Friday, October 30, 2015

October 30, 2015 - Cop Accused of Manslaughter Receives Federal Immunity

Back in 2013, a man named Larry Jackson, Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer. The tragedy occurred after Jackson visited his local bank, which was the target of a bank robbery earlier that day. By all accounts, Jackson was not involved in that robbery, but he was confronted by police and ultimately ran away. The police officer pursued Jackson, caught him, and ultimately killed him in the ensuing altercation. The police officer insists his gun discharged by accident, while Jackson's family contends it was intentional--noting that Jackson was shot in the back of the head, "execution style" in the words of the family's lawyer.

Additionally, it may not surprise you to learn that Jackson was an unarmed black man, and the police officer involved was a white officer named Charles Kleinert.

While there are several things that make this case stand out from other police violence incidents, perhaps the most notable reason is that the officer was going to be prosecuted for manslaughter. Manslaughter is a lesser charge than murder because it does not require intent, but it is still very uncommon in these cases. According to the Washington Post, this was one of just 54 prosecutions over the 10 year period dating back to 2005. And this week, before the state's trial even took place, a federal judge stepped in to grant the officer federal immunity, effectively canceling the trial.

The Washington Post  has a good write-up on this story that contains some interesting details, but it lacks the level of outrage this story should inspire. Even so, the article is worth checking out.

The Post summarizes the key argument of the cop's defense attorneys' as follows:
But Kleinert’s legal team argued that the shooting was accidental and that, because he was a member of an FBI task force that he was entitled to ‘Supremacy Clause immunity’ — a defense that argues that because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, a federal officer who at the time reasonably believes his actions were necessary to the performance of his federal duties is immune from state criminal prosecution.
The article also notes that this idea of Supremacy Clause immunity dates back to 1889 and originated under very different circumstances than the case in question. But let's set those details aside. The right question to ask here is whether immunity could ever be justified. And the answer is no.

The reason for this is that our system already gives tremendously favorable treatment to cops as it is. And this is true in many different ways--from media coverage that tends to disparage the victim and lend more credence to the official story from the police department to the inherent conflict of interest in having co-workers investigate and prosecute each other. What is perhaps even more interesting, is that the applicable legal standards give cops significant discretion over when to use lethal force. And in the case of prosecution, historical Supreme Court rulings have had the effect of granting more weight to the cop's version of events, thereby making a successful prosecution less likely.

Now, a plausible case can be made that the above state of affairs is how things should be. Cops have a dangerous job, and so perhaps they should be afforded more leniency when they make mistakes. But even if you subscribe to that idea, you still have to acknowledge that some limits. Perhaps cops should be granted a wide range of discretion in deciding when to use lethal force. But when those limits are clearly exceeded, as they appear to have been in this case--which involved cartoonishly commandeering a random person's vehicle and shooting a random bank customer in the back of the head--it must be possible to hold those cops accountable. The prosecutor in Austin was trying to do that in this case, and the federal government has prevented it from doing so.

The system we have already grants most cops immunity by default; granting them immunity by law is a dangerous and alarming new development.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

October 29, 2015 - When the US Almost Started a Nuclear War by Accident

Today's story is an in-depth account from a former member of the US Air Force who served on one of the nuclear missile launch teams during the Cold War. Speaking to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the airman retells a previously unheard of story in which his team received official nuclear launch codes by accident during the especially tense period known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ultimately, his team narrowly avoided launching 32 nuclear warheads due to the courageous skepticism of one officer.

It's a thrilling account. And as tensions between Russia and the US continue to rise, it's a good time remember just how much was luck was involved in avoiding a nuclear exchange throughout the Cold War.

With that, here's the link to the article. Be sure to check out the notes at the end as well, which briefly summarize a few of the other incidents where nuclear missiles were nearly launched accidentally. (Yes, this has happened several times.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

October 28, 2015 - Criminalizing Free Speech Against Israel

This week, the France's court of appeals upheld the criminal conviction of anti-Israel activists. The activists were convicted of inciting hate or discrimination based on the following nefarious behavior (per the Forward):
The individuals arrived at the supermarket wearing shirts emblazoned with the words: “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel.” They also handed out fliers that said that “buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.”
In other words, they did what activists do. They promoted their particular cause (boycott or sanctions against Israel), in a way that was peaceful, and they were charged with a crime for it. This is possible because France has extensive laws against hate speech. Indeed, this actually isn't the first time prosecutions like this have happened in France.

Now it sounds like these activists were only punished with a fine rather than imprisonment, which is a relief. But the principle at stake here remains the same. At bottom, these people were convicted for speech, for advocating a cause (boycott and sanctions against Israel) that happens to be taboo in polite circles. Regardless of how one feels about the politics of these activists, the question to ask here is whether peaceful speech should ever be a crime.

Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept has an excellent article out on this very question. He argues persuasively that this sort of activism should never be criminalized. And he also highlights the pervasive hypocrisy of France and the West on this subject, noting for instance that no one has called for the prosecution for all the people that advocated for sanctions against Iran or Russia over the year. Here's the link:

Banning and criminalizing hate speech is one of those things that could plausibly seem like a good idea until you try to figure out how to enforce it. Where's the line between free speech and hate speech? And more importantly, how could we possibly decide what is hateful in an objective way? The answer is that we can't. And so the decision of what is hateful be based on whatever the prevailing biases of the society (or the politicians) happen to be at the time.

Let's consider applying the concept of hate speech in the American context to discover how futile this is. For instance, Trump's recent rhetoric on Mexican immigrants being rapists or Syrian refugees being potential terrorists, could reasonably be viewed as hateful. What about Hillary Clinton bragging that "the Iranians" were her enemies in the Democratic debate? Or to go further back, how about that time when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (under Bill Clinton) claimed that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children caused by US sanctions were "worth it"?

All of these things could plausibly be called hateful. A useful thought experiment to verify this is to just replace the targeted group with "Blacks" or "Jews" and reread any of the above statements. They probably sounded worse because we're more sensitive to it. But there's really no moral difference between discriminating against African-Americans or discriminating against Mexicans. They're both reprehensible, and one is not less terrible than the other.

But deciding whether something is morally wrong and deciding whether it should be criminal ought to be separate questions. The French example offers a compelling reason why. Today, we are discussing a case of overtly political activism being labeled hate speech in France, while less than a year ago, a publication that openly mocked Islam being celebrated as free speech. That's as arbitrary as it gets.

Laws against freedom of speech always get used against people who lack political power. In France today, that designation includes Palestinian activists. In Germany and some other European countries, it includes Holocaust deniers. In the US circa 1917, that included anti-war activists, and during the Cold War, it was mostly focused on communists. Clearly, some of the groups that get prosecuted under these rules are marginalized for good reason. But you can't defend one group's right to free speech without defending everyone's right to speech, even the crazies'. And so we have to allow nativists, Islamophobes, anti-semites, and white supremacists to say what they want--not because we agree with it or approve of it, but because free speech is free speech. It doesn't matter if you agree with it.

1 - I should note that the above argument did not discuss the simpler rationale offered by the non-aggression axiom that is central to libertarian thinking. That argument would go something like this - speech itself does not cause harm to anyone unless it is a call or direct threat of violence. Thus, since it doesn't infringe on anyone's rights, it should be permitted. The more admittedly circuitous argument offered in the post above assumes and acknowledges that most people aren't coming at this from the libertarian perspective.

2 - I didn't include it in the main text of the post, but this oft-mentioned poem regarding the Holocaust addresses the same subject powerful. You may have heard it before, but it's a good one to revisit. It's called "First they came..."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

October 27, 2015 - The Curious Definition of "Combat"

As you may know, the US currently has approximately 3,500 troops on the ground in Iraq as part of a so-called "train, advise, and assist" mission. Officially, these troops are not in an "active combat" role, and there is no official war in Iraq or Syria, either declared or authorized in any other fashion by Congress. And yet, last Thursday, an American soldier died in a gunfight, during a raid of ISIS prison.

Under any plausible definition of the word combat, a firefight would seem to be included. But the Administration would have us believe that actually, US soldiers were not expected to be in harm's way during the operation. Just think about that for a second. During an offensive, night-time raid on an ISIS prison in which we were trying to free 70 people, US officials claim they did not expect the troops to experience combat. What? Did they honestly think the prison would be just mysteriously unattended in the middle of the night? No, apparently, US troops were just supposed to stay behind at the last minute while the Kurdish forces did all the fighting.

Obviously, this is completely absurd. The Obama Administration is just trying to change the commonsense meaning of words to make its policies sound less terrible than they truly are. This is similar to how they have changed the definition of militant (i.e. not a civilian) to be any fighting-aged-male killed in an airstrike unless they are proved innocent after the fact. (This definition change explains why the monitoring organization, AirWars, recently reported more than 450 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq as a result of airstrikes, while the US-led coalition had acknowledged just two over the same period.) It is also similar to how the Bush Administration previously invented the term "enemy combatant" out of whole cloth to try to claim legitimacy for denying detainees the rights guaranteed to them under the Geneva Conventions. And of course, who could forget the fact that we've actually ended the war in Afghanistan under Obama--even though we still have troops and we're still routinely launching airstrikes there.

The point here is that lying about war and manipulating language to that end is a decidedly bipartisan tradition. The only real difference is that when Republicans do it, some politicians and mainstream pundits will try to call them out for it. When Democrats do it, they have immunity as long as their lies favor the cause of more intervention, as evidence by the recent Benghazi hearing debacle. This, in turn, explains why it's actually an open question whether the US would have a worse foreign policy under a Democrat or a hawkish Republican. For instance, Ted Cruz would certainly try to launch more wars than someone like Bernie Sanders, but there's at least a chance Cruz would face some kind of substantial opposition. Meanwhile, if Hillary had the reins of power, mainstream liberal thought would praise her for the inevitably "humanitarian" interventions while the Republicans would just be glad to see us bombing someone.

But regardless of the domestic politics that produce the intervention, the results on the other end of the policy tend to be the same. More dead Americans, more dead civilians, more anti-American sentiments, and more instability in regions that can scarcely afford it.

If you're interested in learning more about the combat raid and the Administration's response that we discussed at the beginning of this post, this article offers a good write-up:

Ben Carson Tries and Fails to Defend the Second Amendment

Ben Carson was on the Meet the Press this weekend and it didn't go well. In back-to-back questions on the protections offered by the Second Amendment, he directly contradicted himself. And in the process, he seems to have revealed that he has no idea how the Constitution works even in theory. The exchange was so phenomenally stupid that it needs to be read to be believed. I've reproduced the relevant portion below (emphasis mine):
Well, my point being we should never compromise the Second Amendment. It's therefore a very, very important reason. And Noah Webster said that America would never suffer under tyranny because if people were armed. So we need to keep that in mind. Of course, we should be thinking about what can we do to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable people. The two things are not incompatible. But--

So you're not saying there should be a limitation on what type of weapon a sane person should be able to buy?

Of course not. You know, when we put this amendment in place, you know, state-of-the-art weapon was what? A musket? But the principle was that the citizenry should have, you know, access to whatever they needed in order to protect themselves from an overly aggressive government.

What's the line? I mean, should somebody be able to have one of these surface-to-air missiles?

I don't think you can get a surface-to-air missile legally in this country.

And that's okay? I mean, that's my point. Like, you're okay with having, you know, anything you can hold, you know, there is some limitation on what somebody-- 
There is. And we have laws that, you know, take care of that.
So in other words, Carson first declares that the Second Amendment should guarantee citizens have access to any weapon the government has. Then, when asked about one such weapon, he says there are laws against it, and he's okay with them.

See the trouble is, if a law abridges a freedom guaranteed in the Constitution, the law would be unconstitutional. That's kind of the fundamental premise underlying the Bill of Rights and arguably our whole notion of limited government. But this exchange offers strong evidence that Carson either legitimately doesn't understand this or has the most acute case of short-term memory loss ever seen. Either way, it should be a bit troubling that a person who routinely makes nonsensical arguments like this is one of the leading candidates of a major party.

Monday, October 26, 2015

October 26, 2015 - There's a Coup Happening in Portugal?

Portugal held parliamentary elections on October 4, which resulted in left-leaning parties gaining a majority of the seats (51%). This would be a changing of the guard in Portugal which has had a conservative president since 2006 and a conservative prime minister since 2011. The left-leaning parties campaigned in large part on a platform of anti-austerity. You see, like Greece, Portugal ran into debt issues and received a financial bailout 2011 that required them to implement austerity measures. These austerity measures didn't turn the country around too quickly, though, and were massively unpopular; that's what led to the left-leaning parties winning this election.

The trouble is that the current president has been a proponent of austerity, and now he has declared that the leftists are too radical to be put in power. And he has refused to allow the left-leaning parties to take control of the parliament, even after they won the election. Thus, Portugal is now seeing mass protests and political chaos. Here's a thorough write-up on some of the drama that's worth checking out, though you should know that it is written with a strong bias in favor the left-leaning groups.

Wait, he can do that?
Upon reading the summary above, I suspect your first thought was the same as mine: How can the government refuse to recognize an election? And the answer lies in Portugal's particular governmental system, which is considered a semi-presidential system. Basically, the president is elected in a popular election (like the US) and prime minister is elected by the legislature (like the UK). And then the duties that would be concentrated solely in a president in the US model, are split between the prime minister and the president. And in Portugal, part of this split means that the president is actually the one who nominates the prime minister in consultation with the parliament. In general, my understanding is that this is just a formality; the president is supposed to nominate whoever gains sufficient support in the election. But in this case, the president decided he won't nominate the leftists for fear of sending the wrong message "to financial institutions, investors and markets." It's really a phenomenal statement. And although what he's doing doesn't appear to be unconstitutional in a technical way, in substance, he's trying to nullify an election result. This is something that one might expect to see in a developing country in Africa or Asia with a dictatorial government, but seeing it happen in Western Europe is remarkable.

What happens next?
We can expect this situation to get worse before it gets better. The left-leaning groups are planning to depose the current prime minister through a vote of no confidence, in the hopes of forcing the president's hand. A likely outcome is that Portugal will end up not having an acting prime minister for a while this shakes out. And there will be continued mass protests in the meantime. On the plus side, a lot of the Portuguese won't be skipping work because they're already unemployed (12.4% in the most recent figures). I know, not cool.

Our Take
We should hope that authoritarian rule is not the end result of this chapter in Portugal. The left-leaning parties won the election and should obviously be allowed to take power. Recall that among the most revolutionary things about the American revolution was that we eventually achieved a system that allowed a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Portugal is threatening to do away with that, and chaos is the only plausible result. That said, it is interesting that the mainstream news sources are barely covering this story at all. And I know I make this point all too often, but if this happened in Russia or another ostensibly democratic enemy of the day, we would be hearing about nothing else.

The reason we're not hearing about this story is because powerful interests do not want to see the rise of anti-austerity movements. Acknowledged or not, the anti-austerity movement is not just about restoring pensions and benefits, it also means not paying back the lenders in full. And these lenders are comprised of some combination of the following: friendly countries (usually Germany), international institutions (International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, etc.), and private hedge fund investors or banks. All of these entities have a considerable deal of influence and stand to lose massive amounts of money if the anti-austerity movements ever successfully took power and refused to pay back their loans. This nearly happened in Greece, but the ruling government ultimately backed down at the last minute. The fear is that Portugal might have learned a lesson from the Greece  episode and try to take an even stronger stance right out of the gate. And if one country succeeds, it is likely that the other indebted countries will pursue a similar strategy, resulting in significant economic shocks in Europe.

These anti-austerity movements and their associated debtor nations are often vilified as irresponsible for trying to renege on their debts. But we should remember there's a reason the lenders are being paid interest on these loans. Part of the interest is to compensate them for putting off their own spending, and part is to compensate them for risk--specifically, the risk that the borrower will not pay. This is why poor people / and people with bad credit have to pay higher interest rates--the higher probability that they may not pay off their loans. And Greece and Portugal, well, they were sub-subprime bets for the lenders. There seems to be a temptation to paint the banks and institutions doing these bailouts as noble and sacrificial, but the truth is they made a calculated decision based on their self-interest (profit interest in the case of the private entities, political interest in economic stability in Europe in the case of the others). And sometimes, people miscalculate. This shouldn't be a question of morality; it's a question of economics.

Finally, we should note that the proposed economic agenda of the left-leaning parties in Portugal is liable to be catastrophic. Think Bernie Sanders plus Paul Krugman (an economist who writes for the Times), and I think you'd have a rough approximation. They aim to increase government spending on benefits, presumably run more deficits, and print more money if they are able to regain control of their currency. The likely result of these policies in the best case scenario is a short-term rise in the incomes and fortunes of Portuguese people followed by an eventual, devastating crash. (We'll save the nuances of economic theory for another day.) But while that may be unfortunate, explicitly anti-democratic rule for the sake of business interests is clearly worse. Portugal needs to be allowed to decide its own future; come what may.

Friday, October 23, 2015

October 23, 2015 - How the Benghazi Investigation Missed the Point

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton was forced to testify in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. And predictably, this episode proved to be a pretty big waste of time. Even reading Fox News' account of the proceedings, which would surely exaggerate any items of interest, proved to be decidedly boring. I provided the link above, but consider yourself warned.

For the uninitiated, Hillary's testimony was about the attacks that took place against a US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. This event was indeed a tragedy, and it received extra coverage both because it killed a US official and occurred specifically on September 11, 2012. But the reason it is continuing to get so much attention is because it was seen as a political opportunity to attack Hillary. Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State at the time of the Benghazi incident so Ambassador Stevens technically reported up to her; thus, critics have tried to place the blame squarely on her shoulders for his death.

The problem is that the way the Republicans have gone about attacking her on this issue is frustratingly stupid.  The most common line of argument I've seen is that Clinton was somehow negligent in providing adequate security for the ambassador, and that's why she should be blamed. But does anyone really think the Secretary of State is going to be involved in arranging the security detail for all her employees? No, of course not. Even if you're trying to play partisan politics, how could you possibly think this is a winning move? It's not.

This is depressing because the fact is that Hillary really does deserve a lot of the blame for the Benghazi attacks. But it's not because she paid inadequate attention to random security details. It's because she was one of the premiere forces behind the War in Libya that destroyed the sovereign government and led to widespread chaos. Regrettably, Ambassador Stevens was posted in that environment after the intervention and he became one of the casualties. That is the real issue that the committee should have focused on in this investigation--and to his credit, Rep. Peter Roskam did note this issue saying "Our Libya policy couldn't have happened without you [Hillary], because you were its chief architect" and that "things in Libya today are a disaster." He's right about that. But unfortunately, that wasn't the focus of yesterday's hearing and it is hasn't been the focus of the broader investigation.

And of course, the reason the investigation hasn't focused on that broader question is again partisan politics. As we discussed last week, the War in Libya was and remains a disaster even as Hillary continues to defend the intervention. She and the Obama Administration are completely vulnerable to being attacked in all sorts of ways on this issue, from misleading the public about the threat to civilians to sidestepping any Congressional approval process. But the Republicans aren't focusing on these issues because that would mean opposing an aggressive use of military force in the Middle East. That's not something they're about to do. After all, if they opposed the Libyan intervention as such, it would be hard for them to simultaneously support more intervention in Syria. So instead, we're left with half-hearted attempts to lynch Hillary on security. It's like they're trying to go after a known murderer by convicting her of jaywalking. It totally misses the point.

For additional analysis on exactly why the Libya disaster is such a big deal, I would recommend this article at The New Republic from a couple months back. It elaborates on a lot of the details that led up to the Libyan intervention and why we should be focusing on a different issue here.


Although it was not the focus of this piece, I should note there have been credible reports that the Benghazi outpost was part of a CIA effort to smuggle weapons from Libya to Syria to arm the "moderate" rebels against the Syrian government. That could have also been a fruitful line of inquiry for the Benghazi investigation, but naturally it didn't come up. If you're interested in learning more about this part of the story, this article has a well-cited write-up that consolidates a lot of the relevant reports.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October 22, 2015 - CIA Director's Personal Email Hacked

News broke this week that CIA director John Brennan had his personal email account hacked by a few teenagers. As luck would have it, this email account included sensitive information that probably wasn't supposed to be there, and the teenagers provided this material to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks began publishing the material online yesterday.

This is an interesting story for several reasons, and we'll touch on a few key points here.

First, we should point out that the so-called "hack" wasn't sophisticated at all. Essentially, the culprits just duped some Verizon employees into giving them some personal information about Brennan, and then used the Forgot Your Password link on his email account. That's how simple it was. Which is probably why you're not supposed to put sensitive information on AOL. Who knew?

Second, it appears that Brennan was just occasionally forwarding work emails to his personal address for convenience rather than regularly using his personal account for government business. So while some interesting items have already been published, we probably won't get too many bombshells out of it. Hopefully, I'm wrong about this.

Thus far, the most interesting thing I've seen from this document dump is a policy brief on Iran, in which Brennan noted that President George W. Bush's labeling of Iran as part of the "axis of evil" was gratuitous and regrettable. Brennan went on to advocate for diplomacy with Iran in the document This is noteworthy because it was written around 2007 and 2008, when the drumbeat for war against Iran was quite strong. It suggests that even a hawk like John Brennan recognized how incredibly stupid an aggressive war against Iran would be.

And finally, it will be interesting to see how this plays out relative to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. At this point, Hillary Clinton's actions appear to have been far more severe because she was regularly using it for work-related emails. Additionally, we know there was at least some classified information in Hillary's emails. We have not seen formally classified information from Brennan's account yet, but his account apparently did have a list names and social security numbers of intelligence officers, which could obviously be a problem. Accordingly, it seems plausible that both Brennan and Clinton may have mishandled sensitive information. Indeed, some conservative outlets have called for investigating and/or prosecuting Hillary on these grounds (for example, this). Will they take a similar line when it comes to the actions of a sitting CIA Director? Or will their affinity for the military and CIA prevent them from being consistent? Similarly, will partisan commentators on the left attempt to go after Brennan after downplaying the Hillary Clinton episode?*1 

The most likely scenario is that Brennan and Clinton will both get a free pass on their email problems. After all, both of them are powerful, politically-connected people, and people like that don't usually get prosecuted, regardless of the circumstances. But make no mistake, if these same offenses were committed by random, low-level government employees, their lives would be promptly ruined by an aggressive prosecution

So in addition to what we may learn from WikiLeaks, we can look forward to this story providing further evidence that the rule of law does not apply to high-ranking government officials, regardless of their party affiliation.

*1 You'll recall that Brennan is not a very popular figure among left-leaning folks after he obstructed the Senate Torture Report investigation and attempted to intimidate its authors.

October 21, 2015 - Ben Carson Almost Makes a Good Point on Foreign Policy

Ben Carson sat down for an interview this past weekend with ABC, and came perilously close to making a good point regarding the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Upon further questioning, it became apparent that he actually had no idea what he was talking about. But since it was in the news, I thought we'd take the opportunity to recall a part of this story that is often forgotten.

First, let's discuss what exactly Dr. Carson said. During the second Republican debate, Carson suggested the following as an alternative to invading Afghanistan after 9/11:
Declare that within five to 10 years we will become petroleum independent. The moderate Arab states would have been so concerned about that, they would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter within two weeks.
Saying something off-the-cuff in a debate is of course different than a considered statement of policy. But when he was questioned on the position this weekend, he stuck with it. Carson reiterated that we could have used economic threats against the Arab countries to get them to extradite bin Laden to the US. And then the US and Afghanistan could have been spared the horrible catastrophe of the War in Afghanistan, that continues to this day.

In one very important respect, he's right about this. The US could have avoided an all-out invasion and regime change operation in Afghanistan. But he's wrong about virtually everything else.

For starters, it's an open question whether Saudi Arabia and company would have been threatened by a US pledge to become petroleum independent. Today, the idea of US energy independence is plausible thanks to the boom in shale oil and gas production that took off after 2008. But in 2001, this was basically just an idea that US politicians, dating back all the way to Nixon in 1974, paid lip-service to without any real plan of getting there. So there's really no reason to think we could have made a credible threat of energy independence at the time, and it's unlikely the Arab states would have bent to our will on that basis as Carson claims.

That said, the far more important problem with Carson's reasoning is that, in fact, one of the countries in the Middle East did offer to capture bin Laden. That country was actually, wait for it, Afghanistan itself. Yes, you see, the little-reported fact is that the Taliban were not allied with Al-Qaida. And after 9/11, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was willing to see bin Laden brought to justice. But there were two conditions. The Taliban leader demanded evidence that bin Laden really was behind the attacks, since Al-Qaida had not claimed responsibility publicly at the time. Additionally, Mullah Omar wanted bin Laden to stand trial in Afghanistan or in another neutral Muslim country. This latter condition makes sense when you realize that the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan by enforcing Islamic law. And they really were true believers. So for them, it would be hypocritical to surrender someone to an American justice system that they deemed unjust.

Indeed, when you consider the issue from the Taliban's perspective, these conditions aren't really unreasonable. They hated Al-Qaida as much as anyone else at this point, but they were unwilling to compromise their belief in the rule of law--even when their very survival depended on it. There's a way in which you can almost see it as noble.

Unfortunately, Bush refused to consider negotiating on these conditions at all. Instead, he opted for the more tactful position of "You're with us, or you're with the terrorists." And so, the Taliban became part of the latter group and remain part of that group to this day. But we should remember that even that war was avoidable.

If he'd gotten his facts straight, Ben Carson could have reminded Americans of this important truth. Instead, he just reminded us that he may know even less about history than his competitors.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October 20, 2015 - Bias and Context in Israel

Tensions in Israel and Palestine continue to rise, and the news coverage of this subject has been predictably biased. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with biased journalism--obviously, it's what we're doing here. But there is a problem when that bias is left unstated, and the reader is left to assume it was an objective account of the news. That's our focus for the day.

Yesterday, there was an excellent example of biased coverage on the Israel-Palestine issue from The Skimm, which offers a concise and snarky summary of the news each day in case you're unfamiliar. And before we get started, I should say that The Skimm actually tends to be a bit better about providing balanced context than some of the more well-known outlets (say The New York Times or CNN, for instance). They deserve credit for that. But this particular story was a case study in how selective reporting and language choices can produce a deeply distorted narrative. Here's the first part of their summary:
In the last month, a renewed dispute over a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City (which Jews call Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary) has set off a wave of violence. Palestinian assailants have been attacking Israelis almost daily, often by knife stabbings, often in Jerusalem, and often by young attackers.
Now, there's nothing terribly wrong with the first sentence. There are definitely other factors and incidents that have contributed to this recent wave of violence, but the dispute over the holy site has played a major role. Fair enough, let's move on. (If you want to know more about this particular part of the escalation, I'd recommend this article by the way.)

Next, we learn that "Palestinian assailants" have been attacking Israelis. This is true, but it clearly implies that Israelis have not responded with attacks of their own. That is patently false. Consider this recent attack by an Israeli teenager who stabbed four people (all Arabs) and explained to police that he did it because he believes "all Arabs are terrorists". (It's also interesting to note that coverage of this attack often referred to it as a nationalistic attack, while Palestinian attacks are almost uniformly described as terrorism.) We could also look at the attack a few months ago when a group of Israelis set fire to an Palestinian home while a family slept inside, killing three people including an 18-month old infant. There was also this incident, where an 18-year-old Palestinian woman was shot and killed at a checkpoint in the West Bank by Israeli security forces. You get the idea. More recently, perhaps it can be said that Palestinians have been responsible for the lion's share of attacks on civilians, but it kind of just depends when you start counting. In any case, it's completely misleading to suggest that Palestinians have been perpetrating all of the violence.

The Skimm continues:
These attacks have resulted in many clashes with Israeli security; 9 Israelis and 41 Palestinians (including the assailants) have been killed in this latest wave of violence.  
Now we learn there have been "clashes" with Israeli security, and ultimately 9 Israelis and 41 Palestinians have ended up dead form all of this. Let's start with the term "clashes". The term clash is a good one because it omits any notion of cause and effect. No one knows who started it or why, but somehow a clash broke out. In reality, what they're referring to here are widespread Palestinian protests that are often suppressed violently by Israeli security using tear gas, rubber bullets, and more recently, live gunfire. It's true that the Palestinian protests are not entirely nonviolent as they frequently involve stone-throwing and even molotov cocktails in some cases. And it's surely regrettable that the protests aren't entirely peaceful. But it must also be said that dispersing them with live ammunition that often proves fatal, is a clearly disproportionate response as we discussed last week.

Indeed, the live ammunition sheds light on why the death toll for Palestinians is so high relative to Israelis, despite Palestinians doing all the attacking. To help explain this odd disparity, the Skimm helpfully notes that some of the dead Palestinians were attackers... But of course, most of them were not. Many of the dead have just been protesters or random civilians that were killed by overactive security forces out of fear, like this Eritrean man who was shot this Sunday.

The Skimm then proceeds to discuss some of the recent history, but again, the results are disappointing:
Tension around this contested holy site and the subsequent violence is just the latest in a string of bad relationship karma between the two sides. In the last few weeks, the Palestinian president had an international mic drop when he announced that a peace framework that had been in place for decades is now off the table.
Here, they note that the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally rejected the peace framework in his UN speech, implying once more that the Palestinians are the ones breaking the peace. What they say here isn't technically false; it's just deeply in need of context. Abbas did indeed declare that the Palestinians were no longer bound by the peace framework, known as the Oslo Accords. Here's the thing though, the Oslo Accords were signed 20 years ago between Israel and a Palestinian organization with the explicit and primary purpose of establishing a Palestinian state. Israel agreed to this and so did the Palestinians, but Israel is the one holding the cards (more on this shortly). So if Israel followed through on its commitment, there would already be a Palestinian state by now. Twenty years is a long time. The Oslo Accords were meant to give them a state, and it didn't happen. So it shouldn't really be that crazy or surprising that Palestinians would want to withdraw from this.

And finally, the Skimm sums up by mentioning that Israel has been building settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their own:
And there's been revived tension over Israelis building settlements in areas that Palestinians claim will one day be a part of their state.
If you follow this issue closely, you'll be able to spot some of the problems with this statement. Let's begin with the term settlement. For me, it recalls idyllic images of the Oregon Trail in America, where adventurous pioneers set out to farm and build on previously unoccupied land (or, let's be real, occasionally land they took from Native Americans). But in the context of Israel, building settlements explicitly means taking land that belonged to Palestinians and appropriating it for the use of Israeli Jews. And I don't just mean belonged in some abstract, historical/religious sense. I mean a lot of times, Israel is demolishing Palestinian houses at the same time as building new settlements. Shockingly, this seems to make Palestinians upset.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian's land claims for their possible future state are not nearly as vague as this summary might imply. Rather, they are based on the ceasefire lines that were determined after the last full-on war between Arabs and Israelis in 1967, known as the Six-Day War. We'll skip over the details, but Israel basically dominated in this conflict and ended up taking over much more land than they had initially. Among its winnings, Israel took an area that was formerly ruled by Jordan, now referred to as the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by Egypt at the time. After the war in 1967, Israel proceeded to occupy these areas militarily, much in the way that the US occupied Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The key difference is that Israel then stayed for over 40 years. And today, they are still occupying the West Bank. (Gaza is still a problem too, but we'll set that aside for now.)

Another key difference from the US's occupation of Iraq, is that Israel is inviting its citizens (and prospective Jewish immigrants) to move into this occupied area and build on the land; that's what people mean when they say building settlements.  Here's a helpful map to show you what I'm talking about (the West Bank is the green area that looks like New Jersey on the third slide below):

Embedded image permalink

The slides above show the initial state of the Israel-Palestine area in slide 1, the original UN plan for the new Israeli state (this happened in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust) in slide 2, how much Israel had acquired after its War of Independence in 1948 (slide 3), and finally the composition in the present day. Do you see how there are only pockets of green Palestinian land left in the present? That's the effect of building settlements.

If all of that seems a bit too imperialistic for 2015, that's because it is. Most people agree that colonizing occupied territory is illegal under international law, but that is what Israel has been doing. And it has progressed so far at this point, that many people see the very idea of two-state solution as politically hopeless. Palestinians generally want the state to be extended to the 1967 borders (slide 3) before the colonization process of the West Bank began. But now if that were to occur, it would require the politically influential Israeli settlers in the West Bank to be evicted and moved back to Israel proper. That's one of the main reasons a two-state solution never seem to pan out. But it goes without saying that if Israel was committed to the peace process envisioned by the Oslo Accords, they would stop the settlement process that is actively taking more land.

Anyway, returning to back to the Skimm's coverage, the next part of their summary wasn't too bad. But by that point, it hardly really matters. After claiming that 1) Palestinians are initiating all the violence, 2) randomly clashing with security forces, 3) unilaterally breaking off peace negotiations, and 4) claiming land that may or may not be theirs, you can't really have an honest discussion about the conflict. When news outlets continue cover the issue this way, they are doing a great disservice to everyone who reads it and expects it to be somewhere near objective.

Monday, October 19, 2015

October 19, 2015 - Hillary Clinton's War and "Smart Power"?

One of the most appalling moments in last week's Democratic debate came when Hillary Clinton attempted to defend the war in Libya. In case you missed it, she specifically cited the war as "smart power at its best" and declared that she and Obama made the "right decision" on Libya. Then, she dismissed the subsequent chaos as somehow unrelated to our efforts to decapitate the government there.

The Libyan intervention remains one of the most catastrophic decisions of Obama's presidency, and Hillary's defense of this action must be refuted. And that's the subject of today's post.

Of course, the whole Libya episode received relatively little coverage, then and now, so I'll forgive if you don't recall the details. Here's a brief summary of the key facts surrounding our intervention:

  • As part of the Arab Spring, there was a popular uprising in Libya. As with Syria, some of the rebellion was comprised of moderates and some was more extremist in nature, primarily an organization known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that had some links to al-Qaeda.
  • The then-leader of Libya, Colonel Gadhafi, attempted to crack down on rebels which he called terrorists (which was somewhat legitimate given the extremist elements). US officials claimed he was on the cusp of committing genocide against the Libyan people generally, and this was used as the pretext for intervention.
  • Broadly speaking, the American public was essentially ambiguous on the war in Libya at the time, but Congress was not likely to approve military action there. So Obama essentially just claimed he didn't need it to avoid any issues. His justification for this was that Americans were in a supporting role and unlikely to be involved in hostilities.
  • Eventually, a UN resolution was passed to impose a no-fly zone on Libya (coincidentally, the same thing, Hillary is proposing now for Syria), which eventually escalated to a regime change effort.
  • Secret negotiations with the Ghadafi regime conducted some members of Congress and the Pentagon indicated that Colonel Ghadafi was willing to negotiate a peaceful transition of power to avoid intervention. This was not known publicly until recently, but it was communicated to Hillary and the Obama Administration prior to the intervention.
In other words, the Libyan intervention was a war of choice based on exaggerations. And given that it received no form of Congressional approval, this intervention had the added virtue of being quite plainly illegal under any reasonable interpretation of the President's authority.

Perhaps even more important, however, is what happened afterward. And here, I'll let Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic pick up the story. This is a longer piece, but it provides an excellent summary of the aftermath of this intervention and is certainly worth your time.

This was not smart power; this was stupid militarism.

It is bizarre that Hillary Clinton would even bother trying to defend this war, but it is also revealing. If she still sees Libya as a success story and is continuing to push for more action in Syria, is there any war she would oppose?

Friday, October 16, 2015

October 16, 2015 - America's Longest War Gets Extended

Remember last week when we discussed John McCain's really bad ideas on Afghanistan? Well, it turns out he has more pull than we do and Obama has decided to postpone any further withdrawal of US till after he's out of office. Here's a brief write-up on the announcement.

You'll note that he's not adding more troops; he's just keeping the ones that we have there already. This means we'll continue to see a gradual escalation of the civil war and a continued deterioration of the Afghan government's control. Indeed, Obama is making the same argument, essentially, that we gave John McCain credit for avoiding. That is, McCain argued the US needs to keep troops there indefinitely, which is a bad idea, but it's at least honest. Obama, on the other hand, is essentially saying we just need more time to shore up the Afghan security forces. I won't repeat the same arguments from the prior post here, but there's no reason to think this will work.

In the Al-Jazeera article referenced above, they actually cite a Taliban spokesperson saying this makes no difference. They will continue to fight until the last foreign troop leaves. And they're not lying about that. The Taliban is and has always been betting that they can outlast the US, and frankly, they're right. To them, Afghanistan is home; to us, it's just one more war-torn country we helped destroy and would really prefer to forget about.

So now that we're clear that this new plan has virtually no prospect of success, it's important to understand why they're doing it. And as is so often the case, the answer is domestic politics. While this plan won't achieve long-term stability, it's likely to delay the full collapse of the Afghan state till after the upcoming election. And sure, the fact that Obama didn't keep his campaign promise to end the war isn't ideal for Democrats, but since Republicans wouldn't have ended it either, that criticism is manageable. It would be far more damaging politically if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban before the election, because Republicans would pounce on it as more evidence of the Democrats' ineptitude on foreign policy. So if you're a Democrat, this is a smart political calculation. They can claim they listened to the generals, and they can defer addressing real problems for one more cycle. But we should be clear that this is a decision motivated exclusively by politics, and not a real strategy for ending the war or helping the Afghan people.

It should also be noted that, strictly speaking, this isn't the only option available to Democrats. They could try to justify leaving Afghanistan using a principled, history-based argument in favor of nonintervention. They could acknowledge that civilians killed by the US create terrorists just like civilians killed by Russians. But after 7 more years of war from a president who already won the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps no one would believe them.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

October 15, 2015 - Now We're in Cameroon Too?

Today, we learned that President Obama is sending troops and drones to yet another country to combat terrorism. This time the country is Cameroon, which shares a border with Nigeria. The main terror group being targeted is Boko Haram, which is aligned with ISIS. And like most of these groups, they amounted to just a few crazies before efforts to repress them began in earnest. This piece from 2011 provides some discussion of how counterterrorism seems to promote terrorism, and it predicts that if local security forces continue to try to brutally repress the group, it would only make matters worse. Indeed, repressive counterterrorism efforts continued and have led more or less to that outcome.

Anyway, this initiative in Cameroon is being done under the War Powers Act, which means that Obama did not get congressional approval in advance. If anyone cared, they could pressure him on this issue and potentially win -- as Americans tend to dislike the idea of sending troops to countries they haven't even been remotely threatened by. (Or at least, I think that's the case. That seemed to be the sentiment when Libya and Syria were debated, though of course, Obama intervened anyway.)
Unfortunately, the Democrats are very unlikely to challenge Obama on foreign policy, and Republicans are unlikely to spend much energy opposing a war, even one that is Obama's idea. Let's hope I'm wrong on that.

Jason Ditz at has a quick summary on this latest intervention that's worth a read. I've linked to it below:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

October 14, 2015 - Equipping "Moderate" Rebels

Today, we will not be discussing the Democratic debate, because we didn't learn much new. The leading Democrats remain unapologetically bad on foreign policy--at one point Hillary Clinton bragged about Libya as a success and no one called BS. That's about as bad as it gets. And unfortunately the one candidate who wants to make his campaign about having a peaceful foreign policy, Lincoln Chafee, did not make a strong showing. And with that, we'll move on for now.

Which brings us to our lead story today -- this week we received additional evidence of just how moderate our allies in the region really are. The Daily Beast ran this headline Monday: Syria Rebels Plan Suicide Attacks On Russians. The article is worth reading just so you don't think I'm a conspiracy theorist on this. And while technically, the rebel source for the article says his specific group hasn't received US backing, his group is part of the broader Free Syrian Army coalition that we tout as one of the major moderate groups. And coincidentally, even this guy, who plans to mastermind suicide bombing attacks claims that he's still one of the moderates. You can't make this stuff up.

Recently, the US abandoned its efforts to create and arm an entirely new rebel force. There are several reasons why the program was dropped, including the fact that some US-backed rebels expressly gave their weapons to Al-Qaeda (one example of this is discussed here). Perhaps an even more significant reason was that the US couldn't find people moderate enough to train. That is, when the US went to vet the people it recruited, it had to kick a lot of them out of the program because they were deemed too extreme. That was the leading explanation given by Defense Secretary Ash Carter for why the program had graduated so few people, as this piece at the Christian Science Monitor makes clear.

Unfortunately, the end of the train and equip program is not the end of US involvement. Instead of training and equipping, our new plan is to just equip the people already fighting now. Indeed, Fox News is reporting that we just dropped 50 tons of ammunition that were received by rebels. But as discussed above, the reason the last program failed is because we couldn't find enough moderate forces to begin with. So the question is, who are we equipping now? Most likely, the answer is anyone willing to fight Russia, Assad, or ISIS. We're just pouring more weapons into chaos, with no conceivable goal in sight, which is kind of what we've been doing all along. But now we're not just destabilizing a marginal power in the Middle East, we're also escalating a proxy war with Russia.

Whatever one may think of Russia's actions in Syria thus far, it's clear that a proxy war is not going to help anyone. Not Americans, not Russians, and definitely not Syrians.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 13, 2015 - Unrest in Israel / Palestine

This month has seen a dramatic rise in violence Israel/Palestine. The past weeks have seen multiple attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians, rocket launches from the Gaza Strip, Israeli airstrikes on Palestinians, and a growing series of protests by Palestinians, many of which have been suppressed by live gunfire. In short, this conflict is on the cusp of boiling over and may break out into a full conflict any day.

It is beyond the scope of this post to give a thorough backstory on this conflict, but I would like to call your attention to two items that are fueling it.

In the US, we often hear Israel described in glowing terms as our only democratic ally in the Middle East. It is pictured as a Western oasis of sorts. And like the US, Israel is under a constant threat of terrorism. And every time, Israel launches a new bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip (an area of land held by Palestinians), we hear that Israel has a right to self-defense. In other words, we very rarely hear discussion of Israel that isn't positive. Indeed, the coverage tends to be more uniformly positive than it is of our own government.

This situation is strange for several reasons. But perhaps the most notable reason is that leading Israeli politicians routinely say things that are outrageously brutal or discriminatory. If a major American politician said them, their job would be or their poll ratings would be immediately in jeopardy. But when an Israeli politician does it, it's usually not even a story.

One example of this occurred recently in light of the rising tensions discussed above. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (the equivalent of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter here), recently said that Israel needs to "bring about the liquidation of the terrorist stabber or attacker, the stone-thrower and the like, immediately and on the spot." Mind you, this was at a national, televised press conference. This wasn't a case where a conversation was overheard on accident, this was a position that was stated openly in public. Let's unpack this a little further.

Perhaps it is a reasonable position that a government official should support police killing an active shooter or stabber. And he's referring to them as "terrorist" rather than Palestinian, so it's not overtly racist. But then he goes on to equate stone-throwers with these terrorists. In Israel, many Palestinian protests are accompanied by stone-throwing. And while it cannot be said that a protest with stone-throwing is wholly nonviolent, no one is under any illusion that they pose a threat to Israeli soldiers in body armor. In spite of this, he is advocating for these protesters to be killed.

Cracking down on stone-throwers has been a big priority in Israel recently, as part of a continuous initiative to quell Palestinian unrest without addressing the underlying issues. In pursuit of this goal, the Israeli parliament recently passed a law that could penalize stone-throwers with up to 20 years in prison. But as incredible as this may sound, the statements and death tolls in recent days suggest that even a 20-year sentence has been deemed too lenient. Israel is now tentatively trying out the "liquidation" model instead.

The proof of this can be found in this very graphic footage taken from the Gaza Strip. Here, a group of protesters are throwing stones and projectiles at Israeli troops who are on top of a wall 100 meters away. Israeli snipers respond to the protest with live ammunition that strikes the protesters. Ultimately, 7 were reported killed in this protest and many others were wounded.

Now, after the recent bloodshed, many Palestinians are talking about another intifada, or uprising. And we should hope it doesn't come to that. Whatever one thinks about the Israel/Palestine issue, it is clear that there is no plausible military solution. But whether an armed conflict occurs or not, one thing should be clear: Israel's policies and rhetoric are directly leading to escalation. And frankly, if a non-allied government was engaged in these same policies, there are high odds that the US would already be using it as a pretext for regime change.
Read more here:

Monday, October 12, 2015

October 12, 2015 - The Dreadful Gun Control Debate

Last Friday, President Obama traveled to Oregon to meet with family members and victims of the recent Umpqua Community College shooting. So the gun control debate is going to continue to dominate the news for the foreseeable future, and today it will reluctantly dominate The Daily Face Palm as well.

I say reluctantly because the quality of political discourse on this subject is rather abysmal. Both sides of the debate argue as if their position is so obviously correct that they don't even need to bother with attempts at persuasion. So they don't. The left points to a massacre and the high number of gun deaths in the US; the right says, "Look at Chicago!"* and guns don't kill people... and I'll spare you the rest of that sentence. That is a slight oversimplification of course, but you get the gist.

*Aside: Chicago has a high murder rate and relatively strict gun laws, which means it's perfect if you're lazy and looking to make a shallow argument against gun control. One city with a correlation that could be driven by 100 different factors is meaningless. A much more substantial point for those wanting to push the "gun control doesn't work" argument can be found here, which actually relies on a sample size large enough to be relevant (shockingly, it's larger than one). More on this later.

In light of this unsavory state of affairs, I would like to introduce four points that will hopefully inform the conversation:
  • Almost everyone believes in some level of gun control.
  • We do not know whether more gun control would work to reduce violence or not.
  • Gun control laws create gun-related crimes, some of which have no victims.
  • Gun control laws are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

I've summarized each of these briefly below.

Almost everyone believes in some level of gun control.

This is important to acknowledge because it is actually a rare point of common ground on this issue. For most people, there is no absolute pure principle they're fighting for. They may pretend that they want no restrictions on gun ownership, but most do favor some restrictions on private ownership of weapons generally. If you meet someone who claims otherwise, ask them to make a case for why private individuals should be allowed to own scud missiles and anti-tank weapons. I suggest to you that the conversation will end in your favor shortly. Most people don't like the idea of a privately run military force (even if our government currently funds several to fight abroad).

Now that everyone is on the same page that some restrictions are acceptable, that's a much more promising starting point to discuss what restrictions we should in fact have.

We do not know whether more gun control would work to reduce violence or not.

The effectiveness of gun control is generally just assumed by both sides of the debate to be whatever suits their argument. Liberals, broadly speaking, assume it would definitely work, and conservatives frequently assume it would make matters worse. And naturally, neither side is really being honest here.

Ultimately, it is an empirical question whether intensive gun control legislation would reduce violent gun deaths. It may be true, but it is not inherently true. There are no laws of physics at work here; we're dealing with human behavior and politics. And there is good reason to be skeptical of its effectiveness; after all, the government passes lots of laws aimed at a particular purpose that it never achieves. Remember when the courageous war on drugs completely ended illegal drug use in America? Nope, me neither.

So what does the data show? And the answer depends on how you look at them. The pro-gun control side will often tout results from Australia (which passed intense gun control regulation in response to a mass shooting in 1996) or show the general correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership across states in the US or something along those lines. If you look at those resources, however, you'll notice that they're focusing on gun deaths (suicides or homicides), so in some ways their results are unsurprising. Fewer guns are liable to lead to fewer gun deaths, fair enough. But do they lead to fewer overall violent deaths? Eugene Volokh at The Washington Post points out that gun deaths aren't really the statistic we care about. We primarily want to know if reducing access to guns will decrease the incidence of violent homicides. And just as with other goods in an economy, restricting access to guns is liable to create a substitution effect whereby murderers who would use firearms switch to another weapon that can achieve a similar purpose. And Volokh accurately notes that from the point of view of the victim, it's hard to see how being stabbed is much better than being shot.

At the end of the day, when Volokh reruns the numbers focusing on homicides, he finds essentially no correlation. Also, since Volokh uses an odd variable for the x-axis called the Brady Score (a rating of how restrictive gun control laws are), we should note that his findings are replicated when just using basic gun ownership rates as the independent variable, as shown here.

So how do we square these opposing results? One side finds a significant correlation, the other comes up with nothing. The reason appears to be that correlations found between gun deaths and gun ownership are being driven significantly by gun suicides; indeed suicides actually account for the majority of gun deaths. And while reducing gun suicides may be a worthy goal, we should recognize that this is not the primary purpose of gun control. Further, if that was our goal, it would likely require different measures, such as an outright ban on handguns or very significant restrictions on acquiring one. But so far, that's not what's being considered. Accordingly, it doesn't make sense to include suicides when trying to determine the effectiveness of gun control because that distorts the conclusion. For this reason, Volokh's analysis makes more sense; in the US, gun control doesn't appear to make things significantly better or worse.

 Gun control laws create gun-related crimes, some of which have no victims.

This may seem like a bizarre claim, but it is true. Let's consider illegal possession of a firearm for our purposes. Illegal possession of a firearm may occur because the firearm in question is banned (like assault rifles in some places), the proper permits haven't been acquired (concealed carry permits for example), or the person with the firearm isn't allowed to have one (usually because they are an ex-felon). And frequently, if there's a crime for illegal possession, there was an illegal sale that preceded it.

But all of these circumstances above amount to victimless crimes. After all, the buyer and seller engaged in a voluntary transaction which they presumably found beneficial. And unless and until the buyer commits a crime with the weapon, no one has been harmed. In this way, gun possession crimes are very similar to drug possession crimes.

Gun control laws are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

Realizing that some gun control crimes are victimless is important because victimless crimes inherently require a different sort of policing. Unlike other offenses, neither of the parties involved in a gun sale are going to report the transaction as a crime to police. This means law enforcement agencies have to try to proactively seek out crimes that are happening, just as the DEA does in the war on drugs. And herein lies the real problem. Proactive policing is usually discriminatory policing; given limited resources, the law enforcement agency has to decide who to target. And all too often, they target minorities.

I'll let Radley Balko at The Washington Post pick up the story here. In this article, he highlights some examples of discriminatory policing in gun control already, and suggests that this needs to be a part of the gun control debate too. It's depressing, but well worth your time to read.

Summing Up

So, where does all of that leave us? Well, for me, it suggests that certain things really could make sense. Following from the first point that most people don't want their neighbor to have a rocket launcher, banning or restricting access to high-magazine rounds is a plausible option that both sides could find common ground on. As long as the ban was isolated to certain weapons or ammunition, you could also diminish the likelihood that you'd sweep up truly peaceful offenders--if somebody actually has a rocket launcher, it seems unlikely it's just for hunting or self-defense.

On the other hand, Balko's analysis strongly indicates that we should be wary of the unintended consequences of legislation that is more sweeping in nature. Gun violence may be a problem, but so is discriminatory policing. And before we advocate for major gun control reform, we need to acknowledge that hidden cost upfront.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

October 10, 2015 - ISIS tries to go nuclear? Not so much

You may have seen a big headline in the news this week about a possible ISIS nuclear terror plot foiled, in part, by the FBI. (Here's an example of the reporting on this story if you haven't heard of this, but it's really not worth your time to read it.) Basically, some gangsters in eastern Europe had access to some radioactive materials and were caught allegedly trying to sell it. But coincidentally, no one from ISIS was involved, the material allegedly being sold, cesium, isn't what you make a nuclear bomb out of anyway (you need weapons-grade uranium or plutonium for that), and almost all of this actually happened several months ago. The story itself is not terribly important, the way it was ultimately reported is worth discussing.

Stories about terror plots should always be viewed with skepticism because virtually everyone involved has an incentive to exaggerate the threat. Let's look at the big players:

  • The FBI agents and the FBI organization look more important and heroic if the threat is more severe and legitimate. 
  • The media gets to tell a more compelling story with a scarier threat, and may even succeed in terrifying their audience sufficiently to get them to check back tomorrow for more updates. And,
  • The US government more generally gets political cover because hyping a foreign threat helps people rally around their government and worry less about some of the unpleasantries involved in addressing that threat. See, we really do need to spy on everyone and bomb hospitals in the Middle East; just look how many people out there are trying to kill you! And no, no one is explicitly making that argument right now, but you get the idea.
As you can see, scary foreign threats are a good thing for every powerful interest. And this story in particular proved to be an excellent example of how a story can be exaggerated.

Adam Johnson, writing at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has a great write-up on how a story about an FBI sting operation in eastern Europe was transformed into headlines that ISIS is trying to go nuclear. Here's the link below:

Friday, October 9, 2015

October 9, 2015 - Rand Paul Contradicts the Establishment on Russia

Today, we wanted to highlight a piece of good news that has emerged in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s only good news in the sense that the reality could be far worse, but frankly, we’ll take what we can get.

This week, the Washington Post ran a brief piece with following headline: Rand Paul: No-fly zone in Syria ‘could lead to World War III’

Now Rand Paul can and should be criticize for all sorts of things on foreign policy, most notably his opposition to the Iran Deal. But the fact remains that he is still the least bad on this issue among the Republican candidates and he’s probably about tied with Bernie on the democratic side.* This article is worth reading precisely because it is a Republican candidate making a coherent and sound argument in favor of diplomacy, at a time when most conservatives are calling for a policy of outright confrontation. As the headline implies, he also specifically denounces a no-fly zone, which he correctly sees as a backdoor to more hostility. Confronting Russia on the Syria issue is as dangerous as it is stupid, and today we can be grateful that someone in American politics is openly saying it.

*I’m omitting Democratic candidate Lincoln Chafee from consideration here, since you probably haven’t heard anything about him. I think he has real promise on the foreign policy front frankly, but I don’t think we’ll see him in the news much until the first debate on the Democratic side.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

October 8, 2015 - John McCain Justifies Afghanistan

The recent US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan has led the US military to reconsider its involvement there. This sounds like good news... until you discover that the military is not considering leaving sooner. Instead, they're lobbying to stay in Afghanistan longer than the current timeline (2016) and openly discussing the possibility of staying forever. This emerged during the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting earlier this week.

Senator John McCain serves as the chair of the committee, and recently gave an interview to NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss Afghanistan. And while I take issue with virtually everything he said, he deserves credit for his frankness. We'll look at a couple of his arguments in this post, and we'll start with the one that was the most outrageous. Here, he's responding to a question from the host about whether the AC-130 gunships used in the hospital attack were a proper weapon (emphasis added):
MCCAIN: The right weapon to choose is the weapon that most rapidly and effectively and efficiently kills the enemy. And I have seen, as you mentioned, these gunships in action. They have saved American lives by being able to suppress the enemy and enemy fire. This tragedy - and it's a terrible tragedy - would not have occurred if the Taliban had not attacked the place to start with. And so I find it ludicrous and insulting that people would say because of this terrible accident that somehow, war crimes are committed. To call that a war crime distorts the definition of a war crime.

INSKEEP: When you referred, Senator, to the Taliban attacking the place, did you mean to suggest the Taliban were at or in the near vicinity of that hospital? Because Doctors Without Borders has denied that.

MCCAIN: I'm saying that they were in the vicinity because they were in Kunduz.

INSKEEP: In the city of, OK.

MCCAIN: Yeah, but I think it's pretty obvious that fire was coming from the Taliban in the city. I am not saying that there was anything but a terrible tragedy, but to think that everything we do is with pinpoint accuracy lacks a fundamental understanding of what warfare is all about.
His argument is that the bombing was really the Taliban's fault because they were there and fighting US-backed forces. If the Taliban didn't resist, we wouldn't have to drop bombs, so it's clearly on them. This is a remarkable justification, particularly when you realize that the city he's referring to has 300,000 people and is thus larger than say, Cincinnati, Ohio. And given how broad this qualification is, what he's really saying is this: if the US encounters resistance, we can do whatever we want. Then remember that this guy was actually pretty close to becoming president.

When he wasn't defending the hospital bombing, McCain made the case that we need to keep US troops in Afghanistan forever to support the Afghan military. His bluntness on this point is again rare and refreshing; he's not even pretending the Afghan military we're training will ever be self-sufficient. He's not saying we just need a few more years to get them ready; he's acknowledging the reality that that day will never come. And he is right about that. The Afghan government lacks popular support and is thus heavily dependent on the US to help battle an endless insurgency. If and when the US leaves, Afghanistan will likely descend further into a chaotic civil war until the Taliban return to power. This is the situation today, and it will probably still be the situation 4 years from now if we stay. Being on the brink of civil war is clearly tragic, but does it therefore follow that we should stay indefinitely to prevent it?

The conflict in Afghanistan is often framed in terms of helping The Government fight The Terrorists. And when you hear it described like that, it seems obvious, perhaps, that we should side with the government. But the reality is much more complicated. Broadly speaking, the Afghan security forces and government are led by a lot of the same warlords that dominated Afghanistan before the Taliban took power in 1996. And being warlords, they're not exactly pillars of virtue. To support this notion, we could look at the Wikipedia page for the current Vice President, Rashid Dostum, where we would learn that he was involved in the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which 1,500 Taliban prisoners were summarily killed during the US invasion 2011. Then as now, Dostum was our ally. We could also recall the recent reporting in the New York Times discussing widespread child molestation committed by members of the security forces. And while child molestation was a problem in Afghan society long before the US invasion, we should note that the Taliban actually rose to power in part because they put an end to child rape. Of course, we shouldn't glorify the Taliban either. They are still a religious fundamentalist group and they have claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings that have killed civilians. But the point is that our allies are not quite as virtuous and our enemies are not quite as uniformly evil as we would like to pretend.

Given this understanding, perhaps one may still conclude that we should continue to back the present government with all its flaws. But advocates of this line should be honest about what's going on. We're backing one side of a civil war against the other. And John McCain would like us to continue doing that forever.

*Initially, this article erroneously stated that there was a bombing of a US hospital in Afghanistan, rather than a hospital bombing in Afghanistan carried out by the US, which is in fact what happened. It has been updated to correct this error.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015 - Bernie Sanders on Palestine and Dissent

Senator Bernie Sanders has surged to prominence in recent weeks as he has taken the lead over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in the race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Sanders still trails Clinton nationally, but he's doing far better than anyone expected at the outset. (If you're interested in the exact polling data, this is a good resource.)

Sanders has emerged as a legitimate contender using a message that concentrates almost exclusively on domestic issues. He openly claims the label of socialism, and speaks passionately on conventional progressive issues--unions, income inequality, college affordability, poverty, climate change, etc. But Sanders has stayed largely silent on the subject of foreign policy. And in some ways this is surprising. His primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is very hawkish on foreign policy issues. She voted for the Iraq War in 2003 as a Senator, and as Secretary of State, she was a strong advocate of intervention in Libya in 2011 (which remains a disaster) and in Syria starting in 2012 (which also remains a disaster). This is just to name a few of highlights. Given that hardcore progressives tend to oppose armed conflict and he has a far more peaceful recordy comparison, one would imagine that this could be a real edge for him. And yet, it hasn't been a big focus.

The reason for this silence may be that his views aren't quite what his base is looking for. This question is now in the news after Bernie's campaign kicked out a group of activists from a major campaign rally in Boston. The activists, who were with the group Boston Students for Justice in Palestine, brought a sign that read "Will ya #FeelTheBern for Palestine?" and said afterwards that they genuinely wanted to know more about Bernie's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue. Unfortunately, they didn't get to ask. In fact, they were threatened with being arrested if they didn't leave. Murtaza Hussain has an excellent write-up on this story over at The Intercept:

We won't attempt to dissect the Israel-Palestine issue in this post, but it suffices to say that Bernie's stance is very much in line with the mainstream US position. And as such, it consists largely of platitudes and sound bytes that sound nice. So Bernie has supported a two-state solution for a long time, says that Israel has a right to self-defense, and thinks Israel "overreacted" in the most recent war on Gaza in 2014. These all sound like reasonable positions, but they convey little in the way of policy. After all, Israel itself has also ostensibly supported a two-state solution since the passage of the Oslo Accords in 1993, but it hasn't happened yet. And what exactly does overreacted mean? Does it mean Israel used excessive force and violated international law? It may imply this, but you still won't hear Sanders or anyone in the Obama Administration pushing for a war crimes investigation any time soon.

In reality, these positions are the same defense of the status quo that's offered by every other major US politician. And that's why you're not likely to hear Bernie talk about this issue. The status quo on Israel-Palestine isn't good enough for his supporters and he knows it.

*I should note that Bernie's campaign has since called the activists to apologize for how they were treated. They blamed the campaign staffer involved for being "over-eager." But is that really credible? A random staffer just decided on a whim to kick out a group of enthusiastic activists with a polite sign? No, it seems more likely that she was instructed to keep these ideas out, and now that it became a news story, the campaign is trying to distance itself from its mistake. Here's a quick story on the apology from the campaign so you can decide for yourself.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Daily Face Palm - October 6, 2015

Over the weekend, the US bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 doctors and patients. We first discussed this story on Saturday, highlighting some examples of US hypocrisy on the subject of civilian casualties. And today, we must reluctantly return to the topic as the story continues to develop along the predictable government-commits-atrocity plot line.

Essentially, the government starts out portraying the story in the most favorable terms possible until their version of events is contradicted by the evidence. Then, the story is revised as necessary to a slightly less favorable version until that too is contradicted, and the cycle continues. The goal is to minimize (or justify) the tragedy long enough that everyone loses interest and moves on to something else. Then by the time any internal investigation is completed months later, few people will notice or care that no one was held accountable. That's usually how this goes.

Of course, what's unique about the Kunduz bombing is that a group of western aid workers from Doctors Without Borders was attacked, making this story far harder to downplay with the standard approach.

Once again, Glenn Greenwald has an excellent write-up on this story and how the US version of events has changed over time. He also highlights the heroic efforts of Doctors Without Borders to challenge the US narrative and keep this story in the news. The full article is available here:

And if you're still interested in knowing more about the issue, you can also check out Greenwald's complementary piece on the media coverage of this story. This case provides an excellent illustration how established media outlets can use language to subtly downplay events like this and mislead its audience. Check that out here: