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Another Annus Horribilis

Years always seem to end in the dead of winter, when the trees are bare and the skies are gray and the prairie winds blow bitterly cold, and thus far 2015 is proving no exception to that desultory rule. In this case it seems altogether apt, as 2015 has been a desultory year. Even the most determined optimist would find it hard to identify much good news from the past six months of headlines, in any section of the paper.
The economy sputtered along steadily enough that the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates a teensy-weensy bit, and the unemployment rate didn’t seem so bad if you just excluded all the underemployed and the huge number of people who’d given up on finding any sort of work, but the working stiff’s wages were still stagnant and even the investor class was having the hardest time making a profit since the legendarily hard times of the Great Depression. The global state of affairs further deteriorated, with the Middle East exploding in an even greater than usual hatred and the deadly repercussions being felt as far away as Paris and San Bernardino, refugees from that troubled region and Central America and elsewhere in the Third World pouring into the west in such numbers that they overwhelmed the resources and generosity of the First World, and elite western opinion blaming it all on capitalism. Academia went utterly mad in 2015, government regulations proliferated at an unprecedented rate, the popular culture offered no compensatory movies or songs or novels or dance crazes that we noticed, and our favorite sports teams suffered frustrating seasons.
The new year that starts tomorrow promises an extra Leap Year day, an inevitable spring, and a long and leafy summer that will lead to an autumnal Election Day that could possibly put some of this right, but the past year doesn’t make us hopeful. So far the Democrats seem more riled up about impoverishing the rich than enriching the poor, and the polls predicts that they’ll nominate a woman who has parlayed political influence into extraordinary wealth to make the point, so there’s little chance for progress there. Meanwhile the Republicans, until recently infuriated by crony capitalism and Russian arrogance and a shallow popular culture, are threatening to nominate a man who brags about buying off politicians and revels in the praise of Vladimir Putin and was the star of a long-running reality television show to make their point. The infuriation of 2015 will make level-headed decision-making difficult in 2016, although we can hope the warmer weather will help.

— Bud Norman

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Circular Logic in an Oval Office

President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address on Sunday wasn’t so awful as we had feared, and probably won’t prove so awful as the last one, in which he proudly announced the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but that’s not saying much. Although we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch it, and therefore missed out on the reportedly unsettling and thus far unexplained sight of him standing before his desk rather than seated at the usual president position behind it, our reading of the transcript was not reassuring.
The speech begins by noting the ethnic diversity of the victims of Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, as if that somehow makes it worse than a more homogenous slaughter, but at least it was quickly followed with a frank admission that what happened was an act of terrorism. By now the facts of the matter are so well-established and widely-reported that even Obama’s stubborn instincts cannot deny them, but we’ll credit him for at long last acknowledging the well-established and widely-reported fact that the long-ago massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was also an act of terrorism. All of our ex-alcoholic pals tell us that the first step toward recovery is admitting there is a problem, so we are heartened to see that after seven years in office the president has taken a nudge in that direction. He even acknowledged that the previously unspecific sort of terrorism had something to do with “a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the west.”

We’re assured that for the past seven years the president has “confronted this threat each morning in my intelligence briefing,” but we can’t help recalling the Government Accountability Office’s reports that the president had been skipping 58 percent of those briefings, or the more recent reports that he only listens to information regarding a limited number of groups that he considers a terror threat, so we’re not convinced. The president also noted that “our success won’t depend on tough talk,” so neither were were convinced by the tougher than usual talk that followed.
There was a promise that “our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary,” but given the president’s previous scoffing about military solutions, and his continued insistence that air strikes and special forces will suffice, again we are not confident. There was also a promise to continue to provide training and assistance to “tens of thousands” of supposedly moderate Syrian rebels, but given the junk we’ve been providing our supposedly moderate friends in Ukraine, and the less-than-ten fighters we’ve actually had on the ground recently, that also seems a bad bet.
A third promise made was that America will step up its offensive against the Islamic State, which the president consistently refers to by the unusual acronym ISIL for fear of mentioning that first word, and he notes that our cooperation with Turkey and France has lately increased, and although he doesn’t mention Russia, which has also lately suffered from Islamic State’s now-global terror network, we can believe that there’s now sufficient international political pressure for Obama to keep that promise. Whether he knows how to do it without strengthening the hands of Turkey and Russia and Iran and other players in the region remains to be seen, and past history suggests otherwise, but at least its a somewhat hopeful development.
The fourth promise was that “with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process — and timeline — to pursue ceasefires and a political solution to the Syrian civil war.” This, of course, inspires no confidence at all. There was some hopeful talk about “reviewing” the procedures that waived in one of the San Bernardino killers on a passport from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or some other unestablished Middle Eastern problem country, but no mention of whether the many thousands of refugees from similarly problematic countries will also be subjected to these improved methods.
Of course there was some talk about what do back here in the homeland, and that was the least inspiring portion of the speech. There was the predictable call to deny gun sales to anyone on the “no-fly list,” even though the “no-fly list” is such a ridiculous compilation of random names that now includes numerous employees of the Homeland Security Department and once included Sen. Ted Kennedy and could easily include you if you’re annoyed office mate decides to make an anonymous call and was until recent an outrage to the leftward side of civil libertarian movement, but at least there weren’t any threats of an executive action to repeal the Second Amendment. There was a call to make it harder to purchase the sort of “assault weapons” that were used in the attack, which aren’t really assault weapons and are currently owned by millions of law-abiding Americans who might wind up using them against the next attackers, but it did seem rather perfunctory.
Of course there was the obligatory scolding about how “it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.” It was all rather mild compared to his Attorney General’s previous speech threatening to prosecute any remarks about Islam that “edge toward violence,” and to literally make a federal case out of any playground comments that might be construed as anti-Islamic bullying, but it still suggested a certain tolerance of even the most perverted interpretations of Islam. The obligatory call for religious tolerance omitted any condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry, even though Jews are the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes in America, and there was no condemnation of the New York Daily News’ sneering dismissal of the thoughts and prayers of Republicans or its editorial claiming that one of the San Bernardino victims was no better than his killer because of his proud statements on behalf of Jewish heritage and Christian beliefs, and we would have preferred an acknowledgment of how very tolerant America has been over the past two decades of Islamist terrorism rather than another unnecessary scolding.
The speech ended with the president saying “may God bless the United States of America,” and although his more secular admirers were probably irked by it at least we took some comfort in that.

— Bud Norman

Peace, Love, Tolerance, and the Hard Facts of Life

The more we learn about Wednesday’s horrific massacre in San Bernardino, the worse it looks for the peace and love and tolerance side of each of the acrimonious debates that always follow these sorts of tragedies.
While much of the peace and love and tolerance side of the divide spent most of Wednesday hoping that it would turn out to be another rare case of white Christian males motivated by a homicidal hatred of the Planned Parenthood clinic that was reportedly a mere 1.3 miles away, it turned out to be a man and a woman of Middle Eastern descent who considered themselves devout Muslims. All the Republican presidential candidates spent the day awaiting more facts and offering thoughts and prayers for the victims in and their families in the meantime, which was widely ridiculed by the more secular sorts who thought it more appropriate to being paying homage to all the gun control catechisms rather than any of that God-bothering stuff, and The New York Daily News went so far as to headline it’s tabloid cover with “God Isn’t Fixing This,” but even in this post-religious age we expect that those Republicans candidates got the better of that exchange.
The male half of the murderous duo was an employee of the San Bernardino County Health Department that was targeted, leading to faint hopes that it was just another one of rare cases of “workplace violence” that happen in a country where gun rights are allowed, much like that Army psychiatrist of Middle Eastern descent who was shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he shot down thirteen men at women at the Fort Hood Army Base, but the multiple reports of a massive arsenal and thousands of rounds of ammunition and numerous bombs and radio-controlled delivery systems found in his house, along with the apparent planning involved in the massacre and his previous travels in the Middle East and his electronic contacts with the more radical elements there all suggest this wasn’t a spontaneous reaction to some office spat. By the end of the second day even President Barack Obama was speculating about “mixed motives” for the shooting, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was glumly conceding that the shootings were an act of terrorism, although she still wouldn’t say of what sort. All of the Democratic presidential candidates and seemingly the rest of the party have steadfastly eschewed any reference to radical Islamic terrorism, which leaves them on the ridiculous side of all the resulting exchanges about a variety of related.
The assurances of the administration and its party that the there is no such thing as radical terrorism, that the pesky terrorist groups and lone wolf and lone couple-of-wolves terrorists who insist otherwise are simply mistaken, that the Islamic State that has recently inflicted an even deadlier toll on Paris and Ankara and Beirut is merely a “jayvee teams” that is “on the run” and “contained” and being “degraded” while on the way to be shortly “destroyed,” and that a conference about “climate change” is the most powerful rebuke to such nothing-to-do-with-Islam annoyances, all suddenly seem less credible. Those old saws about terrorism being a result of rampant anti-Islam sentiment and lack of opportunities afforded to Muslims in the west aren’t holding up well, either, given that the male murderer was gainfully employed by his local government and living in comfortable home in a well-regarded community that was amply stocked with weapons and ammunition and pipe-bombs and radio-controlled delivery systems, even if he wasn’t the son of a billionaire, like Osama bin Laden, and he seems to have no trouble importing his murderous wife from the Middle East, and even in supposedly Islamophobic America the neighbors who were slightly suspicious of conspicuous radicalization were reluctant to say anything for fear of being accused of Islamophobia.
Neither do the facts of this case help those who are arguing that peace and love and tolerance requires allowing many thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East in the country. We’re assured that the refugees are mostly children and elderly widows, and although most of them are actually fit young men of fighting we’re assured that their backgrounds will be thoroughly checked, but a murderous male and the murder wife whose immigration was routinely allowed suggest the government might so efficient about such things as it claims to be, and once again we expect they’ll get the worse of the exchange.
The peace and love and tolerance side of the debate still seems hopeful that the incident will help them persuade the country to disarm its lawful and patriotic citizens, but we expect that the more pragmatic portion of America will be clinging to its guns all the more bitterly in the aftermath of this event. None of the “common sense” solutions put forth so far would have prevented the murders in San Bernardino, or any of the all-too-frequent mass shootings that truly did not have nothing to do with Islam, and all of them would make it harder for the average American to defend himself when they do inevitably occur. Even if the San Bernardino murders had been the long-anticipated yet never-realized act of crazed Tea Partiers, we think the peace and love and tolerance side of the debate would still have fared badly.
Still, we hope there’s some practicable measure of peace, love, and tolerance in the solutions that are pursued, no matter how debased those noble values have been rendered by their high-minded advocates. The righteous outrage of the French people to the similarly motivated but even more deadly attacks on Paris have vaulted the unsavory Le Pen party to the top of the polls, similar events in other European countries have benefitted similarly unsavory parties, everywhere in the west where the established and respectable parties have adopted a policy of unfettered immigration and self-debasing multi-cultularism a potentially dangerous backlash is brewing, and there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t happen here. The Democratic Party seems committed to pretending there is no such thing as radical Islamic terrorism and that even if there is the only solution is to disarm the American people, so it therefore falls on the Republican Party to formulate a more sensible response that is honest and frank but not inflammatory or authoritarian. We’re cautiously hopeful that might prove true, and quite convinced that the peace and love and tolerance side of the debate is currently getting the worst of it.

— Bud Norman

Spinning Another Mass Shooting

As we write this there is still no explanation for why three heavily-armed people entered a southern California social services agency on Wednesday and killed 14 people and seriously wounded ten others, but the predictable cocksure speculations started as soon as the afternoon’s carnage first interrupted the regularly scheduled programming. By now it’s an all too familiar ritual of these all too frequent mass shootings for both sides of the political divide to skip past the mournful prayers for the victims and their families, or even a respectful moment of silence by the more secular sorts, and immediately proceed with the more important matter of spinning the dreadful facts for the debates that inevitably follow.
The horrible events in San Bernardino follow shortly after a mass shooting in Colorado Springs, which turned out to be a white male who chose to commit his murders at a Planned Parenthood clinic, which the leftward side of the political divide found useful for tarring white males in general and Planned Parenthood’s more principled critics in particular, but despite the hopefulness of countless “tweeters” and cable news contributors this will require a different narrative. Our policy is to not┬ámention the names of killers, but suffice to say that the only suspect thus far identified by the authorities has a name most Americans would by now immediately recognize as Middle Eastern, and the suspicions that raises for even the most tolerant and nonjudgmental and up-to-date Americans has been been confirmed by interviews with the suspects’ family and friends who describe him as a Muslim who had become conspicuously more devout in recent years, all of which is not so useful to the leftward side of political divide. Any connection to the Tea Party or the Koch brothers or evangelical Christianity seems unlikely, so the big story over the next couple of days will be about not painting with too broad a brush or drawing any conclusions or resorting to rank demagoguery. There were guns involved, though, which ┬áthe president and others were quick to note, so of course that debate will continue as usual.
Someone with the same Middle Eastern name as the suspect was employed by the same San Bernardino city government department that was having a Christmas party at the social services agency, and it seems likely although yet unconfirmed that they are the same person, so there will be the ready explanation that it was just another case of “workplace violence” that occasionally occurs with white male postal workers and Army psychiatrists with Middle Eastern names, but it’s going to be a tough sale. There were two other people involved, making this the first mass shooting with multiple killers since two high school losers teamed up for the Columbine massacre, and one was reportedly a woman, another odd twist to the incident, and it’s highly unlikely that all three were motivated by the same animus against the San Bernardino County Health Department. The shootings also follow shortly after coordinated attacks on Paris, not so long after the murder of a satirical magazine staff in that same city, and also in the wake of attacks by armed gunmen in Mumbai and numerous cities around the world, as well as that Army psychiatrist with the Middle Eastern name shouting “Allahu Akbar” during his “workplace violence” in another memorable mass shooting, and the leftward side of the political divide will be hard-pressed to convince the rest of the country that it has nothing to do with Islam.
A shrewd friend of ours suggests it might be a case of what he calls “workplace jihad,” where the killers take out their generalized religious rage on a particular personalized target, which strikes us as the most probable explanation for the facts as they are tentatively understood, but that is also mere speculation, and we are ashamed to admit that it serves our political purposes. The debates about various kinds of guns and what to call to them and what to do about them, and about radical Islamic terrorism and what to call it and what to do about it, and about white males and men with Middle Eastern names and almost every other ongoing debate that will be tied to this tragedy all matter, though, so we will reluctantly take sides.
Those 14 dead and 10 wounded also matter, though, and so do their families and friends and all their traumatized neighbors, and so do the relatives of the killers who are revulsed by the tragedy but might be judged guilty by association, and so does everyone trying to get all along in a world that was already so dangerously complicated, so if you’re not inclined to mournful prayers we urge at least a respectful moment of silence.

— Bud Norman