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Christmas in the Information Age

Today is Black Friday, when the annual Christmas shopping season begins with bargain-hunters duking it out over some Chinese-made gewgaw or another in the store aisles, and as usual we’ll pass on the ritual. This is expected to be the first Christmas when on-line sales surpass those in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores that you have to drive to and walk into and then interact with other people, but we’ll also take a pass on that.
As much as we resent all the current stores on the east and west sides of town for driving away Gateway Sporting Goods and Reader’s Bookstore and all the other locally-owned retailers who used to transform downtown Wichita, Kansas, into a winter wonderland during our youth, we don’t want to see them driven away by the computer or other newfangled device you’re using to read this. That would leave a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of unemployed shop clerks, and what with the drones Amazon is already using and the driverless trucks that Google is threatening to unleash it’s hard to see what space-filling businesses and jobs the new economy might offer them.
Such potentially dire economic consequences aside, the technological tectonic shift that’s expected to occur this Christmas season has a cultural effect we also don’t care for. Although today’s stores lack the personal touch of the mom-and-pop operations we so fondly recall, there’s still something to be said for driving to a store and walking into it and interacting with other people. The drive takes you past places that evoke fond memories and gives you a chance to hear the local radio, and if you don’t get hit by a car the walk across the parking lot is healthful, and maybe it’s just a Wichita thing but we find that most of our interactions with other people are generally quite pleasant and often have a very salutary effect on our mood.
Somehow, despite the crass commercialism and creeping secularism of this modern age, people always seem to become more pleasant to interact with the closer it gets to Christmas. Lay off the Black Friday sales or the Cyber Monday bargains, hunt down some fascinating shop some local oddball opened, and it might just instill some Christmas spirit. We also suggest you call your far-away family rather than texting them, and meet face-to-face if at all possible, and gratefully accept any invitations you might receive to a holiday party, and except for your daily visits here spend less time looking at some sort of screen.
There’s no fending off progress, even when it goes too far, but we’ll be damned before we go along with it.

— Bud Norman

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Tortured Logic

Although we are squeamish about torture, to the point we can barely sit through a Quentin Tarantino movie without experiencing nausea, under certain specific circumstances we reluctantly countenance our government engaging in what is euphemistically called “enhanced interrogations.” Whenever American lives are imminently at risk, and there is a high degree of certainty that a captured unlawful enemy combatant has information that might help avert their deaths, we are inclined to allow the authorities wide latitude to interrogate away.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee take a harder line against torture, judging by the much ballyhooed report they issued about the matter. After six years and $40 million and no interviews of anybody they have accused, they have uncovered a few instances where agents of the United States government apparently interrogated suspects when there was no imminent risk and no certainty of useful information to be gained and the methods went even beyond the widest latitude we would allow, which is a service to the country, but we think they take an otherwise admirable aversion to torture too far. They are critical of techniques that have demonstrably proved helpful in the past, and are well within the bounds of the the public understands is going on, and would surely inhibit agents dealing with future imminent risks from subjecting potentially useful sources to anything harsher than a comfy chair and a cup of tea.
The report is clearly intended to remind America of the bad old days of George W. Bush, when Dick Cheney used to stick needles into the arms of innocent Afghan goat herders just for kicks, no matter how dissatisfied it might be with Obama and the out-going Democratic Senate majority. After so many years without a major terrorist act on American soil, unless you count the countless “lone wolf” attacks and plots that failed entirely to their own ineptitude or the sporadic incidents of “work place violence,” or the successful slaughter of Americans overseas, Feinstein and her fellow Democrats believe they can once again be indignant about the rough men who have been keeping them safe. The sense of moral superiority that comes with a willingness to sacrifice American lives rather than cause pain to an unlawful enemy combatant is irresistible to the likes of Feinstein and her fellow Democrats, especially when they sense a political advantage.
Recent polling suggests that much of the public shares the Republicans’ reluctant willingness to pay rough, though, and the argument quickly leads to the Obama administration’s alternative method of sending drones to vaporize the unlawful enemy combatants and whatever innocent Afghan goat herders happen to be standing nearby. This has the advantage of sparing the president the awkwardness of sending the unlawful enemy combatants to that nasty Guantanamo Bay detention camp that he’s been promising to close for the past seven years, and there won’t be any of that rough stuff that was done back in the bad old days, but it doesn’t provide any useful information from the sort of suspects that used to be nabbed by the special forces, and it tends to lose the hearts and minds of the relatives of those innocent Afghan goat herders who happened to be standing nearby, and we doubt that the unlawful enemy combatants find it preferable to a few rounds of water-boarding.
Current policies should offend the more refined sensibilities of the left, and alarm the more pragmatically ruthless right, so let that debate begin.

— Bud Norman

Europe Falls Out of Love

At this point we must reserve judgment about the allegations of American spying on our European allies, as the information that has thus far surfaced in the international press is quite incomplete. If it turns out that the National Security Agency has been snooping around only in the communications of Frenchmen and Germans who are Islamist nutcases planning acts of terror against the United States we will not be offended, nor care much if the French and Germans are offended, but if the spying turns out to be of a broader and more capricious nature and the allegation that European Union diplomatic offices were bugged is proved we will be forced to concede the Europeans have grounds to be irked.
No matter what the next news cycle might bring, however, there is already a guilty sense of satisfaction in seeing Europe suddenly disillusioned with President Barack Obama. French President Francois Hollande is so incensed with his American counterpart that he’s threatening to block a trans-Atlantic free trade pact, the German government has directed its prosecutors to commence a criminal investigation into the matter, and across the continent newspaper and television commentators are resorting to such foul language as “Bush” and “Cheney.” European patience had already been tested by Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, his expanded campaign of drone strikes into Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries, and an American economy that hasn’t exactly kick-started a global boom, but the latest controversy seems to have at last turned European opinion against Obama.
One can only imagine the Europeans’ disappointment, given the high hopes that they had for Obama during the ’08 presidential campaign. During his triumphant tour of the continent that year he was greeted by massive crowds of adoring fans, the press was even more enraptured of his persona than its star-struck American counterpart, and both popular and elite opinion favored him with something scarily close to unanimity. Obama made much of the fact that he “looked different” than previous American presidents, and his dark skin provided Europeans with the same giddy sense of being absolved of racism that so many Americans found in supporting him, but more importantly the Europeans could look at his soft-power foreign policy promises, his spread-the-wealth domestic programs, and his post-nationalist philosophy of the world and see someone who looked very much like themselves. All of the European fears of American power, and all of the resentments that derived from the embarrassing fact that American power had thrice saved Europe from itself during the 20th Century, were alleviated by Obama’s smooth baritone voice and citizen-of-the-world oratory before those adoring crowds.
It was all simplistic nonsense that would inevitably be exposed by the harsh realities of the complicated world, but Europe’s enthusiasm was nonetheless one of the often-mentioned selling points for Obama’s candidacy back home. Self-styled sophisticates in the media and at your local barroom cited Obama’s sky-high approval ratings in Europe as proof of his messianic qualities. After eight years of international ignominy under the oh-so-gauche Bush, Obama’s supporters promised, America would once again be able to sit with the cool kids in the international high school cafeteria. Why supposedly smart Americans should be so concerned with what a bunch European rubes think is a question best left to future historians and psychoanalysts, but it will be interesting to see how the up-date-leftist in America responds to this recent change of international opinion.

— Bud Norman

National Insecurity

President Barack Obama delivered a lengthy address on national security issues Thursday, and we are left feeling rather insecure.
There were a few lines in the speech calculated to curry favor with conservatives, including a nostalgic paean to the “long twilight struggle of the Cold War” that actually sounded pleased with the outcome, a much overdue acknowledgement that the Fort Hood shootings were an act of terrorism rather than “workplace violence,” and a humble admission that there are some crazy people out there who are eager to kill Americans even if Barack Hussein Obama is the president, but otherwise it was clearly intended to mollify the left. Much of the speech was devoted to same sneering criticism of the George W. Bush administration that used to wow the crowds back in the ’08 election, as well as some dishonest preening about how he has differed from his predecessor, such as laughable claim that he has “expanded our consultations with Congress,” and the headline-making announcements that he once again hopes to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, will be cutting back on his aggressive use of targeted strikes by armed drones, and has declared something akin to victory in the war against Islamist terrorism and will be winding it all down because “That’s what our democracy demands.”
Less clear is why the president feels the left needs mollification, given that it has thus far been willing to go along with anything he does. There has been some grumbling about the more robust aspects of Obama’s foreign policy at the furthest fringes of the left, such as the founder of the Code Pink group of peaceniks who interrupted the speech with some characteristically rude heckling, prompting the president to assure her that she would be quite satisfied with what he had to say once the speech proceeded, but they are an infinitesimal constituency and cannot be mollified by anything short of complete capitulation to America’s enemies. Perhaps the president simply wanted to talk about something other than scandals swirling around his administration, although he did end up mentioning the Justice Department’s scandalous probe of several organizations because of its putative ties to national security leaks and there was a desperate attempt to blame the Benghazi fiasco on budget problems.
Most lefties who manage to slog through the speech will be pleased with it, we suspect, but anyone a notch or two to the right of Code Pink will find a great deal to argue with. Obama once again asserted that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is provokes such outrage among Muslim moderates that it is causing more terrorism than it prevents, but he did not explain why incinerating a terrorist with a missile from a drone is less offensive to Islamist sensibilities nor did he answer any of the questions about what to do with the detainees that have kept the center open since he signed an executive order to close it way back in ’09. Obama’s schizophrenic indictment and defense of his own drone policy wasn’t convincing, either as an indictment or a defense, and because of his high-minded aversion to detaining or interrogating terror suspect it raised the question of what, if anything, he will be doing instead. He called for an increase in foreign aid, perhaps to further enrich the treasuries of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and similar emerging theocracies, but he was not specific.
Most worrisome was the part about how “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” The terrorists who are intent on striking at America see their efforts as just the latest skirmish in a war against the infidels that has raged since Muhammad launched his first jihad more than 1,400 years ago, but they are notoriously indifferent to history’s advice and at this point it seems unlikely they will end it just because that is what our democracy demands. There is always a way for one side of war to end it unilaterally, an old technique called surrender, and we hope that is not what the president has it mind.

— Bud Norman

Taking Both Sides

One might have gleaned from the past election an impression that Islamist terrorism had vanished forever after President Barack Obama personally killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, but apparently this is not the case. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Canadian government’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda plot to commit mass murder on a train heading to the United States are only the most recent events indicating that Islamist terrorism remains a problem.
Thus far the reaction to these events has been largely apolitical, as most of the country remains in one of those moments of post-terrorism unity that punish any attempts at partisan point-scoring, but the necessary arguments about how to proceed will soon commence. Already the well-rehearsed rationalizations are being trotted out in the liberal media, along with the usual hand-wringing about the great Islamophobic backlash that is ever feared but never realized, and the conservative press has begun easing into a full-throated critique of administration policies. All of the familiar points will be reprised, but the debate will be complicated this time around by the shrewdly political nature of Obama’s policies.
Obama has presented himself as a hard-nosed hawk who has continued such Bush-era protocols as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, ordered a surge in Afghanistan and prolonged the withdrawal from Iraq along the Bush timetable, prosecuted a terrorist-killing drone war with a ruthlessness that even Bush didn’t dare, and endlessly reminded the public of bin Laden’s death. At the same time he has cultivated a reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning antidote to that awful cowboy Bush, and the impresario of conflict resolution who ordered a decrease in troop strength in Afghanistan and got us out of Iraq, won over Muslim hearts with his exotic background and eloquent apologias to Islamic culture, and banned such nastiness as the enhanced interrogation techniques that led to bin Laden’s death. As political strategy it has been a stunning success, with critics on both the left and right muted and the non-ideological center well satisfied so long as nothing was blowing up. A radical Islamist shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, but that was easily dismissed as just another instance of workplace violence, and an Islamist terror group killed an ambassador and three other Americans, but that was in some far-away place called Benghazi, Libya, and the Islamist governments being welcomed into power by the administration were reportedly an “Arab Spring,” so it seemed to be working.
Now things are blowing up, and too close to home for the media to ignore, and the policies don’t seem to be working to anywhere near the extent that the president and his supporters have promised. Specific questions will now be asked about the immigration rules that allowed the suspects into the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s aborted inquiries into one of the suspect’s increasing radicalization, the legal procedures being used to try the surviving suspect, and other matters arising from the Boston bombing, but there will also be a broader debate about the totality of the administration’s policies. Some will blame the hard-nosed protocols carried over and expanded from the Bush administration, while others will blame the tendencies to legalism, appeasement, and accommodation, but it will be most interesting to hear Obama defend his combination of the two.

— Bud Norman

An Oratorical Drone Strike

As we write this Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is still talking on the Senate floor, waging a filibuster against the confirmation of Paul Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
All the press reports have dubbed Paul’s effort an “old-fashioned” filibuster to distinguish it from the modern easy-to-use variety, which is any procedural maneuver to block a simple majority, and some could not resist a reference to the climactic scene of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The marathon speech-making was intended as a protest against the Obama administration’s drone policies, which claim broad powers to strike against Americans without due process, but the tactic might have garnered more attention than the point it was making.

Which is a shame, because the drone policy deserves careful public scrutiny. In testimony before a Senate committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an assurance that “the government has no intention” of carrying out drone strikes in America but nonetheless insisted it has a right to do so in an “extraordinary circumstance.” Holder cited the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, as examples, but questioning by Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz revealed that more ordinary circumstances also suffice. Cruz asked “If an individual sitting quietly at a café in the United States, in your legal judgment, does the Constitution allow a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil to be killed by a drone?” A discomfiting amount of hemming and hawing followed before Holder replied that he did “not think that that would be an appropriate use of lethal force.” Only when pressed further by Cruz, who noted that he had asked about the legality rather than the propriety of such an attack, did Holder concede that there might be constitutional issues involved.

Such an expansive view of government power seems odd coming from Holder, who had been an outspoken critic of the previous administration’s harsh interrogation techniques, formerly insisted on civilian trials for such terrorists at Halide Sheik Mohammad, and whose law firm had noisily represented several of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but none of the senators bothered to question him about the consistency of his views. Many critics of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism protocols have undergone similar conversions since Obama took office, so perhaps the senators felt it wasn’t remarkable enough to warrant comment.

Some will contend that Obama’s critics are guilty of the same hypocrisy, and there probably are a few conservatives out there who would have felt quite comfortable with the new drone policies under the old administration, but Paul comes from strictly libertarian wing of the Republican and has been opposed to the war on terror’s expansion of government powers since the beginning. Although we have our doubts about Paul’s isolationist tendencies, they serve him well in this instance.

— Bud Norman

Droning On

A reliably right-wing friend was sharing a beer with us recently, and the talk naturally turned to the topic of drone strikes. Our pal confessed that he was initially opposed to the president’s claim to a legal right to order the death of any American living abroad who is suspected of terrorist activities, mainly because of an instinct honed over the past four years to oppose any Obama policy, but that he had since reconsidered his position. He had always supported even the most vigorous protocols in the war against Islamist terrorism in the past, our friend said, and “You don’t want to stop thinking.”
The ensuing conversation didn’t allay all of our concerns about the policy, and we wound up agreeing only that it made Obama’s endless moral preening about the dark days of the lawless and bloodthirsty Bush administration all the more insufferable, but our friend’s determination to think through an issue with intellectual consistency and disregard for partisan politics impressed us nonetheless. That’s a rare trait these days, on both the left and the right, and the lack of it is largely responsible for the currently sorry state of the country and the world. Perhaps it is our own partisan prejudice at play, but the left seems especially prone to knee-jerk reactions against anything their enemies are doing at a given moment, no matter what contortions of logic are required.
Obama and his entire administration have this very tendency, and it has left them with a foreign policy that is both morally incoherent and strategically ineffective. Eight long years of self-righteous denunciations of Bush’s anti-terrorism protocols compelled Obama to promise an end to indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, but doing has forced him to embrace Bush’s formerly controversial drone policies with a gusto his cowboy predecessor would have never dared. Although Obama has quietly abandoned his efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp he can’t afford the political embarrassment of adding to its population, nor can he extract any information from the prisoners that they aren’t willing to divulge when asked nicely, and by being so meticulously moral he is left with no option but to incinerate any suspected bad guys along with whomever happens to be standing nearby when the Hellfire missile arrives. We’ll leave it to the leftists to lament the fate of these poor terrorists, who would probably have preferred the sunny climes of Cuba and a brisk round or two of waterboarding, but our objection is that the policy doesn’t work as well as the old method of going in with special forces unit and nabbing the terrorists.
In one case, according to a story in The New York Times, it was a brave anti-al Qaeda cleric in Yemen who happened to be standing nearby when the Hellfire missile arrived. The blast took out several terrorists, along with whatever information they might have possessed, but it seems unlikely to advance the large project of turning the Muslim world against terrorism. There were no doubt many cases where drone strikes achieved a more unmitigated good, during both the Bush and Obama administrations, but it would be better to limit their use to those occasions.
Similar inconsistencies bedevil other aspects of the Obama foreign policy, such as its sanctimonious demands for congressional and approval when a Republican is in office and its utter disregard for both once a Democrat is installed. Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearings for the Secretary of State post didn’t get the same amount of publicity as former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s disastrous performance when applying for Secretary of Defense, but we were amused by an exchange between Kerry and Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who demanded to know why the famous former anti-war activist had so loudly denounced Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia without explicit congressional approval yet applauded Obama’s decision to bomb Libya with the same lack of legal authorization. Kerry mumbled some ahistorical nonsense about how presidents now have to respond to situations quickly, as Nixon were delivering his bombs by horse and buggy, but one gets the sense that he yearned to come right out and say that in one case it was a Republican president, and not just any Republican, but Nixon, and in the other it was a Democrat, and not just any Democrat, but Obama.
Paul is impressively conservative on domestic issues and a welcome member of the Republican party, but he has many of the isolationist views of his father, the peacenik libertarian Ron Paul, and he’s therefore free to critique the administration without party loyalty or intellectual inconsistency. Such neo-conservative standard-bearers as John Bolton are rising to the defense of Obama’s drone policy, even as they remain staunch critics of almost everything else he’s doing, and a few intellectually honest lefties have dared to defy their beloved president by sticking to their bleeding-heart guns. Most of the country seems willing to support or oppose anything Obama does, however, and it seems likely that the drone policy will continue without much controversy until another Republican happens to get into the White House.

— Bud Norman

The Power of Life and Death

Throughout the Bush years we were subjected to constant warnings about an impending totalitarian dictatorship. The Patriot Act, the indefinite detentions taking place at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, and the drone strikes against terrorists were all cited as evidence of a presidency that had dangerously exceeded its constitutional limits and posed a threat to the civil liberties of every American.
For some reason or another all of these fears seem to have been allayed during the Obama years. The Patriot Act was renewed by congress and re-signed by Obama, but with little comment from the previously offended left. The president’s self-righteously proclaimed promise to close Guantanamo Bay has been more or less officially abandoned, with the detention of its prisoners as indefinite as every, but without any noticeable protest. The drone strikes have continued with even greater frequency and ferocity, again with a deafening quiet from the erstwhile critics, and now there is more silence about the remarkable revelation that the current administration claims a legal right to kill any American it suspects of terrorist activity without so much as an indictment.
While it must be conceded that the story broke at NBC News, which is ordinarily as obeisant to Obama as any of the media, the president’s claim to absolute power of life and death over American citizens hasn’t generated the same outraged coverage that was given to far more constrained policies just an administration ago. Thus far we have not heard anyone on the left attempt a defense of the policy, except for White House spokesman Jay Carney, who has a professional obligation to describe it as “legal,” “ethical,” and “wise,” but with few exceptions we have not heard any denunciations.
As with Obama’s expansive use of executive orders, “czars” appointed without Senate approval, and as his more-than-regal lifestyle, the left seems quite comfortable with him assuming powers that they would never entrust to a Republican president. Although we would object to such policies in any case we would actually trust a Republican more, not because a member of that party is any less likely to be corrupted by absolute power, but because the power of the press and public opinion would restrain him even if the Constitution did not.

— Bud Norman