Friday, October 03, 2014

Protecting the President

When somebody ran across the lawn and into the White House, it was the occasion for some pointed humor from the New Yorker's Andy Borowitz.   Obama to Move to Doorman Building skewered one aspect of this story.  Citing Security Concerns, Iraq's Prime Minister Cancels Visit to White House suggested another.

Then came further news that the intruder got pretty far into the White House, carrying a knife, with his guns left behind in his car.  And it wasn't funny anymore. The head of the Secret Service got grilled in a congressional hearing, and subsequently resigned.

Jelani Cobb (also in the New Yorker) spoke directly to the assassination fears that both preceded and followed this president's election.  He reminds us that there were black voters who didn't vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries as a favor to Michelle and their daughters.  He reminds us of the startling interview Mrs. Obama in which she responded to the fears that as a black man running for President, he was in danger:

Michelle replied that the dangers of the Presidency were not novel. “I don’t lose sleep about it,” she said. “Because the realities are, as a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station”—certainly the first time that this particular demographic truth has been enlisted as a reason to be optimistic about a black man’s prospects."

That's a devastating quote now, after (to take just one example) a black man was shot and killed in the aisles of a Wal-Mart.  But for the President, those fears have diminished, mostly because of Barack Obama's own demeanor, Cobb writes: "In 2008, Obama projected calm amid political turbulence. As President, this demeanor has been part of the reason that such fears have receded to the extent that they have. Yet a population that lived through the September 11th attacks can scarcely ever confuse remote likelihoods with complete impossibilities."

Now what seems to be a shocking White House vulnerability has been exposed, and it has been making news for days.  Terrorists around the world have certainly taken notice.  But it's even more dangerous than that.

 In this regard I think of beheading.  Until a month or so ago, beheading was so unthinkable that it was a joke about times long past.  But it isn't a joke anymore.  I was startled to see it referenced that way in a cartoon about it (once again, in the New Yorker) just from September.  More recently however, something that suggested beheading had to be cut out from a Doctor Who episode at the last minute.

But those weren't the only effects.  Suddenly there were news reports in the US of ordinary people beheading other ordinary people.  I recall seeing two, possibly there were more.  Maybe that doesn't qualify for going viral, but at the least it ceased to be unthinkable.

I seem to recall that this successful intruder followed a day or two after somebody else scaled the White House fence but was stopped on the lawn.  It's become thinkable.  The aura of invulnerability is gone.

It's also a reminder that those most virulently opposed to President Obama's very existence as President are likely to be among the most heavily armed private citizens in America.

It's likely that the White House is better prepared for an armed assault or terrorist attack than a lone man running amuck (but of course, the "lone man" has proven to be the deadliest danger in the past.) But we don't really know now, do we?

 It's certainly better that such a security breakdown was exposed without real damage.  It's good that Congress got upset about it, because Congress is as responsible as anyone else for it, as their stupid sequester cuts have left the Secret Service hundreds of agents short.  Now the guy who used to lead the detail that specifically protected President Obama has come out of retirement to take charge.  He's got some work to do, and fast.

Though some people profited, this country never got over the assassination of President Kennedy.  African Americans in particular have never gotten over the assassination of Martin Luther King.  It doesn't take much imagination to understand the stakes.  

Update: I don't much trust the Politico site, but I do trust the writer Marc Ambinder, and his piece on the Secret Service is revealing, and troubling.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Environment Is The Economy

The numbers assigned to the climate march in New York have grown.  Bill McKibben in the New Yorker notes: "The Times, quoting a Carnegie Mellon data analyst and thirty-five crowd spotters, estimated that the marchers numbered three hundred and eleven thousand; Fox News said four hundred thousand. The point is, it was huge: a sprawling crowd of the kind that comes along once in a generation, one of the largest political gatherings about anything in a very long time."

Responding to someone who saw this as proof that people really do care about the climate crisis, McKibben writes that he believes they care but: "I’ve always thought that, to the contrary, climate change caused a peculiar combination of deep dread and a sense of powerlessness."

Individuals think they can't do much and they're right, McKibben says." warming is fundamentally a structural problem, driven above all by the fact that there’s no price on carbon."  Others emphasize different bigger than driving a Prius changes; Charles C. Mann in the Atlantic suggests that shutting down the 7,000 or so coal-fueled power plants in the world would pretty much do the trick.  But Mann agrees with McKibben in this respect: climate needs a movement. McK:

"That is one of the reasons numbers matter: they build on themselves, speaking to the part in each of us that doubts change can really happen. But numbers also say something to the larger world; they are the basic currency a movement relies on. The fossil-fuel industry represents the one per cent of the one per cent; lacking scientific arguments, its advocates use their only asset, an unparalleled pool of cash, to maintain the status quo. If the rest of us are going to shake up the planetary gestalt, our equivalent currency is bodies—and the passion, spirit, and creativity they contain.

To borrow a metaphor from the fossil-fuel age, our job is to inject pressure into the system. Marches aren’t subtle; they don’t lay out detailed manifestos (and, in any event, economists have been telling us for a quarter century what we need to do—beginning, again, with putting a price on carbon). Movements work by making the status quo impossibly uncomfortable—by deploying people, arguments, metaphors, and images until our leaders have no choice but to change and, in so doing, release some of that pressure."

In the meantime, the evidence keeps coming in.  NOAA affirms that 2013 heat waves were made worse by global heating.  A Stanford scientist says the California drought this time is linked to the climate crisis.

To emphasize this is not the only problem--or more to the point--it is not merely a technical problem--there's the World Wildlife Fund finding that human civilization has killed off half the "non-human vertebrae animal population" on the planet since 1970.  Actually the years were 1970 to 2010: 40 years.

The reasons had to do with habitat destruction, exploitation and pollution.  Global heating makes it all worse, when combined with human population, industrialization and urban sprawl. This is more than be nice to our fellow creatures, as this Washington Post Wonkblog piece explains. We're using more "resources" than can be replaced or healed, and therefore sustained.  The environment is the economy.  Until we all figure that out, we're arguing over nothing.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Addressing the Future

President Obama made two (or at least two) significant speeches last week, both to the United Nations.

On September 23, he spoke  about the climate crisis to the UN Climate Summit.  (Here's the video.  Here's the transcript.)

He began: "For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease-- there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate."

"So the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call. We know what we have to do to avoid irreparable harm. We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid. And we have to work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late.

We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair. Not when we have the means -- the technological innovation and the scientific imagination -- to begin the work of repairing it right now.

As one of America’s governors has said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

After describing US efforts and successes in his administration, he challenged his audience: And today, I call on all countries to join us -– not next year, or the year after, but right now, because no nation can meet this global threat alone.

"Yes, this is hard. But there should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognize our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation –- developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass."

"For I believe, in the words of Dr. King, that there is such a thing as being too late. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate while we still can."

He ended his speech, which contained many specifics, by returning to the necessary perspective:

"This challenge demands our ambition. Our children deserve such ambition. And if we act now, if we can look beyond the swarm of current events and some of the economic challenges and political challenges involved, if we place the air that our children will breathe and the food that they will eat and the hopes and dreams of all posterity above our own short-term interests, we may not be too late for them.

While you and I may not live to see all the fruits of our labor, we can act to see that the century ahead is marked not by conflict, but by cooperation; not by human suffering, but by human progress; and that the world we leave to our children, and our children’s children, will be cleaner and healthier, and more prosperous and secure."

On September 25, President Obama addressed the General Assembly with a vision of the world and its future.  (Here's a summary with the video at the bottom.  Here's the transcript.)  This speech was widely praised (for example by Thomas Wright at the Brookings Institute who calls it a major turning point, and conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks, who calls it "one of the finest speeches of his presidency.")

After listing the positive change in the postwar era, President Obama called to account "the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We, collectively, have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.

"Fellow delegates, we come together as united nations with a choice to make. We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or we can allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability. We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability. And for America, the choice is clear: We choose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs. We choose to work for the world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be."

He spoke of the specific challenges of the Ukraine, ISIL and Ebola, about Iran and spread of nuclear weapons, about eradicating poverty, returning to the climate crisis before returning in detail to terrorism.

"In other words, on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century. If we lift our eyes beyond our borders -- if we think globally and if we act cooperatively -- we can shape the course of this century, as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age."

He spoke of the threat of violent terrorism, acknowledged the breeding grounds of poverty, economic travail and hopelessness but repeated his comdemnation of ISIL and its savagery: "No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning -- no negotiation -- with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death." 

He spoke not only of military force but of exposing, confronting and refuting hate-filled propaganda using the Internet as they do, and other efforts.

"It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children are born hating, and no children -- anywhere -- should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they're Christian, or because they're Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology."

He continued with a sophisticated analysis and plan of action for confronting and ending intolerance.  He spoke of the heartless folly of sectarian violence, and the international and political responsibilities to encourage and build inclusive institutions.  "Cynics may argue that such an outcome can never come to pass. But there is no other way for this madness to end -- whether one year from now or ten."

He spoke directly to the young in the Middle East, beginning with a sincere and accurate appeal to the best of their history: "You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it."

He gave examples of successful collaborations in creating inclusive institutions in the Middle East.  He was blunt is saying that the present situation with Israel and Palestine is not sustainable.

 He admitted (much to the chagrin of Fox News) that America itself is not perfect.
"But we welcome the scrutiny of the world -- because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect, to bridge the divides that existed at the founding of this nation. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short."

He closed again with his sights on the future, and on the changing attitudes of young people.  "Around the world, young people are moving forward hungry for a better world. Around the world, in small places, they're overcoming hatred and bigotry and sectarianism. And they're learning to respect each other, despite differences."

"The people of the world now look to us, here, to be as decent, and as dignified, and as courageous as they are trying to be in their daily lives. And at this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come. I ask that you join us in this common mission, for today’s children and tomorrow’s."