ties to America, the fatherland of our heritage, and our closest ally. This is happening in a bastion of culture and civilization, a nation that prides itself on its calm rationality and impressive civility, even (or perhaps especially) compared to the United States. It's happening in the United Kingdom.

I wonder often at the tenacity of human social systems when sudden catastrophe so easily causes a shift to reactions of fear and hate. A few days ago, London plain-clothes police officers shot a Brazilian man, who they suspected of being linked to the recent Tube bombings, eight times in the head in front of the stunned eyes of the commuters on the subway. It turns out that man was entirely innocent, guilty only of living in the same apartment complex as a terrorist and getting on a subway. Yet, I'm utterly surprised by the lack of outcry, at least on this side of the pond. There's an inquiry into the "incident," of course, but I've heard nothing that indicates the officers responsible have been stripped of their badges pending the investigation.

It's odd, I think, that this happened in Britain. Their police officers don't generally carry guns: it occurs that maybe they simply weren't used to the restraint a gun requires. At any rate, this is more heinous than most anything you hear of in America (from the police, anyway). When was the last time you heard of someone, who was not confronting the police with a weapon, being gunned down in the street, without a trial, merely on suspicion of being associated with terrorism? I can't recall an incident.

Still, people seem to take it in stride. I think it's despicable. The justification is that the only way to deal with a terrorist is to take his life with a kill shot to the head. That manner of thinking is entirely backwards: to break Godwin's law, though bear with me because my point is valid, Hitler thought that way about the Jews. They're ruining the country and we have to kill them. Anyone we suspect of it is just as guilty. I'm right, you're wrong, shut up.

The police have a duty to protect innocent lives, and they failed utterly. Instead, they have run directly counter to their commitment and taken one, without a trial, without hesitation, without a thought. I'm amazed that no one tried any of the dozens of less-than-lethal methods of taking this fellow down. One wonders why one of the officers didn't simply shoot him in the leg before he reached the subway, and accosted him forthwith. No, they decided it would behoove them to shoot to kill, as the first choice. Soldiers in Iraq don't do this at checkpoints when a car is speeding toward them, if you'll recall the case regarding that Italian journalist!

It's a sad time when we have to live in fear that we will be gunned down merely for wearing a coat and walking out of an apartment building where a terrorist might possibly live. I'm glad I don't live in London.

To be fair, the man who was gunned down (I neither feel like looking up his name, nor do I think it important to my point) apparently ran from the cops. Let me remind you, though, that we're talking about several plain-clothes officers in a subway, waving guns toward you. It's not illogical that one's first thought would be that you are about to be mugged, or that you were standing next to the terrorist, possibly armed with a bomb, that they are pointing the guns at. Wouldn't you run?

San Andreas and the Sims 2

Back in America, we still haven't gotten over the culture of fear, and it's still effecting us in myriad inane ways.

To recap,

Ol' Mrs. Clinton was a merry ol' soul
Who rode on the tails of her hubbie.
She called for a look at a game that took
The morals of the land and made them grubby.

That is to say (considering that that poem was not up to par with most of my poetry), Hillary thought it wise to open an investigation into the Hot Coffee mod for GTA: San Andreas, which unlocked a sex-based minigame. This resulted in an industry first: a revocation of a game's ESRB rating, and a new rating based on mod content. I find this inane on a number of fronts:

  • Hillary is supposedly running as a Democrat. I ask: who is going to be annoyed most by this investigation? Certainly not the moral Republicans, most of whom will support the change, even though it only increases the purchasing age by one year (that is, Mature [17+] to Adults Only [18+]), sheerly because morals are good, thus sex is bad. I don't personally agree, by the way, but that's neither here nor there, so to speak.

  • The game is already GTA: San Andreas. I think that's self-explanatory.

  • The content must be unlocked through modification or otherwise "hacking" the game. Don't you think it's easier for people to Google up a porn site?

Besides, this is a dangerous road. This ruling effectively opens up the danger of every game being rated, and thus designed, based on what mods may come to it. What does that mean to you, the consumer?

Let's take Jack Thompson for instance. He's a lawyer in Miami who specializes in suing the pants off of game developers when someone who played GTA kills someone else. That is to say, he's basically a con artist.

Mr. Thompson, it seems, has extended his crusade to the Sims 2, which is one of the most wholesome games ever. The reason: according to Mr. Thompson, you can remove the censorship blur from the naked sims (which is true), thus opening up the realm of visible naked bodies in all their glory, including nipples, genitalia, etc. That's not actually true, of course. While you can remove the blur, it is something akin to a Barbie doll. The closest to naked you can get is an odd, malformed creature with no sexual details. Just the general shape of a human body.

Someone has, luckily, informed Mr. Thompson of this, yet he stands by his challenge. This is where it gets dangerous, folks. He's changed his crusade against the Sims 2 to include the various modded naked skins, which are, indeed, rendered in highly sexually explicit detail. I have not bothered to look at them, and I won't post a link to a site that has them, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this claim.

The danger in this is that every game is moddable, bar none. I guarantee you, with money or time, I can change any game to include naked bodies. So, if this trend continues, game developers will have to make their games unmoddable, or face litigation. Otherwise, legislation can police the modding community, putting yet another damper on our free expression and the creation of ideas.

It's the culture of fear, folks. It's organized panic. We're all going to die; please stay calm.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Patriotic Post

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

Flag Etiquette

During the 4th of July weekend, small American flags showed up unannounced in the front yards of all the homes in my neighborhood. Attached to each pole was an adverisement for some real estate company. At first, I was annoyed. Not only had we not asked for a flag, but they had placed it on our property (i.e., trespassing), ignoring the "No Soliciting" sign placed at the entrance to the neighborhood. Also galling was the blatantly commercial use of the flag by this company.

Yet, I had no objections to the flag, per se. I pushed it more firmly in the soil when it looked like the flag was getting close to touching the ground. I kept my eye on it to make sure the flag was treated respectfully. I didn't give a second thought about it. It seemed like basic flag etiquette to me.

On the morning of July 5, I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and stumbled downstairs. Passing the front door on my way to the kitchen, I saw the dew on the grass glistening in the sun, a robin savoring an earthworm, the garbage at the curb... and, to my shock and dismay, on top of the garbage bags, rested the flag.

I brought the flag inside and confronted my folks. Their excuse was that they hadn't asked for the flag, and thus, they felt free to throw it away.

"But don't tell me you don't know how to properly dispose of a flag?" I asked. "You don't throw a flag away in the trash. You give it to someone who wants it, or if it's in bad shape, you dispose of it properly, by burning it! If you don't know how to do it properly (I'm not 100% positive on all the steps in the process myself), you can take it to a VFW lodge or other civic organization and they will dispose of it for you!"

They just stared at me, bemused. "But," my mother reiterated, "we didn't want the flag in the first place."

Aaargh! Like talking to a brick wall. To me, how the flag comes into your possession is irrelevant; how it leaves your possession is. Perhaps it's because my father served in the military, or because I have been involved with several civic organizations over the years, including the Boy Scouts and DeMolay, that I see the flag as being worthy of respect, regardless of whatever opinions I may have of our leaders or their actions.

Which leads naturally into my next fun-filled topic: flag-burning! The disrespectful kind, that is. In this time of trial and turmoil, both foreign and domestic, it's nice to know that our leaders in Congress are addressing the most pressing issue of our times, by..... introducing a constitutional amendment to ban burning the American flag?!

This proposal is akin a bad flu that recurs every couple of years. It seems to be the GOP-led Congress' way of saying, "It's time to adjourn for the year, since we would obviously have taken care of the rest of the nation's business before even remotely entertaining such an asinine notion."

From a Constitutional standpoint, it is counterintuitive. The trend with constitutional amendments has been to increase the power of the individual versus the state. Like Prohibition, this amendment would decrease the power of the individual by criminalizing an act of free speech that does not harm any living creature. While I would never burn a flag in protest, and have little but contempt for those that do, how is it not protected by the First Amendment? Does the right to free speech only protect popular forms of self-expression? Or wasn't the whole purpose of the First Amendment to protect unpopular forms of free speech? Here's hoping this motion gets shot down by the Senate like the last half-dozen constitutional amendments to ban flag-burning have.

America en Espanol?

One of the things I noticed on my European travels was how language was treated. In Britain, people spoke English. In France, they spoke French. While I did not know much French, most French did know at least a little bit of English. That makes sense. Throughout history, there has always one predominant international language of commerce, diplomacy, and science. In various eras, that language was Latin, French or German, based on the main world political and economic power of the day. So, it makes perfect sense that today most people around the world would have at least a passing familiarity with English. However, I never assumed the people I talked to overseas knew English. I first tried to use a phrase or two from their language as a gesture of respect which they almost universally reciprocated. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Brussels gave me another lesson in the importance of language to national unity. Historically, the existence of Belgium in its present form makes perfect sense, the differences between the Catholic Belgians and the Protestant Dutch dating back to the sixteenth century. Linguistically however, it’s a whole different story. Belgium is an amalgam of cultures and languages: The northern half of the country is known as Flanders, the south known as Wallonia. Natives of Flanders speak Dutch (they call both themselves and their language “Flemish”) while natives of Wallonia speak French. There are a number of cultural differences as well that exacerbate the linguistic divisions. Cultural identity has been so strong that it has led to various uprisings and rebellions throughout history. Tensions run so high on this matter that in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, which lies inside the Flemish-speaking zone, all street and subway signs, every billboard, every advertisement must be in both French and Dutch, by order of the law.

It is a law of history that almost invariably holds true: when a region tries to win independence from its mother country it is due to feeling that there are longstanding cultural and/or linguistic differences with the rest of the nation. While Belgium is not likely to erupt in civil war anytime soon, the language divide is a reminder of how important having a common language is to national unity.

When I got back to the States, I felt like I was back on the streets of Brussels again. Every advertisement and product label was bilingual, in English and Spanish. It is understandable why businesses would do this: there is a large market of customers who speak English as a second language, if indeed they speak English at all. But it seems to me that Americans are bending over backwards to make the newly-arrived immigrants feel at home.

Some examples: California voters not too many years ago passed a referendum that banned the practice of teaching, in Spanish, students who spoke only Spanish. Before the referendum was passed, students who spoke no English, instead of being taught English first so that they could then learn the other stuff in English, were being taught all their subjects in Spanish. To force these students to learn the language of their country of residence was deemed to be unfair to Hispanics by the politically-correct powers that be.

It doesn't end there. Federal law already mandates that localities provide ballots in whatever language voters need, an expensive task for a cash-strapped town. As naturalized citizens are already supposed to have learned English before gaining citizenship, this makes little sense.

English is as central to the American identity as it is to the British. For hundreds of years, immigrants from every nation have come here to the United States, bringing their own cultural traditions with them, and adapting to certain cultural facts of life here, namely the predominance of English as America's de facto national language. Why change that now? After all these generations of having English as a unifying force in this country, why should America now become bilingual?

The matter of excessive "tolerance" extends well beyond the language barrier. The Minuteman Project mobilizes citizens along the U.S.-Mexican border to patrol the border and report anyone coming across to Border Patrol. As Border Patrol is too understaffed to man the whole border, these citizens are doing the nation a favor, right? Not according to many on the left who insist that doing this discriminates against Hispanics.

In North Carolina, until last year illegal immigrants were allowed to get driver's licenses. Up until that point, the DMV accepted as valid ID: foreign passports, foreign birth certificates, and a Mexican ID card. Hmm.... As there is no guarantee that an illegal immigrant knows English, how they are expected to read the street signs is anyone's guess. But, the barons of cultural sensitivity scolded us, to refuse to allow those in our country illegally to get a driver's license violated their civil rights.

Then there is the flap over allowing illegal immigrants who attend North Carolina high schools to be allowed to receive in-state tuition. Though the N.C. House bill was rejected, like the anti-flag burning amendment, I'm sure we haven't seen the end of this scheme. Sure, they might be here in violation of the law, but why should that stop us from giving them a really good deal on college tuition? Not like it would be incentive for illegals to flock to North Carolina, now would it?

Businesses are reluctant to look too closely at the immigration status of many of their workers and all too often businesses knowningly hire illegal immigrants to avoid burdensome government regulations like minimum wage, overtime pay, and worker's safety laws. Of course, these illegals wouldn't be coming here if they didn't know they could find a better paying job here than in Mexico. In the long run, these illegal immigrants will stop trying to sneak into the U.S. only when Mexico has a standard of living on a par with America's. That will not be the case for a long while to come. But that is no excuse for being soft on immigration fraud.

There is a thin line between voicing objections to law-breaking and standing up for cultural traditions on the one hand and indulging in nativism and xenophobia on the other. Fear of crossing that line has kept many silent for far too long. It is not “anti-Hispanic” to say to a prospective immigrant, “If you want to live in our nation, you must abide by our rules and enter legally.” It is not racist to expect all immigrants to learn the common language all Americans share and have shared for centuries. When in Rome, speak Latin (or Italian). When in America, speak English!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Futility of Force Alone

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

A belated Independence Day to all. In honor of our nation's 229th birthday, I was working on a post on what it means to be "American." But first, breaking news today merits comment, so I'll post my star-spangled post later.

As I recently visited London and rode on one of the Tube lines targeted in this morning’s attacks, it really hits home. Just as it was blatantly obvious on 9/11 who was responsible, so today the attacks are virtually certain to have been carried out by Al-Qaida sleeper cell in Britain.

It was inevitable, really. The immediate cause for the attacks was in retribution for Britain’s role in the occupation of Iraq. You might notice that these attacks tend to happen in Western countries that gave military support to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq (Britain, Spain) and not in nations that have stayed out of Mesopotamia (France, Germany). Some might think that the prudent thing to do to prevent future terrorist attacks is to withdraw from Iraq, if not the entire Middle East. But that would be a tragic mistake and it wouldn’t stop the terrorist attacks against the West.

If that advise was heeded, it would not be long before the nations of the West would again fall under attack. The Islamic fundamentalists seek not just the withdrawal of the West from the region, but the submission of all countries to the rule of a world-wide Taliban-style caliphate. The fact that it is impossible for them to realize their goal makes no difference for they are beyond reason. The terrorists do not distinguish between “friendly” infidels and “unfriendly” infidels, but only between those who will join them in their goal or at least submit to it, and those who won’t. There is a great exchange from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith that rings true:

Anakin: "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy!"
Obi-Wan: "Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.”

The great conflict in which we are engaged in is a war of the Islamic fundamentalists versus everyone else because the terrorists have declared war on everyone else. No matter how much we may disagree about every other issue, all of us, in every nation, who oppose the terrorists are nothing but a target in their eyes. Kinda puts everything else in perspective, doesn’t it?

The British have known that this could happen—indeed, almost certainly would happen—when they cast their lot with all of civilized mankind in opposing the terrorists. The British have been through some tough scrapes in their long history. If the mighty Spanish Armada and Hitler’s great Luftwaffe could not defeat England, the British people will not be intimidated by these third-rate Third-World thugs.

The Futility of Force Alone

President Bush often justifies the Iraq war by repeating the mantra, “We’re fighting and killing the terrorists over there in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here.” First off, terrorists don’t fight. If they had a chance of winning militarily, they wouldn’t be forced to resort to cowardly attacks on civilians like they did today in London.

Second, the only way his argument makes sense is if there are a fixed number of terrorists (let’s say 1000) and none to take their place. In this scenario, if our soldiers kill all 1000 of these terrorists in Iraq, there won’t be any more terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, every terrorist has a family, and often, in the Middle East, a rather large extended family. If one family member is killed, expect a whole bunch of sons, nephews, uncles, stepsons, and the in-laws of second-cousins twice removed to join the terrorist’s ranks. The tribal nature of society in much of the region means that for every one terrorist you kill, you now have dozens or hundreds of terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Not to mention the fact that there are often civilian casualties as a result of coalition offensives. To root out insurgents from Falluja, the whole city was pretty much razed to the ground.

Imagine you are a Sunni Iraqi; people you know have been killed by coalition soldiers; you’re unemployed because no one will hire a former Ba’ath party member; the electricity in the house is on an average of less than 4 hours a day (the average in Baghdad) and never the same 4 hours from day to day; the Shiites and Kurds form a government that allows both groups to keep their militias but forces the Sunni fighters to disarm; your son was killed in a suicide car bombing while training to join the new Iraqi army; you can’t let your wife shop in the market for fear of losing her too, not that there’s much produce at the market anyway due to the coalition forces having blockaded your town to force the insurgents out; you have a decent car but no gas because insurgent attacks on oil pipelines have caused shortages in a country with the second largest oil reserves in the world; and to top it all off, the U.S. Army demolishes your home. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t you at least contemplate the use of force? I’m not trying to justify the insurgency, just pointing out some of the many reasons an Iraqi might join it.

Or imagine that you are a Syrian or a Jordanian or a Saudi watching the news at home and all you see and hear on Al-Jazeera and the state-run networks is Americans killing and torturing Iraqi civilians, desecrating Muslim mosques, flushing Qu’rans down the toilet, [insert whatever atrocity you want, real or imagined, here]. Then you go to your Friday prayer services and the imam tells you he can hook you up with some people who can help you get back the infidels oppressing your Muslim brothers in Iraq. Did I mention you’re also unemployed as there’s only one game in town, oil, and only so many spots available in that field? Or that you’ve been schooled since you were 4 or 5 in religious schools called madrassas, where every day, instead of learning "readin’, ‘rightin, and ‘rithmatic", you learned about how all the problems of the Arab world are due to the Westerners and Jews and how the Jews celebrate Passover by drinking the blood of small Arab children? I’m not making this stuff up, I only wish I was.

Cenk Uygur sarcastically concludes, “It turns out shockingly enough the terrorists can multitask. Anyone with half a mind could have told you that al-Qaeda wouldn’t pull sleeper cells from their Western targets to go fight in Iraq. Today those sleeper cells, who it turns out had not bought their tickets for Baghdad after all, hit us right at the center of one of our largest and most important cities. As CIA and US military reports indicate, the war in Iraq has only helped to recruit more terrorists to the cause of al-Qaeda. This allows them to fight us more effectively over there AND over here.”

So, far from every militant we kill being one fewer we have to face in the West, the opposite seems to be true: for every militant we kill, we raise up more than enough to replace him. We have to face the fact that we are creating enemies faster than we can kill them. It should obvious by now to the Bush administration that their focus on winning the conflict by meeting force with force has failed.

As I wrote here last September 11, "Iraq is in crisis as Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists travel to Iraq to fight jihad--against us. No matter how many terrorists we kill or capture, more will always take their place until we win the real war: the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. The war in Iraq has turned the minds of the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East against us--perhaps for good. Meanwhile, in a cave somewhere, bin Ladin laughs maniacally. For we have done what he could not: convince the Muslim world that America is waging war against Islam itself."

Regardless of how many terrorists we kill in Iraq, we are no safer, indeed less safe now, than we were before we invaded Iraq. Our focus in this “War on Terrorism” must shift from merely dropping bombs to encouraging Muslims in the region to reject the Zarqawis and Bin Ladins in their midst. So far, we have given them precious little reason to do so. But that is the only way to make America—and the world—truly secure.

I’ll give Uygur the last word on this subject: "They want us to answer violence with more violence. There is a time for war, as in Afghanistan, and there is a time for a smarter and more comprehensive strategy. War and violence are the only answers al-Qaeda has. They shouldn’t be the only answers we have. We should be smarter than them, we should be better than them."

The Importance of the Status Quo

This is really just a clarification of my last post on the kind of justice Bush should appoint in case of a vacancy: This just in, sources say Rehnquist will announce his own retirement tomorrow. This is a godsend for America. All along, people had expected Rehnquist to retire this year, so Bush probably wouldn't face much opposition to choosing one conservative to replace another. When O'Connor announced her retirement last week, conservative activist groups started clamoring for Bush to name a far-right conservative. As that would replace a more moderate justice with a more conservative one, it could shift the balance on the Court. Now that Bush has two vacancies to fill, (if, indeed, the news is accurate) then he could choose two conservatives and change the composition of the court for a generation. Roe v. Wade would likely be overturned, as would a number of other issues important to social conservatives such as gay marriage and the role of religion in government.

Let's take abortion as an example: If the court overturned Roe and turned the matter back to the states (a lot more likely than ruling abortion unconstitutional), special interest groups would fight in each state in battles that would make the current controversy over abortion look like a minor squabble. Pro-lifers would win in some states, pro-choicers in others. America would be left a divided patchwork of states, much like antebellum America.

Just as slaves fled to free states, women in states where abortion was criminalized would drive to states where abortion was legal, then drive home. This would outrage social conservatives, who would try to get Congress to pass a federal law making it a crime to cross a state line to get an abortion (they already tried making it a crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion) or making the woman criminally-liable upon her return. This situation would lead to intense acrimony between states that, combined with other social values issues that would also be relegated to the states, could conceivably lead to a break-up of the United States. Even if it did not, it would make America a "house divided," one that would sorely test Lincoln's famous proposition. Is the kind of America anyone really wants?

There is an alternative. Currently, these divisive hot-button issues are resolved in the Supreme Court, not the individual states. Thus the radioactive fallout from these decisions is mostly contained to Washington. The status quo allows for people upset over these issues to blame the Supreme Court, rather than turn on their neighbors for their views and local politics tends to be relatively free of the poison of these issues.

In the interest of national unity and stability as well as general harmony among citizens and states, these issues should be left roughly as they are. Since the 1970s, there haven't any major changes on any of these issues, mostly due to the moderation and pragmatism of Justice O'Connor. To preserve the status quo, a moderate must replace her, yet Bush has to throw some red meat to his base.

Enter the "Bartlett Solution." The Barlett in question is Jedediah Bartlett, the fictional president on "The West Wing." In an episode last year, Bartlett was confronted with two Supreme Court vacancies. He wanted to appoint two liberals, but the Republican-led Senate wouldn't confirm them. He eventually decided to nominate one liberal and one far-right conservative he respected. Bush now has the same opportunity. He can choose to bring this country together and spare it greater future polarization by maintaining the status quo and appointing both a moderate conservative (Alberto Gonzales, say) and a far-right conservative (Luttig, Alito, Garza, or Janice Rogers Brown perhaps) if he can resist the temptation to remake the Supreme Court in his image. Knowing Bush, that's a mighty big if.