Monday, October 28, 2002

As I read the eulogies to the late Senator Paul Wellstone, I notice an odd absence: there seems to be precious little of what one would normally define as, well, praise. Here's a typical one, from Mickey Kaus: "He wasn't a poser, a trimmer, a schemer, a dissembler, a self-aggrandizing egomaniac or a vicious infighter." Joshua Micah Marshall: "Most successful pols are steely operators. Not a few act serious, without at all being serious, but are rather jokes and whores. Or if they're first-rate men or women they've long since gotten gated-off behind walls of flacks, caution and self-protection. Paul Wellstone just wasn't like that." And these are liberals (albeit somewhat centrist ones).

Now, part of the problem is that Wellstone didn't leave a spectacular legacy of public-sphere accomplishments. The encomia from several leftist allies of his at Mother Jones, for example, attest mainly to his personal warmth and his various quixotic political stances, apparently lacking a concrete achievement to celebrate. That's not intended as a criticism; being mourned as a beloved husband and father, dear friend to many, and general exemplar of integrity to all is in itself the kind of high honor to which anyone ought to aspire. It's just that one might expect members of the most exclusive club in the world to be associated with a somewhat lengthier list of specific acts of heroism, leadership, or generosity, especially if they are being widely and publicly mourned as outstanding men.

An obvious explanation for all the accolades is implied in Marshall's observation: Wellstone's decency was in itself a rare, and hence outstanding, accomplishment for a politician. But there must be more to the story--after all, politics is hardly the only profession known to attract a disproportionate share of creeps. Yet we don't see, say, CEOs of large corporations, Hollywood celebrities or rock stars receiving fulsome posthumous praise, despite a lack of notable achievements, simply for having been known to friends and family as sweet, fuzzily huggable all-around princes. Why, then, does a merely non-reptilian politician inspire such enthusiasm?

I think the answer lies in the popular mythology of (small-d) democratic politics--the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" ideal of a politician-as-ordinary-person humbly representing his fellow citizens in the halls of the powerful. CEOs and showbiz types are expected to be vain and ruthless more or less as a job requirement; but the slimeball politician, despite his ubiquity, is somehow seen as a disturbance in the natural order of things.

Perhaps this illusion is a necessary one, in order to prevent voters from losing faith in democracy altogether. (Then again, few abandon either capitalism or pop culture upon discovering its heroes' warts.) But even among those willing to recognize that the late Sen. Wellstone's principled personability and his political ineffectuality might have been related, it seems that not one of them is ready to concede that politics is no more about principle than is tycoonhood or stardom, and that it, no less than commerce or entertainment, is a vehicle by which the morally empty can still (under the right regime of constraints) play a useful role that benefits society. Instead, everyone hopes, searches, naively, desperately, for that absurd chimera: the brilliantly effective politician who's as honest, straightforward and principled as the late Paul Wellstone.

Friday, October 25, 2002

Devilishly clever monster that he is, the "beltway sniper" and his accomplice seem to have timed their actions perfectly to first mislead foolish bloggers such as myself into pegging him as a possible terrorist, then humiliate us by shifting his behavior to fit the profile of a typical none-too-bright, rather disorganized lone nutbar. (Oddly enough, some bloggers, including Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, are still seeing hints of terrorism in the latest developments. We can only hope, I suppose, that all terrorist organizations are clueless enough to leave incoherent notes for the authorities, telephone them repeatedly with hints about their identities, and demand that $10 million be credited to their credit cards. Kudos to Susanna Cornett for her prescient early analysis.)

Still, the entire episode contains important lessons about terrorism and the best way to respond to it. After all, if a couple of lunatics could severely disrupt the entire capital region with a few random murders, what could a well-organized terrorist campaign do? And why were the public so terrified--terrorized, if you will--by a fairly small-scale random crime spree?

Two Washington Post opinion pieces published at the hight of the hysteria, by Paul Appelbaum and, earlier, by Marjorie Williams, argued that the extreme public fear stemmed from the lack of a clear pattern that can allow people to reduce (or simply to tell themselves they're reducing) their risk by taking certain precautions. "This killer seems especially frightening for his apparent determination to mirror, in the randomness of his acts, the brute impartiality of death itself," writes Williams. "This worse than most because of the unpredictability of the threat," writes Appelbaum.

No doubt that's part of the story. But unpredictable dangers--lethal diseases, freak accidents, or outbursts of violence--are hardly unfamiliar, and many of them (and certainly all of them together) are no rarer or more escapable than the DC sniper. Indeed, they are often less so; there was in fact a fairly established pattern of behavior on the sniper's part that suggested some obvious techniques for minimizing one's risk of becoming his next victim. What was particularly disturbing about the sniper, I believe, was that the mystery of his motive implied an open-endedness about the scale of the danger that he (or his kind) posed. Had he been known to be a typical psychotic, homicidally disgruntled crackpot, serial killer or even terrorist, DC-area suburbanites would have had some idea of the expected scale, frequency and targets of his actions; these are by now well-studied types whose behavior we can at least measure and assess, even if we can't understand (much less predict) it. But the cold-blooded distance-killers in this case seemed more like a new, previously undiscovered disease, with an unknown etiology--and no one had any idea how bad the epidemic could eventually get. How long would he continue? Would he ever get caught? Would there be copycats, and if so, how many? Would the danger spread elsewhere, or to other targets?

The optimistic flip-side of this observation is that as time goes on, and a fairly clear pattern of events emerges, with the killer either being captured, discontinuing his attacks, or continuing them at a constant or diminishing rate, such dangers eventually pass into the realm of estimable risks, and the anxiety they trigger thus declines. (Think of the case of Israel, where far worse atrocities occur regularly, with far less public reaction--indeed, often virtually no reaction at all, as one Israeli blogger recently reported.) Thus, though the mood of terror gripping the capital region may have been intense during the snipers' rampage, it is unlikely that a similar sequence of attacks will ever again have such a paralyzing effect. In fact, terrorism in general seems to suffer from this fundamental flaw--that societies inevitably develop a tolerance for shock, and more and more extreme (and thus difficult and dangerous) acts of violence are thus necessary to effect the intended level of fear and despair.

If this analysis is correct, then the DC-area and federal authorities may have erred by keeping such a tight lid on the details of their investigation. The existence and contents of multiple tarot-card messages, for example, may have frightened the public further had they been revealed; but they might also have, by creating a kind of public "profile" of the killer, contributed to a general sense of his knowability, even predictability, and thus dispelled some of the more open-ended scenarios (numerous co-ordinated terrorist cells, for instance) that contributed greatly to the public's fear. Should another serious terrorist attack (God forbid) occur, the authorities may want to keep this effect in mind, as they consider what to reveal about their investigation.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Life imitates comedy...

"I began using the date rape drug Rohypnol. I took it twenty times. I didn't know you were supposed to give it to the woman."
--From "The Autobiography of Larry Sanders", by Garry Shandling and David Rensin (quoted in Salon)

"Actor Nick Nolte was driving under the influence of the date-rape drug GHB when he was arrested last month, dazed and drooling, behind the wheel of his automobile, prosecutors charged today."

Friday, October 18, 2002

It is not particularly shocking (pace some bloggers) that the New York Times would publish an opinion piece by Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. After all, the op-ed page is meant to provide a forum for a variety of viewpoints, including, especially, those not normally given voice in the rest of the newspaper. Nor is it surprising that Ambassador Aldouri would complain that "[f]or more than 11 years, the people of Iraq have suffered under United Nations economic sanctions, which have been kept in place largely by American influence," and that "no American political figure has been seriously interested in discussing these matters with our government."

But consider for a moment how the Times reacted this past May, when Canadian political science professor Anne Bayefsky submitted an opinion piece on the UN's human rights activities. According to Prof. Bayefsky, the piece was accepted only on the condition "that [its] dynamic be significantly altered", and that numerous passages be deleted. After "six new drafts, four additional drafts with smaller changes and corrections, seven drafts from the editors and 6 hours of editing by telephone", the op-ed was finally published; excised were passages in the original that noted the membership of "some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria" in the UN Human Rights Commission, and the failure of that organization to take action regarding human rights violations in China, Syria or Iran.

Now, we don't know how ruthlessly Ambassador Aldouri's writing was edited prior to publication, and it is in any event entirely the Times' prerogative to control the contents of its newspaper as it pleases. However, we are also entitled to judge the Times based on its choices, and we should note that the Gray Lady is happy to publish criticism of American influence at the UN--but not of Cuban, Saudi or Syrian influence there; and of the failure of American officials to embrace the Iraqi government--but not of the failure of UN officials to embrace victims of Chinese or Syrian repression. Such decisions are simply incompatible with a spirit of diversity of opinion, and are extremely difficult to explain without positing a deliberate effort on the Times' part to protect and indulge several of the most brutal, murderous dictatorships on the face of the earth.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

First of all, there was the timing: in concert, it seemed, with a sudden, deadly outburst of Al Qaida terrorist activity. Then there was the methodology: a strange combination of lone-nutbar tactics (cheesy, taunting warnings), extraordinary high-tech skill, and such meticulous planning and care that virtually no usefully traceable evidence has been found to date. And then there was the choice of victims: though all of Washington, DC was terrorized, the death toll was actually very small--a few random, unlucky souls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And none of it fit any of the standard patterns: too impersonal for a typical serial killer; too indiscriminate for a revenge killer or a fanatic with an agenda; and too ineffective for a terrorist cell, which could no doubt easily cause far greater damage and mayhem--if those were really its goals--given the deadly techniques and skill levels it had displayed. It's no wonder, then, that although the FBI's primary hypothesis continues to characterize the perpetrator as a lone American-born male with a military background that provided him with the requisite skills, no solid evidence--let alone a culprit--has turned up to confirm or even support this guess.

I am referring, of course, to last fall's anthrax mailings. And one of the most conspicuous features of that spate of attacks, it should be recalled, was that it ended as quickly as it began--again, not fitting any of the typical patterns of a psychopath, domestic radical or foreign-based terrorist. I have a sneaking suspicion that the DC sniper will also suddenly halt his activities (if he hasn't already, now that the heat is on) and disappear without a trace. If so, then perhaps it is time to consider a new hypothesis: that some terrorist organization has decided to cheaply and anonymously generate periodic panics, rather than massive casualty counts.

The obvious next questions: "who?", and "why?"

Saturday, October 12, 2002

When Instapundit Glenn Reynolds agrees with the New York Times editorial page, something funny is surely afoot. In this case, both are encouraging the Supreme Court to overturn--on Constitutional grounds, mind you--a 1998 law extending the duration of copyrights by an additional twenty years after the creator's death. Their argument is that the Constitution's language empowers Congress to set copyright law for "limited times", in order "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts", and that extending copyrights on existing works cuts undercuts both of these expressed intentions, by threatening to make copyright terms indefinite, and rewarding creators long after they have ceased to be able to respond to the increased incentive.

Now, I sympathize with these arguments, and freely concede that copyright protections might deserve some weakening, particularly with respect to duration. (Patents only get twenty years, after all.) But deciding the correct length of copyright terms is a matter of balancing the benefits to society from rewarding creators against those that the public garners by having free (or freer) access to their work. Gauging that balance is exactly the kind of public policy question that the courts are completely unqualified to decide, and should leave to the democratic process, in all its imperfect glory, to work out for itself. Sadly, the judiciary's hubris with respect to judging what's good for the public knows no bounds these days, and I have no confidence that the Supreme Court will exercise any uncharacteristic restraint in this case.

Monday, October 07, 2002

In Slate, Robert Weintraub claims that football quarterback-turned-commentator Boomer Esiason's stint on Monday Night Football in 1998-99 "was undercut by a frosty relationship with Al Michaels, major domo of MNF", who "froze out the cocky Esiason early in their tenure together". But, says, Weintraub, things are much better now that Esiason is working with Marv Albert, who has the "ability to elicit the best out of whomever he is partnered with" (although not with his teeth this time, presumably).

Imagine--someone teaming up with Marv Albert as a way to avoid backbiting....

Sunday, October 06, 2002

A postscript to my previous posting: According to the New York Times, the New Jersey court system had already granted Toricelli's (and now Lautenberg's) Republican opponent, Douglas Forrester, an exemption a few months ago from the same law that the Supreme Court ignored in allowing Lautenberg to replace Torricelli. Partisan Democrats like Mark Kleiman and Joshua Micah Marshall are waving this discovery as a victory banner, and it's certainly highly likely that the matter is now closed as a political issue. But as an actual defense of the court's behavior, the comparison is a pure "tu quoque" argument of no exculpatory value; interfering with the electoral process to grant injunctions in flagrant violation of state law is more--not less--outrageous if the court has actually done so twice rather than once.

The argument does, however, neatly illustrate the crucial interplay between ruthless partisanship and the erosion of democracy. The first time the New Jersey court rewrote the election statute, there was no significant outcry, presumably because the Republicans involved preferred to downplay an intraparty squabble rather than stand firm on a matter of principle. (Or perhaps, like so many Americans, they had simply been too inured by decades of judicial overreaching even to notice the shame of it anymore.) And the second time, when interests in the outcome split along party lines, most of those on the "victorious" side thought nothing of accepting (even glorying in) a partisan victory at the expense of repect for duly enacted legislation. Just as war results when at least one side of a conflict values victory over peace, democracy flounders when at least one powerful partisan faction values victory over the preservation of the democratic process.

One of the few silver linings of Bush v. Gore was seeing some of my good progressive friends, raised from birth on liberal torturings of the Constitution and steeped in the belief that the judiciary is morally superior to the elected branches of government, suddenly feel a twinge of doubt creep into their blind faith in the Supreme Court. Sadly, that feeling vanished just about as quickly as it arose. In fact, the greater long-term effect seems to have been to further whet the appetites of conservatives; having long cultivated a bitter disdain for the activist judiciary as a decadent redoubt of rigid liberalism, they've now had a glimpse of what a few arrogant, dictatorial justices can do for them, and--wouldn't you know--they rather like it.

The result can be seen in a Washington Post "man in the street" piece which, says Joshua Micah Marshall, proves that "everyone but hardcore Republicans seems fine with" the New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling. In fact, the article portrays intensely cynical voters playing their appointed parts in the partisan charade: among Republicans, the article reports, "outrage was extreme", while "Democrats said overwhelmingly that they're so relieved to be rid of Torricelli that it cancels out their reservations on how it occurred." Is there any reason to believe that my scenario of a Supreme Court exploiting partisan divisions in the elected branches to seize control of its own succession would play out any differently?

Friday, October 04, 2002

The most appalling thing about the recent ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court is how few people are appalled anymore when a court runs roughshod over the law. The New York Times was predictably satisfied with the ruling, in which the court interpreted the phrase, "not later than the 51st day before the election" in the New Jersey election statute to mean, "later than the 51st day before the election, if we feel like it", because "the greater need was to ensure 'full and fair ballot choice for the voters of New Jersey.'" (As Robert Hochmann pointed out in the Weekly Standard, the Times' notion of a "full and fair ballot choice" apparently includes a special slot on the ballot for a candidate to be selected by the New Jersey State Democratic Party leadership, irrespective of the state primary result; for that is what the ruling granted.) Joshua Micah Marshall termed it "a liberal, though not unreasonable, construction of the statute"--even as he dropped sarcastic comments about the travesty that was Bush v. Gore. (In other words, when judging judges, it all depends whose Bush is Gored.) The folks at The American Prospect's blog, Tapped, bought the court's supposed legal reasoning as well. The New Republic's blog conceded in passing that the ruling arguably "violates some cherished abstract principle like rule of law", but chose to concentrate instead on its practical harmlessness as a legal precedent. The most dignified response I've seen from a partisan Democrat is (perhaps unsurprisingly) that of Mark Kleiman, who noted with some discomfort that "the decision doesn't even pretend to interpret the statute", but otherwise accepted the good tidings philosophically, invoking Bush v. Gore and in effect saying, "this is the way we live now".

But even among those who disagree with the ruling, a shocking (but perhaps entirely predictable) number are treating the case not as a flagrant abuse of judicial authority, but rather as an incorrect, unwise, and possibly corrupt use of a legitimate judicial responsibility. Hochmann, for instance, feels compelled to argue that "the decision threatens to poison our electoral politics with last-minute manipulations", as if it would have been a completely legitimate overruling of the statute, but for the potentially unpleasant outcomes that render it dangerous. Eugene Volokh (a lawyer and a libertarian, to be sure, and hence entirely untrustworthy as a defender of democracy) even concedes that the court's "odd interpretation of the statute" was "not an utterly ridiculous one", and then constructs a long hypothetical meant to prove that the decision was nevertheless not necessarily a wise court's best option. All of this is a disturbing echo of the 2000 presidential election, in which Republicans burned by the Florida Supreme Court ran around talking about the sacredness of machine counts and appealing to the Supreme Court on completely implausible Constitutional grounds--happily jumping into the same jurisprudential mud that the Democrats had sullied themselves with--instead of defending the orderly functioning of the electoral process (as far as the House of Representatives, if necessary) unimpeded by the irresponsible meddling of power-mad judges.

Granted, there have been some voices (such as John Fund's, in the Wall Street Journal) willing to attack the judicialization of elections head-on. More typical, though, is a kind of cynical resignation, such as Robert Alt's in the National Review: "I know that it is too much to ask the court to actually apply the law, but....I expect judges to pretend that they are interpreting a statute, even if what they are really doing is rewriting it." (Alt also goes on to argue for the wisdom of the New Jersey statute's 51st-day deadline--again, as if the court would have been entitled to overturn an unwise one--and to suggest some potential legal justifications for a federal Supreme Court reversal.)

I take back everything I said about the elected branches of the US government being content to exercise their power vicariously, through their judicial selections. The situation is actually much worse: the day may not be far off when a president and Senate of the same party attempt to ram through a controversial judicial appointment, and the Supreme Court simply overrules their nomination, holding the vacancy open until such time as the executive and legislative branches are willing to do the Court's bidding and select a replacement deemed acceptable to it. Think about it--the outrage would most probably be brief, limited to whichever party deemed itself the "loser", and followed by the same muttering capitulation that we see today each time the courts take yet another step beyond the previous boundaries of their usurped powers. The long process of dismantling American democracy, and replacing it with pure judicial authoritarianism, would then, at last, be complete.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

ANKARA (ICBW) - A canister intercepted near the Turkish border with Iraq, and originally believed to contain more than 33 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, has been discovered to be a souvenir paperweight.

Turkish customs officials were at first alarmed when they shook the roughly egg-shaped container and observed the tell-tale "blizzard" effect displayed only by highly radioactive nuclear bomb raw materials and inexpensive "tchotchkes".

Inspectors' suspicions were further aroused by what they termed the "transparently false" shipping label on the object, believed to have originated in one of the former Soviet republics, despite the "Niagara Falls, Canada" inscription along the bottom.

When asked to explain the smiling Mountie figurine at the center of the clear plastic ovoid, officials shrugged and replied, "surely we're not the first people to wonder about the composition of that white stuff that seems able to snow over and over again inside these things."