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Terrorball Revisited

[ 10 ] November 12, 2010 |

This is a helpful comparison:

Middle Eastern terrorists hijack a U.S. jetliner bound for Italy. A two-week drama ensues in which the plane’s occupants are split into groups and held hostage in secret locations in Lebanon and Syria.

While this drama is unfolding, another group of terrorists detonates a bomb in the luggage hold of a 747 over the North Atlantic, killing more than 300 people.

Not long afterward, terrorists kill 19 people and wound more than a hundred others in coordinated attacks at European airport ticket counters.

A few months later, a U.S. airliner is bombed over Greece, killing four passengers.

Five months after that, another U.S. airliner is stormed by heavily armed terrorists at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding 150 more.

Things are quiet for a while, until two years later when a 747 bound for New York is blown up over Europe killing 270 passengers and crew.

Nine months from then, a French airliner en route to Paris is bombed over Africa, killing 170 people from 17 countries.

That’s a pretty macabre fantasy, no? A worst-case war-game scenario for the CIA? A script for the End Times? Except, of course, that everything above actually happened, in a four-year span between 1985 and 1989. The culprits were the al-Qaidas of their time: groups like the Abu Nidal Organization and the Arab Revolutionary Cells, and even the government of Libya.

First on that list was the spectacular saga of TWA Flight 847, a Boeing 727 commandeered by Shiite militiamen in June of ’85. Even before that crisis ended, Sikh extremists would blow up Air India Flight 182 off the coast of Ireland — the deadliest civil aviation bombing in history. The Abu Nidal group then murdered 20 people at the airports in Rome and Vienna, followed in short order by the bombing of TWA Flight 840 as it descended toward Athens. Abu Nidal struck again in Karachi, attacking a Pan Am 747 with machine guns and grenades. Then, in December 1988, Libyan operatives planted the luggage bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in what would stand until 2001 as the worst-ever terror attack against a U.S. target. The Libyans later used another luggage bomb to take out UTA Flight 772 over Niger in September 1989.

Read the rest; instructive for thinking about the terms of “existential threat” that are so often bandied about in our national security discourse.


Armistice Day

[ 68 ] November 11, 2010 |

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
Vietnam War Memorial
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions is not Vonnegut’s best book, but I read it in high school, and it was probably the first novel that ever suggested to me that the world might be more complicated than how it was portrayed in school and on TV.

Frank Buckles.

In Honor of Veteran’s Day

[ 4 ] November 11, 2010 |

International Law and Undefended Buildings

[ 17 ] November 11, 2010 |

I have been meaning for a few days to respond to this query on the law of land warfare posted recently at La Riposte:

Article 25 of the Hague Convention on the Law of Land Warfare states “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited” and violation of this article is listed as a War Crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Do American drone attacks on family compounds within Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed to be occupied by members of the Taliban violate Article 25? It is difficult to imagine how such a building, located in a village full of civilians could be construed as being defended, especially against an unmanned aircraft flying 25,000 feet overhead. Adequate defense against such an attacker would have to consist of air-defense artillery or missiles with a sophisticated tracking system to locate and engage the small, quiet drones.

Let’s consider a couple of justifications that might possibly be made for what appears, on the surface, to be an egregious violation of the Laws of Land Warfare. First, someone might claim that the building wasn’t the target – it was only a particular person or persons inside the building who were the targets, and the nature of the structure they were occupying was immaterial. But using that logic, such persons could be legitimately targeted anywhere, including schools, mosques, hospitals, and any other building.

It’s also possible someone could claim that just because there were people in the house who possessed guns, the building was “defended.” Such an argument rings hollow on several counts. First, inhabitants of Pakistan’s tribal areas are allowed to have weapons, precisely for the defense of their persons and property. Second, simply because the occupant of a building has a weapon, it doesn’t mean they will use it defensively. If approached by military or police forces they may choose to run away, to surrender, or to fight. Only in the latter case would the building become a “defended” position and thus merit bombardment.

I have only two things to add to this analysis, with which I generally concur. The first is that the general prohibition in the original Hague Conventions, reiterated in the Rome Statute, is also given more nuance by Articles 48-57 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1977. Some of the treaty law relevant to this question includes: Read more…

Dave Niehaus 1935-2010

[ 5 ] November 11, 2010 |

Dave Niehaus, the broadcaster of the Seattle Mariners since their first game, died yesterday.

Stories / tributes here, here, and here.

I’ll add the usual narrative: for me, Niehaus was baseball.  From their first season in 1977, at the age of nine, I was hooked.  After I moved to Europe nearly ten years ago, I would listen whenever I could when back in Seattle.

Niehaus would call 5,284 out of the 5,385 games that the Mariners have played.  There was a lot of really bad baseball, but Niehaus made it more than endurable, he made it enjoyable.

The Catfood Commission

[ 42 ] November 10, 2010 |

Still relevant!

…more direct analysis. It’s like The Phantom Menace — the non-fanboy population could have predicted that the Report For Upper-Class Tax Cuts And Catfood Eating for the Poor (including the working poor) would be terrible, but it’s still kind of amazing how terrible it is.    And, yes, it’s DOA in Congress, but politically this was a really stupid idea by Obama.

Waiting for Superman (to man up)

[ 37 ] November 10, 2010 |

It goes without saying that Ben Shapiro’s not a very talented writer, but reading about his achievements leads me to despair for the future of America, because apparently it’s possible to graduate summa cum laude from one of the best schools in the best public university system in America and still write sentences like these:

More people will still shell out bucks to see Harrison Ford (as long as he stops the metrosexual post-Calista Flockhart crap) and Sean Connery than they will to see Robert Pattinson sans fangs. It’s not because they’re old. It’s because they’re dudes. Men want to be them. Women want to be with them. They kick ass, take names, and don’t shave their chests.

I’m not about to defend Pattinson, but given that, prior to this spasmodic outburst of cliché, he’d knocked other “metrosexual” actors for failing to star in a commercially successful film recently, I feel obliged to note that the Twilight films grossed the GDP of a small country. He may think writing “sans fangs” undercuts my objection, but it doesn’t: there clearly is an audience for actors he deems metrosexuals, as is evidenced by the fact that Shapiro can only paint actors as unsuccessful when he deliberately ignores their successful films.

A smarter writer would at least possess wits enough not to mention those films, but Shapiro is no smarter writer:

Four of Depp’s last five films not involving pirates have underperformed at the box office (the lone exception was Alice in Wonderland, in which Depp played Jack Sparrow with red hair and slightly less coherence). Jude Law hasn’t headlined a hit in his entire career (Sherlock Holmes was Robert Downey Jr.’s show, start-to-finish).

Translation: since some of the highest grossing films of the past decade don’t count, these actors are failures. Put aside the fact that most films aren’t successful; put aside the fact that anyone would look like a failure if you disregarded their successes; put aside the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is, without a doubt, a man with “metrosexual” appeal whose two most recent successes were playing a metrosexual tycoon and a homosocial detective; put all that aside for the moment and concentrate the sheer stupidity with which he presented his argument. He wants to claim that audiences shun films with metrosexual actors or about metrosexual characters, but he actually claims that audiences shun them, except when they don’t. When don’t they? Why, in all these extremely popular and profitable films, none of which count because he doesn’t want them to.

Now, if he were an honest cultural critic, he’d be concerned with the actual tastes of actual audiences and try to understand how they were shaped, but he’s no more honest a cultural critic than he is talented a writer. That said, his failed sophistry distracted me from my original topic, Superman, about whom Shapiro writes:

I am constantly bemused by the attempt to re-set Superman. The original comics are classic pieces of Americana. The original movie with Christopher Reeve was wonderful in almost every way—the first forty minutes of the original Superman is pure magic. And the movie is true to the comic book sensibility: Superman is conflicted about his identity, and wants to tell Lois the truth, but he’s also supremely powerful and uncompromising about his defense of truth, justice, and the American way.

First, no less of a leading liberal light than Frank Miller already exploded that version of Superman in 1986; second, this is a child’s understanding of the character that even the children’s show avoided; third, those clauses after the colon reveal the gross limitations of Shapiro’s conservative imagination, in that they suggest that no one who’s conflicted about their identity could defend American ideals. I wonder what his take on gays in the military is?

All kidding aside, Shapiro’s adamant that Superman occupy the same cultural space as Donna Reed et al. He must live in the perpetual twilight of an imaginary Golden Age in which

Superman is sincere in his masculinity … doesn’t wax his chest [and] doesn’t whine about having to do his job[.]

Wait—didn’t John Nolte just tell me that conservatives hate Mad Men? So why is Shapiro idealizing Draper? Guess he didn’t get the memo. Probably too busy writing about a book he hasn’t read:

Fast forward thirty years. Now we’re hearing that DC Comics wants to reshape Superman. According to the New York Post the Man of Steel will now be “a conflicted 20-year-old who’s trying to find his way in the world … He wears hoodies, has smoldering eyes and, as a lanky Clark Kent, wears low-cut pants and hipster skinny ties.”

Even more disturbingly, according to, the new Superman will be an emissary of the international way which presumably will be more in line with multicultural norms and practices. “I was raised in this country. I believe in this country,” Supermetroman will say. “Does it have its flaws? Yes. Does it have its moments of greatness? Yes. Bottom line is, it’s my home and I’ll always carry those values around with me. But if I do what I can do just for the U.S., it’s going to destabilize the whole world. It could even lead to war.”

Yeah, that has best-seller written all-over it.

Actually, it does, and to return to my earlier point, if Shapiro honestly wanted to understand the culture he’s so feebly critiquing, he’d account for that. I’ll address the actual content of the book tomorrow, you know, like a right proper cultural critic and all.

And Many More!!

[ 4 ] November 10, 2010 |

I would like to take a moment today to wish a happy birthday to two very important institutions.

No Partying with the Tea Party

[ 3 ] November 10, 2010 |

My latest at WPR concerns the exceedingly low likelihood that a Progressive-Tea Party understanding will develop on defense spending:

However, hopes for a less-hawkish Republican congressional caucus probably won’t come to fruition, for two reasons. First, budgetary concerns almost always fall victim to parochial interest. New GOP representatives will likely defend Defense Department and military industrial investment in their own districts at the expense of larger concerns about the budget deficit. The U.S. defense industry has carefully configured itself in order to maximize its congressional influence, by spreading contracts, facilities, and programs across as many states and districts as possible in order to vest interests for senators and representatives. Legislators rarely vote to kill projects that bring jobs and money to their districts, and Tea Party Republicans will feel this pressure just as much as any other elected official.

Second, the increasing prominence of a network of conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, has restructured Republican politics. Since the 1970s, these institutions, which lean very heavily in favor of an interventionist posture, have effectively sidelined the “realist” and “isolationist” factions of the Republican Party. With impressive media operations and tight connections with the GOP congressional caucus, they can provide ready-made talking points for newly elected officials, while helping to rein in wayward politicians by restricting media attention and campaign funding. This framework provides crucial socialization for representatives who have not previously thought very long or very hard about foreign policy issues. It also provides a rote party line for those with little interest in establishing foreign policy expertise, or assembling a good foreign policy staff team. If newly elected officials rely on the expertise that these institutions can provide, they will likely begin to view the world in similarly hawkish terms, regardless of their positions on domestic issues.

Electoral College Counterfactuals

[ 40 ] November 10, 2010 |

Electoral reform has been one area where the cumbersome amendment process established by Article V hasn’t been a huge barrier.   With the unusual exception of the 14th, the bulk of the substantive rights and procedural changes contained in the post-Bill of Rights amendments have dealt with elections: various expansions of the franchise, cleaning up the succession process, term limiting the president, etc.    The electoral college, however, despite its irrationality and the fact that the election of 1800 seemed to establish a norm that the president should be a close to popularly elected as the rules allow, has persisted.   I’ve wondered for a while if this is the result of the fact that the most obvious democratic travesty* produced by the Electoral College — the election of Lincoln in 1860 when any good electoral system would have awarded the election to Douglas — luckily happened to work out extremely well.    Had defects in the electoral college led to a war to expand slavery rather than a war to end slavery, I wonder if it would have remained in place.   Similarly, had Kerry won another 120,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 (and hence won an election he would have lost if the country had an electoral system that met modern democratic standards) there may have been enough bipartisan opposition to the electoral college to make it vulnerable.    But it didn’t happen, so it continues to lay around like a loaded weapon waiting for another undemocratic outcome as bad or worse than 2000.

*As Matt points out, of course the 1860 was only a travesty of democracy when you accept the undemocratic rules that defined the electorate in 1860; in this case, the electoral college actually produced a more democratic result in the modern sense.   But this was also a fluke — for most of its history, the electoral college had favored the slave power.

Jon Stewart Spanks Bill Maher, Lightly and With Civility on the Wrist. Burn.

[ 24 ] November 9, 2010 |
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
MSNBC Suspends Keith Olbermann
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity


[ 17 ] November 9, 2010 |

Some random link in lieu of actual blogging.  General apologies for the slowness; things picking up at school, column takes up some of my writing time, etc.  But I read…

  • Stephen Walt is simple and brutal in his analysis of George W. Bush’s decisions.
  • Why Caprica failed. I think that this is mostly right; the show demanded a lot from an audience that wasn’t so big to begin with. SyFy’s practice of splitting the season didn’t work out well in this case, as it simply gutted any momentum that the story had developed.
  • Does Britain need a military? A lot of my thinking recently has been about the how the idea of American Exceptionalism is deployed on the left and the right, and what American foreign policy might look like if the United States was a “normal” country.
  • Republicans may not care about the deficit. More about this tomorrow regarding the defense budget; short answer is that the chances of a progressive-tea party understanding on defense spending are exceedingly low.
  • A ceremony memorializing Jews who fought for the Kaiser.   I’d be curious to learn how many Jews served in the Austria-Hungary armed forces in World War I.
  • Danger Room says that the LA “missile contrail” was really just a jet contrail seen from an odd angle. But then, they would say that.
  • Ben Wittes and Tom Malinowski talk about the ethics of killing Joseph Kony with a drone strike.