Thursday, December 28, 2006

If you've been watching the news, you no doubt know that (surprise!) Saddam Hussein's death sentence has been upheld by the Iraqi courts, and he's supposed to go to the gallows sometime in the next 30 days. To his apologists and supporters, it's an example of victors' justice; to the victims of his long reign of terror, it's what he deserves.

Or is it?

How do you make the punishment fit the crime when the crime is so monstrous as to defy comprehension? How many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were tortured or murdered during Mr Hussein's rule? How many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis and Iranians lost their lives during the 10-year war touched off by Mr Hussein's invasion of Iran? What if Adolf Hitler had been captured before he could commit suicide at the end of World War II...what punishment could begin to fit the enormity of the Holocaust? What if Josef Stalin had had to pay for the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died in his purges? Or Idi Amin in Uganda? Or Pol Pot in Cambodia? How do you punish unthinkable crimes?

I believe in capital punishment, but sometimes I have to think that the death penalty, however it is carried out, can't begin to provide enough punishment for some crimes. If there's a fate worse than death, what is it?

Stanley Crouch, writing in the New York Daily News this morning, suggested that Mr Hussein was "beyond execution," and that "letting (him) rot in jail is the best penalty." Mr Crouch writes that perhaps the worst punishment for a previously omnipotent leader is lifelong solitary confinement with a bland diet and minimum daily exercise outside of his tiny, bare cell. I think there's a lot to be said for such a punishment. As Mr Crouch writes, "If we smile when thinking of the rabid monster wasting away for the rest of his life, that's about as close as any of us will get to a feeling of satisfied revenge."

Joseph Heywood's excellent 1987 thriller The Berkut explores the theme of revenge against a monstrous criminal, in this case Adolf Hitler. You'll be shocked at the ending. And I remember reading a short story many years ago about the punishment of a particularly vile murderer in a futuristic society. Each year, the man was hung, then rushed to a hospital and revived, his broken neck was repaired, and he was rehabilitated in a prison hospital, until the following year, when he would again be hung and the drama would begin anew.

How should we punish truly evil men for truly monstrous crimes? Is death appropriate? Is it too good for some crimes? What's worse? What is fair to victims and their families?

From a purely philosophical and religious standpoint, I don't know how to answer these questions. But I believe history clearly shows that there are some criminals who are beyond redemption and utterly undeserving of mercy. They deserve a full and fair trial, and they deserve whatever punishment results, if indeed punishment is decreed.

So what do we do with Saddam Hussein? I guess ultimately it's up to the Iraqis, and they have decreed death by hanging. So be it.

But I like Mr Crouch's idea better.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The big news as I write this is that Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, has died at the age of 93.

Mr Ford will be remembered for several things, not all of them positive. He was the first unelected president, having been appointed Vice President by Richard Nixon after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then moving up to the oval office upon Mr Nixon's resignation in 1974. He was mercilessly lampooned by comedians (notably Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live) for his alleged lack of coordination, although he had been a star athlete in college. He pardoned former President Nixon for any crimes committed in office - an act of political courage at a difficult time. He opened himself to ridicule for his "WIN" program ("Whip Inflation Now," and the accompanying lapel pins). And he was the face of America during the debacle of the frantic evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

But I will remember him for something larger: a humble man with generosity of spirit and a steady, calming personality that the nation needed following the Nixon resignation, the loss of the war in Vietnam, and the low days of the Cold War. I was a second lieutenant in the Air Force when Mr Ford came to office, and I looked at him as a man I could respect and follow as Commander in Chief...not just because he sat in the Big Chair, but because he was a solid, reassuring presence at the right time.

Things are different now. Instead of the calm and humble persona of Gerald Ford as Vice President and President, we have the cocksure and uncompromising George Bush and the vaguely sinister Dick Cheney. Leadership consists of more than standing on the wreckage of the World Trade Center and vowing's setting the example of an America that the world envies and respects. Fears if necessary, but envies and respects.

I think that Gerald Ford would have been a good President today, better perhaps than George Bush. We'll never know.

But I wish we could.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Yes, today is December 25th, Christmas Day, a day of peace and joy for Christians around the world to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. A day for exchanging gifts, visiting family and friends, eating too much, and generally beginning the process of ending one difficult year and beginning a new one on a happy note.

Our family tradition is to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, and yesterday we enjoyed the company of our daughter Yasmin and son-in-law Vin for the traditional ham and potato salad dinner and the opening of the gifts, the two events separated by a severe trouncing of the men by the ladies at Scrabble (in defense of Vin and I, we did get stuck with the Q, and at one time had four O's out of seven letters in our deck). In spite of the miserable outcome of the Scrabble game, we did have a warm and wonderful family evening.

Which many people, sadly, did not enjoy.

The many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen (including my oldest son) fighting in Iraq and stationed around the world can't enjoy the safe and happy company of their loved ones, and live in a state of constant danger.

The citizens of Iraq, mired in a savage sectarian conflict, wouldn't be able to enjoy the holiday, even if they celebrated it.

Palestinians and Israelis are too busy hating each other to enjoy the holiday, even if they celebrated it.

Ethiopia and Somalia are now officially at war (you'd think they had enough problems).

As we celebrate the birthday of the man Christians call the Prince of Peace, peace seems to be in short supply.

When the way in which you worship God is more important than the fact that you worship Him at all...when people who worship God in a way other than you do are considered hated infidels, are denied salvation, or are otherwise looked on as less than human, something is very wrong. Wouldn't it be grand if everyone could agree that simply believing in God and living a good and moral life is more important than whether one worships at a church, a temple, a mosque, or a synagogue? Somehow, I think the world would be a much better place if it were so.

Whether you are a Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, or whatever), a Muslim (whether Shiite or Sunni), a Jew (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or whatever), a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, or whatever, I wish you a safe and happy holiday and hope that the spirit of tolerance will inspire you in the new year.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Have a Merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a good Kwanzaa, a great Winter Solstice, or whatever you choose to celebrate. Just be safe, and be good to your neighbor.

More thoughts coming.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Back on December 17th, I wrote about the question asked by author Lance Morrow in his book Evil: An Investigation - what if no one ever forgets? And then I found this editorial cartoon from a few years ago in my collection.

I don't think I can add anything to it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, have lived in many places in the USA and Europe, and now live in Virginia, which I have found to be not too bad a place to live...if you like high taxes and horrendous traffic. But there's a reason now to be, if not ashamed, then at least embarassed, to be a Virginian. His name is Virgil Goode, and he's a Republican representative from a Congressional district which, thankfully, is not my own.

Mr Goode has expressed concern about the threat posed by militant Islam, and to the extent that I agree with that concern, I can support him. But Mr Goode has gone far beyond the pale, insulting a fellow elected Representative who happens to be a Muslim and wishes to use the Koran at his swearing-in ceremony, and arguing for severe immigration restrictions on Muslims " preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America."

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a firm believer in the threat posed by intolerant and militant Islam, but what Mr Goode proposes runs completely counter to the values and beliefs he professes to wish to protect. One of the bedrock freedoms granted to Americans is the freedom to worship according to ones personal beliefs. Most Americans are Christians of one sort or another, but many are Jews, some are Buddhists, some are Wiccans, some are Muslims, and some (like myself) follow no particular religion. America welcomes us all, and has built itself into the world's most powerful nation by harnessing the abilities of people of all races, colors, and religions. Perfectly? No. But I doubt that there is another nation anywhere that is as welcoming of all religions as we are.

Some would argue that Islam, as a staunchly (in some cases, harshly) monotheistic religion that does not recognize the validity of any other system of belief, is antithetical to American traditions of religious tolerance. That's true. But there's a place at the American table even for these. If we close our minds, hearts, and borders to Muslims, we are no better than the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia who were protected in the first Persian Gulf war by an American army that was overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish...but whose members were forbidden by the Saudis from practicing their religion even as they risked their lives to protect their religiously bigoted hosts.

Mr Goode does not represent the belief of most Americans in religious tolerance and mutual respect. If we allow him to carry on unchallenged, we lower ourselves to the level of the violent and intolerant Islamists who threaten our very way of life.

We can - and must - show ourselves to be better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, December 22, 2006

In looking at relations between the Christian West and Islam, one of the things that has always puzzled me (and many other observers more learned than I) is the dichotomy of thought that many Muslims appear to have about the nature of their religion. This is exemplified by the Islamic world's response to the remarks by Pope Benedict XVI about Islam's violent nature, which might be simplistically characterized as "Islam is a religion of peace, and I'll kill you if you deny it."

This didn't make sense to me until I read an interview with Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch ( author of several books on Islam. In an interview available on the Campus Watch website ( Spencer explained it like this:

"This is a strange contradiction from a non-Muslim perspective, but not from that of a Muslim who believes in traditional Islamic legal directives calling for the deaths of unbelievers who are at war with Islam. From the perspective of such a man, Islam is indeed a religion of peace: the peace that will prevail over the world when Sharia is the supreme law of every land. To bring this about, he believes he is commanded by God to wage war – not undifferentiated mayhem, but war for specified purposes, under specific circumstances and for particular ends. When you invoke the Qur'an and other Islamic sources to make that point that elements of the Islamic religion legitimize and promote violence, you are doing so as an infidel. Even if what you say is correct, you are approaching it all as an infidel and are thus insulting Islam. And this insult must be avenged. It isn't that you are inaccurate, it is that you are critical. You are mistaking what they see as justice for undifferentiated violence" (emphasis added).

And there you have it.

Now, I don't agree with everything Mr Spencer says any more than I agree with everything anyone says, but I think he makes a very telling and perceptive point. Islam is a monotheistic, "fundamentalist" religion. It's all or nothing - you believe in the literal word of the Koran or you don't, and since the Koran is the absolute word of God, perfect in every detail as spoken directly to Mohammed, if you don't believe it, you're a Dhimmi, theoretically free to practice your religion, but under restrictions that indicate you accept submission to Islam (Note: freedom to practice any religion other than Islam not available in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and some other Islamic countries).

The West won the Cold War against the political doctrine of Communism, and now we face another Cold War against another totalitiarian system, this one based on religious belief. During the Cold War we could show, and people could understand, that Communism was a morally, socially, politically, and economically bankrupt system. But in the new Cold War, in which religious, not political, beliefs are the driving factor, we face an opponent utterly unable and unwilling to change a deeply held belief or accommodate himself to another view of the world. You are a Muslim, or you aren't. You believe in the literal word of God as expressed in the Koran, or you don't. And if you don't, it's the job of every Muslim to see that you do, by violence, if necessary. But in a Muslim's view of the world, that violence is perfectly legitimate, because it's in the pursuit of the greater good of the triumph of Islam.

It's hard to get one's mind around this idea, but essential if we are to understand what we are facing at the beginning of the 21st century: an opponent that believes we all need to return to the perfect world of the 7th century.

Which is not a place I care to live.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

One of my favorite columnists, and one of the most perceptive observers of that festering snakepit generally called The Middle East, is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Mr Friedman has served as the Times' bureau chief in both Beirut and Jerusalem, and his experiences there led to his superb book From Beirut to Jerusalem, which is full of brilliant observations and commentary on Lebanon, Israel, and the Middle East in general.

I still remember one of his simple, yet profound comparisons between Israel and its Arab neighbors: he noted that the symbols of the nations said a great deal about how they thought and viewed the world. The symbol of Israel is the Star of David - all straight lines and angles, reflecting a direct, straight-ahead style of thought and action, reflected even in the design and layout of towns with straight streets and neat, right-angled turns. The symbol of the Arab Muslims, on the other hand, is the crescent moon - a blend of soft curves, reflecting a more indirect, roundabout approach to politics and life and likewise represented in the much more chaotic layout of villages.

Mr Friedman also included in his book a set of rules for journalists covering the Middle East to live was funny and insightful, and I was pleased to see that he has updated and reissued it in an article published yesterday in The New York Times titled "Mideast Rules to Live By." There are 15 rules in his list; here is just a sample:

Rule 3: "If you can't explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don't try to explain it at all - they won't believe it."

Rule 7: "The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: 'We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it's too late. It's all your fault for being stupid.'"

Rule 12: "The Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary."

You can read the entire article online at the New York Times website, but only if you have an online account there. It's worth your time in searching out a copy of the paper, though, and reading the article for its humorous, yet profound observations on the reality of the Middle East.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Back on November 22nd, I wrote in this space about the lack of thoughtful, reasoned political debate in this country - a topic which has been addressed by many people smarter and more articulate than I (most notably linguist Deborah Tannen in her book The Argument Culture). Yesterday, writing in The Los Angeles Times, Martin Kaplan advanced the topic very well in an article titled "Does Iraq Need More Debate?"

In this wonderful article, Mr Kaplan asks why people keep insisting that we need a "national debate" about Iraq, and suggests that the reason is "...because the mainstream media are too timid to declare the difference between right and wrong. Imagine if journalism consisted of more than a collage of conflicting talking points. Imagine the difference it would make if more brand-name reporters broke from the bizarre straitjacket of 'balance,' which equates fairness with putting all disputants on equal epistemological footing, no matter how deceitful or moronic they may be ... There's a market for news that weighs counterclaims and assesses truth value. It just hasn't kept up with demand."

I'd love to quote the entire article, but you can read it yourself by clicking this link:,1,4254441.story?ctrack=1&cset=true. It's a marvelous piece of writing, and worth your time to read and think about.

Let me just quote from the end of the article: "Maybe we don't need a national debate. Maybe what we really need are leaders with more character, followers with more discrimination, deciders who hear as well as listen and media that know the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in."

Gee, I wish I'd said that.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

For the last two weeks, the news has been full of the gripping story of the search for three climbers stranded on Oregon's Mount Hood in a series of savage snowstorms. The families and friends of the men, one of whom has been found dead, are going through a terrible time, particularly this close to Christmas. Your heart has to go out to them.

But nevertheless, the Grinch in me asks, "Why are we spending tens of thousands of dollars and risking many more lives on the mountain to rescue experienced climbers who should have known better than to try to scale this peak at this time?"

I guess I'm glad that there are brave souls who are willing to risk their lives to rescue persons in distress. Coast Guard search and rescue professionals, members of the Ski Patrol, military and police pararescue specialists, all perform a vital function that we all hope we will never need. But all too often, their services are needed not because people find themselves in deadly danger as a result of accident or natural disaster, but because people need to be saved from the consequences of doing stupid things.

We live in a no-fault society in which all too many people refuse to take responsibility for their actions, and expect to be bailed out of trouble without consequence. The fabled America of the rugged, self-made individualist is long gone, if indeed it ever really existed.

I'm truly sorry for the three climbers in Oregon, and for their families. But I can't help feeling that they should have known better.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Having spent the last two days castigating the stupidity of our local mass transit authority, it's time to return to a more substantial and important topic - a few more thoughts inspired by the Iranian "Holocaust validity conference."

As I noted in earlier posts on this topic, the apparent arrogance and stupidity of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in hosting such a conference mask a clever attempt to undercut the moral and political justification for the creation of Israel: if the Holocaust never happened, or even if it did and it was a European problem, why penalize the poor, innocent Palestinians by taking their land to compensate the Jewish people for a European crime? This is a question that resonates well with those who don't like the Jews, and with those who like using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a useful diversion from the failings of the Arab governments who ignore and abuse their own citizens.

It is also an example of what we might call "evil."

This affair has led me to re-read an interesting 2003 book by Lance Morrow titled Evil: An Investigation which analyzes the subject from many perspectives and with many examples for thought and discussion. One of the most interesting passages in the book begins on page 103 (of my hardcover edition), in which Morrow relates a visit with Holocaust survivor and historian Elie Wiesel to Sarajevo, Bosnia, at the height of the fearsome siege of the city in November of 1992. He documents his meetings with Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, all of whom had what they viewed as perfectly valid reasons for doing the horrible things they did to each other. And most of those reasons revolved around events that happened in the past, often in the far distant past, and they all used some variation of the slogan of those who would preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust: "Never Forget."

But Morrow asks an interesting question: "What happens when each tribe - Serbs, Croatians, Muslims, Kosovars, and so on - lives by the principle of Never Forget!? What if no one ever forgets? ... Remembering is indispensable. Evils arise from not remembering (those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, etc, etc.). But evils, terrible evils, also arise from not forgetting. Obsessive memory mandates revenge."

This is one of the most profound observations I've read in a long time, and it bears some reflection. The Jews will Never Forget the Holocaust. The Serbs will Never Forget the Battle of Kosovo. American Blacks will Never Forget slavery. The Armenians will Never Forget the 1915-1917 genocide at the hands of the Turks. And so it goes.

What if no one ever forgets?

I believe Mr Morrow was right - that much evil grows from obsessive memory, from memory that remembers only the injustice, the us-versus-them, the never give an inch because look what they did to us last time. Does this mean that we need to just put old injuries aside and let byegones be byegones? Of course not. If we forget completely, we fall into Santayana's trap of repeating the evil. But at some point, we have to decide that the time has come for some level of acceptance of the past, if not full forgiveness of the evil. When those who perpetrated the original evil have died and there's no one left to punish except their children and grandchildren. No one benefits when the present is driven by the horrors of the past. It's not hard to imagine the economic and social benefits of a Middle East in which people choose to work together rather than constantly battle each other. The Sunnis and the Shiites could rebuild a stable and prosperous Iraq except for the constant shadow of the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. American Blacks could improve their economic and social situation with more focus on education and less on a sense of entitlement for wrongs perpetrated more than a century ago.

What if no one ever forgets?

Then, as Morrow writes, "...we all eventually live in the same cemetery, and tell stories about what it was like in the days before our universes of incompatible memory collided and made such fission. What life is that?"

What life, indeed.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Yesterday, I started a discussion of plans by our local mass transit authority to close a funding shortfall by dramatically raising prices and cutting service. In line with my policy of not wanting to complain about something without offering something in its place, I have some suggestions of my own for solving the problems. I am assisted in this by my regular, anonymous reader of this blog, who posted a lengthy comment to yesterday’s post in which he made a number of cogent observations which largely track with my own.

First, let’s be clear about the purpose of a mass transit system: it’s to move the largest number of people at the lowest possible cost both to the system and to the individual. My anonymous commenter noted that in the Far East, where he lived for many years, bus systems were heavily subsidized in order to provide cheap and reliable transportation for the mass of workers too poor to own cars. I made the same observation while living in Europe. An inexpensive, commuter-friendly mass transit system allows low-wage workers to travel to and from their jobs at a cost within their means and, not incidentally, allows employers to keep wages low since they don’t have to allow for high commuting costs. Bus fares, in particular, should be kept low and routes and schedules should be plentiful to allow large numbers of people to travel economically and to reduce traffic.

Second, as I noted yesterday, the transit authority’s plan to raise fares during rush hours and apply surcharges to the most heavily-transited stations just doesn’t make sense. The point of these changes is to force people to travel at off-peak hours to reduce crowding on trains and buses and in certain stations…but the great majority of people don’t have a choice in when they travel to work – their travel is based on their working hours. That’s why there’s a morning and an evening rush hour. Instead of imposing economic hardship on riders who can’t control the times they need to ride, why not work with employers to stagger work hours such that the rush hour is more spread out, or encourage employers to allow as many workers as possible to telecommute from home? Since we are talking about the Washington DC metro area, where the Federal Government is the largest employer, let the Federal Government set the example in this regard. Many people (my daughter is one of them) can do much of their work from home with a computer and a connection to the Internet; to the extent that they do so, fewer people crowd the transit facilities or congest the highways.

And while we’re at it, don’t charge the highest fares when people need to get to their jobs…that unfairly penalizes working people. Instead of charging the highest fares at peak ridership hours, charge them at the off-peak times, when the system is used largely by tourists and people not commuting to work.

Finally, the governments whose regions are served by Metrobus and Metrorail need to get serious about setting up a steady and reliable source of annual funding for the system. If Metro managers could rely on a steady stream of funding from year to year, they would be better able to plan capital investments and routine maintenance. How to provide these funds? Well, there’s the proverbial rub. No one wants a tax on commuters, but it strikes me that that is probably the fairest way to do it. A writer to this morning’s Washington Post suggested a $5.00 tax on “every single-occupant car approaching Washington.” That’s a bit vague, but a useful starting point for consideration of funding sources.

My anonymous commenter pointed out that if commuting costs rise to a level higher than wages can bear, many people will simply quit their jobs, thereby inflating the welfare rolls. And, of course, if they can’t afford to ride mass transit, ridership goes down, income from fares decreases, and in a year or two we’re back to the same economic death spiral we see now.

I don’t pretend that all these ideas will solve the problem, but taken together I believe they can go a long way toward ameliorating the conditions of crowded transit and choked streets. In any case, the managers of the system owe it to us, the customers, to look at every possible alternative before they do the reflexive thing and hit us with the double whammy of higher prices and reduced service.

But I think they’ll do it anyway, just because it’s easier.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Friday, December 15, 2006

I like to think of myself as a pretty well-educated and reasonably smart person, but there are limits to my understanding of the world around me. One of the things I don’t understand is the economics of mass transit. According to an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, our local mass transit authority (Metrobus and Metrorail) is looking for ways to resolve a $116 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year, using the standard remedies: higher fares and reduced service.

I would find all this easier to swallow if it weren’t for a few annoying issues:

Metrorail authorities say that trains are overcrowded during peak hours, and they need find ways to convince riders to travel at off-peak times. They propose to do this by substantially raising the peak fares, charging an extra fee for passengers entering or leaving the system at the busier “core” stations, and hiking the fees to park at the garages at Metrorail stations. I find this stupid. People travel during peak hours because that’s when they need to travel to get to their jobs. Most of us don’t have a choice. So instead of penalizing the rider who needs to travel at a particular time, why not work with employers to stagger operating hours to spread out the rush, or encourage more telecommuting for those for whom it can work? With the Federal Government as the largest employer in the area, you’d think this could be a reasonable option.

Also, it seems to me that the local transportation authorities are working at cross purposes. The Virginia Department of Transportation encourages people to reduce congestion on the roadways by … taking Metrobus and Metrorail! At the same time, Metrobus and Metrorail are looking for ways to reduce the ridership by getting people to change their commuting times or … drive! Perhaps it might be worthwhile to view our miserable transportation system as just that – a system – and look for a systemic solution that doesn’t rely on pricing the system out of the reach of real people.

I have a few ideas, and I’ll present them in the next post. For now, good luck with your commute.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming this weekend.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Yesterday I wrote about the conference on the "validity" of the Holocaust sponsored by the Iranian government, and how fundamentally stupid it was. I took the opportunity to expound on the topic of freedom of speech, and its importance as a way to expose dumb ideas to ridicule.

Sadly, freedom of speech also leads to freedom to say things that are not only outrageous and stupid, but actually dangerous. The classic example, of course, is that it's illegal to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or to incite a mob to violence. So how do we deal with a head of state whose speech does just that?

This morning, CNN is reporting that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is once again calling for Israel to be "wiped out." In times past, one could discount this sort of rhetoric as the overblown posturing for domestic consumption of an Islamist demagogue. Unfortunately, this particular Islamist demagogue is a Shia (meaning that death as a "martyr" is something to be admired), and is steadily working toward development and posession of nuclear weapons. This is clearly a dangerous combination.

So what can we do about it?

Not much.

We have exhausted our moral and political capital by our ill-advised and monumentally-botched invasion of Iraq, which has made the Islamic world more suspicious of us than ever. Although the Sunni Arab world distrusts (if not hates) Shia Persian Iran, in a region where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a key philosophy, we have managed to amass an impressive roster of enemies. We have expended hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting the wrong enemy, while the deadly threat of a nuclear-armed Iran took shape just over the horizon. While our leadership splits semantic hairs over whether or not poor, battered Iraq is in a civil war or not, Iran patiently waits and advances its own plans, happy to keep us mired in Iraq and unable to take action against its plans.

At a very bad time, our options are few. I hope that the President is considering all this as he meets - finally - with the experts he should have listened to years ago.
But I'm not holding my breath
Tomorrow, thoughts on less apocalyptic topics. For now, have a good day and hope that a great blast of wisdom suddenly explodes in the White House.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Today is the second day of a conference in Teheran, Iran, organized by the Iranian government to "explore the validity of the Holocaust."

As outrageously stupid events go, this one pretty much takes the cake. No one with a brain can reasonably deny that the Holocaust, one of the most horrendous crimes in human history, actually happened. Mountains of documentation exist, including photographs, video, and the testimony of both survivors and perpetrators. There has probably never been a more thoroughly-documented crime. So how can anyone deny that it happened?

There are a few reasons, I believe. One is clearly political, and is at the root of the Iranian agenda: if one calls into question the reality of the Holocaust, one calls into question the moral and political basis of the UN's 1947 decision to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel. Another is simple anti-Semitism. And a third, which really grows out of the second, is that some people will believe what they want to believe, no matter how stupid (for an excellent discussion of the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, read chapter 14 of Michael Shermer's superb book Why People Believe Weird Things).

Now, having said that there's no question the Holocaust actually happened, and that the Iranian conference is utterly asinine, I think that - in principle - there's nothing wrong with Iran hosting the conference.

I have always believed in free speech. I have also always maintained that freedom of speech does not equal freedom of smart. If you give stupid people a platform from which to present stupid ideas, you give intelligent people the opportunity to challenge them. I still believe that, although, sadly, there is less critical thinking today on the part of people who should know better. The average person is too lazy to check facts, too quick to accept even the most outrageous claims, and too willing to give morons the benefit of the doubt. One expects that from people educated in madrassas which teach only the rote memorization of religious texts without critical interpretation; one doesn't expect it from people educated in modern schools.

The sad reality is that, although the entire premise of the Iranian conference is easily shown to be bogus, there is no shortage of people who will believe the drivel it produces. The great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously said that "The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you pour on it, the more it will contract."

And it's sad, but true.

Have a good day. More thoughts on this topic coming later.


Monday, December 11, 2006

In yesterday afternoon’s post, I began a commentary on the open letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI by 38 Muslim scholars in response to his comments about Islam at the University of Regensburg in September. Today's post completes my thoughts on that topic.

In a section of the letter titled “The Use of Reason,” the scholars write that Islamic tradition “is rich in its explorations of human intelligence and its relation to God’s nature and His Will.” Their arguments about God and reason are well-argued within the Islamic context, but I believe they miss the Pope’s point: that Islamic focus on absolute submission to God and literal interpretation of the Koran leads to a lack of human reason in the actions carried out in God's name in the here-and-now. Muslims’ absolute belief in the word of God as they believe it to be written in the Koran allows for no other interpretations, no other forms of belief in God, and no tolerance for those who do not practice Islam. All reasoned philosophical writings aside, the proof is in the events we see around us: among other examples, Imams who use the words of the Koran to justify and glorify murder by suicide bombings, and the harsh and intolerant Wahabi sect of Islam in Saudi Arabia, under which it is actually punishable by death to practice any religion other than Islam. The often-quoted Koranic verse that “there is no compulsion in religion” obviously does not apply in Saudi Arabia, not to mention in many parts of Afghanistan and much of the rest of the Muslim world.

The Muslim scholars end their open letter to the Pope with an appreciation that Benedict, in his damage control attempts after the peaceful and tolerant Muslim reaction to his speech at Regensburg, “…expressed ‘total and profound respect for all Muslims.’” Would it not be a wonderful and reasonable thing if all Muslims would express an equivalent total and profound respect for all Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and practitioners of other religions? It would certainly make this sorry, violent world a better place.

But don’t hold your breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Muslim world was infuriated in September of this year when Pope Benedict XVI gave his now-infamous speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he implied that Islam was a religion of violence and unreason. I didn’t realize until one day last week that a group of 38 Muslim scholars had formally responded to the Pope’s speech with an open letter. The lengthy letter, which you can read in its entirety at, is divided into sections and thoroughly footnoted with citations from the Koran in an attempt to discount the major elements of the Pope’s Regensburg speech. If read by itself, without reference to any other world events or contrary evidence, it is a calm, rational, and gentle expression of peace and tolerance from an aggrieved group of scholars.

To me, however, the letter is most interesting for what it ignores, and what it does not say.

For instance, a long section titled “God’s Transcendence” uses many Koranic citations and much philosophical language to come to its final sentence: “Is it not self-evident that spilling innocent blood goes against mercy and compassion?” What is missing is an acknowledgement that innocent blood is being copiously shed every day in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East by Muslims invoking the so-called “Sword Verses” of the Koran, rather than the verses the authors cite to prove Islam's peaceful nature.

The letter goes on to take issue with the Pope’s discussion of the Islamic concept of jihad by saying that the term holy war as used in the West “does not exist in Islamic languages.” This is a linguistic dodge that splits semantic hairs to deny the reality of what's going on in the world today. Instead of addressing the subject of the Pope's concern, the authors of the letter instead take a “you do it, too” approach by quoting the Bible passage (Matthew 10:34) in which Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” What is missing is an acknowledgement that the Christians of today do not follow such violent exhortations in the 21st century in the same way that many Muslims continue to follow the more violent elements of the Koran.

In continuing the discussion of “Holy War,” the Islamic scholars go on to summarize what they claim are “the (three) authoritative and traditional Islamic rules of war:”

1. Non-combatants are not permitted or legitimate targets. This ignores the fact that Shia and Sunni Muslims are slaughtering each other every day in Iraq, and that suicide bombers – who are almost overwhelmingly Muslims – murder innocent people every day in Iraq and across the Middle East.

2. Religious belief alone does not make anyone the object of attack. Again, this ignores the fact that Shia and Sunni Muslims are slaughtering each other every day in Iraq, and that Muslims who characterize Christians and Jews as “apes and pigs” create an atmosphere of violent intolerance which provides the mental framework within which Muslims see no problem with attacking non-Muslims.

3. Muslims can and should live peacefully with their neighbors. This would doubtless be news to the citizens of Israel, and to the long-suffering Muslims of Iraq.

In regards to the third point, the scholars leave themselves a convenient escape hatch by noting that “…this does not exclude legitimate self-defense and maintenance of sovereignty.” As many commentators other than I have noted, in an Islamic context this means, “keeping everything that Muslims have conquered over the centuries.”

Consider this quote from Raymond Ibrahim’s article, “Conquest and Concession” ( “When Islamists wage jihad – past, present, and future – conquering and consolidating non-Muslim territories and centers in the name of Islam, never once considering to cede them back to their rightful owners, they ultimately demonstrate that they live by the age-old adage that ‘might makes right.’ … But there must be consistency. In other words, if we live in a world where the strong rule and the weak submit, why is it that whenever Muslim regions are conquered, such as in the case of Palestine, the same Islamists who would never concede one inch of Islam’s conquests resort to the United Nations demanding ‘justice,’ ‘restitutions,’ ‘rights,’ and so forth?”

Why, indeed? I guess it’s just the proverbial issue of whose ox is being gored.

I’ll continue this discussion in tomorrow’s post. For now, read the Islamic scholars’ letter and think about how well its calm and reasonable arguments square with the behavior of Muslims around the world...and then draw your own conclusions.

Have a good evening. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Outer Mongolia, you no doubt have heard that the Iraq Study Group released its long-awaited report yesterday. While you can easily find lots of pundits more than willing to explain it to you and tell you what’s right (and wrong) with it, you would be better off reading it yourself and forming your own conclusions. You can read a copy online, or download it to read later, at If you prefer hard copy, will be glad to sell you a bound copy for $6.57, with free shipping.

For what its worth, I think the report is about as worthwhile as such a thing can be. It will certainly fulfill its goal, which is to provide political cover to the Administration to enable it to take the unpleasant actions necessary to salvage something from the ruins of the Iraq war. In large part, though, I believe the recommendations fall into the too-little, too-late category – many of them would have been valuable had they been taken a year ago, or two, or three; now, however, we lack the military, political, and moral standing to make many of them work.

For instance, the recommendation to engage Iran and Syria to solicit their assistance. The Administration has absolutely refused to do this up to now. Mr Baker has noted that we talked with the Soviet Union all the way through the Cold War, and that Iran quietly cooperated with us when we invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. But that was then, and this is now – what incentive does Iran now have to cooperate with us to pacify Iraq? Likewise Syria – what can we offer Bashar al-Asad that would induce him to help us out of a tough spot? Both countries are content to see the United States bogged down in Iraq, unable to do anything about their adventures (Iran's nuclear program and Syria's relentless support of Hizballah in Lebanon).

I could go on (at very great length!), but I’d rather you read the report and formed your own opinions – don’t let anyone else (including me) do your thinking for you. I welcome hearing your comments.

Tomorrow, a return to some commentary on the Pope’s comments on Islam and the aftermath of his visit to Turkey.

Have a good day.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

In a December 3rd article titled "Mideast Allies Near a State of Panic," Los Angeles Times writer Paul Richter looked at the growing concern on the part of our nominal allies across the Middle East over the deteriorating situation in Iraq and its effect on their nations. In discussing Vice President Cheney's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Mr Richter wrote that "...Saudi leaders sought the visit to express their concern about the region...and what they see as excessive American support for the Shiite faction in Iraq."

Goodness gracious! The Saudis are concerned that we appear to be supporting the Shiite faction! I suppose they are referring to that faction which is somewhat less prone to extreme and unrelenting violence against Americans, as opposed to the Sunni faction which appears to be second in the Middle East only to the Palestinians in fighting against their best interests.

If the Saudis (and others) were truly interested in stabilizing Iraq, one might think they would exercise some influence over their coreligionists to ratchet back the violence and seek accommodation with the Shiites and the Kurds to secure the best deal they can get in the new Iraq. This is, of course, easy for me to say. The Iraqi Sunnis were used to being on top and are having a hard time reconciling themselves to their new second-class status. And the evil influence of the late and unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarkawi lives on in the unrelenting Sunni-vs-Shiite religious violence he worked so hard to foment.

But this is the real curse of the Middle East: the blind religious beliefs and tribal culture which lead to an unwillingness to cooperate with "the other" to seek a better future.

A major recurring theme of this blog is that America has become the world's greatest and wealthiest nation because its people have generally chosen to work together to build something unique in the world, rather than against each other in a search for individual advantage. This has, of course, resulted in our being at the same time the most admired and the most reviled country in the world...but I hardly think any American would have it any other way. Can the Iraqis manage to work together to build an "America Lite" in the Middle East as President Bush appears to have hoped? I doubt it.

Whatever else the Iraq Study Group and others pondering our next steps may recommend, one recommendation certainly ought to be strong encouragement of the Saudis, Jordanians, Turks, Syrians, and Iranians to apply pressure on the warring factions to stop killing each other and work toward the future that their children deserve.

But, as usual when considering the possibility of any rational action from any actor in the Middle East, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

An article in the Washington Post Express newspaper this past Wednesday (November 30th) caught my eye: it noted that a District Court judge had ruled that American currency discriminates against the blind, because all denominations look and feel the same. The judge didn't tell the Treasury Department how to fix the "problem," but did tell it to come up with ways for blind people to tell bills of various denominations apart.

Of course, where you stand on any issue depends on how that issue affects you. Since I'm not blind (although woefully nearsighted), I think this is a silly issue that distracts attention and resources from more important problems that affect more people.

At a time when our education system is underfunded and teachers underpaid, when we're mired in a dreadful war in Iraq, when pollution threatens our environment, when unchecked illegal immigration threatens the very nature of America, when intolerant militant Islam seeks to turn the clock back a thousand years to an imagined paradise, I don't think that whether a hundred-dollar bill is larger or differently-colored or of a different texture than a twenty is particularly important.

Consider the implications of the most commonly mentioned fix: making each denomination bill a different size. Differently-sized bills would require cash register drawers to be reconfigured to hold the various sizes. Vending machines would need to be adapted to accept the assorted bills. Currency presses and cutting machines would have to be redesigned or rebuilt. And the list goes on.

How about a little reality check here? Let's solve the huge problems that affect everyone, and then worry about the smaller problems that, although real, affect a much smaller slice of the population.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Yesterday, I began a discussion of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey; today, let's continue that thread...

One of the issues the Pope is trying to address with the Muslim world is reciprocity - as Muslims demand more respect in Western countries, they continue to deny the same respect and freedom to other religions in Muslim-majority nations. Muslims do not see this as a problem, since they see Islam as the final, complete revealed word of God, and do not believe anyone should worship God in any other way. A good discussion of this mindset, and of the difference between "triumphalist" and "relativist" religions, can be found in Bernard Lewis's classic 2003 essay, "I'm Right, You're Wrong, Go to Hell."

Lewis notes that a triumphalist (such as a Muslim) views his as "...the only true and complete religion, all other religions are at best incomplete, and more probably false and evil; and since he is the priviliged recipient of God's final message to humankind, it is surely his duty to bring it to others..." From a Muslim point of view, Lewis continues, Judaism came first, Christianity developed from Judaism, and Islam came last to perfect the message of God. Therefore, "...Judaism and Christianity were both true religions at the time of their revelation, but they were superseded by the final and complete revelation of Islam...Anything subsequent to, from the Muslim perspective, inherently false."

This does not bode well for mutual respect among the world's great religions. If you deeply, sincerely, and truly believe that your creed is the only true one, and that all others are misguided or evil, respect and tolerance will probably be difficult, if not impossible, to attain, particularly given the other related problems I discussed in yesterday's post.

I don't particularly care how a person chooses to relate to his concept of God. To me, it is more important to follow the basic ethical guidelines of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments than it is to wear a particular religious label. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that way. Worse, we live in a world in which the label is more important than the actions one lives.

So where do we go from here? I wish I knew. I don't think there is any particular hope that Islam will develop a new sense of respect and tolerance for other religions - regardless of what the Koran may say about Christians and Jews being "people of the book" and worthy of respect, it is clear that there is no real Muslim interest in respect for any religion but their own.

Sadly, Islam appears to embody the triumphalist point of view described by Lewis: "I'm right, you're wrong, go to hell."

And that's a terrible thing to have to contemplate as we approach the Christmas season, isn't it?

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.