The Memory Hole

The official forgetting we are supposed to do will not produce the desired result.
[Eventually] people forget why they are supposed to forget, and then they start to remember.

— an anonymous Chinese man commenting on the Cultural Revolution,
quoted in Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century.

This week’s featured posts are “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George” and “Civics for Dummies: Judicial Review“, where I explain why Mike Huckabee should have flunked 9th grade.

This week everybody was talking about the Amtrak accident

A derailment in Philadelphia killed 8 and injured 200. It’s still not clear whether bad track played any role, or if better tech would have avoided the accident, but the incident did provide an opening to discuss our generally crumbling infrastructure.

Whatever caused this week’s derailment, it’s crazy that we just went through years of high unemployment and low interest rates, but we didn’t borrow money to hire people to fix our at-risk bridges, build a 21st-century power grid, and upgrade our railroads.

and the Boston Marathon Bomber

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the pair who planted the bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, was sentenced to death on Friday. Three died in the bombing and at least 260 were injured. The brothers also killed an MIT policeman while trying to escape.

Several factors weighed against a death sentence: His age (19 at the time of the bombing), the possibly dominating influence of his older brother (who died in the shoot-out with police), and a plea from the parents of an 8-year-old victim that the state settle for life imprisonment in order to get the case completed. (If this case follows the usual pattern, appeals could continue for a decade or more before Tsarnaev is executed.) A Boston Globe poll showed that 57% of Bostonians favored life without parole, against only 33% who wanted death. (Death is a possibility only because Tsarnaev’s case is federal; Massachusetts has no death penalty.)

I seldom discuss the death penalty on this blog, because my position is mushy. I’m against the vast majority of executions, but I don’t have a clear set of principles to put forward, and I would rather save my effort for injustices with more deserving victims.

A thought-provoking book on the death penalty is Debbie Morris’ Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. Morris is a surviving victim of Robert Willie, whose execution inspired the book and movie Dead Man Walking. Willie kidnapped and raped Morris, but she managed to escape before being murdered like Willie’s other victims.

Morris became an anti-death-penalty activist, and her book describes the sense of peace she found after she “forgave” Willie, an event of mostly spiritual/psychological significance, because it happened only after Willie’s execution. To me, that’s what makes the book so thought-provoking: I wonder if Willie being dead played a role in the peace Morris reached, even if she doesn’t see it that way.

Morris’ situation is one of the rare examples in which I could support the death penalty: when there are traumatized surviving victims who will always be looking over their shoulders as long as the murderer is alive. (Morris testified against Willie, and the one time he briefly escaped from prison, he might have been headed in her direction.)

But the simple desire of surviving friends and relatives for revenge doesn’t move me. And I don’t think national trauma justifies executions either: Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is serving Year 47 of his life sentence, and I’m fine with that. I’d be fine with Tsarnaev in prison for the next half-century too.

and Jeb Bush’s bad week

He had trouble fielding one of the campaign’s most predictable questions: “On the subject of Iraq, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” After four days with four different answers, he finally found the one he should have been practicing in front of a mirror for months: “I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.” I discuss all this in detail in one of the featured posts: “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George“.


This week’s other 2016 news was best expressed by Gail Collins:

Former ambassador John Bolton announced he would not be running this week, stunning many Americans who had no idea former ambassador John Bolton even existed.

If Donald Trump runs, that will stun many other people who believe he’s a fictional TV character.


Also, Marco Rubio spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations on the “three pillars” of his foreign policy:

  • American strength. He called for higher defense spending and making the domestic-spying part of the Patriot Act (Section 215) permanent. I found this statement a bit chilling: “We must never find ourselves looking back after a terrorist attack and saying we could have done more to save American lives.” As long as we’re not a completely totalitarian state, we could always do more to save American lives.
  • “Protect the economy” through free trade. Rubio inverted the typical usage of the word protect, which usually means protecting American industries from foreign competition. He endorsed TPP and similar trade agreements, and pledged to “use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.”
  • Moral clarity regarding America’s core values. He defined those values as: “a passionate defense of human rights, the strong support of democratic principles, and the protection of the sovereignty of our allies”. But this is just rhetoric unless he gets down to cases, because those principles are often in conflict. Take the overthrow of Muburak’s regime in Egypt, for example. Should we have supported human rights or protected our ally? What if the sexist, autocratic Saudi monarchy faces a revolution?

One piece of Rubio’s “moral clarity” is a point that virtually every Republican candidate has voiced: We should not “hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real name — radical Islam.”

I don’t think the Obama administration or its defenders have done a good job explaining why this is such a bad idea. So let me give it a try.

The most important battlefield of the current struggle is inside the minds of Muslim teen-agers, particularly the talented ones who have opportunities in their personal lives. (Anwar al-Awlaki comes to mind. His formative years are recounted in some early chapters of Jeremy Scahill‘s book Dirty Wars.) They could go to college and become engineers or dentists or something. On the other hand, they could join ISIS or al Qaeda, or do some lone-wolf terrorism wherever they happen to live, like the Tsarnaev brothers.

I know radical Islam sounds terrifying to many Americans, but how does it sound to those kids? For comparison, imagine how radical Christianity sounds to kids growing up Baptist in Georgia or Catholic in Boston. I suspect it sounds like something they should aspire to. So wouldn’t it be a huge mistake to tell those Baptist or Catholic kids that the way to be a “radical Christian” is to assassinate doctors and blow up abortion clinics?

Similarly, ISIS recruiters would love to convince Muslim teens around the world that the way to practice radical Islam is to join them. Radical Islam is a term of strategic importance. We should fight ISIS for it, not surrender it to them.

[Slate‘s William Saletan details how Republican rhetoric about Islam echoes ISIS rhetoric, then comments: “Remind me again who’s naïve.”]


Josh Marshall’s hindsight on Iraq is more interesting than Jeb Bush’s.

and you also might be interested in …

In a current article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nahisi Coates points out a double-standard in President Obama’s rhetoric: He’s willing to single out the black community for moral lectures, but

[Y]ou will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.

Coates has long argued that since the oppression of black people was very color-conscious, helping them overcome that oppression needs to be color-conscious too (rather than relying on generic anti-poverty programs like Food Stamps). Last year he wrote “The Case for Reparations“, which I reviewed.

The current article’s most striking quote:

In a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour — funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.


Can anybody spot what’s wrong with this tweet from the Texas Senate Republican Caucus?

Yes, it’s the cross. Apparently, only Christian religious freedom is protected in Texas. But why would anybody outside the majority religion need protection, anyway?


Remember the 20-week abortion ban the House almost passed last January, but pulled after the female representatives they need for cover balked? It’s back, and this time it passed.

and let’s close with something enviable

Those of us who don’t own dogs never get greeted like this:

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