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Shake, Shake, Shake… Shake, Shake, Shake… Shake Your Green Zone, Shake Your Green Zone

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

The poetic irony of the delayed release of the shaky-cammed Hollywood temper tantrum known as “Green Zone” couldn’t be sweeter. Yes, the very same week our Iraqi allies held a historic election that ended up much more successful than we could have ever hoped, our own Hollywood swoops in with a piece of cinematic sour grapes in the frantic, desperate hope of rewriting the history of a war they were so eager for us to lose.

After making the last two “Bourne” films together, director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon have teamed up again in an un-thrilling attempt to transfer that same success to the streets of Baghdad. But this time within a very real and recent historical event, the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a vacuum where history doesn’t exist, the film’s absurd premise would still undermine itself. But Greengrass isn’t working in a vacuum. Unfortunately for him, we all know the truth and this truth reduces his story to a strained, poorly contrived, episodic, Hollywood Hills fever dream that no amount of suspended disbelief can overcome.

Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a good soldier in charge of an army team on the search for WMD four weeks after shock and awe. Baghdad is in chaos as the newly liberated Iraqis loot the city and scattered snipers take potshots at anyone wearing the American flag. Miller risks his own life and those of his men based on intelligence that’s supposed to reveal the location of Saddam’s WMD facilities. And this is the third time they’ve come up empty.  Frustrated and angry, Miller starts to ask questions and demand answers about the source of the intel. Naturally, his commanding officers aren’t interested in answering those questions or even facing the possibility the weapons might not be found. That would upset the Bush administration’s narrative of the New Iraq.

Dana Stevens in Slate:

As an action-adventure thriller, The Green Zone holds up fairly well, despite a few significant plot holes and a rather large dollop of Greengrass’ trademark shaky-cam. Damon is likable in his squinty, stolid Bourne mode, and Brendan Gleeson is terrific as the Cassandra-like spy; he not only ably discards his Irish accent but invents a great American one, a pinched, nasal Midwestern twang. But the movie (which was shot two years ago and has been sitting on Universal’s shelf ever since) feels stale, its anti-war message stuck in the mid-2000s. When we see Bush on a TV screen in the green zone declaring “Mission accomplished!” on that aircraft carrier, the irony lands with a thud. Haven’t we been sickened by the hypocrisy of that speech for the better part of a decade now? Of course, the deceptions that occurred in the run-up to the war and the first weeks after the invasion are no less outrageous in 2010 than they were in 2003. But seven years into the Iraq quagmire, we need more from our political filmmakers than an angry fist (and a hand-held camera) shaken in the Bush administration’s direction.

Damon’s conversations with Gleeson touch on a post-Iraq invasion story that, had Greengrass taken the time with it, would have made for a better movie: the impact of the disastrous decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and police forces, creating a huge underclass of unemployed and disgruntled men with a motive to rise up against the occupying forces. As documented in both Chandrasekaran’s book and Thomas Ricks’ remarkable Fiasco, the factors that went into turning our mission in Iraq into such a nightmarish debacle were enormously complex. To suggest that a lone, brave soldier could have set things right with a little amateur sleuthing seems like cinematic wish-fulfillment, an insult both to the intelligence of viewers and to the troops who, years after learning the truth about WMD in Iraq, are still living with the consequences of the Bush administration’s chicanery.

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:

One wonders just how The Paul Greengrass Experience can be improved upon. For the last half-decade — from United 93 through The Bourne Ultimatum/Supremacy– Greengrass has developed a very specific aesthetic: super shaky cam, like Blair Witch on ‘roids. And, to his credit, it occasionally works. The opening sequence of Green Zone, for example, perfectly captures the insanity of shock and awe from the perspective of Iraqis dealing with American ordinance, one would assume: Head-snapping explosions; chaotic action from all corners; no real sense of continuity. Greengrass does a fine job of simulating chaos.

But why stop with rapidly twirling camera perspectives? Why not import The Paul Greengrass Experience 2.0 to theaters across the country? Instead of allowing the screen to simulate a flash-bang grenade, why not toss actual flash-bangs into packed houses? Instead of allowing the camera’s rapid movements to simulate the herky-jerky movements in the moment, why not have someone grab the audience’s heads and literally shake them silly? Motion sickness is all well and good: Why not instill some actual sickness? If Greengrass’s goal is to institute a sense of debilitating uncertainty in the audience why not go all the way with it?

Let’s not get hung up on questions of capability: If we can implement full, Avatar-style 3D, we can certainly implement The Paul Greengrass Experience in its entirety, or at least a close simulacrum of its entirety. Vomiting audience members notwithstanding, something would certainly be gained.

Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:

Obviously if you’re not a fan of Greengrass’ patented shaky-cam style then you’d do well to avoid Green Zone, but if you enjoyed both of his Bourne movies then you’ll most certainly enjoy this. The action, energy, and intensity are all working in top form as the movie hits the ground running and rarely lets up for air. The film’s major accomplishment is that it takes a historical situation… the search for WMD’s in Iraq that we all know ended in failure… and still manages to make a suspenseful film around it. We know Miller won’t find anything but we’re caught up in his frantic and pulse-racing search anyway.

Just as divisive as Greengrass’ camera style will be the film’s obvious political slant. There are definite bad guys here, and not all of them are Iraqi… spoiler alert (but not really), the US government lies. Some people will take the movie’s plot turns as blatant liberal propaganda when in reality it’s simply dramatic fodder that has been in use as long as there have been political thrillers. Accusations of a leftist agenda in Green Zone are lazy commentaries from the unimaginative always in search of a liberal whipping post. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t repeat its message that America lied a few too many times… But seriously, the US government was also behind 9/11 and AIDS.

There are some legitimate issues with Green Zone though. For one thing Miller is able to acquire answers at an alarmingly simple rate. Obviously he works for some of it, but often he simply has to ask. He needs information, and Gleeson’s CIA director pops into frame with the essential piece. He needs some more, and Ryan’s Wall Street Journal reporter is ready to reveal it. I realize the film is trying to tell a story in a tight and heightened time frame, but if it were that easy this could have actually happened. The other issue is more of a quibble, but the pace of the action and story is so fast that we never get the chance to really get to know Miller. He’s an honest and concerned patriot from frame one and spends the entire film fulfilling that role, but we never learn a single thing about him. You could argue that we’re learning about him through his actions, but a little backstory to humanize a character is never a bad thing.

Khalid Abdalla does a fantastic job as a concerned Iraqi citizen who provides Miller with information and then gets dragged along for the remaining ride. He puts a human face to an otherwise generic populace, and he also gets to deliver the movie’s best and most honest line. You’ll know it when you hear it (it’s the last thing he says). The other actor who deserves credit here is Damon himself. You wouldn’t think to look at him that he could command the respect required as an action star (especially after seeing him in The Informant!) but he does a fantastic job of it time and again. He’s believable in his actions and his sincerity, and he once again grounds what could have easily become a more generic exercise in gunfire and explosions.

Green Zone is a solid action film that wants to dig a little deeper into historical relevance than most others in the genre. Does it accomplish that at the expense of some questionable truths? Most certainly, but first and foremost the movie is out to entertain, and in that regard it succeeds brilliantly. We all know what happened over the past seven years, maybe not all of the details, but enough to know that not everything was as it once seemed. Certain “facts” were accepted too easily by a frightened and unmotivated American people, and the movie posits that somewhere out there someone actually cared enough to stand up against our democratically elected overlords. To paraphrase another film with a vaguely similar theme… Miller isn’t the hero America deserved. He’s the hero America needed.

John J. Miller at The Corner

David Germain at The Huffington Post:

There’s barely a story to hold “Green Zone” together, the movie just hurtling through firefights and chases, pausing for breath with the occasional revelation to prod Miller on in his quest.

For pure ambiance, “Green Zone” is a marvel. Though shot in Morocco, Spain and England, the action feels as though it takes place in the heart of Baghdad.

Greengrass, who directed Damon in “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” applies similar techniques – darting camera work, quick cutting, haphazard framing – to create the same sense of documentary immediacy in “Green Zone.”

Only the barest traces of the occupation absurdities revealed in Chandrasekaran’s book remain. Poundstone’s remark that “Democracy is messy” is a faint echo of the Donald Rumsfeld observation that “freedom’s untidy,” while the filmmakers toss in a few glimpses of the blind luxury enjoyed in the safe American Green Zone while Iraqis clamor for water and loot buildings outside.

Chandrasekaran’s book is a work of sharp, informative journalism. That “inspired by” credit sounds a little insulting when the result is tired, standard action fare such as “Green Zone.”

UPDATE #4: Big Hollywood

Ross Douthat in NYT

Daniel Larison on Douthat

Douthat responds

UPDATE #5: Larison responds to Douthat

UPDATE #6: John Schwenkler at The American Scene

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist

More Larison

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How Much Is That Dolly In The Window?

Cindy Casares at Guanabee:

brown-barbies

Check out the price difference between the brown Barbies and the blonde ones. The same exact doll, in Caucasian, commands almost double the price! Who says Barbie dolls don’t supply young girls with a realistic portrayal of womanhood?

Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones:

(Interestingly, ABC News reported that the dolls were “black,” while Guanabee called them “brown.” Ambiguity abounds—except for Wal-Mart’s contention that whatever they are, they’re worth less than white ballerinas.)

For its part, the chain said it was selling the darker-skinned Ballerina Theresa Barbie dolls on the cheap because it needs to “clear shelf space for its new spring inventory.” Which must make Theresa feel oh, so special.

No word yet from Wal-Mart, though, on when your kids will be able to find Burka Barbie on your local shelves.

Radley Balko at Reason:

Silliest race controversey of the week: Walmart criticized for putting black Barbie on clearance, but not white Barbie.

Rod Dreher:

So Walmart has to pay for society’s supposed sins by eating $3.00 per Theresa doll — which comparatively few customers want — so people won’t think that the public values white dolls over black dolls? This, even though academic studies show that for whatever reason, a surprising number of black children prefer to play with white dolls?

Seriously, it’s heartbreaking that any black child would think that the whiteness of a person’s or a doll’s skin makes them more beautiful or worthy. That is a problem we have to work on as a society. But forcing Walmart, or any retailer, to ignore what their customers are telling them in order to preserve a moralistic fiction is not the way to go. Faulting Walmart’s discounting policy here is a good way to convince retailers not to stock any black dolls at all, for fear that they won’t be able to treat those products like any other and discount them if they don’t sell, on pain of being called racially insensitive.

The ironies in this story are amazing to contemplate.

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:

Q: Which Barbie doll should cost more?

A: Whichever one is in higher demand.
B. Whichever one costs more to produce.
C. They should all cost the same, especially if they’re all of different races.

I think that most economists would answer A; most crazy leftists would argue C. Because, you see, it doesn’t matter how much a good costs to produce or how high the demand for it is — race trumps everything, as Wal Mart recently discovered after it priced a black Barbie doll half as much as its white equivalent

[…]

As anyone who has worked in retail — or is familiar with basic economics — will tell you, that’s an eminently reasonably course of action! If something isn’t selling well, you need to reduce the price in order for it to sell. But, but … one’s white! One’s black! Racism, yes?

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Drink Me! Eat Me! Review Me!

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (Disney) represents the confluence of a number of depressing cinematic trends: the need to ransack classic children’s literature for ideas, the unimaginative layering of 3-D technology onto a visual universe that would look just fine without it, and the belief that slathering familiar storylines with a superficial gloss of Gothic “darkness” constitutes a substantial reinterpretation. Lewis Carroll’s eminently sensible British schoolchild has been taken on a shopping spree at Hot Topic (an experience that viewers are invited to share by donning the line of tie-in merchandise available for purchase at that teen-Goth chain), and the resulting makeover doesn’t do her any favors.

I guess it’s too much to have hoped that Burton would do justice to the language of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, to Carroll’s intricate logic puzzles and plays on the literal and figurative meaning of words. A film adaptation should, of course, treat its source material as inspiration rather than dogma. But did Burton have to get the books so entirely wrong? An Alice filtered through the lens of young-adult fantasy fiction, complete with villains in eye patches, post-traumatic stress flashbacks, and CGI dragons in need of Joseph Campbell-style slaying, ceases to be Alice at all.

Burton’s Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old, a freethinking young woman about to be betrothed to a dull aristocratic prig. Since childhood, she’s been haunted by recurring dreams of a fall down a rabbit hole and conversations with a hookah-smoking caterpillar. (Though we initially approach him through wreaths of curling smoke, I’m not sure we ever actually see the caterpillar, voiced by Alan Rickman, inhaling—perhaps for fear of unwholesome influence.) At her engagement party, Alice escapes her importuning suitor to follow a white rabbit, and soon finds herself falling down just such a hole, giving Burton plenty of chances to test out the 3-D button on his dashboard. The scene that takes place immediately after she lands—the glass table, the hall of locked doors, the “Drink Me” bottle and “Eat Me” cake—may be the movie’s best moment, one in which Burton makes clever use of computer animation to create vertiginous effects of scale as Alice shrinks and grows. This scene also employs a limited color palette and stark backgrounds that evoke the book’s spooky original illustrations by John Tenniel.

Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

The comparisons between “Avatar” and “Alice” are ripe for exploration not only because of their similar themes, but because this weekend “Alice” is poised to finally knock “Avatar” out of the weekly box office stratosphere due to the fact it’s the first major 3D film to come along since James Cameron’s epic invention entered theaters more than 10 weeks ago and became the highest-grossing film of all time. The major difference between the films is in their tone and casting – “Alice” maintains a fun if somewhat confusing tone of apolitical wonder, while “Avatar” jams a series of anti-military, pro-environment messages under its awe-inspiring visuals.

“Alice” also centers on a couple of star performances to work its magic, as opposed to “Avatar’s” cast of mostly unknown leads. Most people still wouldn’t know “Avatar” star Sam Worthington’s name enough to rush out for his next film, but the first thing people seem to ask about “Alice” is, “What’s Johnny Depp like?” As the Mad Hatter, he looks like Elijah Wood if Wood had become an honorary member of KISS – wearing a mountain of white makeup under a red-orange fright wig. He also takes the “mad” part a bit too literally at first, speaking in gibberish and sporting a frankly creepy grin throughout his first scenes before settling into a more nuanced and even kind tone after a flashback reveals what drove him into insanity.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter steals the show as the bulbous-headed Red Queen – an evil, shrieking harpy who loves to humorously use animals (a pig serves as her footstool) and shriek “Off with their head!” She makes a one-note freak into a vibrant, humorously frightening monarch that should draw even more public acclaim than Depp. And Crispin Glover as her evil assistant, the Knave of Hearts, surprisingly proves that he’s able to be more than a freak or a geek and becomes an effective badass villain, second only to the monstrous Jabberwock.

Ultimately, this “Alice” is destined to make a pile of money, but once viewers emerge from the dark theater and into the real world, the fantasy won’t maintain a long-lasting pull on their hearts and minds.

Sonny Bunch at The Weekly Standard:

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to admire in this movie; as with most Burton features, it looks fantastic. He has a real eye for set design and a visual panache that is almost unmatched by other fantasy filmmakers. The creature design – from the Jabberwocky to the Bandersnatch to the Red Queens playing card soldiers – is all quite impressive – menacing and lifelike yet still clearly rooted in fantasy.

And Burton, working with regulars like Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Carter, wrings excellent (if odd) performances out of his stars. Depp’s Hatter is mad, all right, veering wildly between a lisping tea partier and a raving lunatic with a deep Scottish brogue. It’s an oddly convincing turn (though one that is occasionally difficult to comprehend).

Still, the movie never quite gels into a convincing narrative. By trying to tame the underlying anarchy in Carroll’s original work and stuff it into a more conventional narrative, much of the joy is lost. It is an interesting failure.

Burton’s body of work is dotted with interesting failures. Mars Attacks, for example, had many of the same strengths and flaws of Alice in Wonderland: There were great performances from several actors (including Jack Nicholson, playing a multitude of roles) and some stunning set/creature design — who could forget the attempted seduction of an alien dressed as a bombshell blonde by a smarmy presidential aide? – but the overall narrative, which was derived from a set of trading cards from the 1960s, never came together: It was simply too episodic to make a convincing feature with a conventional three act structure.

Then there are his remakes of Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The less said about Apes, the better – “interesting” failure, snorted sarcastically, might be a better way to describe it – but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had some real charm: Another strong, mad performance from Depp as candy maker Willy Wonka; more brilliantly designed sets complemented by excellent use of color; a real sense of love for the source material. But it all fell apart when Burton tried to force a Freudian back story filled with repression and evil father-dentists on Depp’s Wonka.

Perhaps the cleanest, most direct, way to enjoy Mr. Burton’s work is to head up to New York City and check out the exhibit of the director’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. Running through April 26, the exhibit showcases his sketches and paintings divorced from the need to fit them into a story or narrative structure.

Adam Charles at Film School Rejects:

Alice is not the Alice we remember from the story, nor the same Alice she was from the many film adaptations – only she is.  Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is to “Alice In Wonderland” what Spielberg’s Hook was to the story of “Peter Pan”.  It’s Alice about fifteen years older than we remember her being from her first plunge down the rabbit hole.  She recollects certain snippets of her first go-round, but in the form of odd dreams she remembered having as a child.  Now, Alice is all grown up and faced with the responsibilities of choosing her path for her adult future when she again follows a well-tailored rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds herself back in Wonderland.  Upon arrival a debate is carried amongst the inhabitants as to whether or not Alice is the real Alice, and Alice not able to recall any of her doings from the last adventure doesn’t know if she’s the prophesized Alice to slay the Jabberwocky and release the grip the evil Red Queen has over Wonderland.

I’d imagine that on new eyes the film is visually imaginative and a little hypnotic.  This new Wonderland is more desolate and drained of a very prevalent history of vibrancy and life due to the actions of the air balloon-headed Red Queen (played with real pizazz by Helena Bonham Carter).  Burton’s world of Wonderland looks like the despair of Miss Havisham’s mansion from “Great Expectations” had escaped and infected someone’s dream and everyone in it.  It’s very bleak, but wondrous as it’s meant to be, meaning that it’s very “Burton.” However, with nearly twenty years worth of similar visuals from Burton it’s the first time I lacked the feeling of wonder.

Part of this may, unfortunately, be Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who is occasionally distracting.  Depp, like Burton (which is probably why this is their seventh film together) can express a certain intriguing oddness that not many actors can.  However, Depp’s Mad Hatter feels like an amalgamation of other Depp/Burton personalities.  He’s sometimes quiet and sincere with a puppy-dog face like Edward Scissorhands and other times he’s a little bug-nuts happy like Willy Wonka, and when he’s not them he’s dancing a dance that the Hatter hadn’t danced in years and should never, ever have danced in the first place.  However, if you’re not familiar with Johnny Depp already you’ll see why he’s a fan favorite and why Tim Burton doesn’t seem to want to make movies without him.

Stephanie Zacharek at Salon:

Foreseeing the ending of a story isn’t necessarily a problem; particularly in fairy tales, getting there is supposed to be most of the fun. But the problem with Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” is that it’s all production design and no storytelling. There’s no compelling thread to follow here. Burton doesn’t build a universe in which we have any real reason to fear some characters and to feel protective of others. There’s nothing at stake in this Wonderland/Underland: When the action gets droopy, Burton cuts back to the Red Queen’s castle, where we get to watch her toddling about and spewing her highly amusing self-important twaddle. (Her silliest riffs are spun from the fact that she herself knows her head is enormous, and so what of it?) The Red Queen, as Carter plays her — her head has been enlarged and glued, via CGI, onto a twig-size body — is the most entertaining character here, and her makeup alone is both fascinating and repellent: Her lips have been painted into a tiny heart-shaped pout; her eyelids are coated with a magnificent color I can describe only as old-lady Maybelline blue.

But this tiny prima donna isn’t enough to carry a movie, and so Burton has to come up with activities to occupy the other characters. Depp, in particular, gets lost in the shuffle. The Mad Hatter, as Burton has reimagined him here, with a matted puff of red hair and perpetually dilated crazy-ass eyes, is something of a lost soul, the very type of character that Depp is generally so wonderful at playing. But it’s hard to see anything genuinely moving behind his tics and mannerisms. Even though Burton and Depp have done some wonderful work together — in movies like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow” — it’s gotten to the point where I prefer to see Depp in performances where he’s not hidden under “Look at me!” makeup. There’s a point at which perpetual collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor becomes a liability, and Depp and Burton may have reached it, at least for now.

“Alice in Wonderland” does offer its share of slender pleasures: Wasikowska plays Alice as bright and unassuming, and watching her is never a chore, even when the story devolves into a “Girls can do cool stuff, too!” empowerment tale. And the sequence in which she takes her first swig from that little bottle marked “Drink me!” — followed by her nibbling on that adorable “Eat me!” petit four — is ingeniously designed and staged, taking place in a warped-perspective room that appears to be all corners. Alice’s costuming here is particularly clever: She’s dressed in a billowy, translucent blue gown that she can both shrink out of and grow into. I also loved looking at, and listening to, the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), a creature whose iridescent teal-blue stripes have been carefully coordinated with his enormous, glowing eyes.

But as lavish-looking as this “Alice in Wonderland” is, it still feels cobbled together, albeit painstakingly. It’s not at all shallow to care about the look of a film. Visual seduction is part of the reason we go to the movies. But maybe Burton is working too hard at being visually impressive: In the end, “Alice in Wonderland” comes off as manufactured instead of dreamy. Burton delivers all the wonder money can buy; what’s missing is the wonder it can’t.

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No Change Of Mind Left Behind

Diane Ravitch’s new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System here.

NPR:

In 2005, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch wrote, “We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act … All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents’ generation.”

Four years later, Ravitch has changed her mind.

“I was known as a conservative advocate of many of these policies,” Ravitch says. “But I’ve looked at the evidence and I’ve concluded they’re wrong. They’ve put us on the wrong track. I feel passionately about the improvement of public education and I don’t think any of this is going to improve public education.”

Ravitch has written a book about what she sees as the failure of No Child Left Behind called The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She says one of her biggest concerns is the way the law requires school districts to use standardized testing.

Tyler Cowen:

Her bottom line is this:

The more uneasy I grew with the agenda of choice and accountability, the more I realized that I am too “conservative” to embrace an agenda whose end result is entirely speculative and uncertain.  The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something market-based began to feel too radical for me.  I concluded that I could not countenance any reforms that might have the effect — intended or unintended — of undermining public education.

Ravitch of course was once the number one advocate of these very ideas; read this excellent article on her intellectual evolution.

Overall it is a serious book worth reading and it has some good arguments to establish the view — as I interpret it — that both vouchers and school accountability are overrated ideas by their proponents.  (Short of turning the world upside down, some school districts will only get so good; conversely many public schools around the world are excellent.)  But are they bad ideas outright?  Ravitch doesn’t do much to contest the quantitative evidence in their favor.  There are many studies on vouchers, some surveyed here.  Charter schools also seem like a good idea.

Jessica Olien at The Atlantic:

An interview with Ravitch followed a story about Central Falls High in Rhode Island which recently fired its entire staff of teachers because of low achieving students.

An emphasis on test scores can make it hard for teachers in poorer schools to get ahead. When their entire performance is based on the tests and they are rewarded or punished accordingly it can seem like the system gives wealthier schools an automatic advantage. As a result, Ravitch says that the testing encourages schools desperate for funding to game the system.

When asked whether it was healthy to have some competition in the education marketplace, Ravitch countered that “there should be no education marketplace,” emphasizing that education for children is not meant to be run like a business.

“Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what’s [been successful] for them. They’re not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block.”

Alan Gottlieb at Huffington Post:

Ravitch raises red flags about charter schools and the foundations that promote them. While it might not be these foundations’ intentional agenda to destroy American public education, she says, their pushing of charters, choice and accountability are doing just that.

Echoing many of the arguments of teachers’ unions across the country, Ravitch says that charters drain the best, most motivated students from regular public schools, leaving those schools in a death spiral, for which they are then blamed.

“As currently configured, charter schools are havens for the motivated,” Ravitch writes. “As more charter schools open, the dilemma of educating all students will grow sharper. The resolution of this dilemma will determine the fate of public education.”

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it implies that ‘motivated’ students from low-income families should be denied the opportunity for a better education so that the institution of public education, which has served them badly, survives to fail another day.

Here I side with Howard Fuller, who on a recent Denver visit proclaimed: “I am from the Harriet Tubman school of education reform.” Every kid who escapes a bad educational environment is one more kid with a better chance at a fulfilling life.

Ravitch excoriates the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for being unelected policy-making monoliths, utterly unaccountable, that are shaping the direction (or as she would argue, dismantling) of public education.

“There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people,” she writes.

…The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.I ask Ravitch: To whom, then, should we cede control over public education? An answer as banal as “the people” won’t cut it. Elected school boards? Their failures, especially in big cities, are the stuff of legend.

Andrew Samwick:

Competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive.  Far from it — almost everywhere you look in nature, the winners of “survival of the fittest competition” are the entities that found ways to collaborate and succeed.  (Cue Richard Dawkins.)  But what does not occur in nature or society, because it is not viable over any reasonable length of time, is a strategy of making a “family” out of disparate actors just by placing them near each other.  (Cue F. A. Hayek?)  Families involve tremendous amounts of sacrifice of the selfish interests of one member for those of another.  The willingness to do that systematically does not occur without strong bonds of kinship.

It is in fact a mistake to think that choice and accountability by themselves will be enough to improve performance, without the other elements of a competitive marketplace.  The most important of those elements is freedom of entry by any producer who thinks he can do a better job than the current producers.  Consider Ravitch’s disappointment with NCLB to date, as quoted in Chapter 6 of her book:

But what was especially striking was that many parents and students did not want to leave their neighborhood school, even if the federal government offered them free transportation and the promise of a better school. The parents of English-language learners tended to prefer their neighborhood school, which was familiar to them, even if the federal government said it was failing. A school superintendent told Betts that choice was not popular in his county, because “most people want their local school to be successful, and because they don’t find it convenient to get their children across town.” Some excellent schools failed to meet AYP because only one subgroup — usually children with disabilities — did not make adequate progress. In such schools, the children in every other subgroup did make progress, were very happy with the school, did not consider it a failing school, and saw no reason to leave.

Schools have many characteristics.  So-called performance, as measured by standardized tests, is only one such characteristic.  What the paragraph reveals is that location is important as well.  And in most cases, the school district has not allowed an alternative provider to come into the market and match the existing school on all of its non-performance characteristics while improving performance.  There is, in most cases, still a local monopoly on enough of the characteristics that matter.  Unless you break that monopoly, until you do in fact allow direct competition with “the school down the block,” you should not expect to be treated to service that is any better than what you typically get as a member of a captive audience.

Monica Potts in Tapped:

The idea of school choice fuels the charter school and voucher systems, and the hope is schools become better through a sense of competition. A steady, if unproven, criticism of school choice systems is that the best schools simply enroll the best students. Even if they don’t actively do so, there could be a self-selection bias in the parents who actively seek out better schools to send their children to. But research found the biggest problem was that parents who were offered the chance to enroll students in better schools often did not do so. They liked the idea of the school as being part of the community. After looking at the data, Ravitch now feels that’s an idea worth going back to.

UPDATE: Robert VerBruggen at NRO

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner

Austin Bramwell at The American Conservative

UPDATE #2: Jim Pinkerton and Robert Wright on Bloggingheads

E.D. Kain at The League

Kevin Drum

Ryan Avent

More Kain

UPDATE #3: Kain again

Even More Kain

Rick Hess at Education Week

UPDATE #4: Kevin Carey at TNR

Rod Dreher

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink, here and here

UPDATE #5: DiA at The Economist

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Education

Memorandum, Mon Amour

Michael Isikoff at Newsweek:

A crucial CIA memo that has been cited by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials as justifying the effectiveness of waterboarding contained “plainly inaccurate information” that undermined its conclusions,  according to Justice Department investigators.

Cheney has publicly called for the release of the CIA’s still classified memo and another document, insisting their disclosure will bolster his claim that the rough interrogation tactics he vigorously pushed for while in the White House yielded actionable intelligence that foiled terrorist plots against the United States.

But a just released report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility into the lawyers who approved the CIA’s interrogation program could prove awkward for Cheney and his supporters. The report provides new information about the contents of one of the never released agency memos, concluding that it significantly misstated the timing of the capture of one Al Qaeda suspect in order to make a claim that seems to have been patently false.

[…]

The CIA memo, called the Effectiveness Memo, was especially important because it was relied on by  Steven G. Bradbury, then the Justice Department’s acting chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, to write memos in 2005 and 2007 giving the agency additional legal approvals to continue its program of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”  The memo reviewed the results of the use of EITs – which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and forced nudity – mainly against two suspects” Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the report states.  One key claim in the agency memo was that the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogations of Zubaydah led to the capture of suspected “dirty bomb’ plotter Jose Padilla.   “Abu Zubaydah provided significant information on two operatives, Jose Padilla and Binyam Mohammed, who planned to build and detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ in the Washington DC area,” the CIA memo stated, according to the OPR report. “Zubaydah’s reporting led to the arrest of Padilla on his arrival in Chicago in May 2003 [sic].”

But as the Justice report points out, this was wrong.   “In fact, Padilla was arrested in May 2002, not 2003 … The information ‘[leading] to the arrest of Padilla’ could not have been obtained through the authorized use of EITs.” (The use of enhanced interrogations was not authorized until Aug. 1, 2002 and Zubaydah was not waterboarded until later that month.) “ Yet Bradbury relied upon this plainly inaccurate information” in two OLC memos that contained direct citations from the CIA Effectiveness Memo about the interrogations of Zubaydah, the Justice report states.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Over at the Plum Line, Greg Sargent says, “This also appears to vindicate claims by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who said he obtained all the crucial info from Zubaydah through non-enhanced methods.” It also appears to be bad news for Marc Thiessen, as well.

But there are complications: what if the information was obtained through the unauthorized use of torture? Let’s recall that in my conversation with Abu Zubaydah attorney Brent Mickum, he contended that his client was subjected to torture in the period between his original capture and the CIA receiving guidance from Jay Bybee.

UPDATE: As a reminder, the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that a wide variety of torture techniques were used on Abu Zubaydah, and others. In that report, Zubaydah told interviewers that he was subjected to waterboarding, and that it caused “considerable pain” because he had “undergone surgery three months earlier.” It’s frustratingly inspecific, but Abu Zubaydah is known to have been operated on soon after his capture on March 28, 2002, and Bybee didn’t advise C.I.A. interrogators until July 24th of the same year.

James Fallows:

The OPR report: this era’s ‘Hiroshima’

[…]

If you want to argue that “whatever” happened in the “war on terror” was necessary because of the magnitude and novelty of the threat, then you had better be willing to face what the “whatever” entailed. Which is what this report brings out. And if you believe — as I do, and have argued through the years — that what happened included excessive, abusive, lawless, immoral, and self-defeating acts done wrongly in the name of American “security,” then this is a basic text as well.

To conclude the logical sequence, if not to resolve this issue (which will be debated past the time any of us are around), you should then read the recent memo by David Margolis, of the Justice Department, overruling the OPR’s recommendation that Yoo and Bybee should be punished further. It is available as a 69-page PDF here. Margolis is a widely-esteemed voice of probity and professional excellence inside the Department. What is most striking to me as a lay reader is how much of his argument rests not on strictly legal judgments but rather on a historical/political assertion.

The assertion is that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, anxiety was so high, fears were so great, and standards of all sorts were so clearly in abeyance, that normal rules about prudence and arm’s-length deliberation cannot fairly be applied in retrospect. Ie, “you had to be there.” Perhaps. (And, of course, we all were there.) In normal life we recognize the concept of decisions made in the heat of the moment, under time pressure, and without complete info. But it is worth noting that the central “torture memos” were from mid-summer 2002, nine months after the initial attacks — by people whose job was supposed to be providing beyond heat-of-the-moment counsel.

The “torture years” are now an indelible part of our history. The names Bybee and Yoo will always be associated with these policies. Whether you view them as patriots willing to do the dirty work of defending the nation — the Dick Cheney view, the 24 view, which equates the torture memos with Abraham Lincoln’s imposition of martial law — or view them as damaging America’s moral standing in ways that will take years to repair (my view), you owe it to yourself to read these original documents. I tried to make this point in more halting real-time fashion yesterday in a talk with Guy Raz on NPR.

Bill Burck and Dana Perino at The Corner:

On February 19, Attorney General Eric Holder took part in the time-honored Washington tradition of dumping undesired news on Friday afternoons or evenings. After weeks of leaks, the Justice Department officially exonerated Bush-era lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the authors of the original legal opinions on the lawfulness of the CIA interrogation program, which are known pejoratively as the “torture memos” to critics.

This is bad news for Holder and certain other Obama appointees at Justice — it undermines the story they’ve been telling for years that the lawyers who found the CIA program lawful were sadistic criminals committed to torturing poor souls such as Khalid Sheik Muhammad — but it is a vindication of an important principle that, prior to the Holder reign, had been adhered to across administrations: honestly held legal and policy opinions are not cause for prosecution or professional discipline.

For years now this principle has been under sustained attack by hard-core left-wing congressional partisans such as Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Patrick Leahy. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine some of the more wild-eyed among them searching for ways to revoke the law licenses of conservative Supreme Court justices. Fortunately, this country is not Venezuela — at least not yet; we should not rest easy.

This was a very narrow escape that came down to the brave decision of a long-time career official at Justice named David Margolis. Margolis is a widely respected 40-year veteran who has been tasked over the years with handling many of the more sensitive internal inquiries at the Justice Department. One of his responsibilities — which he has performed honorably for a number of different attorneys general in Democratic and Republican administrations — has been to oversee inquiries conducted by lawyers in the little-known Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR. OPR is the office that recommended Yoo and Bybee be subject to disciplinary proceedings. Margolis rejected OPR’s recommendation and most of its analysis.

OPR is the equivalent of internal affairs at a police department, conducting inquiries of alleged misconduct by Justice Department lawyers and other staff and making disciplinary recommendations. OPR has an important role to play to ensure that misconduct is discovered and punished. But OPR’s investigation of the legal advice provided by Yoo and Bybee was, by its own admission, extremely unusual.

OPR annointed itself to review the constitutional and legal analysis of Bybee and Yoo while they were leading the Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC. Along with the Solicitor General’s Office — which, among other things, represents the federal government in cases before the Supreme Court — OLC employs the Justice Department’s best lawyers on the most difficult constitutional and legal issues. OLC is tasked with providing legal advice to the entire federal government, including the White House.

We don’t mean to be insulting, but the plain fact is that OPR is not, and has never been, equipped to second-guess OLC. The office’s role is a limited one focused on ethical violations; it is not staffed with experts on constitutional law or national security. It would be preposterous to rely on OPR’s judgment about hard questions of constitutional and statutory law over that of OLC or the Solicitor General’s Office. As Andy McCarthy has said, “having OPR grade the scholarship of OLC is like having the Double-A batting coach critique Derek Jeter’s swing.”

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:

The case against Yoo and Bybee was always about criminalizing policy differences. Sure, it was talked about in heated rhetoric — War crimes!! Torture!! Crushed testicles!! — but the simple fact of the matter is that John Yoo was asked to render an opinion on the legal questions at hand, not to make policy or carry out that policy. Making the rendering of an honest opinion illegal strikes me as an incredibly pernicious attack on the independence of those working in the government.

Scott Horton at Harper’s:

As released, the OPR report is heavily redacted. No explanation is provided for the redactions, but the original contains a “top secret” classification, and it is likely that executive privilege, attorney-client privilege, and national security classifications figure in the decisions. Nevertheless, placement and circumstance suggest that a large number of redactions describe in detail meetings and discussions between the White House, the CIA, and the OLC lawyers working on the report.

Considering President Obama’s decision to terminate torture programs authorized by the OLC memos, all of which had already been rescinded before President Bush left office, it is not apparent how national security requires these communications to be kept secret. Far more likely, the redactions have been made to protect political figures at the White House and CIA, and potentially other agencies, from embarrassment. This is not a legitimate reason to black out the text.

A good example of potentially illegitimate redactions are those concerning repeated discussions about drafting the torture memoranda, which involve an unnamed OLC lawyer in addition to John Yoo and Jay Bybee. On p. 258, we learn that this lawyer “was a relatively inexperienced attorney when the Bybee and Yoo memos were being drafted. Although she appears to have made errors of research and analysis in drafting portions of the Bybee and Yoo memos, her work was subject to Yoo’s and Bybee’s review and approval. We therefore conclude that she should not be held professionally responsible for the incomplete and one-sided legal advice in the memoranda.” One woman working directly with John Yoo at OLC at this time was Jennifer Koester Hardy, now a partner in the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. In an apparent redaction oversight, Hardy is mentioned by name in a footnote.

Why was Hardy’s name redacted? She played an obvious and important role in the production of the documents. She made serious errors, which appear to be driven less by flaws in research than by a desire to produce an opinion that had the conclusions that David Addington wanted. The failure to identify key precedents and the malicious misconstruction of precedent is as much her fault as that of Bybee and Yoo. Hardy is also an ideological fellow traveler of Yoo’s and Bybee’s. In the midst of her work at the Justice Department, she took time off to serve as a clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, with whom John Yoo also clerked. Moreover, while she was clerking for Thomas, he authored opinions relating to detentions policy matters on which Hardy was plainly engaged at the Justice Department. Like Bybee, Yoo and Thomas, Hardy is also active in the Federalist Society. Finally, her connection with the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis is important for several reasons. Mark Filip, who worked aggressively to derail or block the OPR report, and whose highly partisan engagement on the matter is disclosed in several of the documents disclosed on Friday, departed the Justice Department to become Ms. Hardy’s partner at Kirkland. It’s certainly possible that he was engaged in discussions with Kirkland in late January 2009, when he issued his opinion about the OPR report. The Kirkland firm has emerged as a distinctly Republican powerhouse, heavily populated with the party’s neoconservative wing, such as Jay Lefkowitz, Ken Starr, John Bolton, and Michael Garcia.

So why would Hardy’s name be redacted? Disclosure of her name might get in the way of a future political appointment. It might also lead to a review by a local bar association of her involvement with the torture memos, something which Margolis is keen to obstruct.

Emily Bazelon at Double X:

The lawyer who helped John Yoo write the August 2002 torture memos was a law school classmate of mine at Yale. Her name is Jennifer Koester Hardy (when I knew her, it was Jennifer Koester; she has since gotten married). Her name was supposed to be redacted from the Justice Department ethics investigation into Yoo and Jay Bybee, his boss in the Bush Office of Legal Counsel. But a footnote identifies her, as TPM Muckraker tells us. She also co-wrote a law review article with Yoo. And in a July 2002 letter to CIA counsel John Rizzo, about what is necessary to establish torture as a crime, Yoo tells Rizzo to direct questions to him or to Koester.

After she worked with Yoo in 2002, Jen clerked for Clarence Thomas—she was his third Yale clerk, according to this list. Then I think she went back to the Justice Department. Now she’s a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis. In law school, she was hugely involved with the Federalist Society. I remember her as a religious Christian. Also as principled in her beliefs—thoughtful rather than knee-jerk. She had a lot of friends, many of whose politics she didn’t share. We graduated in 2000, before 9/11 put terrorism and national security on the radar and I don’t remember talking to her about anything related (nor do the classmates I talked to about her today). What we do remember is that Jen was a lot of fun. She helped mock the faculty in the end-of-year Law Revue spoof. She was talkative and smiled a lot. The DoJ investigators from the Office of Legal Counsel conclude that because she was inexperienced when she worked with Yoo, “she should not be held professionally responsible for the incomplete and one-sided legal advice in the memoranda.”

Emptywheel at Firedoglake

Adam Serwer at Coates place:

The theological justification for al Qaeda’s wholesale slaughter of civilians was provided by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, one of the founding fathers of al Qaeda. Because the murder of innocents is forbidden in Islam and the murder of Muslims in particular, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden required some sort of theological framework for justifying terrorism. This was provided by al-Sharif, who essentially argued in his book, “The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge,” that apostates could be murdered, and that approach, takfir (which has come to be known as takfirism) allowed al Qaeda to, for all intents and purposes, kill anyone they wanted without violating the laws of Islam by declaring them to be apostates. In other words, Dr. Fadl helped provided a theological justification for something that everyone involved knew was wrong.

The legal memos justifying torture aren’t very different in terms of reasoning–it’s clear that John Yoo and his cohorts in the Office of Legal Counsel saw their job not as binding the president to the rule of law, but to declare legal any tactic that the executive branch believed necessary to fight terrorism. They worked backwards from this conclusion, and ethics officials at the Department of Justice, we now know, decided that they they had violated professional standards in doing so. Whereas al-Zawahiri and bin Laden turned to al-Sharif for a method to circumvent the plain language of the Koran, Bush and Cheney went to Yoo and Jay Bybee to circumvent the plain language of the law. Most Islamic scholars, just like most legal experts, reject their respective reasoning as unsound.

The torture memos–indeed, all of the pro-torture arguments rest on a similar intellectual themes to the takfiris. Suspected terrorists are “illegal enemy combatants”, outside the framework of laws that would otherwise guide us. Just as the takfiris justify the killing of even self-identified Muslims by excommunicating them as “infidels”, torture apologists argue that even American citizens like Jose Padilla who are accused of being terrorists become legal “apostates” without any rights the president is bound to respect. These are extraordinary circumstances, this is an extraordinary war–and so, the Bush administration turned to Yoo, a man who believes the president is bound by no laws during wartime: he can murder a village of innocent civilian non-combatants just as surely as he can crush the testicles of a child or deploy the military against residents of the United States. The architects of torture are the intellectual mirror image of their declared enemies, depending on the perceived inhumanity of their foes to justify monstrous actions. It’s worth noting however, that the Bush administration did not take full advantage of the wrongs that the lawyers in their Office of Legal Counsel would have enabled. My point is not to equate the deeds of AQ with the deeds of the Bush administration–merely to point out justification for acts that are on their face unjustifiable take a similar intellectual path.

UPDATE: Emptywheel

New York Times

Scott Horton at Harper’s

Daphne Eviatar

UPDATE #2: John Yoo at The Philly Inquirer

2 Comments

Filed under GWOT, Torture

The Tennis Player, The Keystone Cops, And The British Passports

David Batty at The Guardian:

Amid the mounting diplomatic row over Mossad’s alleged assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai, the Israeli embassy has turned to Twitter to comment.

A tweet issued by the embassy today read: “@israeluk You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target http://ow.ly/18A79”. It links to a story about the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, who beat the top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki yesterday to reach the quarter-finals of the Dubai Championship.

But the tweet is open to interpretation. The Mossad hit squad accused of assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior figure from the militant group Hamas, at the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai were disguised as tennis players.

CCTV footage released by Dubai police shows the assassins dressed as tennis players following Mabhouh into the hotel lift as a member of staff showed him to his room.

Police said this was an attempt to note down his room number.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

The post isn’t there now; it’s not clear when it was taken down (see the screen shot above). It’s better down, as it’s really not funny—or maybe just funny in the sense of strange. The reference was to the victory of Shahar Peer, an Israeli tennis player, over Caroline Wozniacki, the top seed in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship. Apart from what Haaretz referred to as “criticism on grounds of taste,” the tweet was unfair to Peer, who has had her career politicized quite enough. Last year, she was denied a visa to take part in the tournament, and she’s been walking around Dubai surrounded by security guards. And tennis and politics had already been mixed enough in this case: in security videos released by the Dubai police, some of the alleged assassins are carrying rackets, presumably as camouflage. (The Economist described them as “stout figures in tennis gear.”) They also had wigs and fake mustaches: one surveillance clip shows a man entering a bathroom bald, and emerging hairy. (See Close Read’s earlier post on the assassination for more details.)

This is where one sympathizes with the Israeli-embassy Twitterer: there is certainly material for comedy in this story, starting with the Dubai police’s press conference on Monday unveiling the pictures, names, and passport numbers of the suspects—six, as it seemed, from Britain; three from Ireland; one each from France and Germany—only to have it emerge that the identities were assumed, the passports faked (the German one didn’t even have the right number of digits in its serial number). Most of the people didn’t exist, although half a dozen British-Israelis had had their identities stolen, and they were not very amused by the prospect of having Interpol after them. Reuters reported that they have been offered brand-new passports, to reduce the risk, a spokesman at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv said, that they might be “inadvertently detained.” It was mildly engaging to learn that the technical term to describe a fake passport based on a real passport is “cloned.” (See Shahida Tulaganova’s brilliant BBC report on how easy it is to get a fake E.U. passport, even when you don’t have the resources of an intelligence agency.) Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency is now investigating. The Dubai police mentioned that al-Mabhouh had bought a pair of shoes, while the Israelis, according to the Economist, put out “leaks to the effect that the victim was buying arms from Iran.” That would be much less entertaining. But other details were not entirely unfunny, like the New York Post headline on reports that the assassins used American credit cards: “ ‘Plastic’ explosive.” And then there was the outrage that the assassins had used Western European passports, as opposed to someone else’s, as if the problem, primarily, was one of etiquette. (What is the right nationality to wear to an assassination?) Some pointed out that the last time something like this happened, in the botched Israeli assassination of Khaled Mishal in 1997, fake Canadian passports were used; perhaps that option was dismissed this time in the spirit of the Olympics. And that, of course, leads back to the most and least funny part of the story: the question of Israel’s role.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that there was no evidence showing that the Mossad carried out the hit, although he added that “Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies.” Maybe it was someone else—do we know much of anything about the killers, other than that poor Melvyn Mildiner, like others whose identities were stolen, was not among the bewigged figures in Dubai? And yet in many quarters calling their nationality a mystery was laughable; the questions a number of British M.P.s were raising were less about whether the Israelis had done it than whether they had told Gordon Brown’s government first. (The Foreign Office denied that they had.) And it was the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, whom the Foreign Office called in because, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it, “We wanted to give Israel every opportunity to share with us what it knows about this incident.” Prosor told reporters afterward that he was “unable to add additional information.” Then he smiled.

So let me see if I can wrap my head around this: Israel tracked a Hamas terrorist to Dubai and executed him at close range and by hand so as to avoid any collateral damage to civilian life. Shouldn’t we be celebrating this as the way war should be conducted instead of putting our noses up in the air and acting as though we’re so much better when we lob a missile at a terrorist from an airplane?

I mean, look, I’m all in favor of lobbing missiles at terrorists from airplanes; it’d be nice to capture them alive and get some info out of them via harsh interrogations, but a Tomahawk up the keister works just as well as far as I’m concerned. But then you get all the hemming and hawing about “Oh, we’re just creating more terrorists when we accidentally kill an innocent bystander.” Well, there’s none of that here, is there? The guy was traced to his hotel room, zapped with a stun gun, and smothered to death. Quick and easy. If only all terrorists could meet the same fate.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Dubai police have released a video account painstakingly cataloging the sequence of events that led up to the January assassination — by smothering — of a Hamas terrorist and gunrunner in a swanky hotel.

The short version from DubaiTV is here:

[…]

The default assumption in such cases is Mossad involvement, though Israel’s elite clandestine service never confirms or denies such things. But now that 11 of the 17 suspects seen in the closed circuit tape have been “identified” — including three nonexistent Irish citizens, and six Britons and one German living in Israel who appear to be victims of identity theft — and the agents’ faces have been splashed across television screens, the hit is starting to look amateurish by Mossad standards. And it might just be the beginning of a major diplomatic incident.

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline:

Israel is receiving mounting criticism in connection with the murder in Dubai of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The slaying is assumed to be work of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad.

Mabhouh was a founding member of Hamas’ military wing and was linked to the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers years ago. More recently, he has been involved in supplying arms and money to Hamas militants in Gaza.

In light of Mabhouh’s past, the criticism of Israel (at least as presented in this Washington Post report) does not focus on the slaying itself. Rather, the critics cite improprieties in how Mossad (or whomever) went about getting to the terrorist.

Great Britain is unhappy that six of the 11 individuals thought to be part of the Mossad (or whomever) team used fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens. Prime Minister Gordon Brown sniffed that “the British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care.” However, I’m confident that if the agents had possessed real British passports, they would have held them carefully.

The Post also reports that Israeli citizens whose names appeared on the fake passports were “shocked to find themselves mentioned in the material released by the Dubai police.” No doubt. Israel’s position, though, is that “if there is concern about identity theft, those involved should consult a lawyer.” Always good advice.

But passport fraud and identity theft hardly exhaust the ways in which the slaying of Mabhouh affronts modern sensibilities. For example, the photos of the 11 suspects raise questions about the diversity of the team Mossad (or whomever) assembled. It includes only one woman (an attractive blond,naturally) and looks to be short on people of color.

There is also no indication that the team advised Mabhouh of his rights or offered him a chance to exculpate himself before he was killed. Indeed, from all that appears, no lawyer was present.

Finally, what about the carbon footprint of the operation? Did the team travel to Dubai in an energy efficient way? And how much electricity did they use once they arrived? Some reports say they used electricity to stun Mabhouh before killing him. Couldn’t he have been executed in a more energy efficient way?

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

Paul’s concerns to the contrary notwithstanding, the operation may in fact have been admirably “diverse.” This “diversity” adds context to the operation. The Guardian has reported that a “key security operative of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was under arrest in Syria tonight on suspicion of having helped an alleged Israeli hit squad identify Mahmoud al-Mabhouh before he was assassinated in Dubai[.]”

Our man in Damascus may not just have been a token. He appears to have been in good company. According to the Daily Mail, “[i]intelligence sources say al-Mabhouh was lured to a meeting in Dubai by two men who had worked with him in Hamas in Gaza.” Haaretz identifies the two Palestinians as Ahmad Hasnin, a Palestinian intelligence operative, and Anwar Shekhaiber, an employee of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The Daily Mail suggests that al-Mabhouh “did not realise they had defected to the more moderate Fatah, bitter enemies of Hamas, and were secretly working with the Israelis.”

The latest word from Dubai included more evidence of the operation’s tradecraft: “The director of the Dubai Police forensic medicine department revealed yesterday that finding the cause of al-Mabhouh’s death had been the most difficult post mortem he had ever done. British-trained Dr Fawzi Benomran said the killers had put his body in bed and covered it, to make it appear he had died in his sleep.”

According to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, Dubai police said Wednesday that they hold retinal scans of the suspected assassins. Given the volume of evidence, the story may yet resolve itself together with the weirdly misplaced indignation that surrounds it. And yet, one senses, such a resolution will not be conducive to a happy ending.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

Those JSOC guys doing America’s assassinating better make sure they don’t get caught using British passports. Because if the Brits’ claimed anger at Israel for giving its Mossad killers UK passports is any indication, it would not help relations.

Britain fired the first shot last night in a potentially explosive diplomatic row with Israel by calling in the country’s ambassador to explain the use of fake British passports by a hit squad who targeted Mabhouh in Dubai last month.

The Israeli ambassador was at the Foreign Office this morning for a brief meeting to “share information” about the assassins’ use of identities stolen from six British citizens living in Israel, as part of the meticulously orchestrated assassination of Mabhouh.

“After receiving an invitation last night, I met with Sir Peter Ricketts, deputy-general of the British foreign minister,” Ron Prosor said after the meeting. “Despite my willingness to co-operate with his request, I could not shed new light on the said matters.”

Britain has stopped short of accusing Israel of involvement, but to signal its displeasure the Foreign Office ignored an Israeli plea to keep the summons secret. “Relations were in the freezer before this. They are in the deep freeze now,” an official told the Guardian.

Of course, the UK is pissed about the passports, not necessarily about the assassination of a top Hamas figure more generally. So maybe Britain is okay with our assassinations squads, too.

But the very public response to the Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killing, as well as certain details like the involvement of the Palestinian Authority, is sure to bring some interesting scrutiny on our own practices (as a number of you have pointed out in comments).

And WTF? Did the clowns who botched the Abu Omar rendition in Italy teach this Mossad squad tradecraft? Or did they just misjudge Dubai’s willingness to play host to assassinations?

UPDATE: Eli Lake in the Washington Times

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink

UPDATE #2: Robert Wright and Jim Pinkerton at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #3: Scott H. Payne at The League

1 Comment

Filed under Israel/Palestine, Middle East

What We Are Talking About When We Say Certain Words, Part III

So, was Joe Stack a leftie or a rightie? And was he a terrorist?

Michael Tomasky at The Guardian:

Stack was in fact angry at everyone. Angry at the IRS. Angry at the government generally. Angry at unions. But also angry at corporate greed and at rich people and at “thugs and plunderers” of various stripe.

With one breath, he denounced the government’s heavy hand:

How can any rational individual explain that white elephant conundrum in the middle of our tax system and, indeed, our entire legal system? Here we have a system that is, by far, too complicated for the brightest of the master scholars to understand. Yet, it mercilessly “holds accountable” its victims, claiming that they’re responsible for fully complying with laws not even the experts understand.

But with another, he attacked the corporate greed that made (so far at least) healthcare reform impossible:

Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.

The guy obviously had some serious issues. But in its way Stack’s is an oddly compelling document. There’s something slightly touching about this:

Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless… especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head.

My feelings would be very different, of course, if he’d killed people. Tonight, tomorrow morning, we’ll find out perhaps whether he intended to but failed at that, too, as he had evidently failed at so many things in life, or whether he intentionally did this in such a way that the only life taken would be his own.

Clearly, he intended this act to spark political action on the part of others:

But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.

I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.

Does that make him a terrorist? It’s an interesting question. Was he trying to create terror among the citizenry? We don’t know yet. But we do know that he can’t be blamed squarely on either right or left.

Allah Pundit:

The irony of all this is that violent IRS-hating cranks have been around for decades, long before tea parties were a twinkle in Rick Santelli’s eye. The NYT, to its credit, puts today’s attack in context by highlighting a few examples from over the years — while also taking care to note that a firebomb set in 1990 came packed with a tea bag. (Wink wink.) And a bonus irony: Taxes have actually been a surprisingly minor issue for tea partiers thus far, due in part to the fact that Obama and the Dems haven’t made any aggressive moves on that front yet. The tea party, in my experience, has focused much more heavily on cutting spending, ending bailouts, and auditing the Fed than dismantling the IRS, let alone flying planes into it.

Naked Capitalism:

Note that he sees his violent response to his economic plight as a political act, a blow for freedom. I am certainly not advocating this course of action. But others start connecting at least some of the dots this way, seeing their financial stresses not as the result of bad luck or lack of sufficient effort, but as an indictment of the system. Given the breakdown of communities (for instance, the fall in involvement in local civic groups and shortened job tenures, both of which lead to weaker social ties and greater isolation), the odds that the disaffected will turn to violence is greater than in past periods of stress.

Andrew Sullivan:

But I want to make a few simple points: this was obviously an act of terrorism. When someone is mad at the government, and when he flies a plane into a federal building, killing two and traumatizing countless others and urges others to do the same, he is a terrorist.

Secondly, it is pernicious to define terrorism by the race or religion of its perpetrators. In the country I grew up in, London and the town where my sister’s family now lives, Guildford, endured brutal IRA bombings. These acts of terror were no less terror than Jihadist terror or far right domestic terrorism, such as Timothy McVeigh’s. Ordinary people were drinking a beer in a pub or shopping in a department store and blown to bits.

None approached the numbers killed in the mass murder of 9/11 in one incident, but over the years of terror, very large numbers of innocents were killed. What I find deeply alarming is that race is now beginning to define an act of terrorism in America. Fox News described the Fort Hood shootings as an act of terrorism, but did not describe the assassination of Dr George Tiller as an act of terrorism.

Both were politically motivated, and designed to foment terror, and both were influenced by extremist forms of religious teaching. Is terrorism defined by the number of people it kills? Or the race of the perpetrators? Or the religion of the terrorists? The Dish tries hard not to make such distinctions.

Terrorism is terrorism whoever does it. Torture is torture whoever does it. Murder is murder whoever does it. Just as I oppose affirmative action and hate crime laws, which make specious distinction on the basis of race and other characteristics, so I oppose making any distinction on those grounds when describing terrorism. That, I think, is a conservative position. And Fox News is not a conservative news organization. It is, in many ways, a racist and xenophobic one whose double standards are a result of pure prejudice not reason.

Glenn Greenwald:

Despite all that, The New York Times‘ Brian Stelter documents the deep reluctance of cable news chatterers and government officials to label the incident an act of “terrorism,” even though — as Dave Neiwert ably documents — it perfectly fits, indeed is a classic illustration of, every official definition of that term.  The issue isn’t whether Stack’s grievances are real or his responses just; it is that the act unquestionably comports with the official definition.  But as NBC’s Pete Williams said of the official insistence that this was not an act of Terrorism:  there are “a couple of reasons to say that . . . One is he’s an American citizen.”  Fox News’ Megan Kelley asked Catherine Herridge about these denials:  “I take it that they mean terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to?,” to which Herridge replied: “they mean terrorism in that capital T way.”

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.  The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.  It has really come to mean:  “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”  That’s why all of this confusion and doubt arose yesterday over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist:  he’s not a Muslim and isn’t acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the “definition.”  One might concede that perhaps there’s some technical sense in which term might apply to Stack, but as Fox News emphasized:  it’s not “terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to . . . terrorism in that capital T way.”  We all know who commits terrorism in “that capital T way,” and it’s not people named Joseph Stack.

Contrast the collective hesitance to call Stack a Terrorist with the extremely dubious circumstances under which that term is reflexively applied to Muslims.  If a Muslim attacks a military base preparing to deploy soldiers to a war zone, that person is a Terrorist.  If an American Muslim argues that violence against the U.S. (particularly when aimed at military targets) is justified due to American violence aimed at the Muslim world, that person is a Terrorist who deserves assassination.  And if the U.S. military invades a Muslim country, Muslims who live in the invaded and occupied country and who fight back against the invading American army — by attacking nothing but military targets — are also Terrorists.  Indeed, large numbers of detainees at Guantanamo were accused of being Terrorists for nothing more than attacking members of an invading foreign army in their country, including 14-year-old Mohamed Jawad, who spent many years in Guantanamo, accused (almost certainly falsely) of throwing a grenade at two American troops in Afghanistan who were part of an invading force in that country.  Obviously, plots targeting civilians for death — the 9/11 attacks and attempts to blow up civilian aircraft — are pure terrorism, but a huge portion of the acts committed by Muslims that receive that label are not.

In sum:  a Muslim who attacks military targets, including in war zones or even in their own countries that have been invaded by a foreign army, are Terrorists.  A non-Muslim who flies an airplane into a government building in pursuit of a political agenda is not, or at least is not a Real Terrorist with a capital T — not the kind who should be tortured and thrown in a cage with no charges and assassinated with no due process.  Nor are Christians who stand outside abortion clinics and murder doctors and clinic workers.  Nor are acts undertaken by us or our favored allies designed to kill large numbers of civilians or which will recklessly cause such deaths as a means of terrorizing the population into desired behavioral change — the Glorious Shock and Awe campaign and the pummeling of Gaza.  Except as a means for demonizing Muslims, the word is used so inconsistently and manipulatively that it is impoverished of any discernible meaning.

Matthew Yglesias:

But instead of complaining about the hypocrisy involved in not trying to whip people into a fit of terror and madness about this incident, I think it makes more sense to congratulate everyone on handling this in a calm and sensible manner. The key point, that all authorities seem to agree on, is that while this is a serious crime and a genuinely Bad Thing To Have Happen, that you need to put the likelihood of this sort of incident into a broader context. Simply put, the odds of “death by disgruntled anti-tax activist flying an airplane into your office” are extremely small and it’s extremely difficult to think of cost-effective and efficacious methods of ensuring that this never happens again. Off the top of my head, this looks to me like a demonstration of the desirability of better mental health services in the United States, but that’s something that I would think was true one way or the other.

Stack’s stated purpose for undertaking the attack was to try to prompt a counterproductive overreaction: “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.” It’s smart, then, that as a country we’re responding to his terrorism by trying to avoid counterproductive overreactions. But of course this is also Osama bin Laden’s goal and it’s also appropriate to respond to Islamist political violence in a similar spirit. We shouldn’t be indifferent to the risk of death by Islamist terrorism any more than we should be indifferent to America’s unusually high rate of non-political homicides or to America’s alarmingly high infant mortality rate or its large number of deaths in car crashes. But it’s important to try to think about all these problems in a rational spirit, and adopt reasonable policy responses.

David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars:

Now, it’s true that Homeland Security officials originally released this statement:

“We believe there’s no nexus with criminal or terrorist activity”

They later amended this to just say “terrorist activity.” Fox’s Catherine Herridge also reported that Homeland Security officials had briefed President Obama on the incident, and that he had been told “this was not an act of terrorism.”

So how did Fox’s anchors interpret all this?

Greg Jarrett:

And the president was told this was not an act of terrorism. We have not received word, though, as to whether the F-16s are still airborne, just in case, until the Department of Homeland Security and the military is absolutely satisfied that this is the act of a single individual who used a dangerous instrumentality, to be sure, a plane, as a weapon.

And it is akin, I suppose, Megan, to, you know, somebody who gets angry at a workplace, and takes a gun, or a knife, and goes in and begins to attack people. This is unusual because instead of a gun or an automobile, it was indeed an airplane. But it has happened before.

Megyn Kelly:

Our Homeland Security contacts telling us, this does not appear to be terrorism in any way that that word is conventionally understood. We understand from officials that this is a sole, isolated act.

Well, this is true only if the conventional understanding of the word “terrorism” has now been narrowed down to mean only international terrorism and to preclude domestic terrorism altogether.

Since when, after all, is attempting to blow up a federal office as a protest against federal policies NOT an act of domestic terrorism?

You know, Timothy McVeigh used a “dangerous instrument” to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. He too was angry at the federal government, and was converted to the belief that acts of violence was the only means possible to prevent the government from overwhelming our freedom and replacing it with tyranny. He also believed that his act of exemplary violence would inspire others to take up similar acts to stave off the threat of tyranny.

James Joyner:

That’s all true.  But that still doesn’t make every act of violence committed by someone angry at the government “terrorism.”  Who, exactly, was Stack trying to terrorize? What did he think he was going to accomplish?

McVeigh was a terrorist, without question, even though his act of mass murder had no significant chance of achieving his political aims.  Ditto, for that matter, the 9/11 attacks; just because al Qaeda’s goals are absurd doesn’t mean they’re not systematically trying to achieve them with violence.   But both plots created significant public terror and were at least highly organized toward achieving aims.   As best we call tell from early evidence, Stack was just mad as hell and hoping to draw attention to his “manifesto.”

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

I don’t have an opinion on whether Stack’s suicide crash was an act of terrorism, but I’m pretty sure it was an act of lunacy. That conviction is reinforced by reading Stack’s online apologia. For what it’s worth, that document is left wing, not right wing. But it’s hardly worth parsing the political views of the terminally disturbed. Actually, were the situation not tragic, it would be entertaining to try to piece together the facts of Stack’s run-ins with the law, based on his cryptic and unreliable, but sometimes revealing, account–sort of like reading Pale Fire.

Robert Wright and Ann Althouse at Bloggingheads

UPDATE: Robert Wright at NYT

Matt Steinglass

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink, here and here

Newsweek raps about the subject here. Greenwald responds to Newsweek here.

UPDATE #2: Ta-Nehisi Coates

UPDATE #3: Ben Adler at Newsweek responds to Greenwald

Devin Gordon e-mails Sully

UPDATE #4: Kathy Jones responds to Greenwald

E-mails between Greenwald and Gordon

Greenwald

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