Exploiting the ISIS bogeyman

Well, that didn’t take long. Cue the scary music: Republicans are using ISIS to prop themselves up as the supposed best hope to protect the nation’s security. Only the GOP can save you from being murdered in your beds. Members of the Islamic State are clearly the scariest thugs EVER. So say ads backing Republican candidates — facts be damned.

The Texas lieutenant governor claimed that “prayer rugs” have been found on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border (it turned out to be an Adidas soccer jersey). There were earlier claims by a Texas sheriff that “them Muslim books” were found by the border. Again: True Muslims would never discard the Quran. And they would certainly keep any real prayer rugs to give themselves a clean place to pray.

Several Republicans are claiming that ISIS is on our border. Others say ISIS already has “established cells” in Mexico, without any evidence. Scott Brown, running for Senate in Massachusetts (whoops, New Hampshire), has a scary new ad about Southern border security, even though both states are in New England. Perhaps New Hampshire should have considered closing its borders so the carpetbagger Brown couldn’t have moved in.

ISIS beheadings? Check, and horrible. But wait — some fired worker in Oklahoma beheaded one of his coworkers. Now there are “copycat beheadings” by other groups, too. And don’t forget that some of the supposed moderate “CIA-vetted” rebel groups in Syria also are guilty of beheadings. And beheading is how Saudi Arabia carries out its death penalty.

A little historical perspective, if you please. Not that we should hold a contest for worst murderers in history, but as bad as ISIS is — and those guys are bad, no argument — the members of the Islamic State have some pretty serious competition. But they’re the ones with video. They can scare us as never before, and politicians can exploit the whole situation for electoral gain. So let’s take a stroll down murdering memory lane:

Pol Pot. The leader of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia led his forces for only four years: from 1975 to 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million people out of a population of 7 million to 8 million people died. Causes of death included starvation, execution, disease, and simple overwork as the ruthless dictator and his followers forced the populace to work in the rice fields. He especially targeted the educated and former upper classes to form a classless peasant society. There’s a reason they called those fields “the killing fields” — bodies were buried in mass graves. One detention center that held 20,000 people had only seven survivors.

Remember that the U.S. bombed Cambodia as part of the campaign against communists during the Vietnam War. U.S. planes dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia over four years. When all U.S. efforts were stopped by 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled three-quarters of Cambodia. Mission accomplished? Not so much. Maybe the United States should learn a lesson here.

Idi Amin. Amin ruled Uganda for eight years, from 1971 to 1979. He became known as the “butcher of Uganda” during his presidency, when he sent “killer squads” into towns and the countryside to kidnap, torture, and murder supporters of his political rivals and the president he had ousted in a coup, Apolo Milton Obote. Amin expanded his targets to include rival tribal members, journalists, lawyers, homosexuals, students, and senior bureaucrats. The total death toll is estimated at 300,000 to 500,000 people. Idi Amin was never brought to justice.

Rwandan genocide. In 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down as it approached the capital city of Kigali. This attack served as a catalyst to unleash Hutu forces on the Tutsi minority in the country. Over the course of three months, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus would be killed by gun and machete. Women were brutally raped. About 2 million Rwandans fled the country, worsening refugee crises in countries near by. And the world stood by. By the time the U.N. Security Council voted to send in peacekeeping troops, the genocide was largely over. Some higher-ranking Rwandan military and security officials were convicted by 2008.

Need we go on? In 1941, the Nazis machine-gunned nearly 34,000 Jews into the Babi Yar Ravine outside Kiev over two days — possibly the worst atrocity of the war. They covered the bodies with dirt and rock — even those who were still moving. Catholics killed up to 70,000 Protestants in 1572 during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. And how many people did Josef Stalin have killed during his time in power? Some estimates are as high as 20 million Russians. Bosnian ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Serbs. God knows how many have died in North Korea, because we can never get any real news from there.

Should the United State and the world have gotten involved to stop these atrocities? They did in World War II, and the world was clearly better off without Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Can we stop every group, every atrocity? Obviously, we can’t. So how to choose?

I suggest that one way NOT to choose what to do about ISIS is to listen to the most hyperactive politicians and media reports and start bombing without a clear goal in mind. Many Middle East countries have joined the fight, at least somewhat — still waiting for Turkey. Several European countries say they’re in. So what are they all going to do? Supply planes and bombs? Pat themselves on the back so they’ll be “part of the team” of good guys? Even the president of Iran says that airstrikes are “a form of theater rather than a serious battle against terrorism,” as President Hassan Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview.

In an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, President Obama said he started the bombing campaign against ISIS because it’s up to America to lead, because “this is who we are. People don’t call Beijing; they don’t call Moscow. They call us.” Maybe. But bombing is not going to do the job without Iraqi forces willing to follow the airstrikes with enough soldiers to root out the well-funded ISIS forces. Their recent history was cutting and running rather than facing the enemy; why should we think they have magically become better fighters? And all this occurs while Congress can’t be bothered with doing its constitutional duty to declare war or authorize the president to take action. The latest GOP talking point is that “it’s up to Obama to call us back” or “it’s up to Obama to write a bill.” Funny, the Constitution says it’s Congress’ job to write laws.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the way Obama wanted to spend his last two years in office.

Scottish independence turnout puts U.S. voters to shame

Eighty-five percent. That’s the record turnout in the referendum on Scottish independence. You want to know what the best turnout in modern U.S. history has been for U.S. voters? Sixty-five percent in 1976.

“Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy,” says an analysis from Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that “educates and enlivens discourse on how best to remove the structural barriers to a democracy that respects every voice and every vote in every election,” according to its website.

The turnout in Scotland was indeed, a record. Some small communities had 100 percent turnout. The lowest overall turnout seemed to be in the city of Glasgow, which had 75 percent turnout — still a figure that dwarfs the turnout of U.S. voters.

So what’s wrong with us, and what can we do to make it better?

Voter turnout in what are considered established democracies around the world averages 70 percent. In the United States, voter turnout for presidential elections averages 60 percent, and turnout for midterm elections averages 40 percent, according to the Fair Vote analysis. In 2012, U.S. voter turnout was nearly 58 percent, and in 2010, turnout was less than 41 percent.

And that turnout is gargantuan compared with turnout in local municipal elections. According to a study in Urban Affairs Review, “turnout in city elections may average half that of national elections, with turnout in some cities regularly falling below one-quarter of the voting-age population.”

Don’t forget that in Ferguson, Mo., the scene of so much protest after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, a majority of the town’s citizens are African-American, yet the city council has just one black member, and the school board is all white except for a Hispanic member. Turnout in Ferguson’s last election was 12 percent. As the Rev. Al Sharpton told the residents of Ferguson, “Twelve percent is an insult to your children.”

Somehow, I think the voter turnout is going to be a lot higher in Ferguson by the time the next election rolls around — voters there now have a reason to be energized (and also to run for office). But what can we do in the rest of the country?

Fair Vote has some ideas that are worth considering, also included in its analysis: Universal voter registration, which would modernize registration structures and make the government responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, taking the process out of partisan hands. A national popular vote for president, which would discount the importance of swing states in the Electoral College and make every voter in every state feel like he or she can cast a vote that matters.

Here’s another idea: Make election day a national holiday, like it is in many other countries. That way, people won’t have to worry about missing work or having a paycheck docked just for casting a ballot.

And a note to the Republicans, who fear that their shrinking voter base spells future doom: You’ve been passing voter photo ID laws, cutting early voting days, closing polling stations, making it harder to register, and backing voter intimidation goon squads like True the Vote, all in the name of fighting virtually nonexistent “voter fraud.” According to the website VoterFraudFacts.com, between 2000 and 2010, there were 649 million votes cast in general elections, and only 13 cases of actual in-person voter impersonation — the only kind of electoral fraud that would be stopped by voter ID laws. That’s THIRTEEN cases over ten years. These voter-suppression tactics may be disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters in certain states. So, GOP, you may win some elections now, but you’re going to lose in the long run. You know what might work? Quit living in the past and start backing some policies that attract new voters and new kinds of voters. It’s OK to appeal to more than just embittered old white guys.

So do your part. Vote. When you’re online, take a few less of those Buzzfeed polls on what kind of Disney villain you are or where you should really live, and instead, check out the websites of your preferred candidate — and his or her opponent. You’ll learn more about who you’re voting for and against, and you’ll gain ammunition for the next time you get into a political discussion with a friend, neighbor, or relative. You may even change your mind.

Voting is a right. Voting is a privilege. But more than anything, voting is a responsibility. Don’t let those “likely” voters control who gets elected. Let’s all be likely voters.

And the best thing is — we can do it without haggis.

 

How overblown is the ISIS hype?

If you listened to nothing but certain news outlets and certain elected officials, you probably think you’re going to die soon.

On Sunday morning talk shows, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R, I’m tough, really I am), made some pretty frightening statements about the threat of terrorists from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or whatever). We may “all get killed” by ISIS, he said on (where else?) Fox News. President Obama “needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”

For this ridiculous, Chicken Little-type fear-mongering, he has been — rightly — severely mocked on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and many other media outlets. Salon.com referred to Graham as “America’s most terrified senator.”

When President Obama addressed the nation about his plans to contain ISIS, he switched the way he usually described the approach to ISIS — “defeat and degrade” — to “defeat and destroy.” Of course, Obama knows full well that terrorism isn’t something that can be destroyed. You can’t defeat an idea. That’s what terrorism is, of course: the use of violence and intimidation to pursue political aims.

And boy, has ISIS ever intimidated the U.S. Those terrorist thugs have us shaking in our very boots.

The right-wing noise machine is willing to broadcast any report of any supposed ISIS threat, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, no matter that there is not one scintilla of evidence of these claims. There are reports that ISIS terrorists are lining up at the border, ready to cross illegally into the U.S. to do us harm. Fox even interviewed a sheriff wearing a cowboy hat (in case you had any doubt he was a “real” Texan) who claimed he had “heard reports” that “them Quran books” and “Muslim clothing” had been found on smuggling routes or dropped off at the border.

(Just to clarify: The LAST thing a real Muslim would do would be to discard the Quran, which he or she would consider sacred. Just sayin’.)

This reminds me of the threats repeated by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R, Idiocy) that pregnant Muslim women are slipping over the border to give birth to “terrorist border babies” so that those children will have U.S. passports, but then are whisked back to grow up in the shadow of terrorist training just so they can return to the U.S. someday and — I don’t know, set off a bomb or something. He obviously hasn’t thought through his “terrorist border babies” theory.

In a story in The New York Times, Michael Schmidt reported about some of this overblown hype and the response from the U.S. government. “There is no credible intelligence to suggest that there is an active plot by ISIL to attempt to cross the southern border,” Homeland Security officials said in a written statement.

On a recent edition of CNN’s Red News/Blue News, host Brian Stelter looked at the question of overblown ISIS hype, and specifically about the threat of ISIS coming over the border. “The evidence is not there,” Stelter said. “And yet the people who say this stuff don’t seem to be held accountable.”

Of course they’re not held accountable. It’s too good a story for the right-wing base. The right-wing Judicial Watch, citing an  “anonymous, high-level official,” claimed that ISIS was operating in a Mexican community and “planning car-bomb attacks.” Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, Texas), whose district includes the border area of El Paso, called the Dept. of Homeland Security and the FBI to check the veracity of that so-called report and found it had no validity. Ever since, he has tried to dispute the report, but the right-wingers already had their minds made up.

“There’s a longstanding history in this country of projecting whatever fears we have onto the border,” O’Rourke was quoted as saying in the Times story. “In the absence of understanding the border, they insert their fears. Before it was Iran and Al Qaeda. Now it’s ISIS. They just reach the conclusion that invasion is imminent, and it never is.”

Look, I get it. It’s an election year, and Republicans, whose shrinking voter base excludes growing sections of the population such as younger people, Latinos, African-Americans, and women, need to rev up their voters and puff out their chests to say that only they are the ones who can protect you, America.

But ISIS beheads people! Well, so does Saudi Arabia. So do multiple rebel groups in Syria, including those supposedly “vetted” by Sen. John McCain (R, I never met a war I didn’t like). And let’s not forget that McCain’s judgment was so poor that he met with and wanted to arm ISIS before it was ISIS — there are multiple photos of him meeting with ISIS leaders in March 2013 on a trip to Syria.

Thomas Friedman asks an excellent question in his column in The New York Times:

“What concerns me most about President Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it’s being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and fear that ISIS, a.k.a., the Islamic State, is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast?”

Obama’s no-win choices on ISIS

Tonight President Obama will address the nation on what his administration plans to do about “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant) or ISIS, ISIL, or just IS.

Whatever you call it, Obama is faced with a messy situation that is only going to get worse. Strategically, militarily, and politically.

Whatever he describes will be demonized by Republicans, neocons, and suddenly war-hungry members of the media as being either too much or too little, too soon or too late, or too fuzzy or too nuanced.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R, Ga.), who lost his bid to be the GOP nominee for senator, figured he has nothing to lose, so he let loose with some real Republican tactics and accidentally told the truth about whatever Obama proposes to do about ISIS. As he said in a story in The New York Times: “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

He’s not the only one, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose failed war in Iraq wasn’t apparently enough for him, met with House Republicans to talk about ISIS. He didn’t have anything substantive to say, of course, beyond an admonition that the GOP take a more “muscular” military posture and keep repeating the line that Obama is “weak.” Memo to Darth Cheney: Tell me again who succeeded in taking out Osama bin Laden and who let him slip away.

Some Republicans, like Rep. Peter King of New York, said, “Most of us think we did the right thing in Iraq.” Actually, Rep. King, that’s not even close to being true — vast numbers of Americans say the Iraq War wasn’t worth it. That’s why “boots on the ground” is not an option.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R, Ga.) told a group of Republicans at a breakfast in Cobb County, Ga., over the weekend that “I think our enemy stands on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.” to huge applause, according to an online report in the Marietta Daily Journal. There’s real patriotism for you, GOP — calling your president “the enemy.” Imagine what those same Republicans would have done if Democrats had ever been so blatant in criticizing President George W. Bush.

One wonders why media outlets keep giving blanket coverage to anything Republicans say about ISIS, even when it’s substance-free. Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), who holds the record for the most Sunday morning talk show appearances, was back on denouncing Obama and demanding “action” without offering specifics. Any specifics he has offered have proven to be wrong, like when he wanted to arm the Syrian rebel group that turned out to be ISIS.

So ridiculous partisanship aside, what can Obama offer? The American public answers vague polling questions on wanting to “do more” against ISIS. The public is still under the delusion that there’s no downside to bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and now possibly Syria.

Do they really think dropping bombs is free? The ones we’ve been dropping in Iraq cost $7.5 million per day. Imagine how fast costs will grow if that expands.

What about human costs? Does the public really think no civilians will be killed — just the ISIS bad guys? Too many Americans are still under the impression that it’s easy to drop a bomb and fly out, and that there will be no repercussions. When war is looked upon that dispassionately and bloodlessly, people think there’s no way anyone in the U.S. could get hurt. Ask the families of the U.S. soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan by those they were training — those who turned on U.S. troops, angered by drone strikes and worse.

ISIS is a different kind of terrorist threat in many ways. The militants hit the jackpot when they faced Iraqi forces who cut and run at the first sight of an enemy weapon. Consequently, ISIS was able to go into various towns and capture American-made weapons and loot deserted banks to the tune of $400 million, according to an NBC report, although U.S. officials estimated that those windfalls were much less. ISIS also is getting huge cash inflows from selling crude oil, often lying about the oil’s point of origin and smuggling it out through Turkey. ISIS shakes down ordinary citizens, requiring drivers to pay “road taxes” in ISIS-controlled areas.

Finally, ISIS gets millions every time the group kidnaps a foreign national and demands millions in ransom. Although the United States and the United Kingdom refuse to pay such ransoms, some European countries and wealthy relatives of kidnapped victims have no qualms about turning over millions of dollars for the victims’ return. ISIS has been paid $25 million in ransom fees in the last two years, the NBC report said.

Even al Qaeda denounced ISIS’ actions as giving terrorism a bad name. And although many in the Middle East are turning against the group’s extreme militancy — the latest Internet meme is burning ISIS flags, which apparently has gone as viral as the ALS ice bucket challenge — it’s picking up supporters from somewhere. There’s no way to really tell; estimates of the group’s strength range from 10,000 to 100,000. Yet as recently as a few months ago, ISIS’ strength was estimated at 5,000 militants. There are certainly some imports from the UK, the U.S., and other countries, as evidenced by the London-accented voice of the militant who beheaded American journalist James Foley, and reports of some U.S. citizens being killed who were ISIS members.

The best hope Obama has is to build a strong coalition of Middle East partners willing to stand up to the militants. That means money, weapons, and troops from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have been hesitant to commit for fear of offending Sunni neighbors.

Of course, that would be a lot easier if Republican senators weren’t holding up appointments of ambassadors to Turkey and other countries, as they’ve been doing for a long time. Negotiation is more successful when you have a diplomat in place.

The ultimate answer to what happens to Iraq lies in Iraq itself. There will be no control of ISIS without an effective Iraqi government and an effective Iraqi military.

President George H.W. Bush took his time and built an effective coalition against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. They were REALLY willing, unlike the other countries in the coalition his son’s administration built. Will the public, the media, and Republicans give time for Obama to do the same? I think we all know the answer to that.

Bombing ISIS is not a video game

As usual, too many politicians, pundits, and some members of the American public have the attention span of fruit flies, with even less memory. How else to explain the drumbeat to “bomb ISIS to hell”?

President Obama’s nuanced response to a complicated question about strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been described as “inartful.” I’m sure he wishes he could take back the phrase, “We don’t have a strategy,” even sending out communications staff back into the White House press room in a case of “walk back the comment.” Although if you listen to the entire response to the entire question, that’s not what he was saying at all — there are many approaches and strategies, and to decide on one and boil it down to a few words defeats the whole purpose of foreign policy. Nevertheless, those who deal only in soundbites — like most Republican politicians and the Beltway media — jumped all over him.

We hear the usual complaints and condemnations: that Obama is weak; that he spends too much time golfing (show me a president in modern times who didn’t golf); that he’s a “kitty cat” compared to the “Russian bear” of Vladimir Putin.

I especially got a chuckle from a comment by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trying to impress an audience of Republicans, telling them that Putin wouldn’t dare treat HIM like he’s treating Obama. According to a story in The New York Times, Christie said that Putin “had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. ‘I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,’ Mr. Christie said. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’ ” Also according to the Times story: “One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance. Another called it ‘uncomfortable to watch.’ ” What would you do, Governor — cause some traffic problems on the Novospassky Bridge in Moscow?

This is the problem with the soundbite reactions to the problem of the Islamic State that is trying to overrun Iraq and Syria, whether you call it ISIS, IS, ISIL, or whatever. It’s heavy on swagger and light on substance, with absolutely no thought about consequences to the region, the United States, or the world. Pundits on Fox News like Bill Kristol say, “Let’s just bomb them and see what happens!” There’s a thought-out strategy for you! GOP senators like John McCain (R, I never met a war I didn’t like), Lindsay Graham (R, I’m tough — I promise), and Mark Kirk (R, I’ll say whatever is expedient) are all demanding bombing. Gee, if it’s Congress’ job to declare war, why aren’t these senators — not to mention many House members — introducing legislation, with funding, with specific strategies? For that matter, when Obama DID ask Congress to approve action against Syria, Congress refused to take it up. It’s too easy to talk tough and never follow through.

It wasn’t that long ago — spring of 2013 — that John McCain went to Syria to meet with Syrian rebels and “demand” that the Obama administration help rebels. Too bad the rebels he chose happened to be ISIS.

ISIS-McCain-ad

I’ll never get tired of running this photo of McCain chillin’ with his ISIS buddies. Talk about a rush to judgment with no wisdom behind it.

We’ve all heard stories about ISIS atrocities. We’ve heard about kidnappings and killings of Yazidis. We watched the U.S.-trained and -armed Iraqi Army cut and run against ISIS fighters, leaving behind expensive U.S. equipment that ISIS now uses. We’ve received horrific news about the beheadings of two American journalists. The best outcome would have been to rescue the journalists where they were being held in Syria, as a team of U.S. special forces tried to do, but somehow ISIS got wind of the plan and moved the hostages.

So we’re forced to listen to terrorist bravado as the members of the media go into a reporting frenzy about how ISIS “knows how to use social media.” Tip to the Beltway media: Most people under the age of 30 — and many of us over that age — know how to use social media. In case you hadn’t noticed, activists in the region used social media to promote revolutions throughout the region in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. If you don’t have much money and you don’t have a computer but you have a smartphone, you know how to tweet a video. They do.

So now too many are calling for the “bomb them to hell” strategy. They seem to forget how that worked out before.

Let’s go back to Gulf War in the early 1990s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush formed a coalition of regional supporters. first as Operation Desert Shield, then Operation Desert Storm. We bombed, and the American public watched the video of the bombings — well, like it was a video game. Indeed, many of the pilots who launched those bombs from their jets described it the same way. We looked at green screens and blips, and saw that targets were hit. And then those pilots flew away. We left, but we hadn’t really changed anything.

Now let’s fast-forward ten years to 2003, when the Bush-Cheney administration lied to the American people and launched another war in Iraq under false pretenses, claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t). Saddam had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. We invaded, destabilized the region, and disbanded the Iraqi Army. We spent trillions of U.S. dollars, tanked our own economy, caused nearly 4,500 American troops to lose their lives, and left tens of thousands of members of the U.S. military wounded, maimed, and worse. And in a country where there was no al Qaeda, now we have a regional group of Sunni thugs who are so bad that al Qaeda disowns them. All because the Bush administration had no long-term plan, but wanted to feel good about “doing something.”

You would think that the American public had had enough war in the region. A simplistic poll asks “Should we be doing more against ISIS” and gets a more than 50 percent response of “yes.” But when asked exactly WHAT the U.S. should be doing, all of a sudden, the answers aren’t so clear.

No, the cautious approach of “don’t do stupid stuff” still holds. And going all in on bombing ISIS without regional support of other countries and without a comprehensive, multi-scenario strategy would, indeed, be stupid stuff.

A column by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times has the headline “Ready, Aim, Fire. Not Fire, Ready, Aim.” He admits that his 2003 support of the Iraq war was wrong and that we need to think things through before bombing in a frenzied reaction. “We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later,” he writes.

It’s going to take time and a lot of effort, diplomacy, and wheedling to make sure that other countries in the region are a part of this fight against ISIS. Anyone who thinks the Obama administration has been sitting back and not coming up with a wide variety of scenarios is living in a Fox News alternate reality.

“I’m all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement,” Friedman writes. “I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.”

“Gun tourism”? How about gun idiocy with an Uzi?

Why would anyone think it was a good idea to teach a 9-year-old girl how to shoot an Uzi?

“Gun tourism” is apparently a growth industry to let those with itchy trigger fingers feel what it’s like to hold and operate a high-powered weapon. Dozens of such ranges, many in the Las Vegas area, have opened around the country in recent years, letting foreign and American tourists feel like Rambo.

In case you missed this story, a young girl was at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Ariz., when her instructor handed her an Uzi to shoot. He first fixed the setting so it would fire only single shots. But then instructor Charles Vacca, 39, altered the setting so it reverted to automatic — even though a 9-year-old girl obviously wouldn’t be able to handle the kickback. Vacca was standing next to the girl when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head and later died.

The parents were recording the “lesson.” I doubt that’s one video they’ll show at Christmas.

The identity of the girl and her family has not been released, and police said no charges would be filed. Of course. You can’t charge someone with idiocy. Although imagine how that poor 9-year-old feels, knowing she took someone’s life because her parents wanted an Uzi video.

And in the case of “worst timing EVER,” two days after the incident, the National Rifle Association tweeted “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range.” Sure — have fun and shoot your instructor! The tweet was deleted an hour later; but the damage had been done — one more way that the NRA looked insensitive. And that’s putting it mildly.

According to an online story at Talking Points Memo, written with help from the Associated Press, these ranges give visitors from other countries a chance to experience “American culture.” What — apple pie, hot dogs, and country music aren’t enough?

“The businesses cast a lighthearted spin on their shooting experiences, staging weddings in their ranges and selling souvenir T-shirts full of bullet holes,” the story says. There’s a real souvenir from a bachelor party: “I went to Vegas and all I got was this holey T-shirt.”

The “training” at this particular range is part of its “Bullets and Burgers Adventure.” Presumably, the kiddies work up an appetite while punching out a few rounds with a machine gun. I can think of better things to pass out with Happy Meals.

This is not the first time for this kind of incident. In 2008, according to the TPM story, an 8-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Mass. He was firing at pumpkins when the gun kicked back and killed him. A former Massachusetts police chief whose company co-sponsored the gun show was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

This is not meant to be an attack on the Second Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has declared — going against legal precedent, but the court is the final say — that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own a gun, although it still held that such ownership can be regulated. Many communities ban the ownership of automatic weapons — not exactly what you need to shoot deer or pheasant.

Some in my extended family are hunters, and I have eaten venison at their tables. I am not advocating removal of anyone’s gun, despite the rash of accidental killings with firearms each year. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 100,000 Americans are the victims of gun violence every year. And lest anyone trot out the “good guy with a gun” line, only about one-tenth of those gun-related violence incidents were gun-related homicides, which make up only 35% of all gun-related deaths.

An Uzi is a submachine gun designed for warfare, not a shooting range. It can hold up to a 70-round magazine. It’s been used in wars since 1954, starting with the Israeli Defense Forces. It has spread to 90 countries, and it’s also used in law enforcement. It’s not a toy to hand to someone who’s not yet 10.

Every time lawmakers come up with a common-sense approach to gun regulation, they’re shot down by the NRA, which drives pro-gun voters into a lather, repeating the lies that “they’re out to take your guns.” Actually, no one has proposed any law to take away anyone’s gun — it’s future purchases they’re talking about, asking for things most of the public backs, like background checks and closing loopholes at gun shows.

“We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park,” said Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence, again according to the TPM story. Referring to the girl’s parents, Hills said: “I just don’t see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi.”

So how about it? How about a common-sense law that says a 9-year-old shouldn’t be able to fire an Uzi?

Lawmakers, we’re waiting.

Excellent — and horrible — media work about Ferguson

Often your take on the news depends on how you get your news. If you stick to ideology-driven websites, Twitter feeds, and news media, your view of today’s stories are going to be skewed. It’s certainly true on the right; it’s even partially true on the left.

That’s why the coverage of the events over the last two weeks in Ferguson, Mo., has been so important.

A white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That much is certain. There was some kind of struggle between them beforehand. That’s pretty much been verified by actual eyewitnesses. And the cop, Darren Wilson, shot the teenager, Michael Brown, as Brown ran away. That’s also been verified by actual eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses who don’t know each other, who told the same basic story to varied media outlets without talking to each other.

Note: They had to tell their stories to media outlets because for a long time, Ferguson police didn’t bother to interview them. Nor do we know the extent of their eyewitness testimony to police, because — as it turns out — the Ferguson police didn’t bother to write up an incident report. Let’s repeat that — they didn’t bother to write up an incident report when a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager who was running away from him. When the police finally DID release an incident report — a few days ago — it said basically nothing.

There has — as expected — been a range of quality and clarity in the reporting about the ongoing story in Ferguson.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has been doing extraordinary work reporting live from Ferguson for more than a week, often letting the cameras tell the story as police in riot gear and gas masks march toward mostly peaceful protestors, fanning the flames of an already tense situation as they sometimes aim assault rifles and throw tear gas canisters and smoke bombs. Cameras also have shown some — a small minority — of protestors throwing rocks (sometimes even at MSNBC personnel). I’ve laughed as I’ve watched Chris perspiring in the St. Louis humidity, his shirts showing sweat stains, until he finally just showed up in a T-shirt and said, “I had to take off the dress shirt — it’s 100 degrees here.” We know what’s going on in Ferguson because of his excellent reporting.

If you’re a fan of right-wing media, however, you heard a different spin, with a heavy emphasis on “rioters and looters.” You heard that it must be about the “New Black Panther Party” (they just can’t let that go). You got lots of reporting about how Michael Brown “stole cigars.” Note: Even this is now in dispute. Although police leaked security footage video of a black man appearing to be Michael Brown pushing a convenience store employee, the whole tape appears to show that same black man paying for something at the register.

You also heard (again from a police leak) how Brown had marijuana in his system. Some right-wing sites immediately claimed that such evidence showed that Brown “wasn’t in control” and must have “gone crazy.” Funny — if memory serves, smoking marijuana leaves people more mellow, not “crazy.” Another question: If a police autopsy showed that Brown had marijuana in his system, why didn’t that same police autopsy show many times Brown had been shot? Or didn’t they think that was as important as smearing the victim?

The media became part of the story in Ferguson. Due to saturation coverage of Robin Williams’ death, the Ferguson story got minimal coverage the first few days, except for the coverage of “looting and rioting.” Note: There never was any rioting. There was looting, by a small minority of protestors, on multiple nights. A small minority threw Molotov cocktails. A small minority carried guns, and there was some shooting by that minority.

The media really became the focus when reporters and photographers were arrested with little provocation. Reporters refused to move quickly enough. They refused to stick to an assigned “media area.” (Since when does the First Amendment have “areas”?) We have watched video of Ferguson police threatening to kill members of the media (and the public), and of them disassembling camera equipment.

Then we have the actual reporting.

A few days ago, someone who identified herself as “Josie” called a St. Louis-area radio station and gave “the other side of the story.” She claimed that the shooter, Wilson, had told his fiance, who had told Josie, a different version of the tale, and that Wilson feared for his life. So a third-hand account somehow became a “witness.”

CNN jumped all over it, with its usual “BREAKING NEWS” meme. CNN reported that “sources” said the story from “Josie” matched up with what Wilson described.

I see. So — we have a shooter cop who won’t come forward, who won’t write up an incident report, yet will get his “side” of the story out via leaks, and the media eat it up. It took several days for CNN to ‘fess up: “Well, yeah, first let’s throw out ‘Josie,’ the radio caller in this … We all had Josie fever for about a day and we took a step back and realized wait, she wasn’t even an actual witness, even though her story was compelling.”

Compelling? Hell, I could make up compelling stories, too (if you want one, check out the book I wrote — The Political Blogging Murder, available as an e-book from a link on this site). But no, “Josie” is not an eyewitness to this shooting.

Then we had the “beating” of Darren Wilson. Fox News, in the form of FoxNews.com (pardon me if I don’t share the link) breathlessly reported that Wilson had been “beaten severely” by Brown. (How is that supposed to have happened when Wilson was in his car, Brown was outside, and multiple independent eyewitnesses saw Brown running away?) “Sources” said Wilson had to be taken to a hospital. Funny — cell phone footage shows him walking around afterward. He supposedly had an “eye bone” fracture. The Washington Post had to walk that story back the next day. The crime reporter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sent out a tweet that “Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop’s version of events in shooting #Ferguson.”

A DOZEN witnesses? Somehow, if the police had a dozen witnesses corroborating Wilson’s version, they would have come forward. None has. The reporter, Christine Byers, who isn’t even reporting the story — she’s away from work due to the Family Medical Leave Act — had to walk back her tweet, claiming her original statement “did not meet standards for publication.” YA THINK? Of course, that didn’t stop other outlets from reporting the same thing.

There’s no evidence — and no proof — of injuries to Darren Wilson, although he very well may have an injury. We do, of course, have an injury to Michael Brown, in the form of his dead body lying on the street for five hours.

Does this “injury” story remind you of another shooting of an unarmed teenager? Trayvon Martin? When George Zimmerman claimed — after the fact — that he had been injured by Trayvon Martin, and had to be taken to the hospital? Even though police video footage of Zimmerman on that same night showed Zimmerman walking with no visible injuries?

We all would like to know what exactly happened the day Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The police don’t seem interested in telling the story. They seem more interested in keeping everything under wraps, piecing together the narrative from eyewitnesses, and figuring out a scenario in which the cop won’t be charged with a crime. Wilson will have the chance to tell his side of the story to the grand jury — an almost unheard-of gift to him.

I don’t know if a grand jury will indict Darren Wilson — given Missouri law and the direction of the “investigation,” it’s beginning to seem more and more unlikely. A separate FBI and Justice Dept. investigation probably will tell a different story. And no doubt, right-wing media will spin that as the work of a black president and a black attorney general.

Somehow, the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer  — not to mention that of many other unarmed African Americans — deserves more than political spin.

Are you angry about police tactics in Ferguson? Vote.

This is not meant as a criticism of the residents of Ferguson, Mo., who are having a hard enough time right now dealing with police riots run amok. But it’s important that we all remember to vote in each and every election.

Every election means every election: presidential, congressional, statewide — and local.

In Ferguson, Mo., the majority of the population switched from white to black over a decade. Yet the mayor, the city council, the police chief, and all but three members of the police force are white. It took the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, to sound the wake-up call about the need to vote.

According to research from the nonpartisan group Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, the U.S. falls way behind other countries in voter turnout.

“Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy,” the group says. “As low turnout is usually attributed to political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy, ‘established’ democracies tend to have higher turnout than other counties. Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections, but has never risen to levels of most other well-established democracies.”

Some countries, such as Australia, Belgium, and Chile, have compulsory voting, where voting hovers near 90 percent. “Other countries, like Austria, Sweden, and Italy, experienced turnout rates near 80%,” the group adds. Many countries experience turnout rates of about 70%, while in the U.S., “about 60% of the voting-eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections.”

That research certainly holds up when you look at turnout for the two most recent national elections. Voter turnout for the 2012 presidential election was nearly 58 percent of U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. In 2010, voter turnout for mid-term elections was less than 41 percent.

(Note: That’s “eligible to vote.” That also includes people who didn’t bother to register.)

In many states, municipal elections, for things like mayoral races, city councils, school boards, and library and park district trustees, are held in the spring in off years. People typically don’t pay as much attention, so they don’t vote. According to a study in Urban Affairs Review, “turnout in city elections may average half that of national elections, with turnout in some cities regularly falling below one-quarter of the voting-age population.”

So only one-quarter of the U.S. population shows up to vote in municipal elections. That’s how you have a situation like Ferguson, Mo. Again — this is not criticizing the population of Ferguson. But I bet many more of them will be voting — and running for office — in the next local election. Somehow, this whole situation in Ferguson has proved to be an eye-opener for a national populace that has been horrified at TV images of police in riot gear aiming assault rifles at citizens, firing rubber bullets and tear gas, and arresting reporters who are just doing their jobs. National leaders are in Ferguson sponsoring voter registration drives. In other cities, groups are using the police violence in Ferguson as reasons to bolster their own registration efforts. A friend in an African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side said this had inspired him to start a voter registration drive at his church.

There are national mid-term elections coming up in less than three months. Much of the future direction of the country depends on it.

Even if you live in a district that’s considered dark red or dark blue — go vote. You may not think it makes a difference, but it very well could. If you’re not registered to vote, do so. It’s quick, easy, and painless. If you live in a state where state legislatures have passed onerous photo ID restrictions, and those restrictions have been upheld by courts, like in North Carolina, do everything you can to get that photo ID. Then go vote.

And don’t just watch TV ads from candidates. Do some research on your own. Look at their websites. Watch them when they debate. Read local stories about their positions on the issues.

Voting is a right. Voting is a privilege. But more than anything, voting is a responsibility. Don’t let those “likely” voters control who gets elected. Let’s all do our part.

If you’re mad about police tactics in Ferguson, Mo., get yourself to the ballot box. The people of Ferguson will thank you.

Ferguson police remind me of Chicago 1968. Only MUCH worse

Why is the response of police in Ferguson, Mo., to protests about the killing of an unarmed black teenager so different? So over the top?

There have been police shootings and killings of other unarmed African-American teens and men. There are usually protests and sometimes a violent community reaction. But I can’t recall another situation where the police used such extreme military tactics in a response.

Actually, I can. I’m old enough to remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where demonstrators in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Old Town, Grant Park, and Michigan Avenue created disturbances and were severely beaten by police. The demonstrations and overreactions lasted eight days and left the city with a big black eye.

The Youth International Party, or “Yippies,” led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, came armed to create mischief, nominating an actual hog named Pigasus the Pig for president. They sought permits to demonstrate and march everywhere in the city, most of which were denied. Many groups were there protesting the Vietnam War, including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Thousands of protestors came to Chicago to demonstrate against the war.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley decided that he would have none of it. There had been racial riots for the past few years in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 and in many cities in April of 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was not going to happen again in HIS city. Daley had already given a “shoot to kill” order to police during the April riots, and he wasn’t afraid of giving one again.

Police wearing riot helmets went beyond their usual billy clubs and standard-issue guns and were armed with Mace and tear gas. They used all of their weapons — frequently. National Guardsmen were on hand to mobilize if the situation got out of control. Protestors were beaten with little provocation — some injury estimates were up to 500 injuries a night. And it went out on TV for all the world to see.

At the convention itself, the police acted little better. Journalists such as CBS’ Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security — events that got broadcast live nationwide. One journalist described entering the convention hall as “exactly like approaching a military installation; barbed-wire, checkpoints, the whole bit.”

On the floor of the convention, delegates got into shouting matches with each other. The failure to include a “peace plank” in the party platform caused delegates to march in protest around the convention floor. In his speech nominating Sen. George McGovern for president, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut said, “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” At one point, as Mayor Daley and other Chicago delegates tried to shout him down, Ribicoff answered from the podium, “The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” (As for Daley’s response, people who could read lips claimed to have observed Daley shouting, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.” No confirmation is possible, but it’s a hell of a quote.)

Daley, never a total master of the English language, also uttered the famous line, “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”

Afterward, a national government report blamed the violence on the police force, calling it a “police riot.” It has been said that because of the police overreactions in Chicago, America elected Richard Nixon as president.

But what we have in Ferguson goes way beyond Chicago 1968 — it’s more like Tahrir Square in Cairo. Like Baghdad in Iraq. Many former military have observed that they wore less armor in Iraq and Afghanistan than Ferguson police are wearing.

Many of us watched as police in Ferguson threw smoke bombs and canisters of tear gas and fired rubber bullets at groups of mostly peaceful protestors. They rode atop tanks aiming assault rifles at civilians. The night after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police, some — a minority — of residents did some looting at local businesses. That’s pretty much stopped. There were no “riots” in Ferguson. Those individuals who did the looting have been charged with burglary and theft. So far, there are no charges against the officer who shot Brown, whose name is still under wraps.

It was interesting that this situation received little or minor coverage for several nights, except for quick mentions. No doubt much of that was caused by the saturation coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide. It also was interesting that the coverage didn’t become front-page news until some national reporters from the Huffington Post and the Washington Post were arrested. Since when do police have the right to order reporters and cameramen to “stop filming”? Obviously, they don’t. Since when do police have the right to order a curfew? Obviously, they don’t — they “asked” that all protests end at dusk. As if that would happen, when many of those joining the protest are at work during the day anyway.

There is the added problem of the over-militarization of U.S. police forces — a subject on which others are more competent to comment than I am. But none of us likes to see our neighborhood Officer Friendly in riot gear. It creates distrust and makes every situation worse. Add the racial elements, and you’ve got a disaster in the making. Ferguson has a majority black population but only three black police officers. Who thought this would turn out well?

So far, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has said St. Louis county police will be removed from the area. That’s a start. Releasing the name of the officer in question is a no-brainer — it happens every time there is a shooting like this, in any city in America.

Again — why are things so different in Ferguson, Mo.?

Why the push for more involvement in Iraq?

ISIS-McCain-ad

Sen. John McCain, chillin’ with his ISIS pals in Syria in 2013.

You would think that after 10 years of a war that was started for illegitimate reasons, Republicans would have learned their lessons not to rush into combat.

You would think that the American people’s distaste for sending men and women of the U.S. military to a place where they can get killed, maimed, and mentally damaged would send the message that enough is enough. You would think that a war costing more than $9 billion a month, according to the Congressional Budget Office  — with no funding from Congress — would dampen the GOP ardor for war. You would think that they should know better than to try to goad the Obama administration into further Iraq entanglement. But I guess they just can’t help themselves.

On Sunday morning talk shows and on the campaign trail, we hear the same old tired rhetoric from the same old usual gang of suspects. The latest talking points, repeated ad infinitum, are that “we didn’t stay there long enough” and that “the soldiers left too soon.” Too soon for what, you may ask. Too soon to rebuild an entire nation that the U.S. destroyed? Too soon to pour more money and effort into training soldiers who apparently don’t want to get trained, since they dropped their weapons that the U.S made and paid for and ran away at the first sight of an enemy? Too soon to hold together a country formed after World War I of disparate tribes, ethnic groups, and religious sects that probably never should have been made into a new country in the first place?

Hillary Clinton, most likely gearing up for a 2016 presidential run, also cast doubt on Obama’s foreign policy, even though she served as his secretary of state. In an interview with The Atlantic, she said Obama should have armed Syrian rebels sooner. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said.

Former Obama political adviser David Axelrod was quick to hit back. He tweeted: “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.” It also was something that the hawkish Clinton voted for when she was a senator.

Of course, if we had listened to people like Sen. John McCain (R, I never met a war I didn’t like), the U.S .would have armed ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Don’t forget it was McCain, on a trip to Syria to meet with rebel leaders, who gave ISIS its first photo op (see above) by posing with the very leaders now leading the effort in Iraq. Who, exactly, should we have armed in Syria? The people John McCain posed with in their selfie, so they could use those same weapons against the Shi’a, the Kurds, and the Yazidi?

The Iraqi Army took care of that. Never has there been an army so quick to cut and run. There have been stories of ISIS forces bribing Iraqi Army officers, who ordered their own soldiers to dump their equipment and hightail it away from battle.

And what about “leaving U.S. forces in Iraq”? Don’t forget that SOFA, the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, was made under the Bush Administration and signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. And the Iraqis were totally unwilling to allow any U.S. troops to remain in Iraq or give them any legal protection. Obama rightly corrected a reporter in a recent news conference when he said: “That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made.”

Nevertheless, McCain says the upsurge in violence in Iraq must be Obama’s fault. So does Sen. Lindsay Graham (R, S.C.) who said that if there’s an ISIS attack in the U.S., it will definitely be Obama’s fault. Funny, I don’t remember Graham, McCain, or other Iraq War supporters blaming President Bush when he ignored the intelligence briefing memo that said “Bin Laden determined to strike inside U.S.”

The current limited approach to violence in Iraq is supported by a majority of Americans because it’s just that — limited. According to a poll conducted just after the president ordered the airstrikes and humanitarian effort, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they support the limited option of airstrikes against ISIS. Only 15 percent support sending in ground troops again. And no wonder — we all saw how that turned out the first time. The American people most definitely do NOT want “boots on the ground,” and Obama has consistently said that’s not an option. Iraq needs its own political solution, not a solution from the U.S. military, he has stressed time and time again.

The limited number of U.S. troops sent to Iraq to protect U.S. personnel has remained limited, although the number has climbed to nearly 1,000. All that means the media are doing what they love to do best — start talking about “mission creep” and start making predictions.

Still, Obama has vowed to stick to his limited approach and not get bogged down in another unwinnable war. ” ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ ought to be emblazoned on the foreheads of all future presidents and secretaries of state,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser during both Democratic and Republican administrations.

It turns out that “Don’t do stupid stuff” is a pretty good approach to foreign policy after all.

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