The Dirty War

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How much would you be willing to do for your children? Would you give up a good career to be a stay-at-home parent? Go into debt for college? Donate a kidney? How about joining a drug cartel to keep your child out of prison?

Based on a true story, Snitch offers an inside look at the drug war, and what we see isn’t pretty. A system that forces people to lie, snitch, and entrap their friends in order to avoid severe jail time is nothing to be proud of. According to the film, the US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is a typical high school senior. He has a girlfriend, he’s applying for college, and he’s trying to fit in. When his best friend Craig (James Allen McCune) skypes from overseas and asks him to accept a FedEx package, Jason is torn between pleasing his friend and not wanting to get involved in something so risky. Mailing drugs from foreign countries has become the transportation of choice since airport security became more stringent. Jason doesn’t agree, but the next day, the package arrives anyway — along with a federal tracking device and about a dozen armed DEA agents. It turns out that Craig was caught mailing the drugs, and in order to get a reduction in his mandatory sentence, he said that Jason was planning to distribute the drugs.

Now Jason is offered the same deal. He faces a mandatory ten years in prison, but if he will snitch on someone else, his sentence will be reduced to two years. Shorter if he fingers someone big. The only problem is, Jason is a good kid. He doesn’t do drugs. The only person he knows who does drugs is Craig, and the feds already have Craig.

“Get someone to sell to you, and we’ll give them the same offer,” the feds tell him. “That’s the way it works.” Mandatory sentencing is not designed for punishment or rehabilitation of the offender; it’s not even designed to get users off the streets. It’s designed to get offenders to snitch. “That’s how we work our way to the top,” the feds tell them. Snitches “pay it forward” until a big one gets caught.

Jason’s parents are desperate to get their son out of this situation. “Take the deal!” they tell him.

“I can’t set someone up!” Jason says. He’s scared, but he’s adamant. “You’re asking me to do this to someone else! I won’t do it.” You gotta admire that. Jason is, as I said, a good kid. But drug enforcement officers are anything but good. The so-called war on drugs is all about entrapment and deceit.

Jason’s dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) is a successful business owner of a construction company. He has some connections on the local police force and he knows a couple of judges. But it doesn’t do him any good. The trouble with federalmandatory sentencing laws is that they are mandatory. Local judges have no authority to use judgment. Only the feds can offer a deal, and deals are only made to snitches.

The US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

US Attorney Joanne Keegan (Susan Sarandon) has no problem with the ethics of turning people into snitches. “I believe in the mandatory minimums,” she says. “We’re fighting a war on drugs, and the violence they cause.” But the violence is caused by the illegality of the drugs, not the drugs themselves. If drugs were legalized, most of the crime and violence associated with them would go away.

This point is made subtly early in the film, when Jason is first arrested. His mother (Melina Kanakaredes) waits outside, puffing on a cigarette. When John goes home, he pours himself a scotch. These are drugs too, but they are legal. Consequently, their use doesn’t lead to violent crimes and turf warfare. Yes, there are externalities that merit certain regulations; you have the right to smoke and drink whatever you want, as long as you avoid violating another person's reasonable right to privacy and safety. Reasonable regulation leads to reasonable use. John drinks a scotch in the evening, but when he goes to work the next day, he drives an 18-wheeler and runs a successful business.

Eventually John offers himself as the snitch in the place of his son. Keegan agrees that if he will go undercover and catch a drug dealer — any drug dealer! — she will reduce Jason’s sentence to one year. From this moment forward the film becomes what we expect from “The Rock” (Dwayne Johnson’s screen name and WWE moniker before he had children and started making family-friendly films like Tooth Fairy [2010] and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island [2012]), with plenty of bulging muscles, steely glares, blazing guns, car chases, and crashes.

The film tries to maintain John’s heroic stature by portraying “his” drug dealers as dirty, vindictive, dangerous criminals. But he needs an introduction to that underworld, and toget it he sets up an ex-con who works for him. He does the very thing that his son refused to do. There is just no way to stay clean in the dirty business of the war against drugs.

Snitch is intense and exciting, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill action film. It is an important film about how the federal government is destroying lives in its relentless and futile attempt to stop the use of illegal drugs. Drug laws destroy lives. The drug war destroys lives. It’s time we end the war and recognize that drug abuse is a medical problem, not a legal problem.


Editor's Note: Review of "Snitch," directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 112 minutes.



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The Sequester Effect

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At this writing, the Republicans have refused to cave in on sequestration. Because half the cuts will come from defense, I thought the GOP would do almost anything to prevent the sequester from happening. But I was wrong. Whether they are operating on principle (i.e., sticking to their belief that spending must be brought under control) or simply doing what they think is politically advantageous, I couldn’t say. In either case, it may provide a lesson in political economy for all Americans.

Back in 1990, Bill Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts. Upon taking office, he instituted relatively minor cuts in social services. I can still remember the street protests and wailings from advocacy groups that the cuts would cause homelessness, starvation, and other enormities. Of course, after the cuts went through, nothing of the sort happened. People suddenly discovered that they could work at a job, or call upon relatives for assistance, or rely on private charity. It was an object lesson in how bloated and dishonest the welfare state had become since LBJ put in place the “Great Society.” Recipients and advocates of government largesse in Massachusetts had for a time persuaded a majority of their fellow citizens that welfarism was just, honorable, and necessary. But when Massachusetts ran into a fiscal wall, with deficits looming and taxes just too much of a burden, a Republican (Weld) squeaked into office and — poof! — the illusion that the state alone stood between the less well-off and a Dickensian fate burst like a soap bubble.

The sequester may prove this point again, and on a national scale. The Obama administration has been ratcheting up the hyperbole as the dread date of March 1 approaches. Beware the Kalends of March! Children will be thrown off Head Start. Small business loans may be delayed, or even (gasp!) unobtainable. National defense, on which we spend about as much money as the rest of the world combined, will be compromised when civilian employees of the Pentagon are required to take a day off per week without pay. And God alone knows what else may happen.

In fact, sequestration calls for the elimination of a little over $1.1 trillion in federal spending over a period of ten years. That’s about three cents out of every dollar in a budget that has doubled under Bush II and Obama. If the American economy can’t survive that, then the country may as well pack it in and become a province of China.

Probably the Republicans will cave later in March, as defense contractors join food stamp recipients and the long-term unemployed in bleating that the trough is no longer full. But maybe not. Maybe they’ll stand firm long enough for the public and the establishment media to realize that sequestration ain’t so bad after all.

Sequestration is a lousy way to trim the federal budget. But it’s better than business as usual. And it just might teach the citizenry that it can live with a little (or even a lot) less government.




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Speaking Truth to Stupidity

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An amusing incident occurred recently in France, which not long back elected a Socialist government — an incident so amusing it warrants noting.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, an American tire company — Titan International — was looking at possibly taking over Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s unprofitable French factory in Amiens. Maurice Taylor, Titan’s CEO, visited the factory late last year to assess the economic viability of the proposed acquisition.

Taylor looked the place over and wrote an interesting letter to the French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, explaining why he was not going to pursue the deal — a letter that caused a hysterical reaction in a government much given to hysteria.

In his inspection of the plant, Taylor found that the communist-controlled union was totally obstructive to all the changes needed to make it profitable, including such mundane steps as requiring workers to work put in longer hours and permitting target layoffs of unneeded staff. He found that the highly-paid union workers were working only three hours a day on average. Worse, the workers were demanding that Titan guarantee all their jobs for a minimum of seven years.

In his letter to Montebourg, who had contacted Taylor in January to see why Titan wasn’t pursuing the failing factory, Taylor replied, “Sir, your letter states that you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are?” He went on to say, “Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have?”

This brought on Montebourg’s hysterical reaction. He told Taylor, “Your comments, which are as extremist as they are insulting, display a perfect ignorance of our country, France.” The furious Frenchie added the dig, “Can I remind you that Titan . . . is 20 times smaller than Michelin . . . and 35 times less profitable? That shows how much Titan could have learned and gained from establishing itself in France.”

However, the moronic Montebourg did not answer the obvious question of why, if the French tire maker Michelin is so marvelously profitable and skillful, it didn’t pick up the plant itself.

The exaggerated response showed that the Socialist government is once again on the defensive. It is making only the feeblest attempts at reforming France’s notoriously rigid and archaic workplace rules, rules that make laying off or cutting back the hours of workers extremely difficult, and so international business is continuing to avoid opening production facilities there.

I wish that I could revere CEO Taylor as an entrepreneurial hero speaking truth to politicians as stupid as they are powerful. But in his letter, Taylor accused the American government of being little better than the French because it hasn’t taken steps to protect America’s tire makers from Chinese competition.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Taylor that protectionist laws help domestic unions get similarly rigid and inefficient work rules for American workers.




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Mencken vs. the Mountebanks

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Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” — Jonathan Swift

Last October, a man named Wlodzimierz Umaniec (also known as Vladimir Umaniec, which is only a bit more helpful) went to the Tate Gallery in London and wrote “Vladimir Umanets’ [sic] 12 A potential piece of yellowism" on a painting by Mark Rothko called “Black on Maroon.” “Yellowism,” an artistic movement of which Umaniec is an advocate or perhaps the founder, was summarized by another advocate in this way: “Everything is equal. Everything is art. Everything is a potential piece of yellowism.” Umaniec is now in jail.

The defaced painting is fairly typical of Rothko’s work — a set of rectangles painted in various murky colors. Its restoration is expected to cost $300,000, cheap at the price, considering the fact that last May another Rothko painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $87 million. As for the aesthetic value of “Black on Maroon” . . . what can I say? I am not a Philistine. Whistler’s engravings make my heart leap up. I am excited by the iconographic problems of the Portland Vase. The late works of George Inness are among my favorite things, and it doesn’t matter that other people call them weirdly abstract and incomprehensible. But yeah — to me, Rothko is nothing but a man who obsessively painted dull versions of dull geometrical forms. I can scrape up a little interest in his technique. I think I am qualified to say that he has the best technique of anyone who ever set out to paint rectangles on canvas. But that is all. I suspect that when the New York Times called “Orange, Red, Yellow” “the most powerful of all his pictures,” it was taking its adjective from the wrong world of discourse. It might just as accurately call the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the most decorative of all Michelangelo’s paintings.

In this case, Yahoo! News (of all horrible things) was more literate than the New York Times. You may think, “That’s not saying much,” but here Yahoo! wins by a mile. Its headline about the Umaniec affair was “Man Jailed for Defacing Pricey Painting.” Pricey: that’s exactly right. Not powerful, not renowned, not legendary, but pricey. Pricey says the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Something similar happened in an article by Michael Tarm and Pete Yost, published in the Huffington Post on February 16. The subject was Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s confession that he had exploited his public office (18 years in Congress!) for personal aggrandizement. There was a paragraph about Jackson’s father:

Several messages left with Jackson's father, the voluble civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, were not returned Friday. The elder Jackson has often declined to comment about his son's health and legal woes over the past several months.

Voluble says it all.

And isn’t that the goal of all good writing? I mean, a good writer doesn’t ruminate, “I’m going to state an exaggeration or approximation or vague representation of the truth as I see it, and you can sort of try to figure out what I mean.” He or she says, “I’m going to come as close as I can to hitting the target, and you can watch what I do and enjoy the sight.” When somebody hits the bullseye, people stand up and cheer — at least people who are smart enough to be interested in the game. But it’s more than a game, when truth is the target.

Lamentably, many libertarians appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways of missing the target completely. You can undershoot; you can also overshoot. To Colin Powell, a man without a sense of proportion or a sense of humor, someone’s reference to President Obama’s evasions of truth as “shucking and jiving” is self-evidently racist, and sufficient evidence of a dark vein of intolerance in the Republican Party (to which institution, by the way, he owes every bit of his national prominence). And Powell is far from the worst archer on the range. To ordinary conservative spokesmen, everything that this administration does is the greatest invasion of American liberty since . . . since when? Since the last time the Republicans voted to jail people for smoking weed? I’m reminded of the late Sen. Sam Ervin, the genial blowhard who ran the Senate investigation of Watergate. Ervin referred to the crisis that he (with the able assistance of President Nixon) was engineering as the greatest since the Civil War. Say that while standing in a cemetery created for the military dead of the 20th century.

I.F. Stone, another darling of the Beltway, went Ervin one farther. He is said to have been queried about what should be inscribed on a plaque that astronauts could affix to the moon. He suggested that mankind be memorialized in this way: “Their Destructive Ingenuity Knows No Limits and Their Wanton Pollution No Restraint. Let the Rest of the Universe Beware.” Some people never seem to count themselves as members of Humanity. Well, draw your own conclusions.

Lamentably, many libertarians also appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it. They feel that any adjective that’s applicable to Hitler should also be applied to the local zoning board. It’s true, and it’s of great interest to political theory, that many officials and disciples of our mild and beneficent government (note to Colin Powell: I’m being sarcastic) would act like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung if they were given a decent chance. It’s also true that many of them act like that anyway, within the sphere currently allotted them. Every judge who sends kids to jail for doing drugs, every regulator who talks about “crucifying” business people who don’t get with the program, every mad mother determined to rid our veins of demon rum is a tyrant and should be called a tyrant. But a constant barrage of abusive terms does not communicate the truth, much less calibrate it. I’ll put this simply: if you do nothing but shriek in people’s ears, they may eventually get tired of you.

Isabel Paterson, who spared none of her vast vocabulary on the sins of conservatives, modern liberals, and the occasional libertarian, identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it. Mencken was a genius, but they weren’t, and the result, in their own writing, was sheer and mere abuse. If you can say anything as clever as “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull,” or “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” then you are entitled to rank yourself as a follower of Mencken, without fearing that his specter will appear in your room one night, cigar in hand, and cheerfully call you a mountebank. But if you can’t be that clever, you shouldn’t try.

The side of Mencken that people don’t notice is understatement, or just plain statement. Consider his review of An American Tragedy, a novel by his friend Theodore Dreiser. Mencken spends a few hundred words summarizing the plot of this long, long novel, which is about a man of no particular interest who kills a woman of no particular interest, gets caught, and gets executed. He observes Dreiser’s “spacious manner” in the “431 pages of small type” devoted to the man’s parentage, his early career, and the “disagreeable ebb” of his affair with the woman. Then he says:

So much for Volume I: 200,000 words. In Volume II we have the murder, the arrest, the trial and the execution: 185,000 more.

Obviously, there is something wrong here.

I can think of no more devastating understatement in the history of American literature.

Only after some special examples of Dreiser’s adventures in overstatement —

The “death house” in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensibility and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible.

Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day.

— does Mencken start piling on, but even then most of his attack consists of incremental understatement:

What is one to say of such dreadful bilge? What is one to say of a novelist who, after a quarter of a century at his trade, still writes it? What one is to say, I feel and fear, had better be engraved on the head of a pin and thrown into the ocean: there is such a thing as critical politesse. Here I can only remark that sentences of the kind I have quoted please me very little.

Now, while we are considering how to abuse without being abusive — in other words, how to have your say without boring everyone to tears — I should mention the existence of whimsy. You don’t have to denounce people all the time; you can also play with them. Gertrude Stein is, in her imaginative productions, someone who pleases me very little, but I love her for calling Ezra Pound “a village explainer — excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” This is a million times better than her crude lack of whimsy in saying to her publisher, Bennett Cerf (who was a pretty good guy, and put up with a lot), “You’re a very nice boy but you’re rather stupid.” (He was “stupid,” you understand, because he failed to comprehend her incomprehensible creative works.) Anyone can say that kind of thing about anyone she wants to criticize; it ain’t worth nothin’.

Isabel Paterson identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it.

Whimsy’s next-door neighbor is self-deprecation, which can do a lot more for your street cred than belaboring your enemies could ever do. Let’s face it, most of your enemies have never heard of you. People who heave brickbats at Obama (yes, I do too) often picture him as staggering, stunned and wounded by their trenchant, caustic words; they glory in the picture. But he doesn’t care — which is fine, because you don’t need him to care. The people you need are your readers. And if they’re going to care about what you say, you may need them to care about you. To like you. To trust you. To trust your judgment about the topics you discuss. And believe it or not, readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes, or seems to recognize, his own limitations than an author who thinks only about those of other people. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches — utterances so full of credit to himself, so intent on discrediting others. Better to say with old Walt Whitman (a cunning writer, if ever there was one, and never more cunning than he was when grounding his radical perspective in a trustworthy authorial ethos), “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.” Or to say with Mencken, “The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

How do you get to be “as good as the best”? One way is just by showing that you’re having fun, as much fun as Whitman must have had when he made that statement. Very few people care whether An American Tragedy is good or bad; but in reviewing it, Mencken communicated to his audience the wonderful fun of making up your own mind on literary matters. I’d use the same adjective for the fun of being told, easily but persuasively, that you can make up your own mind about whether famous paintings are great, or merely pricey. The fun is suggested by the word itself, that one word: pricey. And there’s fun in everything, if you have the right word for it.

Mencken, an atheist or agnostic, loved traditional Christian hymns. So do I, so long as their words project the fun of choosing that one right word. An example: Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s (very loose) paraphrase of Psalm 130, “My soul with patience waits.” (Tate and Brady’s hymns were commonly sung in churches, c. 1700; this one is best with the tune “Franconia,” with which it is usually paired.) One of the stanzas goes like this:

My longing eyes look out
For thy enlivening ray,
More duly than the morning watch
To spy the dawning day.

Not a bad image: waiting for God’s guidance is like being a watchman, awaiting the dawn that will “enliven” everything. Watching, being a watchman, would be a dull enterprise, and it would make a dull image, were not “enlivening” provided to, well, enliven it. But look at “duly.” It’s not the first, or the thirtieth, adverb one would think of. Convenient substitutes are readily available: "As faithful as the morning watch," "More eager than the morning watch," "As hopeful as the morning watch." But “duly,” which would never occur to you if you were happy enough with ready and convenient terms, is the right, though unlikely, word. It brushes aside the emotional boilerplate and gets right to the fact: the watch is taken "duly" — daily, punctually, at the right and appointed time. Whatever you feel about waiting for the Lord, you keep on doing it, just as the shivering watchman does, every morning. That is how one becomes, eventually, enlivened. It’s all a matter of one or two words, but look at how interesting they make this song. And remember that it started with “patience.” Go write a poem about patience. See how far you get.

That little stanza shows a lot about writing, and reading too. Good writing doesn’t merely tell you something, or show you something, either; it interests you in figuring out how it told you and showed you so much.

Readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes his own limitations. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches.

Of course, I don’t mean “figuring out what the hell the author meant.” The need to do that is hardly an invitation to appreciate anyone’s literary skill, especially if you can’t tell whether the meaning you find is the right one or not. When politicians demand a “comprehensive solution to the immigration problem,” when unions demand “a living wage,” when parents confess that their kids “have issues,” when a criminal admits that he “may have made some wrong choices,” when “activists” chant (as they did in Washington the other day), “Forward on climate change!”, what is one to do? Subject their remarks to intensive literary investigation? As soon as you think you’ve found the secret significance of the words, the speakers interrupt your deliberations, asserting that you’ve “misinterpreted” them and should have put their words “in the proper context,” whatever that may be.

Garson Kanin, that prince of Hollywood wits, provided an easy exit from such difficulties. “When your work speaks for itself,” he said, “don't interrupt." A corollary is, “If you need to interrupt, then your work isn’t speaking very well for itself.” If your words need to be poked, probed, kicked, and threatened with fates worse than death before they wake up, shake their angry manes, and emit snarls of protest, then they aren’t proper words in proper places, and you have no style to bother with. So go away. We’ll have fun with someone else’s words. We’ll have fun writing our own.

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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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Home on the Range

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Philosophical Thriller

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When Martin (Channing Tatum), the husband of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), is released from prison after serving five years for insider trading, her troubles should all be over. Her handsome husband has come home, ready to start rebuilding his life with her. Instead, they are just beginning. She just can't seem to shake the depression and sadness. First she drives herself head-on into a brick wall. Then she nearly steps off a platform into the path of a subway train. She feels inexplicably sad and cries all the time. Her psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribes traditional antidepressants, but they don't seem to help. Then he prescribes a newly developed antidepressant that picks her right up. She laughs again. Her libido returns. But there are side effects. She sleepwalks. And she kills her husband.

True depression — not an occasional bout of the blues — is a serious problem. It has been described clinically as "the inability to imagine a future," and poetically as "a poisonous fog bank rolling in at 3 pm." Clinical depression is often caused by the brain's inability to release or absorb essential hormones or communicate effectively with itself. In these cases, psychotropic drugs can offer relief. As Dr. Banks tells Emily, "It doesn't make you someone you aren't; it just makes it easier for you to be who you are." As the parent of an epileptic daughter whose grand mal seizures are completely controlled by medication, I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies that have worked diligently to develop better and more effective drugs.

But psychotropic drugs can also have severe side effects, including erratic and even violent behavior. Public massacres in recent months have brought the discussion of these drugs to the forefront, but it is difficult to know whether the drugs themselves cause the violent urges, or whether the violent urges already existed within the troubled mind of these young men who planned the massacres. Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of administering drugs that his client requested — demanded! — but those drugs ended up killing him. Who is culpable in these cases?

Director Steven Soderbergh examines these issues in his fine film Side Effects, which opened this week. We watch Emily as she struggles with sadness and suicidal desires. Her psychiatrists Dr. Banks and Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attend conferences where new drugs are introduced and promoted. Banks attends a lunch meeting where he is offered a lucrative deal for recruiting his patients to participate in experimental trials of a new drug.

The first half of the film seems almost like an anti-pharmaceutical Public Service Announcement sponsored by Scientology. In one scene, several doctors are interviewed on "Good Morning America," allowing the screenwriters to ask — and answer — several probing questions. One of the cops investigating Martin's death threatens Dr. Banks to make him comply with the prosecutor's office, saying, "Either she's a murderer, or she's a victim of her medical treatment. Which do you want it to be?" After all, Dr. Banks had already been told about Emily's sleepwalking. Shouldn't he have taken her off the drug?

Under these circumstances, "Did she do it?" and "Is she guilty?" become two very different questions. Can she be guilty if she was completely unconscious of the act? But a man is dead. If she isn't guilty, who is? Since most people are able to use these drugs without adverse effects, should the doctor be held accountable when a patient does have a bad reaction? Is she not guilty by reason of insanity, or a victim of circumstance and her own biology?

The first half of the film presents the audience with these philosophical questions. But don't be put off by the PSA sensibility. The second half of the film turns into a taut and engaging murder thriller as Dr. Banks tries to salvage his career by answering these questions. In the end, the film is as tense and exciting as it is philosophically engaging. Great performances and a fascinating denouement make this a film well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Side Effects," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Endgame Entertainment, 2013, 106 minutes.



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A Totally Fracked Planet

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For several years, in these pages and elsewhere, I have noted America’s steady progress toward true energy independence — not because of government help but in spite of it.

We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology.

I have not reported on recent developments on fracking progress abroad. A couple of recent articles provide interesting food for geopolitical thought.

First, the report out of Aussie Land of a shale oil field with the promise of prodigious production. The Arckaringa Basin field in South Australia is now being explored by seismic mapping and drilling. The field has between 3.5 billion and a mind-blowing 233 billion barrels of oil (BBO). Even at the lower end of the estimate, it would be on a par with our own shale oil production.

But if the field contains anything like the upper end of the estimate, it would be a geopolitical game changer, with a value, at current prices, of about $20 trillion, which would make Australians among the richest people on earth. This would be several times more than Australia’s current proven reserves of oil, and would turn the country into an oil exporter on a par with Saudi Arabia (with estimated reserves of 263 BBO, or billion barrels of oil) and surpassing Venezuela (211 BBO), Canada (175 BBO), Iran (137 BBO) and Iraq (115 BBO).

Here is both good news and bad news, geopolitically. The good news is that Australia is a long-standing close American ally, so the prospect of its becoming a major exporter (instead of a minor importer) of petroleum means lower prices for us and another source of world oil that is favorable to us (unlike Iran, Venezuela, and to some degree Saudi Arabia).

The bad news is that Australia now becomes a possible target for energy-hungry China, which is growing rapidly in military might and economic size (in fact, it just surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trading economy, holding $1.2 trillion in American assets).

The second report is a Wall Street Journal article about the shale gas boom in Eastern Europe. The pace of exploration in Central and Eastern Europe has exploded, with British/Dutch-owned Royal Dutch Shell, American-owned ConocoPhillips, and French-owned Total SA buying up exploration rights in Poland. Poland is sitting on top of shale natural gas reserves equal to 35-65 years of its current consumption.

Ukraine is also blessed with shale-gas reserves. Chevron, TNK-BP (a joint venture of BP and a group of Russian investors), and Eni (an Italian company), are all vying to develop shale gas there.

Environmentalist groups in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Romania have gotten their governments to put a moratorium on fracking (which American environmentalists are pushing for too). That opposition, together with the higher costs of drilling in Europe (in part because deposits lie deeper there) and the fact that contracts with Russia’s Gazprom are locked in for decades, make development go more slowly.

But the long-term geopolitical prospect is that Central and Eastern Europe — once enslaved by the Soviet regime, now bullied by Putin’s quasi-dictatorship — now have it within their power to free themselves, eventually, from energy dependency on Russia.

Fracking is leading to some interesting geopolitics. One hopes it will lead to some productive politics, right here at home.




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Lifeboat Drill

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Word has come of a gruesome accident in the Canary Islands. A cruise ship anchored there staged a test of its lifeboats, and five crewmen died. At the moment, the cause is said to have been a break in one of the cables by which lifeboats are lowered to the water. A picture shows a capsized lifeboat next to the ship. The dead crewmen were trapped beneath it.

This is sad, but why is it of any more interest than any other industrial accident? Because lifeboats are constantly hailed as a solution, not a cause, of naval disaster.

The 101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic arrives on April 14. We will hear a great deal about the importance of government regulations to ensure that every ship has enough boats for its whole company of passengers and crew.

Since the Titanic, this kind of regulation has been in effect. But as with most regulations, the effects have been mixed, to use a conventional kind of understatement. When American total-lifeboat regulations came in, two things happened. One was the ruin of America’s passenger steamship lines to the Orient. The owners couldn’t afford to meet the new standards (which, admittedly, included labor-protectionist provisions only notionally connected with safety). The other was the sinking of the steamship Eastland. The Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, with immense loss of life, because it had been overloaded with lifeboats.

The story of the Eastland is ably presented by George Hilton in his book on the subject. I myself have analyzed the lifeboat issue in my book about the Titanic. I’ll hit some high points:

Only one large passenger ship has ever been evacuated solely by its own boats, and that was a vessel in which almost all the passengers and crew were under military discipline. If a large ship gets into trouble, it ordinarily sinks right away (as did the Lusitania, with horrible results from the attempted launching of lifeboats), or it takes days to sink. In the first case, few boats will probably be capable of successful launch (even the Titanic used remarkably little of its available lifeboat space). In the second case, other ships will appear to take people off the stricken vessel, if that vessel is anywhere near normal lines of travel.

It is a fearful thing to enter a lifeboat and be lowered 50, 60, or 70 feet into an ocean that is probably cold and turbulent. Usually, it’s better to stay with the ship. If the passengers on the Costa Concordia, which suffered a disastrous mishap off the coast of Italy in January 2012, had understood this, they would not have panicked, and they would have sustained fewer deaths. Instead, they remembered propaganda about the Titanic and concluded that they were doomed, because their lifeboats were not efficiently launched. In some cases, they jumped off the ship, and died.

By the way, the Costa Concordia never sank. It’s still there, lying on its side, along the coast of Italy. If you were a passenger without an operative lifeboat, you could still be living on board. Yet watching the one-year retrospectives on this event, one would think that the ship had sunk — and passengers had died because lifeboats were not available.

The truth is that everything people do, or plan to do, has its own risks. Even tests of government-mandated rescue equipment can go wrong, terribly wrong. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free rescue, either. Let’s end the pious pretense that there is.




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North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

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I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




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