Thursday, September 30, 2004

Party Affiliation & Polling

Here's a real shock - USA Today presents a table demonstrating that when polls include disproportionate numbers of people from one party or the other, the results of the poll skew toward the overrepresented party. With all due respect to Gallup's rationalizations for releasing polls which overrepresent self-identified Republicans, I think critics do understand the science (or lack thereof) behind this type of polling.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

"Bad Baby" Cases

That sounds a bit strange, right? Maybe it has something to do with a small child who won't behave? Actually, it's lingo that some lawyers use to describe malpractice cases involving birth injuries. Realizing that most professions at times use expressions that are a bit unseemly, I can't get used to that particular example.

There are cases of obstetric malpractice which are truly appalling. But, as everybody knows, not all birth injuries are the fault of the doctor. And there is validity to complaints about lawsuits being filed over alleged birth injuries when causation can't be made more certain than a coin toss. Very few lawyers engage in this type of litigation - on the one hand, fortunately, there aren't that many cases to be litigated in any given state; on the other hand, it is far too costly a gamble for those who can't afford to specialize in this type of litigation. Very few attorneys can risk $100,000.00 or more in up-front costs on a coin toss. And, although doctors may argue otherwise, very few attorneys would want to engage in this type of practice.

The way it works is this: there's a birth case, where the baby has a serious injury that might be a birth injury, or it might be a congenital disorder for which the doctor has no fault. The medical evidence is equivocal - so the defense hires "experts" who testify that it was congenital or was an unavoidable consequence of birth, and the plaintiff hires "experts" who argue that the injury was caused by medical malpractice. The same experts often make a very handsome living from their testimony alone, be it for the malpractice insurance carrier or the plaintiff. The jury is then asked to pick a side by a "preponderance of the evidence" - which is why I referenced the coin toss. Whether one side persuades the jury that the plaintiff only proved a 49% likelihood of malpractice or a 51% likelihood of malpractice may turn more on external factors - such as whether the defendant doctor seemed arrogant when he testified, or whether the plaintiff came across as a greedy opportunist - than on the evidence.

If the lawyer wins one case out of two, the strategy is a big-time moneymaker.

There's another side to this type of litigation. It is this paradigm which is used as the rationale for sweeping "tort reform" measures which are designed not to make the jury's fact-finding more accurate, or to prevent the filing of "frivolous suits", but which are aimed directly at the most seriously injured victims of malpractice. The cry is that "obstetricians and neurologists pay too much for malpractice insurance", with the illogic that this necessarily means that all doctors should thus receive broad protections from liability for their mistakes - no matter how egregious the physician's conduct, and no matter how severe the patient's injury.

I'm all for hearing proposals from physicians on how to make the birth injury situation more fair. (Or, for that matter, the somewhat similar situation for neurosurgeons, who may end up being sued as the result of a horrific maloccurrence - a fancy word for a 'bad outcome' - from a high risk surgery, even in the absence of malpractice.) But when it comes to making the system better, doctors and their lobbyists are almost universally silent. They instead want to arbitrarily limit the damages received by the most seriously injured victims of malpractice, in the most meritorious of cases. That's at least as immoral as going to court on a coin toss over a "bad baby" case.

Bad Coverage of Bad Polls

As poor as U.S. news coverage can be of the important issues of the day, it perhaps isn't surprising that CNN's coverage is particularly bad when it turns its spotlight on itself. CJR Campaign Desk observes CNN's coverage of MoveOn's criticism of the methodology of recent CNN/Gallup polls:
Anchor Judy Woodruff began by briefly outlining MoveOn's complaint: "[R]ecent polls have shown George W. Bush leading John Kerry and claims Gallup's polling techniques exaggerate Republican support." Woodruff then gave Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport almost three minutes to respond, uninterrupted, to the charges. Naturally, Newport defended Gallup's methodology, but essentially asked viewers to take it on faith that he knows what he's doing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Afraid of Hardball Questions

The Bush campaign can reasonably anticipate the type of softball questioning of past debates - but they apparently fear that hard questions might be posed by the guy at the other lectern, so....
Still, officials of the debate commission said they were agreeing primarily to those things Mr. Bush's aides had emphasized as especially important to them: a strict time limit on candidate responses, an electronic warning when candidates exceed their speaking time that can be seen and heard by viewers at home, and a prohibition against the candidates' directly posing questions to each other.
Gotta keep the ugly truths from being aired....

Tax Returns as Public Information?

In London's Guardian, a columnist notes that the rich are getting away with paying far less than their fair share of taxes, but that the country's politicians seem to have little interest in closing loopholes and creating a fairer system. (Sound familiar?)
So, if the super-rich won't pay because no one's interested in making them pay, what on earth can be done? How can the public's interest in fair taxation be revived? How could the government find the courage to stop the tax cheats?

I have a cruel and unusual proposal: everyone's tax returns should be published. If the teachers and dustmen of this country could see that certain multi-millionaires are paying less tax than they are, they'd be so angry that the government would surely be obliged to act.
(I think the teachers and dustmen would first check the tax returns of their neighbors and supervisors, and the media would certainly go after controvercial public figures and politicians.... But most people would probably be very uncomfortable with the disclosure of their personal financial information.)

Monday, September 27, 2004

Common Sense, Ohio Style?

The Dayton for Kerry website has reproduced an article (PDF format) describing how Ohio's Secretary of State, J. Kenneth Blackwell, has declared that counties must ignore voter registration cards submitted on paper stock of less than 80# weight.
The requirement is because the forms are designed to be mailed like post-cards and must be thick enough to survive mechanical sorters at the U.S. Post Office, according to Blackwell's spokesman Carlo LoParo.

"Our directive stands and it is specifically in place to protect new registrants to make sure the forms are not destroyed," LoParo said.
Yes, you heard that right. In order to protect registrants from having their registration forms destroyed in the mail, those which arrive intact but aren't on sufficiently thick paper stock are to be discarded.

To make sure that this new ruling is fair and consistent in its application, Blackwell has exempted Cuyahoga County from the rule, and has additionally declared that registration forms downloaded from the federal Elections Assistance Agency must be accepted regardless of the paper they are printed on.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


It can be difficult to mark the moment when self-confidence turns into gradiosity, or when a suspicious nature turns into paranoia, particularly in someone you see regularly. But when you speak with somebody only a few times a year, the progression is more marked.

When we lived in the same community, I knew somebody who would at times share theories of conspiracies which were, for the most part, plausible but unlikely. He was an intelligent professional, and he spun a lot of fact into his stories.

At some point, his theories became far more involved and personal. He became deeply wedded to the notion of a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of government, in which he was the target of a range of efforts to discredit him or to have him killed, because the nation's most powerful people were afraid of what would happen if the world found out what he knew.

I wonder if there was more that could be done to help, but at the same time recognize that every effort to provide assistance was greeted with suspicion, and that the more aggressive efforts at intervention inspired new conspiracy theories, with those attempting to help transformed into villains trying to destroy him. There was no chance of getting court intervention, as he gave no evidence of being a danger to himself or others, and was quite rational when addressing issues other than his paranoid fantasies.

The most aggressive effort at intervention, which pressured him to seek voluntary, intensive psychiatric care or possibly lose his professional license, backfired. He put himself beyond the reach of everybody who wanted to help him, and was largely isolated for the past year. He contacted me every few months, and we even discussed on a few occasions how I might be able to help him, but unfortunately he didn't follow through. A couple of times I must have pressed too hard, as I received emails indicating that I was forgiven (for whatever it was that I had been perceived to have done), but that he knew that I was nonetheless "one of the good guys".)

I hadn't heard from him for quite a few months, then learned of is death through the proverbial grapevine. I can't say that I am surprised at this outcome, but I am saddened.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

It's All The UN's Fault

Today, Babbling Brooks blames the impasse on Darfur on the United Nations - the poor United States did everything right, but those darn diplomats in the UN just won't move on the crisis. But, funny, nowhere in his column does he discuss the Security Council resolution the United States submitted to the Council demanding the declaration that events in Darfur constitute genocide, demanding military intervention, calling for the dispatch of peacekeeping forces, or authorizing any nation to intervene to stop the bloodshed. What? You mean, the U.S. didn't submit any such resolution? Go figure. As As Nat Hentoff points out:
On September 18, the U.N. General Assembly passed a watered-down U.S.-sponsored resolution saying "it shall consider" possible oil sanctions on Sudan, but not, at the present time, any sanctions against Khartoum's murderous leaders.
So what Mr. Brooks seemingly means is that the U.S. engaged in a series of diplomatic moves meant to make Bush look good, but without taking any constructive or binding steps toward ending the violence. Without exercising genuine diplomacy, to overcome international resistance to effective intervention, or to build an actual coalition which might act. Which, as it seems, is all Babbling Brooks wants of his beloved President.

Nat Hentoff, while criticizing both parties for their falure to take a stand on this issue, also points out:
John Kerry, at the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans, in a speech hardly mentioned in the media except notably by Stanley Crouch in the September 13 Daily News, "got a standing ovation by calling on President Bush to take leadership in 'the immediate deployment of an effective international force to disarm militia and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur.'"
So one might expect Babbling Brooks to expend a sentence or two endorsing Kerry's position. Or suggesting that, as Kerry indicated, the President could do more about the situation. Or expressing that it is a shame that the President chose a watered-down resolution over the type of authorization Kerry called for.

Well, no. If you know the work of Babbling Brooks you had no such expectation - something that might reflect a modicum of insight or balance. If you read Brooks and actually expect such balance, I leave you with the words of Homer Simpson.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Come On Now, Be Strange

Well, that's how I heard the lyric when I was three. Apparently, Tom Ridge still hears it that way - and takes it as an imperative.

I'm Dogbert?

Okay, a bit scary, but it definitely could be worse. Who are you - Wally?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Newsclowns At Work

How to write a headline, from CJR Campaign Desk.

(For explanation of the term "newsclown", please see the works of Philip K. Dick.)

Forged Documents

In case you were thinking that the prior two posts represented the worst of Today's issue of the times.... Wrong! That prize goes to Bill Safire, who declares,
Some person or persons conceived a scheme to create a series of false ... documents and append a photocopied signature to one of them. ... Who was the forger? Did others conspire with him or her to present a seeming government document - with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to defraud...? Who was to benefit and how?
Wow. Is Safire reconsidering his blind support for Chalabi's declaration that he had thousands of documents establishing unprecedented corruption and avarice, provign that pretty much every anti-War voice in the West had received bribes from the "Oil for Food" Program? Um... no.

Well, then.... Perhaps Safire is reconsidering his blind support for the childish forgeries which "proved" that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger? Um... that wouldn't be it either.

Actually, as you may have guessed, Safire's peevishness is directed at CBS, for airing forged documents about Bush's (non-)service in the National Guard. And, surprise - he's as conspiratorial as ever (perhaps a side-effect of his work in the Nixon Administration):
What benefit did the Bush-hating Burkett gain from CBS in return for his fake documents? One plausible answer: he got coveted access to someone high up in the Kerry campaign.
Sure. CBS is secretly brokering contacts between its confidential sources and "someone high up" in the Kerry Campaign.... And Ahmed Chalabi has the proof, if only those evil Kerry supporters hadn't somehow persuaded the Bush Administration to accuse him of funneling highly classified information to Iran (which, fortunately for Chalabi who is now safely ensconced in Tehran, frequently offers asylum to supporters of the U.S. who have not lent it any aid or comfort), simultaneously allowing a band of thugs to raid one of his investigator's offices and steal each and every document, whether on paper or in electronic form (including all backup copies) which would have documented the claim.

Oh, excuse me - I got this story crossed with Chalabi's story about "oil for food" which, as expressed in the idiotorial under discussion, Safire believes.

Kristof's Cure for Negative Campaigning

Boy, why didn't anybody else think of this?
The only hope for stopping the mudslinging is if well-meaning people try to police their own side.
Now that such a brilliant idea has been presented, certainly both sides will actively police against distortions of the record and muckraking in their own ads, and the ads of their supporters, and will actively condemn any misrepresentation. After all, it is better to lose an election than to win dishonorably.


"That Was Yesterday"

Apparently the Times disagrees with what it said yesterday, and thus in another unsigned editorial it declares,
It was sad that Mr. Kerry's commendable war record was clouded by the more outrageous of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's attacks, and it was somewhat surprising that Mr. Bush's National Guard service again became a big topic of debate.
Well, I guess they didn't technically contradict yesterday's claim that it was Kerry's fault that the outrageous Swift Boat Liar ads (that "keep on coming") and discussion of Bush's record (yes, yesterday that was Kerry's fault as well) clouded the issues. But they did suggest that other forces played a role.

Let's think for a moment.... Why is it "news" whenever new details Bush's poor service in the national guard emerge? Could it be because Bush has steadfastly refused to come clean about that record? Bush could have closed the book on this a long time ago, but instead, for political gain, chooses to misrepresent his service and his use and abuse of family political connections to get in and out of the Guard. Perhaps there's even an element of newsworthiness to that story? Or in the continuing saga of, "When we disclosed all of Bush's records, we somehow missed these key documents."

(As to the part of the editorial that compares past New York Times experience to present CBS pain from basing a story on "inadequately vetted documents from a highly questionable source", the analogy that comes to mind is not of Jayson Blair but of Judith Miller's atrociously bad prewar coverage on Iraq. For which the Times has paid no discernible price.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Is This For Real?

Of course it is, and it serves as yet another reminder as to why newspapers publish unsigned editorials - in most cases they are poorly reasoned and nobody wants to take responsibility for them. Today's New York Times provides a case in point,
After weeks of politically damaging delay, John Kerry finally seems to have found his voice on what ought to be the central issue of this year's election: the mismanaged war in Iraq and how to bring it to an acceptable conclusion. It was none too soon. While the fate of the Iraqi people, the success of the war on terrorism and America's international standing have all been teetering ominously in the balance, Mr. Kerry has allowed the presidential campaign to veer off into squabbles about events long past - like the candidates' 30-year-old war records - and about Mr. Kerry's confusing and sometimes contradictory recent statements on foreign policy.
Oh, sure. It is Mr. Kerry's fault that when he gave the media the opportunity to act responsibly in relation to those remote events, the media instead gave undivided attention to the rantings and ravings of the now-discredited Swift Boat Liars.

But I'm sure the Times is only speaking for itself, and that if we go back to its coverage of recent months we will see it repeatedly decrying the irrelevant distraction of those attack ads, as opposed to providing extensive coverage of the allegations. Right? (How short do they think our memories are?)

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Suicide and Antidepressants

There has been a lot of media coverage recently about youth suicide and antidepressants. The "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" story is essentially: a depressed young person goes on antidepressant therapy, subsequently commits suicide and thus the suicidal thoughts and behaviors were caused by the antidepressants (as opposed to, you know, the depression).

For those who have studied depression, it is a given that risk of suicide can increase following initiation of a successful treatment - that is, the severely depressed patient suddenly has more energy and can take more initiative, and is thus at increased risk of acting on sucidal thoughts. It follows that this will be the case with some younger patients who are responding to antidepressant therapy.

There is another factor at issue, which is that mental health care in this nation, particularly for depression, is now often handled by the family doctor. There are antidepressants which can cause agitation, or which can increase energy level, without necessarily providing an associated improvement in depressive symptoms. A health care provider might view the agitation or increased energy as evidence that "it is starting to work", but might not have the clinical awareness to know that such an increase in energy level could create risk of action on existing suicidal thoughts.

I think it is also true, from my discussions with people who have used even the current generation of "SSRI" antidepressant medications, that some people do experience changes in their thought patterns while taking SSRI's. I think it is pretty much taken for granted that such changes can be a side-effect of the older tricyclic and MAOI medications. Accordingly, it is appropriate for all patients trying a new antidepressant medication (and their doctors, and family members) to watch for any troubling changes.

I am not particularly impressed with the notion that SSRI's dont' work for teenagers, based upon narrow studies of particular SSRI medications, as it seems to be broadly the case that some people will not respond to particular antidepressant medications. Many depressed people have to try several medications, and in some cases pretty much all of them, before they find one that works for them. It is possible along the way to become discouraged, and assume that the only thing an antidepressant has to offer is a constellation of unpleasant side-effects. But if you find one that works for you, there will be no question left in your mind that an appropriate antidepressant has a genuine therapeutic value. Patients should not be deprived of that value merely because of their age - arguably (and in my opinion, almost certainly), it is the youngest patients who can see the greatest lifetime benefit from early, effective treatment.

It may well be that some SSRI's are less effective in younger patients - that should be studied, and the pharmaceutical companies have done their younger patients a disservice by pressing for (often off-label) prescriptions without having first tested their efficacy for kids and teens. If it turns out that some of those medications actually do not work in children or teenagers, or have higher levels of negative behavioral symptoms in young patients, the pharmaceutical companies which pushed for inappropriate use deserve any liability that follows.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

What You Believe, Or What You Do?

The Guardian brings us some thoughts on religion from Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, minister of Maidenhead synagogue:
When Richard Harries reviewed a previous book of mine, he said it was typically Jewish - 280 pages on what to do and 20 pages on what to believe, whereas if it had been a Christian publication, it would have been the other way round.

* * *

For Judaism, it is the practical consequences of belief in God that are important, not the belief itself. If God exists, then the world has a purpose, life has meaning, all people are equal and every individual matters. The prayers, too, are not so much for God's benefit but for ours. By praising God for caring for the living, supporting the fallen and healing the sick, we are effectively saying these are godly/goodly attributes and mapping out our own tasks.

Over the centuries, this has led to an emphasis on action rather than faith, to the extent that the latter has become assumed to the point of neglect. It gives rise to the saying - somewhat tongue-in-cheek but containing a sizable grain of truth - that "to be a good Jew, you don't have to believe in God, just do what He says".

For some Jews, this is a parody of a faith that is brim full of God's glory; for others, it is a welcome description of a religion whose strength is that the heretic is not the person who believes the wrong thing, but who does the wrong thing.
I think that the same can be said of a split within Christianity, between those who believe that Christianity should emphasize the manner in which Christ lived his life, with the goal being to apply those lessons to live a good and ethical life, and those sects which focus instead on the manner of Christ's death, as exemplified by Mel Gibson and his "The Passion of the Christ". To those who believe that your life's work is meaningless unless you are "born again", the notion of more secular Christians that the best of Christianity comes from living an ethical and moral life derived from Christ's teachings may also seem like a parody of faith. To the more secular, though, the "born again" Christian who expounds a devout piety while leading what amounts to an immoral life - whether limited to preaching hate and intolerance, or whether delving further into a personal exploration of the "seven deadly sins" - seems more the parody.

There are people in both secularized and evangelical branches of Christianity who embrace the moral and ethical lessons of Christ's life, but sometimes they have a hard time seeing each other.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Crappy Polling?

Why do we have yet another poll that is out-of-line with common sense and other polls, showing a sudden and huge lead for GW? The Left Coaster (which sounds a bit like something we Midwesterners put under our drinks to protect the coffee table) dared to ask Gallup:
Because the Gallup Poll, despite its reputation, assumes that this November 40% of those turning out to vote will be Republicans, and only 33% will be Democrat.
(emphasis in original). For historic reference, the coaster references John Zogby:
If we look at the three last Presidential elections, the spread was 34% Democrats, 34% Republicans and 33% Independents (in 1992 with Ross Perot in the race); 39% Democrats, 34% Republicans, and 27% Independents in 1996; and 39% Democrats, 35% Republicans and 26% Independents in 2000.
[Insert eyeroll here]

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Election Fairness In Florida? But Where's The Profit?

The Times today takes on the partisan hack who is presently Florida's Secretary of State, and is thus in charge of its electinos. Comparing the present Secretary of State, Glenda Hood, to her predecessor in partisan hackery, Katherine Harris, the Times suggests, "The nation cannot afford another tainted election. Governor Bush should quickly find an elections professional or academic of unquestioned neutrality to run Florida's elections." But where's the profit in that?

Monday, September 13, 2004

Affirmative Action For Stupid Rich Kids

The Times brings us a moment in Yale history from the turbulent 60's, when legacy enrollment of the incoming freshman class was slightly reduced - to 12%:
The reaction of the alumni was swift and furious. By the end of 1966, the alumni were in open revolt, and Yale's alumni board hastily formed a special committee to investigate the matter. In 1967, William F. Buckley, an alumnus then running an insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, declared that Yale had ceased to be the "kind of place where your family goes for generations" and had been transformed into an institution where "the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere."
The alumni backlash was apparently enough to scare Harvard and Princeton away from trying a similar experiment - and the author notes, "Recently, both Harvard and Princeton have admitted legacy applicants at a rate more than triple that of non-legacy applicants.".

A Model of Democracy

Today's London Guardian recounts Bush's claims on the magic of democracy:
For the big Bush idea, earnestly repeated on stump after stump, is to make our world safer and happier by making it more democratic. One person, one grin. And those of us who've spent decades immersed in American politics can see much general, good-hearted sense in that. Democratic nations (at least until last year) tend not to go to war without good reason. Ordinary voting people, left to themselves, are the wisest arbiters we have. Relative freedom works better than autocracy or religious zealotry.

So take the president at his word. Let Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the rest import their ballot boxes and train their single transferable mullahs. Let's gently squeeze aside the leftover colonels, manipulative ayatollahs and corrupt monarchies. Farewell, Mubarak, Assad and (yes!) the House of Saud. Let's give democracy its chance. It may be a stance too interventionist, a panacea too pre-emptive, but at least the theory has benign resonance. Baghdad and Kabul, over the next few months, have great trails to blaze.
The column then brings us a muckrake-by-muckrake account of the U.S. election - and asks,
This, Bush says, is his last election. This is his last chance to show us how it's done. With soft-money ads and surrogate slurs and grotesque simplifications cooked in political hothouses? Is that the way? Is that what Cuba and Libya, not to mention the rest of us, have to look forward to?

Spreadsheet People

Yesterday, David Brooks brought us a typical example of his analytical skills.
There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.
He then proceeds to compare scuffy-shoed liberal professors and reporters with wing-tipped conservative CEO's. He does show a modicum of sense by adding near the end of his piece,
It should be added that not everybody fits predictably into the political camp indicated by a profession. I myself am thinking of founding the Class Traitors Association, made up of conservative writers, liberal accountants and other people so filled with self-loathing that they ally politically with social and cultural rivals.
So many responses are possible - most which come to my mind are sarcastic. "Perhaps, Mr. Brooks, you should rephrase that a bit. It's not paragraphs versus spreadsheets - its ideas versus cash. If you are concerned with thoughts and ideas, you are probably a Democrat; if your world revolves around amassing personal wealth, you are probably a Republican." Or perhaps we should call it "Egalitarianism versus greed. Those who take less-paid helping professions to give back to the community are more likely to be Democrats; Those who wish to bleed the country dry for personal gain are more likely to be Republicans." Silly, sweeping generalizations, sure - but those are the primary tools Mr. Brooks uses in his trade.

Or perhaps we could look at it more simply - his conclusion is just a bit off. Brooks tells us that paragraphs are a Democrat thing. It's not that he's a "class traitor" - as people who attempt to read his columns can attest, the problem is that he isn't a "paragraph person" - he's a lousy columnist. Maybe he should take up accounting.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


So Colin Powell says it's genocide, and the Bush Administration hasn't sent anybody out to backtrack or say that Powell's position isn't the official position of the Administration.... Now what?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Neo-Cons & Chechnya

Yesterday's Guardian brought us the claim that the Neo-Cons advocate against Russia in the Chechnya conflict, and turn a very blind eye toward Chechen terrorism:
This harshness towards Putin is perhaps explained by the fact that, in the US, the leading group which pleads the Chechen cause is the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC). The list of the self-styled "distinguished Americans" who are its members is a rollcall of the most prominent neoconservatives who so enthusastically support the "war on terror".

* * *

The ACPC heavily promotes the idea that the Chechen rebellion shows the undemocratic nature of Putin's Russia, and cultivates support for the Chechen cause by emphasising the seriousness of human rights violations in the tiny Caucasian republic. It compares the Chechen crisis to those other fashionable "Muslim" causes, Bosnia and Kosovo - implying that only international intervention in the Caucasus can stabilise the situation there.

* * *

Although the White House issued a condemnation of the Beslan hostage-takers, its official view remains that the Chechen conflict must be solved politically. According to ACPC member Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins University, US pressure will now increase on Moscow to achieve a political, rather than military, solution - in other words to negotiate with terrorists, a policy the US resolutely rejects elsewhere.
Some people will take any opportunity to bash the "neo-cons", or exaggerate their position, so I viewed the piece with a jaundiced eye.

But today, leading neo-con Daniel Pipes shared his views in the Times:
The terrorist attack in Beslan in Russia's North Caucasus was not only bloody but viciously sadistic: the children taken hostage by pro-Chechen terrorists were denied food and drink and even forbidden to go to the bathroom, then massacred when the siege was broken. It is proper for the civilized world to express outrage and feel solidarity with the Russian people. But to say this is not necessarily to agree with those - including President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia - who would equate the massacre with the 9/11 attacks and Islamic terrorism in general.
Um... excuse me? (Note his use of the infamous "but" clause, used habitually by the defenders of terrorism - "This incident is indefensible, but....") Perhaps he'll explain that....
Terrorism is a means to an end: it can be employed for limited ends as well as for unlimited destructiveness. The terrorists who blew up the train station in Madrid just before the Spanish election this year had a specific goal in mind: to compel the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. The Chechen case is, in some respects, analogous. A small group of Muslim people, the Chechens have been battling their Russian conquerors for centuries.
An - so Chechen terrorism, involving massacre of children, is understandable and excusable because... in the mind of Pipes it's like Israel-Palestine? How do people like Pipes not choke on their own words when they advance such wildly hypocritical, internally inconsistent positions - and stand as apologists for one of history's worst terrorist attacks on a civilian target?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

It's All About Power (and Money)

As Anne Applebaum's column indicates, it is very easy to assume that other people share your values and goals, and thus that grotesque acts of terrorism are always counterporductive. But the mere fact that terrorist acts set back the political cause of a majority of the people that a terrorist group ostensibly represents does not mean that the cause of the group itself has been set back at all. You can be quite sure that the terrorist organizations don't think so - they believe that they are acting rationally.

In relation to the Chechnyan terrorists, Applebaum claims,
Little is known about their stated aims, which allegedly included independence for the Russian republic of Chechnya, withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, and an end to the nearly 10 years of brutal Russian-Chechen conflict in Chechnya. The only certainty is that they will achieve none of them.
What if their primary purpose is to prevent any compromise? That is, they want to interrupt political negotiations that might give "their side" less than they want? What if it's about power (or power and money) - with the terrorist groups recognizing that if a political resolution is achieved they will be frozen out of the peace deal (and resulting government structure)? What if they want to trigger a disproportionate Russian response against Chechen civilians - thereby hardening the attitudes of the Chechen people and helping to recruit new converts to their brand of "resistance"? Which of those ends is not advanced by this type of atrocity? Applebaum herself contends that decreased sympathy for the Chechen cause, resulting from terrorism, will result in less pressure on Russia to reach a political compromise, and that Putin is already discarding the notion that he should be attempting to negotiate:
Notice here that Putin draws no distinction between the terrorists of Beslan and legitimate, independent Chechen leaders, or even the Chechen nation as a whole. When he launched the second invasion of Chechnya in 1999, he called the attack a "counter-terrorist operation in the northern Caucasus." The foreign spokesman of the former Chechen government wrote yesterday that "with hindsight" he now sees that Putin used this kind of language to discredit the idea of Chechen autonomy, and to link the Chechen rebels firmly with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Beslan terrorists have now helped the Russian president complete that process.
Applebaum then proceeds to do pretty much what she criticizes in Putin:
Decades' worth of PLO terrorist attacks on crippled tourists and Olympic athletes achieved far less for the Palestinian people than television pictures of Palestinian children protesting in the streets. Even more was achieved, or almost achieved, when the Palestinians briefly ceased to use terrorism in the 1990s. By contrast, the resumption of Palestinian terrorism, and particularly the suicide bombing campaign, has led to a profound change of heart, a hardening of positions and, as in Russia, a much larger population of Israelis who assume that all Palestinians, whatever their views or background or grievances, are would-be terrorists.
Yet the resurgent terrorism was not from the PLO, which was transformed into the "Palestinian National Authority". It was from groups like Hamas, which opposed the political process, and which knew that Israeli "retaliation" for their acts would weaken the political process and the Palestinian Authority in their favor. And now we have a situation where the two parties responsible for ratcheting up the violence to the present appalling levels - Hamas and Sharon's Likud Party - have more power and "street credibility" than ever, while Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have been marginalized.

Can they deliver "peace"? What should make me think that they care? What should make me think they even include "peace" in their organizational goals?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

What to make of this....

Not that I want to post more ambiguous pictures of Republicans, but... is this what Bush was warning us about, you know, if we let those "liberal judges" and their "anything goes" attitudes have their way?

Guess the Conflict

I guess in most asymmetric conflicts, as this speaker is on the weak side, he would be described as a "moderate" or a "member of the political wing".
When [War President] unleashed the dogs of war on [our nation] in order to occupy it for a second time, he christened his attack a "counter-terrorist operation in the northern [territory]. Many of us did not realise the significance of that then. Now, with hindsight, we can see that the idea was to discredit the very notion of statehood for [our nation]. While a minority of [our people] regarded [War President's] onslaught against us as justified, the majority of the nation has kept faith with its elected president....
You could write this stuff in advance.

That particular paragraph is from an essay on Chechnya, which I guess is the hot conflict right now for permitting "moderates" to speak in response to Russia's claims. He concludes,
[War President] is keen to get the international community to see the situation in [our nation] as part of the war on international terror. He hopes the outside world will leave him alone to inflict his regime of terror on [our people]. The international community knows that the situation in [our nation] is quite different, so why does no one intervene? We are keen to participate in mediation to bring an end to this dreadful situation for [our people]. We call on the international community to step in and help bring peace to both [our land] and [theirs].
Dang. I've never heard anything like that before....

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Leaving It To Your Imagination

The following picture of a Republican conventioneer shall, um, live in infamy?

"Swift Boating" As A Verb

Today, Maureen Dowd uses the concept of "Swift Boating" as a verb:
The president distorted the columnist's dispatch. The "moral crisis" and failure she described were in the British and French sectors. She reported that the Americans were doing better because of their policy to "encourage initiative and develop self-government." She wanted the U.S. to commit more troops and stay the course - not cut and run.

Mr. Bush Swift-boated her.
I would like to see that added to the vernacular:

Swift-Boating: A pattern of venal and mendacious conduct calculated to create a public impression that the target's documented history of courage and honesty instead reflects cowardice and dishonesty.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Saving the Heathens

A novel approach?

Asymmetrical Warfare

Go for the headlines. Grab a soft target, full of civilians - hundreds, or better yet thousands. Wait for the media to arrive. Let it be known that your hostages are suffering horribly, and refuse any assistance. When the inevitable police raid comes, kill as many hostages as you can.

That, apparently, is the new mode for the Chechen separatists who, completely unable to face Russian forces on the battlefield, now use a wide range of terrorist tools against the Russian people. Airplane bombings, truck bombings, suicide bombings, and from time to time (because all of that is apparently now mundane) a mass hostage-taking guaranteed to become a bloodbath.

When George Bush lies about progress in the "war on terror", or reverses (with no one in the media batting an eye, let alone accusing him of "flip-flopping") his accidental confession that you can't actually win a "war on terror", I can't imagine that he doesn't know what he is doing. Rumors to the contrary aside, he can't possibly be that stupid. He's pitching an absurd line of propaganda that, shamefully, our media puffs and conflates into a psuedo-reality. Why? Perhaps the truth won't sell newspapers. Perhaps the people who compose our media suffer the same sort of cognitive dissonance Bush wishes to create in the voting public - even if at some level they know it is a load of crap, they aren't comfortable thinking about the alternative. Maybe it's "too hard to explain".

This, however, seems to be the new face of asymmetric warfare. Putin falsely declared his own "war on terror" five years ago, to partially justify his invasion of Chechnya. Since that time, Russia has used absolutely atrocious tactics to try to end that conflict on terms they deem favorable, and with each new Russian atrocity (all's fair, after all, in a "war on terror") terrorism has increased.

Of course, this phenomenon is not isolated to that conflict - it is more that the Chechen terrorists have been willing and able to take on some major civilian targets in Russia, whereas in most conflicts the terrorists are either fighting in their own lands or are unable to reach the softest targets in their enemy's land. Perhaps in the past, and perhaps with some terrorist groups, there's also an element of being "unwilling" to engage in such acts, but I sense that any such "scruples" are fading.

Atrocities, whether committed by the military power or by the terrorists, are used by each side to paint the other as pure evil - under the rationale that "anything goes" when you're fighting evil. And that self-justification is usually punctuated with, "... so we have no choice." And so each side ratchets up the amount of violence and misery it is willing to inflict on the other side's civilians and innocent bystanders - because there is "no choice". Until it becomes okay to bomb a densely populated civilian neighborhood in the hope of assassinating a single suspected terrorist leader, or okay to send suicide bombers into a public stadium or to take hostage the entire student body of a large school with every intention that the end-result include mass casualties.

Ask the side of the military power what they think of the latest military atrocity, and you'll hear those same rationalizations... "We're good; they're evil", "We had no choice", "We weren't trying to kill civilians, so it was a purely military mission", "They brought it on themselves", "There are no civilians on their side - they're all terrorists". Ask the civilian population targeted by that military and, as the conflict escalates, you will find fewer people willing to speak out against the terrorism, save perhaps in the form of, "I oppose the terrorism, but...." Followed by "We're good; they're evil", "We have no choice", "We can't reach military targets, and really - given what they're doing - they're all legitimate targets". And so it goes on, ever more violent, with peace becoming more remote with every new "military operation" or terrorist bombing.

Meanwhile, don't expect Bush to speak about the significant increase in U.S. military deaths and injuries in Iraq this past month. Don't expect him to speak about the increased use of terrorist tactics against coalition forces, foreign civilians, or the interim government. Because, after all, "we're winning".

Friday, September 03, 2004

Only Two Debates?

They're testing the waters....
GOP strategist Scott Reed was quoted by the Reuter news agency this week as saying the Bush camp's position is that "two debates are sufficient and will not dominate the entire fall schedule."
And I suppose we're supposed to believe that it's not because Bush is scared? Kerry may seem stiff, but he's no Al Gore.

A Coalition of the Very Willing

The Washington Post today describes how Hollinger International was looted from the inside by an international coalition of the wretchedly corrupt. (Is trying to get government action on this type of corporate misconduct tantamount to casting Perle before swine?)

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Where's Colin Powell

He's keeping an awfully low profile these days. Perhaps it's that, if asked about GW, or GW's line on the Swift Boat Liars, there isn't enough compazine in the world to help him keep his lunch down....

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Crime and Justice Silliness from USA Today


Today's USA Today argues in the context of criminal justice, "Shame works, so use it". The article later admits, "Its effectiveness hasn't been measured statistically, but anecdotal evidence gives a sense of its deterrent effect on wrongdoers susceptible to embarrassment." That's the "Readers Digest" style of analysis - a persistent preference for the anecdotal over the empirical.

USA Today's anecdotes include the following:

* Men who solicit prostitutes may find their names on Web sites or even billboards in several cities. La Mesa, Calif., noted a decline in street prostitution after "johns" were publicly named.

(You don't have to be very bright to realize that neither prostitites nor "johns" have disappeared from California - they are simply being more discreet or are choosing other venues.)

* Men who miss child-support payments had their photos displayed in Boston subways and on buses.

(But no claim is made that this had any effect on payment.)

* People convicted of drunken driving often have to display license plates announcing that fact.

(But no claim is made that fewer people are either arrested or convicted of drunk driving as a result.)

* A drug offender in Florida had to place an ad in the local newspaper: "I purchased drugs with my two kids in the car."

(But no claim is made that, even with this individual drug offender, that the "shaming" inspired a break from addiction.)

* Ten states post the names of tax delinquents on public Web sites.

(But no claim is made that the postings have inspired payment.)

* In cases of corporate wrongdoing, some judges have demanded that CEOs appear in open court to explain their companies' actions.

(But no claim is made that this has improved corporate conduct.)

Wow. What a compelling set of anecdotes.... (They could also have made note of sex offender lists, sometimes available over the Internet, again with no apparent impact on the rate of sex crimes.)

So we have an unsupported argument in favor of "shaming" - there is no empirical evidence that it works, the anecdotal "evidence" reflects only that it is sometimes used, but "it feels good". Similar arguments have been made in favor of public flogging.

But such arguments, in my opinion, are made by people who have no real clue what they are talking about. They need to spend a few weeks in a district court, watching arraignments, preliminary examinations, and plea hearings for misdemeanor cases. They need to see the rogues gallery of people, picked up the night before for a range of petty offenses, yukking it up in the jury box as they await their turn before the judge. They might note an occasional person who looks mortified, perhaps tearful, sitting among those people, desperately hoping not to be noticed. That person already feels shame. That's the type of person not likely to pay a return visit to the court. But that person is also very much the exception. The people sitting around him, for the most part, have been there before and will be there again.

Shame them? Get real. The street fashion of "baggy pants" emerged not from the "shame" of incarceration, but from a desire to emulate prison garb. In some circles, incarceration is a mark of manhood. Prison tattoos are not accidentally distinct - they are deliberately calculated to send the message to the ex-prisoner's peers "I was in prison" and in some cases "and I killed somebody while I was there".

And let's not forget - most crimes, even petty ones, are committed by people who know better, and don't want to face the existing penalties, but have no intention of being caught. Truly, who does USA Today believe will be affected by the petty type of "shaming" under discussion? Who, presently inclined to commit a crime, will decide, "Jail and a huge fine, even being on a county work crew picking up garbage along the highway, and having my name in the newspaper's "Police Beat", I can handle, but being on a website or having to wear an embarrassing sandwich board for eight hours? That's just too much."

And do I really have to comment on this?
Let the punishment fit the crime. The saying originated with Gilbert and Sullivan in The Mikado in 1885, but it's still stirring non-fictional creativity today.
That's right, folks... the first notion of lex talionis came from a comic opera in 1885....

My Heart Bleeds....

Poor Ken Lay. Even the President is ganging up on him.