Monthly Archives: October 2015

Cop Accused of Manslaughter Receives Federal Immunity

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

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

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

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

The Post summarizes the key argument of the cop’s defense attorneys’ as follows:

But Kleinert’s legal team argued that the shooting was accidental and that, because he was a member of an FBI task force that he was entitled to ‘Supremacy Clause immunity’ — a defense that argues that because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, a federal officer who at the time reasonably believes his actions were necessary to the performance of his federal duties is immune from state criminal prosecution.

The article also notes that this idea of Supremacy Clause immunity dates back to 1889 and originated under very different circumstances than the case in question. But let’s set those details aside. The right question to ask here is whether immunity could ever be justified. And the answer is no.

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

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

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

When the US Almost Started a Nuclear War by Accident

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

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

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

http://thebulletin.org/okinawa-missiles-october8826

Criminalizing Free Speech Against Israel

This week, the France’s court of appeals upheld the criminal conviction of anti-Israel activists. The activists were convicted of inciting hate or discrimination based on the following nefarious behavior (per the Forward):

The individuals arrived at the supermarket wearing shirts emblazoned with the words: “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel.” They also handed out fliers that said that “buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.”

In other words, they did what activists do. They promoted their particular cause (boycott or sanctions against Israel), in a way that was peaceful, and they were charged with a crime for it. This is possible because France has extensive laws against hate speech. Indeed, this actually isn’t the first time prosecutions like this have happened in France.

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

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

https://theintercept.com/2015/10/27/criminalization-of-anti-israel-activism-escalates-this-time-in-the-land-of-the-charlie-hebdo-free-speech-march/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curious Definition of “Combat”

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/first-combat-death-iraq-combat/412261/

Ben Carson Tries and Fails to Defend the Second Amendment

Ben Carson was on the Meet the Press this weekend and it didn’t go well. In back-to-back questions on the protections offered by the Second Amendment, he directly contradicted himself. And in the process, he seems to have revealed that he has no idea how the Constitution works even in theory. The exchange was so phenomenally stupid that it needs to be read to be believed. I’ve reproduced the relevant portion below (emphasis mine):

DR. BEN CARSON:
Well, my point being we should never compromise the Second Amendment. It’s therefore a very, very important reason. And Noah Webster said that America would never suffer under tyranny because if people were armed. So we need to keep that in mind. Of course, we should be thinking about what can we do to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable people. The two things are not incompatible. But–

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

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

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

DR. BEN CARSON:
I don’t think you can get a surface-to-air missile legally in this country.

CHUCK TODD:
And that’s okay? I mean, that’s my point. Like, you’re okay with having, you know, anything you can hold, you know, there is some limitation on what somebody–

DR. BEN CARSON:
There is. And we have laws that, you know, take care of that.

So in other words, Carson first declares that the Second Amendment should guarantee citizens have access to any weapon the government has. Then, when asked about one such weapon, he says there are laws against it, and he’s okay with them.

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

There’s a Coup Happening in Portugal?

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

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

http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/constitutional-crisis-looms-in-portugal-after-antiausterity-left-prevented-from-forming-government-34138113.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Benghazi Investigation Missed the Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121879/hillary-clinton-should-take-blame-disastrous-libyan-intervention

Endnote:

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

CIA Director’s Personal Email Hacked

News broke this week that CIA director John Brennan had his personal email account hacked by a few teenagers. As luck would have it, this email account included sensitive information that probably wasn’t supposed to be there, and the teenagers provided this material to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks began publishing the material online yesterday.
This is an interesting story for several reasons, and we’ll touch on a few key points here.
First, we should point out that the so-called “hack” wasn’t sophisticated at all. Essentially, the culprits just duped some Verizon employees into giving them some personal information about Brennan, and then used the Forgot Your Password link on his email account. That’s how simple it was. Which is probably why you’re not supposed to put sensitive information on AOL. Who knew?
Second, it appears that Brennan was just occasionally forwarding work emails to his personal address for convenience rather than regularly using his personal account for government business. So while some interesting items have already been published, we probably won’t get too many bombshells out of it. Hopefully, I’m wrong about this.
Thus far, the most interesting thing I’ve seen from this document dump is a policy brief on Iran, in which Brennan noted that President George W. Bush’s labeling of Iran as part of the “axis of evil” was gratuitous and regrettable. Brennan went on to advocate for diplomacy with Iran in the document This is noteworthy because it was written around 2007 and 2008, when the drumbeat for war against Iran was quite strong. It suggests that even a hawk like John Brennan recognized how incredibly stupid an aggressive war against Iran would be.
And finally, it will be interesting to see how this plays out relative to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. At this point, Hillary Clinton’s actions appear to have been far more severe because she was regularly using it for work-related emails. Additionally, we know there was at least some classified information in Hillary’s emails. We have not seen formally classified information from Brennan’s account yet, but his account apparently did have a list names and social security numbers of intelligence officers, which could obviously be a problem. Accordingly, it seems plausible that both Brennan and Clinton may have mishandled sensitive information. Indeed, some conservative outlets have called for investigating and/or prosecuting Hillary on these grounds (for example, this). Will they take a similar line when it comes to the actions of a sitting CIA Director? Or will their affinity for the military and CIA prevent them from being consistent? Similarly, will partisan commentators on the left attempt to go after Brennan after downplaying the Hillary Clinton episode?*1
The most likely scenario is that Brennan and Clinton will both get a free pass on their email problems. After all, both of them are powerful, politically-connected people, and people like that don’t usually get prosecuted, regardless of the circumstances. But make no mistake, if these same offenses were committed by random, low-level government employees, their lives would be promptly ruined by an aggressive prosecution.
So in addition to what we may learn from WikiLeaks, we can look forward to this story providing further evidence that the rule of law does not apply to high-ranking government officials, regardless of their party affiliation.
*1 You’ll recall that Brennan is not a very popular figure among left-leaning folks after he obstructed the Senate Torture Report investigation and attempted to intimidate its authors.

Ben Carson Almost Makes a Good Point on Foreign Policy

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

First, let’s discuss what exactly Dr. Carson said. During the second Republican debate, Carson suggested the following as an alternative to invading Afghanistan after 9/11:

Declare that within five to 10 years we will become petroleum independent. The moderate Arab states would have been so concerned about that, they would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter within two weeks.

Saying something off-the-cuff in a debate is of course different than a considered statement of policy. But when he was questioned on the position this weekend, he stuck with it. Carson reiterated that we could have used economic threats against the Arab countries to get them to extradite bin Laden to the US. And then the US and Afghanistan could have been spared the horrible catastrophe of the War in Afghanistan, that continues to this day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bias and Context in Israel

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

Yesterday, there was an excellent example of biased coverage on the Israel-Palestine issue from The Skimm, which offers a concise and snarky summary of the news each day in case you’re unfamiliar. And before we get started, I should say that The Skimm actually tends to be a bit better about providing balanced context than some of the more well-known outlets (say The New York Times or CNN, for instance). They deserve credit for that. But this particular story was a case study in how selective reporting and language choices can produce a deeply distorted narrative. Here’s the first part of their summary:

In the last month, a renewed dispute over a holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City (which Jews call Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary) has set off a wave of violence. Palestinian assailants have been attacking Israelis almost daily, often by knife stabbings, often in Jerusalem, and often by young attackers.

Now, there’s nothing terribly wrong with the first sentence. There are definitely other factors and incidents that have contributed to this recent wave of violence, but the dispute over the holy site has played a major role. Fair enough, let’s move on. (If you want to know more about this particular part of the escalation, I’d recommend this article by the way.)

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

The Skimm continues:

These attacks have resulted in many clashes with Israeli security; 9 Israelis and 41 Palestinians (including the assailants) have been killed in this latest wave of violence.

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

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

The Skimm then proceeds to discuss some of the recent history, but again, the results are disappointing:

Tension around this contested holy site and the subsequent violence is just the latest in a string of bad relationship karma between the two sides. In the last few weeks, the Palestinian president had an international mic drop when he announced that a peace framework that had been in place for decades is now off the table.

Here, they note that the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally rejected the peace framework in his UN speech, implying once more that the Palestinians are the ones breaking the peace. What they say here isn’t technically false; it’s just deeply in need of context. Abbas did indeed declare that the Palestinians were no longer bound by the peace framework, known as theOslo Accords. Here’s the thing though, the Oslo Accords were signed 20 years ago between Israel and a Palestinian organization with the explicit and primary purpose of establishing a Palestinian state. Israel agreed to this and so did the Palestinians, but Israel is the one holding the cards (more on this shortly). So if Israel followed through on its commitment, there would already be a Palestinian state by now. Twenty years is a long time. The Oslo Accords were meant to give them a state, and it didn’t happen. So it shouldn’t really be that crazy or surprising that Palestinians would want to withdraw from this.

And finally, the Skimm sums up by mentioning that Israel has been building settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their own:

And there’s been revived tension over Israelis building settlements in areas that Palestinians claim will one day be a part of their state.

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

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

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

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

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

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