The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Establishing the Tea Party's Anger

The Old Guard Is Frustrated by the Growing Reality That They Are No Longer the Ones in Charge

Critics of President Obama – not limited to but most certainly exemplified by Tea Partiers – insist they represent a genuine grassroots movement among the American mainstream fed up with what they describe as “socialist big government.” Some liberals question the movement’s wholesomeness in rejoinder. They point to different incidents at conservative gatherings or remarks by conservative orators which they feel smack of racism. Conservatives respond that liberals are playing the race card in desperation from the unpopularity of their policies.

I do not believe Obama’s critics are racist, certainly not in the sense of the vicious and sadistic congenital racism of the segregated Old South. At the same time, I am equally skeptical that the very real anger driving some conservatives is limited to disagreement with Democratic economic and social polices or even apprehension over record deficits. Something else is at play.

Two surveys conducted in April by POLITICO/TargetPoint and the Pew Research Group attempted to define demographics for the discontented. Both found that those who considered themselves Tea Party members or sympathizers were more likely to be older, white, college educated, affluent, male, married, and (disaffected) Republican than Americans in general. These factors do not say “racist” to me. Instead, they depict the individuals who once ran this country with unquestioned authority – what youthful protestors sometimes called “the Establishment” in the rebellious 1960s.

In his seminal work The Protestant Establishment, academic E. Digby Baltzell, coiner of the acronym “WASP,” warned as early as 1964, “A crisis has developed in modern America largely because of the . . . Establishment's unwillingness or inability to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks.”

This flaw appears to have returned to haunt them in Obama’s America. It is not simply that the United States has become more populous and diverse; those most enjoying the new wealth generated in the 1980s and 1990s – and the power, prestige, and influence associated with it – are more diverse as well.

Eighty-three percent of our nation’s population growth last decade came from non-whites. Nearly one out of four Americans under age eighteen have at least one immigrant parent. A survey by Pew Research found only twenty-one percent of Protestant Establishment families have incomes over $100,000, compared with forty-six percent for Jewish families and forty-two percent for Hindus.

Pew also documents the percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped to fifty-five percent from seventy-four percent in 1961. And, of course, Protestant representation is about to drop to zero percent on the U.S. Supreme Court if Elena Kagan is confirmed.

“The fact that we're going to zero Protestants in the Court may not be as significant as the fact that her appointment perfectly reflects the decline of the Establishment,” remarks David Campbell, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising to see growing distrust in government and other powerful institutions from a constituency wider than just the Tea Party. Likewise, it is unsurprising that a faction from within all conservatives would target that distrust with particular vehemence against Obama.

The POLITICO survey found the common thread tying all discontents together is anger over what they see as excessive government intrusion into personal lives. “I’ve never liked having to ask permission to do anything,” declared one Tea Party attendee. “I stayed within the rules of the law, treated society right and the government’s intruding more and more and more.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues this perceived disconnect between effort and reward is deep at the roots of anger for many in the Establishment. Brooks posits that for many years, the Establishment was satisfied because it believed “America is fundamentally a just society . . . people who work hard can usually overcome whatever unfairness is thrust in their way.”

Brooks argues the Establishment’s confidence was shaken when its members saw “People in Congress were caught up in a spoils system in which money was taken from those who worked and given to those with connections. Money was taken from those who produced and used to bail out the reckless.”

Francis Cianfrocca, a noted conservative financial commentator, believes the true focus of Tea Party anger is about “primarily government corruption, more than anything else. It is less a revolt about the bigness of government than it is about the wrongness of government.”

Ben Domenech, Editor-In-Chief of the conservative New Ledger, takes this mindset a step further. “These are normal people, pragmatic voters polarized by Obama’s domestic policies, and fed up with what’s happening in Washington . . . They think the government is a childish bully – that it doesn’t work, thinks it knows what’s best, and that it’s stealing from them to boss them around more.”

Such a mindset is hardly surprising from a group that no longer recognizes itself in powerful institutions. The old Establishment was surely never so naïve to believe that Wall Street and the Beltway were ever entirely free from corruption. Yet whether blue blood bankers or blue collar workers, they could go to sleep each night know that those who held power not only looked like them but also shared much of the same educations, experiences, and values as themselves.

Their contemporaries no longer recognize this connection. Tea Partiers and their sympathizers see themselves squeezed between undeserving lower class poor, especially illegal immigrants, on one side and meritocratic but out-of-touch intellectual elites on the other side.

Railing against immigrant poor is nothing new – the Establishment has been doing this since our nation’s founding. The fear and anger comes when globalization results in leaders of government, corporations, and labor unions whom the Establishment does not trust to place their interests first (i.e. some animals are no longer created more equal than others).

I do not mean to suggest that this is the single, driving catalyst behind Obama’s critics or that reasons cited by them for their anger with government are totally without merit. However, I do feel a disconnect from power, combined with the realization their glory days are not returning anytime soon, exacerbates their discontent with nearly all aspects of modern America.

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey suggests future political conflicts are likely between those regions of the country growing in population, diversity, and educational attainment versus those in decline. However, the survey also predicts conflicts between younger versus aging populations, even within growth areas.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek posits the Tea Party occasionally runs into trouble, such as eliciting charges of racism, because it driven more by emotional resentment than a logical political ideology. He writes its rapid rise to prominence comes from “a seething anti-federal message – that Washington is spending too much, controlling too much, and taxing too much, and is doing it Unconstitutionally.”

Fineman argues that what Tea Partiers forget in their zeal is the repeatedly proven importance of a strong federal government as the protector of individual rights and freedoms. When it applies its anti-federal message here – such as newly minted Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul questioning the intrusiveness of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – it opens the door to easy demonizing by liberals.

For all their intensity and momentum, some fear recent movements of dissent are already doomed to failure, in terms of bringing about lasting change.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of the liberal groundswell that brought Obama to power, “Look through these anti-Establishment theatrics to the deep structures of political and economic power and suddenly the surge of populism feels like so much sound and fury . . . . The economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of [those] that presided over the disasters in the first place . . . And all the legislation we’ve passed, has only strengthened the symbiosis.”

Brooks holds the same pessimism for the conservative counter-reaction to Obama. “[It’s] going to find that the outsiders [it] sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. [It’s] going to find that [it] unwittingly [helped] create a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.”

Brooks’s worries are likely correct. Republicans may win back Congress in 2010 and/or the White House in 2012 but the growing diversity among those holding power as well as making up the bulk of the electorate is fundamental, widespread, and permanent. The once mighty Establishment will never again enjoy the influence it experienced during our country’s first two hundred years because it will never again represent the majority of Americans.

Tea Partiers, much like the Establishment before them, often regard themselves as the only “real” Americans. They bewail the loss of U.S. wealth, prestige, and power within the world as the beginning of the end for our nation. They might want to consider that one reason for the decline of other historic democracies was their need to dominate and reign, rather than simply to co-exist and endure.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Argument from Ignorance

Senator Sessions Should Consider the Evidence Against Himself Before Damning the Lack of Evidence Supporting Kagan

A man is sitting inside a warehouse that has a tin roof and no windows. Tin roofs are notorious for making lots of noise inside a building when it rains outside. The main in the warehouse cannot see outside, so he cannot tell directly if it is raining at a given time. But he can infer it indirectly, using, for example, the following argument – If it were raining now, I would know it by the noise. However, I do not hear any noise. Therefore, it is not raining now.

So begins the book Arguments from Ignorance by Douglas Walton, published in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The hypothetical example above is an example of an argument from ignorance – a logical fallacy in which an individual claims a premise is proven true only because it has not been proved false or proven false only because it has not been proved true. Such reasoning often provides useful heuristics in uncertain situations. However, as Walton points out, this very reasonableness is exactly what makes arguments from ignorance so dangerous when applied as definitive substantiation.

“Such an argument might discourage us from proceeding to look for positive evidence to prove a hypothesis. Even worse, it might be used to deflect criticism away from one’s failure to provide such positive justification for a claim one has made. The requirement for fulfilling the burden of proof for a claim one has made is a fundamental principle of argument.”

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, stands charged with providing advice and consent on President Obama’s choice of Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court Justice over the next several months. This will likely prove troublesome for me, as Sessions is clearly a man sitting in a warehouse with a tin roof, listening with a tin ear.

If convention wisdom is correct, the GOP will not filibuster Kagan. Instead, it will attempt to make as much political hay as possible by criticizing Kagan’s controversial decision while Dean of Harvard Law School to bar military recruiters on campus over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and then confirm her.

Republicans failed at using the recruitment affair to derail Kagan’s confirmation as U.S. Solicitor General last year. However, Session’s colleague, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, explains the gravity of a lifetime federal judicial appointment sets a higher standard than that for a temporary political appointee. In fact, Inhofe takes it a step further. “If I believe someone is not qualified for a lower position, like a district level, how could that person be qualified for the United States Supreme Court? I don't think they could. The bar has to go up as you go up the courts.”

Now comes the part where Sessions enters the tin-roofed warehouse. His initial reaction to Kagan’s nomination was to release a statement that read, “Ms. Kagan’s lack of judicial experience and short time as Solicitor General, arguing just six cases before the Court, is troubling.” He fears what he does not know about her will end up hurting the nation. “What record does she have to demonstrate that she has been able to put aside her strongly held political views?” Session asks.

Since her lack of a record makes it impossible for Kagan to disprove she is a radical judicial activist, intent on gutting the Constitution, Session equates this to proving it is exactly what she intends to do. Her personal testimony is insufficient to allay his fear. After meeting privately with Kagan, Sessions told reporters, “I did ask her . . . She indicated she would be faithful to the law but of course every nominee says that.”

Interestingly, when former President Bush nominated Harriet Miers, his White House Counsel, for a Supreme Court vacancy in 2005, Sessions had no qualms with her lack of a judicial record. He released a statement the including the following – “It is not necessary that [Miers] have previous experience as a judge in order to serve on the Supreme Court. It’s perfectly acceptable to nominate outstanding lawyers to that position.”

Granted, Miers’s experience was mostly practical whereas Kagan’s has been primarily academic. Still, it is unclear why practitioners gain such increased competence and trustworthiness over those who gave them the knowledge and background to practice in the first place. The real problem in Sessions’s mind is probably the lack of an audit trail.

Sessions knows firsthand how dangerous audit trails can be. In 1985, he was serving as a U.S. Attorney when former President Reagan nominated him to be a federal district judge. Sessions had the backing of Republican Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama but hit a snag during his confirmation hearings, when four fellow Department of Justice lawyers all testified that he had made various racist statements.

One lawyer, J. Gerald Hebert, testified that Sessions had referred to the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” He said Sessions also called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases. Herbert said the incidents he described were not isolated, characterizing Sessions as tending to “pop off” on such topics frequently.

Thomas Figures, an African-American Assistant U.S. Attorney who worked under Sessions, testified that Sessions said he “used to think [the Ku Klux Klan] were okay” until he found out some of them smoked pot. He further testified Sessions once forcefully remarked, “I wish I could decline on all” civil rights cases. Figures said that Sessions routinely referred to him as “boy” and once warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks” after he overhead Figures reprimand a secretary.

Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Figures if he had ever voiced objections to Sessions over his behavior. Figures replied, “Senator, I felt that if I had said anything or reacted in a manner in which I thought appropriate, I would be fired. I always felt that my position was very tentative around Mr. Sessions.” Then he added, “In all fairness to Mr. Sessions, however, I should make clear that the problems which existed in the area of civil rights were not present in other aspects of my case assignments.”

When it came his turn to testify, Sessions denied he was a racist. “I'm often loose with my tongue,” he admitted but insisted he was joking or misunderstood in the instances cited. Then he went on to say that the NAACP and ACLU could be construed as un-American when “they involve themselves in promoting un-American positions” in foreign policy. And he stood behind a statement he once made describing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a “piece of intrusive legislation.”

The Judiciary Committee ultimately voted ten to eight not to recommend Sessions and then voted nine to nine not to send his name to the Senate floor for a vote without a recommendation. Sessions was only the second nominee to the federal judiciary in forty-eight years whose nomination died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Reagan had already received confirmation on over two hundred other equally conservative judicial candidates.

Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the Judiciary Committee by two votes but Republican Senators Charles Mathias of Maryland and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania crossed over. Also voting against Sessions was Democratic Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama. Heflin had initially backed his fellow Alabaman but concluded Sessions’s ability to be fair and impartial was distinctly suspect, at least for civil rights cases. “My duty to the justice system is greater than any duty to any one individual,” said Heflin.

Sessions went on to become Attorney General of Alabama and ultimately won Heflin’s Senate seat upon his retirement. These were positions, unlike a judgeship, for which he only had to demonstrate popularity rather than competence. He eventually won a place on the Judiciary Committee, alongside some of the same Senators who had voted against him. With typical understatement, Sessions called that a “great irony.”

When turned down by the Senate, Sessions expressed the opinion that politicians were occasionally insensitive to the rights and reputation of judicial nominees. This has not kept him from voting “nay” on at least one judgeship nomination, in both the Judiciary Committee and on the floor for every year since he has been in the Senate. He has been particularly tough on nominees for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which he labels “the furthest-left [court] in the American judiciary.”

Sessions will get to ask his questions about Kagan but I have some questions of my own. If the lack of definitive evidence in Kagan’s favor as a fair judge is so damning, what to make of the overwhelming evidence condemning Sessions’s own fairness? Furthermore, to borrow from Senator Inhofe, how is Sessions qualified to conclude that Kagan is fit to be a Supreme Court Justice when his fellow Senators once found him unfit to be a federal district judge – you know, the one with a lower bar?

Sessions will get to ask his questions and then make his arguments against Kagan. However, for those of us capable of thinking outside the warehouse, any argument from Sessions about this or anything else is bound to be an argument from ignorance.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Leaves No Wake

Kagan Is Qualified And No Radical But an “Organization Justice” Is Not Going to Cut It

President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court comes as no great surprise. Always a leading candidate, if not the prohibitive frontrunner, many believe the Obama Administration has been grooming her for such an opportunity since taking office.

Kagan combines two aspects necessary for successful confirmation by the Senate. First, she has a relatively thin paper trail. Second, her current position proves she can pass the confirmation process – the Senate confirmed her as Solicitor General by a vote of sixty-one to thirty-one, including seven Republican votes.

Virtually all of her former and current colleagues like and respect Kagan for her intellectual brilliance as well as her willingness to engage in dialogue. Almost everyone agrees her confirmation is a foregone conclusion. Democrats still control the Senate with fifty-nine votes and Republicans show no appetite to filibuster her.

In spite of this, senior political analyst Howard Fineman of Newsweek predicts Obama and Kagan can expect to hear Republican opposition “far nastier than the relatively polite treatment accorded Sonia Sotomayor last year.” As proof, he cites the following initial reaction from the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – “A third of the Senate said just last year that she wasn’t qualified to argue in front of the Court, much less sit on it.”

Edward Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former clerk to Justice Scalia, sums up the Republicans’ arguments against Kagan.

“[Kagan will] rubber-stamp [Obama’s] massive effort to transform the relationship between government and the American people and continue the liberal judicial activist project of inventing Constitutional rights that entrench the policy positions of the left,” accuses Whelan.

Charges of radical extremism are as likely to fall as flat against Kagan for Republicans as they did against Sotomayor. The far left has criticized Kagan’s selection with equal vociferousness because they feel she is too conservative, pointing to a series of positions she has taken arguing on behalf of the Obama Administration before the Court. In fairness, Eva Rodriguez of the Washington Post points out, “Kagan's work as Solicitor General should be critiqued on the quality of the argument and the integrity of the legal reasoning and not as a glimpse into her own legal psyche.”

“Just as surgical experience provides the best training for being a master surgeon, judicial experience provides the best training for being a Supreme Court Justice – at least, that is, if one were looking for Justices who are adept at interpreting the law dispassionately rather than imposing their own subjective sense of empathy,” continues Whelan.

For every critic of Kagan’s lack of judicial experience, other observers tout it as a benefit, arguing she will help to shake up a Court whose other eight Justices are all products of the federal appellate system.

History certainly suggests that lacking judicial experience is not a fatal flaw. Highly respected Justices, such as Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, Robert Jackson, Felix Frankfurter, and Joseph Story had no judicial backgrounds prior to their elevations. The same is true of several famous Chief Justices, including William Rehnquist, Earl Warren, Harlan Stone, Roger Taney, and even John Marshall – the man who literally defined the Court’s role as ensuring adherence to the Constitution.

Republicans bemoaning Kagan’s lack of judicial experience have nobody but themselves to blame. Late in his second term, former President Clinton nominated Kagan for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee stalled in order to give the pick to incoming President Bush and Kagan never got an up-or-down vote.

“[How could anyone not] look askance at kicking military recruiters off a college campus while U.S. soldiers are risking their lives abroad to defend us,” demands Whelan. Kagan did just that while Dean of the Harvard Law School, citing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as discriminatory.

As Clive Crook details in The Atlantic, Kagan’s “position was more moderate and above all more pragmatic than the bare facts might suggest.” Robert Clark, Kagan’s predecessor at Harvard, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal defending her decision, explaining Kagan “basically followed a [university] strategy toward military recruiting that was in place [since 1979].”

Replies received by the latter piece suggest many in America’s heartland beyond fervent Tea Partiers sympathize with Republicans on this matter. One typical response in disagreement with Clark stated, “It's a crying shame the military can't simply tell Harvard to defend itself the next time American freedom is threatened and young Americans are called to fight and die to defend Harvard's arrogance. Despicable elitism.”

“It is difficult to see how Elena Kagan's career in the elite world of legal academia could be further removed from the real-life experiences of most Americans,” agrees Wheelan. Perhaps most interesting about this line of attack is that if Kagan could be more easily portrayed as empathetic to “real” Americans, conservatives would have attacked her on this basis as well.

Yet their complaints cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Beyond her gender, Kagan brings little in diversity to the Court, an observation made by both Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post as well as Jonathan Turley, Professor of Law at George Washington University, in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. Like her prospective female colleagues, Ginsberg and Sotomayor, Kagan was born and raised in a New York City neighborhood. Moreover, as with all of the other Justices, she is a product of the Ivy League.

However, perhaps the most telling critique against Kagan is that, even lacking a judicial record, she has managed to rise so far and so rapidly to widespread acclaim with almost no indication of her values, beliefs, and ideas. Next to her, Obama – also frequently accused with the sin of enigma – seems like an open book.

“Whether by ambitious design or by habit of mind,” notes a New York Times editorial, “Ms. Kagan has spent decades carefully husbanding her thoughts and shielding her philosophy from view” and hopes that Senators grilling her will force Kagan to “open up a little.”

The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson ups the ante. “The most prominent thing about Kagan is her extraordinary ability, while holding high-profile jobs in the legal profession, to say nothing on the major issues of the day . . . Kagan has been a leader in the field of law without having a distinctive legal voice. She has been a leader in academia without having left a discernible academic mark.”

David Brooks says that Kagan reminds him of a type of over-achiever that he dubs “Organization Kids.” The problem with these people, Brooks frets, is that they “often have a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They are not intellectual risk-takers . . . They are prudential rather than poetic.” Brooks finds such tendencies to be “kind of disturbing.”

When I was young Manager at my former employer, many years ago, I worked for a Director who had been with the company for many years and risen through the ranks to his current position. It had just been announced that our area was coming under the control of a new Vice-President. This man came to our company with a sterling resume at the executive level and had already headed up several different areas over a short time.

I asked my boss his opinion of our new VP. My boss was a would-be sailor, fond of sailing analogies. He smiled, shrugged, and said, “Moves fast and leaves no wake.”

In a dialogue with another pundit, Brooks conceded, “My own view of Kagan is that she’ll probably be a very good Justice, and is almost certainly the sort of open-minded pragmatist I would like to see on the Court.” My guess is that she will be a fine Justice as well but I think the Court needs more than just this.

As I posted last month, an intellect and courage capable of standing up to the Court’s conservative faction is far more important in any successor to Justice Stevens than matching or exceeding his liberal ideology. By all accounts, Kagan has the tools to do this but it remains unclear whether she will finally allow herself to act on her inner jurisprudence as much as exactly what those principles entail.

Her episode with the military at Harvard suggests she is not afraid to be controversial but even in this case, she allowed the waves from the initial splash she made to quickly flow away. The Court needs a passionate advocate, not an instigator, to counter the force of Roberts and Scalia. I fear my former boss would label Kagan “leaves no wake.”

The Court faces too many serious challenges in the coming years for this to be good enough. An “Organization Justice” is not going to cut it. Whatever sort of Justice she is going to be, Kagan needs to be more of it than she has been to date.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jihads and Mortgages

Emerging Information About the Times Square Bomber Demonstrates the Limits of a Purely Military Response to Terrorism

In some ways, Faisal Shahzad very much fits the profile of what many Americans envision when they hear the word “terrorist.” Of Pakistani descent, Shahzad was a Muslim who had traveled back to his native country multiple times, where he apparently learned the art of bomb making from the Pakistani Taliban. Ultimately, he drove an SUV rigged with explosives into New York City’s Times Square with the intention of detonating it there to harm innocent civilians.

On the other hand, Shahzad was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had chosen the United States for his education and employment. The child of affluent middle-class parents back in Pakistan, he rose to the same economic class in this country, once owning a house in the suburbs worth over a quarter of a million dollars. He was married with two small children. He worked in the heart of the capitalist corporate world.

Both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder characterize Shahzad as part of a “terrorist plot” and say he attempted to commit a “terrorist act.” At the same time, Obama pledged, “As Americans and as a nation, we will not be terrorized. We will not cower in fear, we will not be intimidated. We will be vigilant and we will protect and defend the country we love.”

Most political observers took this to mean American would not repeat the national security buildup that followed September 11. It was a condemnation of those supporting violence to bring about political change rather than criticism of Islam. “We will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers,” agreed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Authorities responded to the attempted Times Square bombing about as well as anyone possibly could – proving, once again, that viewing terrorism exclusively in a military context is wrong. It's a police matter, too . . . So maybe this will silence those who scream ‘military tribunal’ after every domestic terrorist attempt,” fumed Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post.

Well, no.

Many refuse to see anything other than the former side of Shahzad. They see it as proof that America is under attack by radical Islam and must respond to it solely through military means. They view those who even acknowledges the latter side of Shahzad as apologists, deniers, and soft on national defense.

The fact is that while forces moved Shahzad to attempt a monstrous crime, there was little about him that suggested a monster. He was the poster child for the type of U.S. citizen who was never a radical but becomes a targeted convert for radicals; one who would do their dirty work for them.

Shahzad attended Southeastern University in Washington D.C. and, later, the University of Bridgeport Connecticut. He earned a B.A. in computer science and engineering and then an M.B.A. in 2005. Upon graduation, he entered the corporate world, working as an accountant for Elizabeth Arden and a financial analyst for Affinion Group.

Shahzad met and married his wife, a U.S. citizen born in Colorado of Pakistani heritage, who held an accounting degree. The U.S. government granted him a green card in January 2006. Shahzad bought a two-story colonial home in a suburban neighborhood of Shelton Connecticut in 2004. It cost $273,000 and he paid twenty percent down on it. He became a U.S. citizen in April 2009.

U.S. Immigration officials report “no derogatory information” on Shahzad in any databases – no ties to Islamic radicals or terrorist organizations, no violent outbursts, no tirades against U.S. imperialism or Western decadence. Everyone from former teachers to neighbors to co-workers uniformly regarded Shahzad as a quiet, ordinary, unimpressive person.

The sole potential red flag comes from a real estate broker who said Shahzad once talked about former President Bush and the U.S. war in Iraq with unusual vehemence.

Like many Western terrorist recruits, Shahzad was a product of two cultures who felt he did not belong to either. Globalization, particularly enhanced communication through the Internet and other media, makes the assimilation of immigrants more difficult than in the past.

What is more, Muslim and Middle East immigrants are particularly vulnerable to alienation in America in recent years. “Other minorities didn't perceive that the United States was at war with them,” notes Geneive Abdo, Director of the Iran Program at the Century Foundation. In this sense, the material success enjoyed by immigrants like Shahzad only enhanced feelings of guilt over alleged suffering of their native brethren.

These feelings grow and slowly begin blinding them to the genuine benefits of capitalism and democracy as well as the shortcomings of Islamic society. Then they become fodder for the true radicals, who twist legitimate concerns into outrage and justification for violence.

“Most Americans don't see this – that every day something happens to underscore the extremely anti-Muslim sentiment in this country," says Muqtedar Khan, a University of Delaware political scientist. “You can’t abuse Muslims while you try to assimilate them.”

It is not a small problem. Since September 11, one hundred and forty-six American Muslims have been publicly accused of planning or carrying out extremist violence, according to a study by Duke University. Another study by the New York University Center on Law and Security found eight hundred and four people from around the world charged with terrorism in U.S. federal court since September 11. Two hundred and seventy-three of them were U.S. citizens – almost triple the number from any other nation.

Analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center have been predicting a switch from attacks by highly organized terrorist cells to home grown, lone wolf terrorists for several years. This is partly due to success on the part of the U.S. at containing and destroying the senior leadership of al-Qaida and other groups. The lone wolves tend to be sloppier and less deadly when they attack but they are also harder to detect.

“The real key to minimizing the damage such people can accomplish is to keep these disaffected individuals from making connections with larger networks,” according to Michael Sheehan, former Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism with the New York Police Department and Director of the Madison Policy Forum.

David Schanzer, an anti-terrorism expert from Duke University agrees. “The more we distance Muslim-Americans from the mainstream of society and make them feel like outcasts or discriminated against, in some ways we're in a self-perpetuating cycle. We're increasing the likelihood of individuals from that community being alienated.”

However, another crisis occurred in Shahzad’s life that may have driven him over the edge and it was neither religious nor ideological but economic in nature.

In February 2009, Shahzad took out a $65,000 equity loan. By June, he stopped paying the mortgage and other bills. He began selling off his expensive home’s furnishings. When the bank finally threatened foreclosure, Shahzad had abandoned the property and much of its contents. He moved his family to a smaller house in a less prosperous neighborhood of Bridgeport Connecticut.

Maybe Shahzad was abandoning a lifestyle he had already rejected as corrupt. Alternately, maybe the downfall of Shahzad’s own American dream – so common in the past months of economic crisis and recession – were enough to turn him against America and back to his roots where agitators with warped motives awaited his disillusionment.

It is still more evidence that one need not be the product of prolonged poverty to be rocked to the core by a sudden and extreme downturns in economic fortune. Those who see terrorism as a wholly military problem scorn local police and social welfare solutions, calling them both unaffordable and insufficient. In fact, the link between economic security and national security may be closer than they think – as is the link between jihads and mortgages.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

Rather Than Kill Cap and Trade, the Current Disaster in the Gulf Should Be What Ensures Its Passage

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded on April 20 and began leaking crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico apparently failed due to a piece of equipment known as a “blowout preventer.” Designed to seal off a well if it detects a leak, it simply did not work on Deepwater Horizon.

BP is playing up the technological failure angle to defend itself from charges of mismanagement and malfeasance, arguing that it is doing all it can to make things right. BP’s CEO deployed thirty-two ships, two rigs, five airplanes and over a thousand people at the first report of trouble. The company announced it would pay “all necessary and appropriate cleanup costs . . . BP takes responsibility for responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We will clean it up.”

Far less toxic than the sludge from their rig is the negative publicity and political poison leaking from BP on BP. As an op/ed piece in MIT’s newspaper The Tech ruefully concludes, “The ongoing Gulf of Mexico spill will surely smear [BP’s] green, floral logo.”

“The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our gulf states and it could extend for a long time,” warned President Obama during a visit to the region. “It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home.”

And he had an even sterner reproach for the well’s operators. “BP is responsible for this leak – BP will be paying the bill,” Obama said flatly, suggesting the U.S. government, not BP, would decide what constituted “necessary and appropriate” cleanup efforts/costs.

Obama was engaging in a bit of cleanup of his own. He moved up the timetable for his visit when numerous environmental groups, as well as the New York Times editorial board, rebuked his Administration for responding too slowly to the disaster.

The Department of Homeland Security waited until BP upped its estimate of the leak to five thousand barrels per day, from an initial mere thousand, to declare the incident “a spill of national significance.” This, in turn, delayed Homeland Security’s request to the Department of Defense for a more aggressive response.

In fairness, Admiral Thad Allen, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, defended how his team dealt with the leak. “While it may not have been visible to the public, from the very start, we have been working this very hard,” he said. “We have never tried so many different methods for a large spill on the surface as we have during this and I have been doing oil spill response for thirty years.” Retired Rear Admiral Robert North, also of the Coast Guard, agrees with this assessment, saying, “It doesn’t appear that federalizing would bring in any more resources.”

It is also notable that the initial federal response focused on attempting to find and rescue Deepwater Horizon crewmembers, including eleven now presumed dead from the initial oil rig explosion.

More perceptive and disturbing are criticisms of the federal government’s over-reliance on BP to estimate the extent of the damage as well as formulate an effective counterstrategy. “Here you have the company that is responsible for the accident leading the response to the crisis,” explained Tyson Slocum, Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “There is a problem here, and the consequence is clear.”

Yet this observation also shows why the party with the most to lose in all this remains BP. Even its tactic to focus blame on a freak technical glitch fails to save it much face, when it previously testified to the U.S. government that the technology was literally foolproof.

“The oil industry spent forty years building a story line that it knew what it was doing underwater and because it knew what it was doing we could allow it to turn our most sensitive coastline into oilfields,” fumes Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope. “We've now been reminded once again that oil and water do not mix.”

The other problem for Obama is that he recently announced his intention to expand offshore drilling along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Alaskan coasts as a concession to draw conservative support for his Cap and Trade energy/environment bill. Now some politicians that previously supported offshore drilling are suddenly singing a different tune.

“This is the resurrection of the clean energy argument without a doubt in my mind,” Independent (nee Republican) candidate for the Florida Senate, Charlie Crist, told reporters. “You've got to have solar. We've got to move more rapidly to develop wind and nuclear, as well. If this does not make the case that we've got to have energy resources that are clean, that don't disrupt our environment, I don't know what is.”

Two Democratic Representatives and both Democratic Senators from New Jersey have threatened to pull their support for Cap and Trade if offshore drilling is included in the legislation. “I think [the bill is] dead on arrival,” pronounced Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

I hope this does not happen. Obama’s concession made for a more balanced, comprehensive bill. Reactively withdrawing even the possibility of future drilling altogether would be a mistake.

At the same time, Republicans and conservatives of all stripes who continue chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!” in response to this situation would be wise to reconsider their position. Neocons used September 11 as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to condition many Americans to place national security and safety concerns above all else. This disaster reminds us there are other threats to our shores beyond an imminent immigration of Islamic jihadists.

Sarah Palin has continued espousing a viewpoint begun during her 2008 Vice-Presidential campaign that oil rigs and drilling leave “little footprints” at worst in any environmental setting. Her claims flow from her faith in the now disproved technological safeguards touted by the oil industry.

“Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past twenty years,” according to a recent Gallup poll. This is partly due to the successes the conservation movement has achieved in cleaning up some of the most egregious examples of air and water pollution from yesteryear.

However, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times observes, it is also the result of a sustained campaign by the far right to “construct a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists – “eco-Nazis” – or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans.” Krugman concedes that in some cases, such as efforts to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod, liberals have “played right into that caricature.”

Yet when Rush Limbaugh appears to speculate seriously with his audience over conspiratorial leftist sabotage at Deepwater Horizon, he proves a conservative can be just as extreme and disconnected from the mainstream as any former hippie anarchist is capable. “I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig . . . What better way to head off more oil drilling and nuclear plants than by blowing up a rig.”

“Everything the [environmental] advocates warned about is happening,” admonishes Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The legislators who stood in the way of moving to clean renewable energy are going to have something to answer for. It's no longer an abstract conversation and now we're seeing the results.”

Rather than spinning this environmental and economic tragedy as another opportunity for short-term political gain, both Republicans and Democrats need to work together – and compromise – to achieve a sane energy policy for the Twenty-First Century. Rather than serving as the final nail in the coffin for Cap and Trade, BP’s blunder ought to be what opens the Pandora’s Box on which Big Oil has sat for far too long. Let the colors that fade to black and smear over this mess be shades of green and not red, white, and blue.