Monday, September 1, 2014

Faux War

— War, children, is just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.
—Mick Jagger, Gimme Shelter (1969)

Wars can, of course, be started quite by accident. They can be started because the warriors on one side or the other are overly enthusiastic about what they are doing and their enthusiasm leads them to do things that may have unintended consequences. They can also be started because one side or the other lacks a sense of direction and accidentally invades another country. Or they can be started because scenes from video games appear on the internet and give the impression that aggressive acts are taking place that are in fact not taking place except in the mind of the creator of the games but the other side is unaware that what appears to be an invasion is in fact merely an illusion. All those things have been happening in the Ukraine but as Vladimir Putin would be the first to explain, there has been no invasion of that country by Russian forces.

The first thing one must keep in mind is that there are really no Russian soldiers involved in that conflict. Some of the Russians who are there are soldiers, but they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers- except insofar as fighting as a soldier is considered being a soldier. Explaining when a soldier is not a soldier, Alexander Zakharchenko, the East Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist leader explained it this way: “Among us are fighting serving soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom. . . . There have been around 3,000 to 4,000 of them in our ranks.” He refers to them as soldiers but since they are in fact on leave they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers but as citizen volunteers. The fact that some of them were seen driving Russian issued armored vehicles is no surprise because it is not unlikely that in Russia a soldier on leave is required to take his or her armored vehicle with him or her to the beach or wherever the soldier is planning to go on vacation, in order to keep it in good running shape.

It is not only the vacationing soldier who can create the impression of an invasion. The same thing can happen when a soldier with a bad sense of direction and no GPS wanders into what would be considered enemy territory if the territory into which he or she wandered was at war with the country on the other side of the border. That happened to at least 10 Russian paratroopers in late August.

There was no suggestion at the time of their capture inside Ukraine that they were folks who had foregone a beach vacation in order to enjoy some rest and recreation time in Ukraine and, accordingly no one suggested that they were not in fact acting as soldiers. They were apparently real paratroopers doing real paratrooper kind of work and they simply got confused as to where the border between Russia and the Ukraine was. Since they mostly enter countries from the air and the pilot of the airplane tells them where they should land, it’s easy to see how that mistake could happen. A Russian defense ministry spokesman said the paratroopers who had probably come in from the air, were “patrolling the Russian-Ukrainian border, [and] crossed it by accident on an unmarked section.” He went on to point out that they offered no resistance when they were captured thus conclusively demonstrating that they were not engaged in hostile activity but were simply lost.

Another thing that can cause a war to start by accident is if one side, in order to demonstrate the bad acts of the other side, broadcasts to the world images of a purported aggressor sending self-propelled armored vehicles into another country if those images are in fact simply images taken from a video game. That happened on August 26 when NATO showed pictures of a convoy of self-propelled armored vehicles that appeared to be driving into the Ukraine. The images were, of course, not real. Russia’s Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov explained that NATO was using “images from computer games” to prove that there were Russian troops in the Ukraine. He said, referring to these images, that “hiding the evidence is an outstanding characteristic of the U.S. and many EU countries” when it comes to the Ukraine. (It is not clear why showing a video from a computer game would be considered “hiding the evidence” and no one asked Mr. Lavrov to explain.) Of course if those pictures were not from a video game Mr. Lavrov would have had a tough time explaining why their entering Ukraine was not part of an invasion.

If it were not for the helpful explanations by Mr. Putin’s assorted spokesmen we might be concerned about how events in Ukraine will ultimately play out. For good reason.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Missouri-Show Me What?

I come from a state that raises corn . . .and Democrats and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.
— Willard Duncan Vandiver, Speech at Naval Academy 1899

In order to place things in perspective when looking at Missouri it helps to consider that there are worse things in that fair state than the Ferguson police department. Consider the justices on its Supreme Court, the state legislature and, as they most recently demonstrated, its voters.

The Justices on the Missouri Supreme Court have spent considerable time during the last few years on lawless excursions in the state’s death chambers. The Justices have repeatedly shown that they do not subscribe to the legal principles followed by most state courts. The principles they ignore are those that require that executions of those on death row should not take place while the prospective beneficiaries of the process have appeals pending before federal courts requesting postponement of the event. In a thoughtful dissent in the 2014 case of Zink, Nicklasson et al vs. Lombardi Judge Herbert Bye, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, reviewed the Missouri Supreme Court’s unwillingness to defer to federal courts when it came to executions. In his dissent he wrote that: “Missouri has a well-documented history of attempting to execute death row inmates before the federal courts can determine the constitutionality of the executions.” He observed that among the court’s many wanderings through the death penalty process was the 1983 case of Doyle Williams. The Missouri Supreme Court set a time for Mr. Williams to expire at the hands of the executioner before the time for Mr. Williams to appeal his conviction and death sentence had expired. In staying the execution, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun explained to the Missouri Justices that legal protocol required that condemned criminals should not be killed by the state until all their federal appeals had been exhausted. A few months later the Missouri Justices again set a date for executing four condemned men before the time for them to appeal had run and again Justice Blackmun admonished the Missouri Justices saying: “If Missouri fails to fulfill its responsibility, I shall fulfill mine.” The Missouri Justices who did not appreciate being admonished by a United States Supreme Court Justice ignored Justice Blackmun and continued in their free wheeling ways. In January 2014 they permitted the executioner to execute Herbert Smulls 30 minutes before the U.S. Supreme Court had acted on Mr. Smulls’ request for a stay. (The Justices were prescient-Mr. Smull’s request was turned down-after he was dead.) It is not only the court that acts in ways that non-Missourians find difficult to understand. The legislature is a close second.

In 2007 the Missouri legislature repealed a law that had been in effect for several years requiring would-be gun buyers to be vetted and licensed by a local sheriff prior to the purchase. According to a “report”: in the Journal of Urban Health following that law’s repeal there were an additional 60 gun-related murders in that state each year between 2008 and 2012. In February 2014 the Missouri legislature considered another broad gun rights bill. One of its provisions required that a gun owner report the theft of a firearm within 72 hours after discovering the theft. The NRA believed that such a reporting provision implicated the 2d Amendment’s guarantees and at its urging, that provision was stripped from the bill. Although the NRA’s rationale is not immediately obvious, it may well be that if a person reports to authorities that his or her gun has been stolen the person is admitting that he or she had a gun and that is clearly no one’s business and a violation of the reporter’s second amendment rights. The people of Missouri, of course, elect their legislators and a recent vote suggests they get what they deserve.

On August 5, 2014 voters approved Amendment 5 to the Missouri Constitution by a 64% margin. That amendment states that: “The right of every citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person, family and property, or when lawfully summoned in aid of the civil power, shall not be questioned. The rights guaranteed by this section shall be unalienable. The state of Missouri shall be obligated to uphold these rights and shall under no circumstances decline to protect against their infringement.” Michael Boldin, the Executive Director of the Tenth Amendment Center, said that the passage of the amendment was merely the first step in nullifying all federal gun laws and regulations in force in Missouri. As he explained: “Today was step one. Step two is now. Pass the 2d Amendment Preservation Act, banning state enforcement of every so-called federal gun law. And from there, step three and four will be to bring gun control to an end in Missouri.”

Missouri calls itself “The Show Me State.” Someone should accept its invitation. It needs all the help it can get.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Congress on the Playground

It could probably be shown by facts and figures
that there is no distinctly native American criminal
class except Congress. —Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Now that members of Congress have returned to the playground at home to enjoy recess time (a considerably longer time than when the members were physically in grade school) it seems appropriate to contemplate what their absence from Washington means for the country. What it does not mean is that because its members are in the playground there will be no new laws passed. No new laws were being passed before they went off to play. What it does mean, however, is that fewer hearings will be conducted.

Congressional hearings are what members of Congress engage in when they have nothing else to do. Ostensibly the purpose of hearings is to learn about problems that Congress can solve through legislation. Since Congress no longer legislates, hearings are principally designed to enable those conducting the hearings to make headlines. If a hearing is especially successful it can be used to embarrass the person who is testifying. This is especially useful if the hearing is conducted by a member of one party and the witness is a member of the other party. If the embarrassment is really good, the person conducting the hearing may conduct lots of hearings on the same subject just for the sake of getting publicity.

The tragedy that took place in Benghazi has been treated by Republicans as a windfall. They are, of course, sorry that Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya in 2012, and three other Americans were killed in that attack but they have not permitted that to deter them from holding 13 hearings and 50 briefings as of this writing and producing 25,000 pages of documents that will never be read by anyone should members of Congress ever decide the hearings should draw to a close. That will not happen for a while. The House Select Committee plans to hold more hearings in September. Since an independent investigation has extensively examined the event and shown what lapses were responsible for the event, the main purpose of the new hearings is to prove that Hillary Clinton is responsible for the death of the ambassador. Were she to announce that she does not plan to run for president, the committee would call off the hearings. Of course the Benghazi hearing is one of only many hearings that the Republican members of the House have conducted. Another was precipitated by the exchange of Taliban militants held for years without charges at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, the president authorized the release of five Taliban militants from Guantánamo without giving Congress 30 days’ notice as required by the National Defense Authorization Act. The president saw a small window of opportunity to negotiate the sergeant’s release and decided to get the sergeant through that window lest it shut before he could act. Commenting on the release Senator James Inhofe (R. -OK) said: “Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.” Mr. Inhofe’s joy at the release of Sgt. Bergdahl is probably no less great than his joy at the opportunity to conduct yet another hearing to demonstrate that congress has a role to play in governing the country even without passing any laws. In addition it afforded Republicans a different platform than the Affordable Care Act from which to attack President Obama. There can never be enough platforms as they have repeatedly demonstrated.

Not all hearings are designed to attack the president. Some are designed to permit congressmen to demonstrate their wisdom and their grasp of important affairs of which their constituents may have been unaware because of the dumb things they so often say. One such hearing took place in June at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on religious freedom, a hot topic if ever there was one and one that beggared a hearing. Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was testifying before the Committee on the issue of the separation of church and state. The hearing gave Louie Gohmert, a congressman from Texas, the opportunity to get some important information in the public record. Demonstrating the same tolerance for those who do not subscribe to his religious beliefs as ISIS shows to those who do not subscribe to their beliefs, Mr. Gohmert asked Mr. Lynn: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs.” After Mr. Lynn expressed disagreement with Mr. Gohmert’s assertion the Congressman said: “So, you do not believe somebody would go to Hell if they do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.” His comments will come as a bit of a surprise to those who had not thought they were heading for hell because they did not share Mr. Gohmert’s religious views. Indeed, many people think the country is going to hell not because of its religious beliefs but because of the behavior of Mr. Gohmert and many of his colleagues in the United States Congress. Those who think that are right. Mr. Gohmert is wrong.