a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.

“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world […]

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Post, Review | 2 Comments »

FISA since 9/11 — color-coded for your convenience

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th September 2007

Thanks to the latest advances in technology, we can now not just be subject to electronic surveillance without warrant, but can also examine with great precision the laws allegedly permitting the government to do so. Surveillance law expert David Kris has helpfully provided a color-coded document showing just how much FISA has changed since 9/11/2001.

Orange underlined and strikeout font show additions and deletions due to the “Protect America Act” cave-in from earlier this summer, red edits are for those due to the 2001 “USA PATRIOT Act”, and so forth. A key is provided at the top of the document.

Via Kim Zetter at “Threat Level,” a WIRED Magazine blog.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »

9/11, the salience of mortality, and the future of American democracy

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th September 2007


These two questions are part of one kind of psychological experiment* designed to measure the difference in subsequent behavior between people confronted with thinking about their own death, and those not so confronted. Using methods like these, psychology researchers are zeroing in on a truth that is still not well enough, or widely enough, understood about events like 9/11: they really do change everything — that is, they really do change the way people, in the aggregate, think about everything.

Mortality salience
In “Death Grip: How political psychology explains Bush’s ghastly success,” John Judis of The New Republic provides an overview of this research, called variously “mortality salience theory” or “terror management theory.” Judis recalls going door to door in West Virginia in the June and then just before the 2004 election, and being struck by how skeptical voter attitudes towards Bush had reversed and solidified into Bush support. In contrast to “rational choice theory” which presupposes, well, rational choice, Judis explains that

[t]here is, however, one group of scholars — members of the relatively new field of political psychology — who are trying to explain voter preferences that can’t be easily quantified … the research that is perhaps most relevant to the 2004 election has been conducted by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. In the the early 1980s, they developed what they clumsily called “terror management theory.” Their idea was not about how to clear the subways in the event of an attack, but about how people cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as human beings, we are destined to die. Their experiments showed that the mere thought of one’s mortality can trigger a range of emotions — from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.

(Links added.) Judis goes on to explain how the three researchers were influenced by the work of Ernest Becker, whose final book, “The Denial of Death,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Based on Judis’ explanation — but without having read Becker’s book — I’d venture to say the fear of death is a subsurface foundation of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

Judis describes remarkable and apparently widely reproduced results indicating that people recently confronted with thoughts of their own death or death in general are more likely to

  • take a negative view of essays critical of the United States (American respondents),
  • take a negative view of essays by “outsiders” (such as Jews, in a survey of Christians, or Turks, in a survey of Germans)
  • favor a “charismatic” leader telling them they were not ordinary, but part of a special nation

Moreover, the effects remained when the respondents were unconscious of what was going on — and they were readily extended to the effects of reminders of 9/11. Similar to how subliminal exposure to the word “death” caused respondents to complete “coff-” as “coffin” rather than “coffee”, subliminal exposure to the phrases “9/11” and “WTC” did so as well.

How to hack a presidential election
In a key 2004 experiment, Rutgers students were subjected to mortality reminders, and then compared to a control group for their likelihood to vote for Bush. The control group favored Kerry by four to one — while those reminded of death favored Bush by two to one. Judis:

This strongly suggested that Bush’s popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden’s video on October 29, and the Bush campaign’s reiteration of the terror threat… were integral to Bush’s victory.

It certainly didn’t hurt.

What remains unclear from Judis’ article is why not everyone responded the same way to 9/11, or to reminders about it. Of course, not everyone in the classic “mortality salience” experiments reacted the same way either; maybe it’s some uncharted psychological predisposition, maybe it’s a difference in what happened to them the morning of the experiment.

Likewise, maybe Americans with an actively hostile stance towards Bush at the time of 9/11, or thereafter, were “immunized” from the “mortality salience” effect Pyszczynski et al describe. Or maybe the “mortality salience” effect was enhanced for people with deeper empathies for the victims, higher exposure to TV broadcasts about the attacks, or being part of a crowd or a group co-experiencing the attacks or their aftermath. Looking overseas, maybe repeat exposure to mortality reminders dulls the effect — after all, the IRA or the Red Army Fraction terror campaigns in the U.K. and Germany didn’t result in the same kind of “ghastly successes” that Bush, Rove, and Cheney celebrated.

But maybe that’s also because the peoples involved still remember far worse than a band of criminals on a terror spree — and because their political systems made it harder for a ‘commander in chief’ to exploit fear the way our current rulers have.

Falling man, 9/11. Richard Drew, AP.

“Nobody jumped.”
Similarly, American reactions to the deaths of 9/11 hint at a particular vulnerability. The national allergic reaction to the “Falling Man” photo is Exhibit A. Under guise of outrage, concern for privacy, and the welfare of children reading newspapers, to name a few, that photo — arguably the Tomb of the Unknown 9/11 Victim — was “airbrushed from history,” as the Falling Man documentary film by Henry Singer and Richard Numeroff put it.**

The need to deny that people in extremis had to choose one nightmarish death over another was widespread, as writer Tom Junod found when he set out to investigate who the iconic falling man was:

I talked to the coroner’s office in New York; I asked them for a count of how many people jumped that day. And what the woman from the coroner’s office said was ‘Nobody jumped that day. They were blown out, they were forced out… we don’t say that they jumped. Nobody jumped.’

That just made me feel that there was just something going on that was not familiar American territory about dealing with tragedy. There were just things about that day you weren’t supposed to say, you weren’t supposed to see, you weren’t supposed to talk about.”

Fear itself
We are frequently reminded that the next terror attack is a matter of “when, not if.” We should see such reminders for what they are: the self-serving comments of those who need American citizens to remain in a defensive crouch, dreading the next blow, applauding whatever is done to ward it off.

It’s prudent to identify threats and reduce or eliminate them; it’s prudent to calmly and quietly prepare for what may come, so attacks are thwarted and those that aren’t are survived by as many as possible. But it’s also prudent to steel ourselves for what happens after an attack: anger, grief, and fear — and the exploitation of that anger, grief and fear, then or later, by whatever unlikely figures (Dubya, Rudy, etc.) happened to be on hand to simulate leadership in our hours of need.

Because if Pyszczynski et al are right, it’s not just the Roves, the Bushs and the Cheneys I’ll need to be on my guard against — I’ll need to keep a close eye on myself as well. It’s not that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself — it’s that fear, particularly the fear of death, preys on us in ways that predictably distort and damage the way we live.

* From the “Research Materials” section of the Terror Management Theory site maintained by TMT researcher Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri).
** Tellingly, the US debut of the film is only today, on the Discovery Channel; it’s already been seen in Britain and Britain, in March and September of last year.

NOTES: I first wrote about Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon in August, 2004: “Fear works. What works better?” A documentary — “Flight From Death: A Quest for Immortality” — has been made about the issues raised by their work and that of Ernest Becker; judging by the trailer on YouTube, it looks extraordinary. A more recent post of mine — “The Illuminated Crowd” — is also an attempt at discussing the political psychology of 9/11, in reaction to a remarkable sculpture of the same name in Montreal, and the famous work “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti.

EDITS, 9/10: final sentence, “applauding” line, 2d footnote added; “American citizens” for “country.”
UPDATE, 9/10: Surprisingly, there’ve been only a few other reactions to Judis’s article so far. Among them, Kim Sbarcea (“Thinking Shift”) notes that Giuliani is ringing the changes on death reminders; Alan Bock sees something perverse in seemingly celebrating events like 9/11 or Katrina, rather than simply commemorating them. After having written a five part series in 2006 on fear and environmentalism, David Roberts (“Gristmill”) uses Judis’ article to argue that “fear of death leads to authoritarianism, not sustainability”; many comments followed. (Via Ken Stokes of “SusHI”). Via her blog, Rachel Maddow discussed it on her Air America radio show on 8/31.
2D UPDATE, 9/10: OK, a lot more reactions to the accessible online version of “Death Grip,” including Avedon Carol and (via her) Kevin Maroney.

Posted in Post | 4 Comments »

The Illuminated Crowd

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd August 2007

“A crowd has gathered, facing a light, an illumination brought about by a fire, an event, an ideology –
or an ideal. The strong light casts shadows, and as the light moves toward the back and diminishes,
the mood degenerates; rowdiness, disorder and violence occur, showing the fragile nature of man.
Illumination, hope, involvement, hilarity, irritation, fear, illness, violence, murder and death –
the flow of man’s emotion through space.”
— Raymond Mason, The Illuminated Crowd  (sculpture and words, 1985, Montreal)

Bear with me here; I doubt this will be an essay for the ages with a neatly constructed argument and conclusion. Instead, I’m going to wander around a bit, because I’m not sure where this is all headed myself.

We came across this sculpture while wandering about Montreal last week. It’s on the Avenue McGill, just up the street from Indigo Books, and just down the street from McGill University, seemingly just another piece of plastic/corporate/civic art, in this case set in front of a faceless black glass and steel headquarters for one BNP Paribas Bank.

Onlookers react to WTC collapse.
Angel Franco/New York Times.
Also at

Another crowd, sixteen years later
I’d never heard of it. But as I came closer, and read the words, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was like coming across a prediction of that September day going on six years ago, a prediction of how we — or at least I and many like myself — would react.

On the surface, of course, are the immediate reactions to an immediate, transfixing event. Mason’s sculpture is all but a pre-enactment of photos like this one.* But Mason had more in mind than a crowd merely gaping at a disaster; it seems to me he was also driving at the repercussions over time of the fire, event, ideology — or the fiery ideological event. As the description implies, you find expressions of despair, rage, fear, and finally acts of violence as you walk along the side of the sculpture group.

And that surely fits, too.

There’s been an interesting set of posts touching on this lately. Roy Edroso’s Writing Lesson contrasts a forthright statement by one individual, Christopher Hitchens, with a less forthright paraphrase of the same by Rod Dreher. In his 2002 Boston Globe piece, Hitchens recalls his sense of exhilaration as the implications he saw in 9/11 crystallized for him:

In order to get my own emotions out of the way, I should say briefly that on that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a traveling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.**

As Edroso acknowledges, this is at least interesting and honest: “[o]ne of the things I still admire about Hitchens’ writing is that I believe him: not his belligerent analyses, but his portrayal of his own thoughts and feelings.” And in the daisy chain of posts leading back from Dreher through Ross Douthat to the original rediscoverer, Julian Sanchez, there’s a common thread that there was something oddly “special” and unifying, even exhilarating, about 9/11. Sanchez:

…it is hard not to get caught up in that feeling. I recall Camus writing something similar about the feeling among members of the French Resistance, who in conditions that surely licensed despair felt a kind of supernatural energy at the chance to throw themselves into a cause so clearly vital and right, who saw that never again would their lives be so invested with meaning.

Canetti the Inevitable
But I think what Mason’s sculpture suggests — clearly, it proves nothing, it’s “just” a very interesting sculpture — is that there may have also been less to it than that.*** I hesitate to cite this, because I haven’t read it in full, so it seems like name dropping. Plus it seems a little wide of the mark in some ways. But here goes anyway, from Elias Canetti’s famous work “Crowds and Power”:

The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.

These differences are mainly imposed from outside; they are distinctions of rank, status and property. Men as individuals are always conscious of these distinctions; they weigh heavily on them and keep them firmly apart from one another… […]

Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd. During the discharge distinctions are thrown off and all feel equal. In that density, where there is scarcely any space between, and body presses against body, each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.

But the moment of discharge, so desired and so happy, contains its own danger. It is based on an illusion; the people who suddenly feel equal have not really become equal; nor will they feel equal forever.

Like Mason’s sculpture, this proves nothing, but it’s surely apropos. I think many of us — again, me included, but maybe also Hitchens included — did feel a certain relief and exhilaration at being “united” about something again. It’s very seductive to be part of a crowd, even a virtual one glued to our TV sets, or our online news reports — or our warblogger echo chamber. In Terrorism, Crowds and Power, and the Dogs of War, Lesley Brill wrote:

Alongside the grief, fright, and disgust, however, one sensed a swelling pleasure, even exuberance, as among the stunned, delighted audience of an over-the-top horror movie. Was it because at last, after nearly thirty years, there was a real battle to join? […]

Here, finally, came a crisis worthy of our half-trillion-dollar-a-year armed forces, one offering moral certitude and potential redemption. With it arrived a dreary, increasingly dangerous bonus: “After 9/11” instantly replaced “In the new Millennium” as the signal cliché for declaring Now to be definitively different from an outmoded Then.

So what
So how to wrap up? What to conclude? Like I said, I’m not sure; this is all pretty tenuous, plucked helter skelter from sociological meditation, art, and sundry quick stops along the Internet.

I guess it makes me not dismiss Dreher’s allegedly “groupthink” reaction too much. It’s just that the “clarity” he felt wasn’t clarity so much as being spellbound and thinking that was clarity. At any rate, this sense of awesome togetherness was real — and it was predictable.

The 9/11 moment was designed to be a gigantic groupthink moment, a “where were you when” moment — an illuminated crowd moment. A nation in its millions transfixed, grieving, enraged — and yes, comforted by the knowledge that you were part of a crowd, that nearly everyone else was feeling what you were feeling, too. I’m not saying Dreher was more honest than Hitchens, just that I think his reactions were believable too. (Not especially worthy, just believable.) Many people thought not in “I,” but in “we.”

So when Sanchez argues that Rove misplayed that violin, I suppose I disagree a bit with that, too. There may have been no good tune to play on that violin; this wasn’t ever going to be the few, the proud, the Resistance, this was going to be an echoing mass moment on CNN, brought to you by Bin Laden first, and Rove and Bush thereafter. I don’t disavow how I felt or how angry I was or that I wanted to see Bin Laden pounded flat or that I liked the unity I felt in that. I do see how predictable I was, and how easily the country (and I) could be played for suckers in the ensuing months and years.

So what’s the antidote to all that? Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe that’s people for ya, at least most people.

But maybe being a little forewarned is to be a little forearmed if there’s another 9/11. Beware of that pointing guy, saying “follow me, children! I’m sure I know what it all means.” Or maybe the essential antidote is simply remembering Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s insight:

“Just because you’re on their side doesn’t mean they’re on your side.”

Maybe less wallowing in the grief of it all would be wise, too. But good luck with that. We’re not wise, we’re hominids, we’ll grieve, we’ll wallow. When I see those pictures, I know I still do.

* From the “Onlookers” section of the “Here is New York” site archiving 9/11-related photography. For more onlooker/crowd comparisons with the sculpture, see also “the illuminated crowd,” a pooled shared online photo site at
** Hitchens link via a comment by doghouse riley at Edroso’s post; d.r. points out that the article was rather selectively excerpted by Dreher. Since my convention is to italicize quotes, I’ve replaced Hitchens’s original italicization with underlining, but the effect may be slightly different for some readers.
*** Both a New York Times review of a gallery retrospective and the table of contents to a book by Michael Edwards imply Mason was fascinated by crowds as a subject for his art. The fascination was shared by at least one friend of his, Georg Eisler, who created several paintings about them including “Hillsborough,” about a 1989 stadium panic disaster in Liverpool.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

To the contrary, Rudy

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th April 2007

Giuliani warns of ‘new 9/11’ if Dems win (Roger Simon, “Politico”):

Rudy Giuliani said if a Democrat is elected president in 2008, America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.

Atrios rephrases:

Unless Rudy and the Republicans run the government, 9/11 could happen.

Oh, wait…

Lest we forget, in the summer of 2001 CIA people were running around with their hair on fire, famously warning “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” But they didn’t just produce a memo, they went directly to Crawford, Texas to brief a vacationing GOP president on their concerns. From the preface to Ron Suskind’s book “The One Percent Doctrine” (2006):

He’s not much of a reader, this President, and never has been… He’s not a President who sees much value in hearing from a wide array of voices — he has made that clear… He may not have had a great deal of experience, especially in foreign affairs, before arriving the job, but — because of his trust in [his] interpretive abilities — he doesn’t view that as a deficit.

The trap, of course, is that [sometimes the] thing to focus on, at certain moments, is whatwho is saying it, or how they’re saying it. someone says, not

And, at an eyeball-to-eyeball intelligence briefing during this urgent summer, George W. Bush seems to have made the wrong choice.

He looked hard at the panicked CIA briefer.

“All right,” he said. “You’ve covered your ass, now.”

These people have no business lecturing anyone about how to tie their shoes, let alone about national security. The GOP nominated and then installed a lazy, stupid figurehead to handle the national affairs of 300 million people, and it was always clear we’d just have to hope we’d somehow muddle through with the moron. Sadly, our luck ran out on 9/11.

When the real world rears its head — whether it’s Osama, or Katrina, or global warming — it’s not attitude, it’s not connections, it’s not ideology, faith, or fear-mongering that matters. It’s intelligence, competence, and honor. But judging by the way both Bush and Giuliani seem to be among the sorry “best” the GOP has to offer, there’s just not much of that to be found in a feckless, worthless, corrupt Republican Party.

UPDATE, 4/26: Steve Benen (“The Carpetbagger Report”) grades Democratic responses, giving highest marks to Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee. You can join the DNC and send your own response to the Giuliani campaign. Mine:

Dear Mr. Giuliani,

If Bush weren’t such a colossal screwup, we wouldn’t even need to be talking about 9/11. But lucky for you he was — that sure bailed out *your* political career. Never mind about the apology, I know it isn’t in you.

Contemptuously, etcetera etcetera

UPDATE, 4/27: Roy Edroso (“alicublog”) provides one-stop debunking of Giuliani’s tenure as mayor of NYC — including his 9/11 glory days. Follow every link; then blogroll or bookmark Edroso, if you haven’t already. He’s one of the best (and funniest) bloggers out there.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Moral hazard

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th September 2006

Worried CIA Officers Buy Legal Insurance, R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post:

CIA counterterrorism officers have signed up in growing numbers for a government-reimbursed, private insurance plan that would pay their civil judgments and legal expenses if they are sued or charged with criminal wrongdoing, according to current and former intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the program.

Even though lawsuits against federal employees for misdeeds in the course of their work are extremely difficult to win, it turns out that worries about civil liability were yet another early harbinger of the news to come in later years:

In December 2001, with congressional authorization, the CIA expanded the reimbursements to 100 percent for CIA counterterrorism officers. That was about the time J. Cofer Black, then the CIA’s counterterrorism chief, told Bush that “the gloves come off” and promised “heads on spikes” in the counterterrorism effort.

“Why would [CIA officers] take any risks in their professional duties if the government was unwilling to cover the cost of their liability?” asked Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a former CIA officer, during congressional debate that year.

I don’t mean to seem holier than thou here. I don’t remember noticing this at the time, but I was angry, and worried, and wanted results. If I had seen a news item about this outlay, I may well have nodded my head and said, “let’s shield these guys from legal harassment” or some such formulation.

But insurance has another effect on worries like these. In an interview with Kai Ryssdal on the business radio show “Marketplace” this evening, Smith expanded on his Washington Post report:

RYSSDAL: What does the CIA tell you about this?

SMITH: They say that they recommend that employees take it. That it’s a prudent defense against the possibility of some kind of legal action against them. And that the number of people taking this insurance program has gone up, especially in the last two years, and especially among counterterrorism personnel. So, in effect, they are — I mean, I think that they’re doing this to put people’s minds at ease. They want people to feel that they can take more risks and pursue actions that are more bold without fearing the legal consequences and that’s why they recommend it.

(Emphasis added.) Smith uses the circumlocution of “boldness”, but he describes a classic case of “moral hazard“: questionable behavior made more likely because insurance mitigates its costs.

But of course this is not merely a secretive agency finding ways to take the edge off its employees’ worries, if not ease their consciences. This was Congress making a national decision to do so. And this was also most of us either sleeping through that, or shrugging our shoulders or even applauding it if we heard about it.

A kind of daisy chain of moral hazard connects us to those officers: just as they seek to avoid the full consequences of their actions, so do we when we abdicate our responsibilities to monitor and oversee and, when necessary, put a halt to our own government’s questionable practices, while demanding results supposed to make us safer.

The photograph to the right has had two meanings to me since the day I first saw it. First, of course, there’s the straightforward meaning: the attacks, the loss, and the sorrow of that day. But there’s also a second, symbolic one: liberties and values endangered, silhouetted against a backdrop of war and chaos; a brighter world’s day darkened.

I’m truly sorry to be dwelling on these things instead of just on the loss of all those poor people five years ago. But they aren’t paying the price for our mistakes since then, we are. Five years later, we’re defeating ourselves by ignoring our own values. We have to correct that, right the wrongs we’ve committed, and hold those who’ve ordered those wrongs accountable. Or we’ll surely continue to do our enemies’ work for them, and darken our own future.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

"All right. You’ve covered your ass, now."

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th June 2006

More from Barton Gellman’s review of the new Ron Suskind book, “The One Percent Doctrine“:

The book’s opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush’s Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president’s attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

Now beat it. But wait — there’s more!

Three months later, with bin Laden holed up in the Afghan mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, the CIA official managing the Afghanistan campaign, Henry A. Crumpton (now the State Department’s counterterrorism chief), brought a detailed map to Bush and Cheney. White House accounts have long insisted that Bush had every reason to believe that Pakistan’s army and pro-U.S. Afghan militias had bin Laden cornered and that there was no reason to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to get him. But Crumpton’s message in the Oval Office, as told through Suskind, was blunt: The surrogate forces were “definitely not” up to the job, and “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful.”

“All right, Crumpton. You’ve covered your ass, now.” Now beat it.

I’d prefer to think this is just run of the mill (for Bush/Cheney) extreme fecklessness and incompetence, rather than yet more high crimes and misdemeanors by our ruling duumvirate. But it seems important — for their sake! — to try to rule out darker explanations for why Bush didn’t care much about an imminent attack, and didn’t heed warnings the attacker would elude capture.*

Come November, there should be some investigations. Make them happen. Call your Democratic Congressman, or your Democratic challenger and let them know you want these matters — the August 6 memo, the Downing Street memo, NSA warrantless surveillance, Tora Bora, torture, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Katrina, and more — investigated, with a view to impeachment if warranted.

* Reminds me of the recent Atlantic Monthly article about al-Zarqawi by Mary Ann Weaver:

During my time in Jordan, I asked a number of officials what they considered to be the most curious aspect of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Zarqawi, other than the fact that the Bush administration had inflated him.

One of them said, “The six times you could have killed Zarqawi, and you didn’t.”

Posted in Post | 4 Comments »

My 9/11 Freedom Perp Walk

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th September 2005

Reporting on the “Freedom Walk” yesterday from the Pentagon to the Mall, the New York Times’ Glen Justice and John Files noticed a few notes of discord. One lady had her anti-war sign taken away, and a protester along the march route held up a “Bush is a liar” sign, to be met by “USA” chants — coached by Allison Barber, a Rumsfeld aide. And there was also this:

One man who registered for the walk was detained by a Pentagon police officer after he slipped a black hood over his head and produced a sign that read, ‘Freedom?’

The other side said:

For Them, For Us, For Our Troops: Never Again
Support the McCain and Levin Amendments

I know, because that’s the side I displayed first. Just as I had done at the inauguration, I was wearing a black poncho along with the hood the reporter noticed, an allusion to the infamous Abu Ghraib photo. My single alteration was to cut a couple of eyeholes in the pillowcase, a decision for safety over verisimilitude — I wanted to be able to maybe avoid a punch.

I had registered for the march soon after noticing it, but was frankly apprehensive about the whole thing. I gathered my equipment — poncho, file clips and twine for the sign — in the hood and carried it on my shoulder into the staging area for the march, the south parking lot of the Pentagon, arriving around 9 AM. While my bag was searched, there was obviously nothing of concern in it.

The scene that greeted me was fairly strange. A prominent sign declared “Signs and banners prohibited” — which may or may not have seemed like a non sequitur to the other “freedom walkers,” but I didn’t talk with any of the walkers to find out. Everyone was issued a “Freedom Walk” t-shirt and required to wear it — a signal, along with a tape wristband, that one had been processed and deemed safe. Along with people bearing large organizational signs — “AOL,” “HUD,” “Justice,” and so forth, so groups could find to each other — the whole thing looked homogeneous, hyperorganized and somehow infantilized. I found myself thinking of the old TV series “The Prisoner.” On a small stage, an Air Force band played tunes, with a pretty good female vocalist singing country and other favorites, in dress blues.

I went over to a booth describing the Pentagon 9/11 memorial, which does look like it will be quite nice. There was an inscription book, where after a bit of thought I wrote “The best memorial to the 9/11 victims will be an America that preserves its freedoms.” (In case anyone is ever bored enough to check, this may not be the precise wording, but it’s close — I jotted down some notes on that and other things, but eventually lost that scrap of paper).

As the start time approached, a pastor in uniform (I think, I wasn’t close enough to the stage) led the crowd in prayer, which I did not join. Then Undersecretary of Defense Gordon Something gave a brief speech, in which he recalled Bush’s first visit to the Pentagon, and the (perforce) unforgettable moment when Bush looked at all the generals in the room and said “Never forget.” This was presumably inspirational.

A large gateway had been built, with “Freedom Walk” painted on the arch, under which walkers were to file out of the parking lot and on to the walk. Barricades to either side of the gateway funneled the walkers under the gate. Out of some concern for my safety from gung-ho types, I decided to stand behind those barricades and wait until the march had just begun to don my costume and hold up my sign. It didn’t hurt that it was near a photographer and a TV man, and within a short distance of some uniformed police officers.

I was shaking a bit as I put on the poncho and hood and slung the sign around my neck. I first showed the “For them, for us…” side. Within maybe 15 or 20 seconds, an officer approached and told me that I would need to go to a designated protest area. I flipped the sign around at that point and said I didn’t see why, I had a right to say what I was saying. Without further ado, I was handcuffed and marched off. The vocalist was actually singing the refrain “freedom” to some syrupy song at that moment. The crowd of walkers cheered for the police.

I was treated professionally by the Pentagon police. Frisked, put in a car, watch your head, latched behind a safety belt, out of the car, pockets emptied, transfer to a van, drive to a holding facility in a nondescript warehouse near the Pentagon City Metro stop, 13th and Fern or so if I recall correctly. Stood around for a while there — they weren’t sure which door was the entrance — and once inside, there was more standing around. Finally some more officers appeared. We sat down at a table, and they began doing the paperwork for the arrest. It was hot, and one of the fellows at the table asked for a portable fan to be pointed more directly at them. “You sure? It’s going to blow the papers all over the place.” “Yeah.” Papers blew all over the place.

I was eventually read my rights, and then the arresting officer got on the phone with a DA to see whether to add a charge because of the hood — I learned that wearing a mask is potentially a “class 6 felony.” But they decided not to press that charge.

Instead, I was cited for “failure to obey a lawful order,” and will have a court date in early January in Alexandria. I was fingerprinted, photographed, and then, finally, released. It was around noon.

I did this to to remind people of the wrongs that have been committed in this so-called war on terror, to counter an organized, regimented official demonstration with a real demonstration of my own, and basically to rain on Rumsfeld’s little parade in my own small way.

I do not at all disrespect the impulse to memorialize the victims of 9/11. I do object to using that impulse as a blatant political rallying tool by people who have botched so very much of the response to that attack, abused that attack to start another war to botch, and brought so much dishonor on this country in the process. I don’t feel especially noble about my protest, and I was distressed about the possible felony charge. But not so much that I would have regretted anything.

NOTE: In the interests of complete disclosure, I should say that I also added a small “” to the “For them” side of the sign. I wouldn’t do that again, since I’m not affiliated with the group and didn’t discuss this with them, let alone get their approval. It was a blogger’s impulse: give onlookers a place to look stuff up.

For more of my own discussion of the McCain and Levin amendments, see Three Senate detainee abuse debates , Torture commission, detainee treatment votes expected soon, Independent torture commission vote expected soon. See also Look pretty similar to me (re the Durbin flap this summer). If you would like to read even more of my incomparable discussions of Abu Ghraib and the wider topic of prisoner abuse and torture at Baghram, Guantanamo, and elsewhere, use the search box at the upper [right] of this page.

Posted in Post | 11 Comments »

The next 9/11: still not ready

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th September 2005

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz and Christian Davenport report (“Terrorism Could Hurl D.C. Area Into Turmoil: Despite Efforts Since 9/11, Response Plans Incomplete”):

On the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation’s capital lacks a comprehensive way to tell people what to do in a state of emergency, especially a terrorist attack with no warning, according to law enforcement and Homeland Security officials involved in emergency preparations.

“What we lack is a coordinated public information system in the event of a major incident,” said David Snyder, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ homeland security task force. “What we need is a system that will function instantaneously and automatically every time. . . . That doesn’t exist now.”

Local leaders are taking note of the bungled Katrina response:

“For four years, we’ve been hearing from the feds that they are going to take charge so we can respond to any catastrophe that comes our way,” said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). “And here’s the first major test, and it’s a failure. . . . I’ve lost confidence in [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to come in and be part of the solution.

“We’ve got to take all the plans that relied on the federal government and throw them out and start over again,” Duncan said.

Local emergency responses to what turned out to be false alarms have not helped build confidence, either. While the nation’s attention was captured by the helter-skelter response to hapless pilots flying into the restricted airspace, there have been more serious lapses. For instance, an anthrax scare in March resulted in hundreds of Pentagon employees receiving antibiotics — yet no local health authorities were informed. If the attack had been real, many people would have died who might have been saved, given the rapid progression of the disease.

The article points out that for some kinds of emergency, the best option may be to “shelter in place” — not try to evacuate, but stay where you are.

But some local leaders are worried that the notion of staying put goes so strongly against human nature that in an emergency, people would flee no matter what they were told — especially after seeing how long it took to get help to the disadvantaged in New Orleans.

“I think people will look at Katrina and think of 9/11 and think what you’re supposed to do in an event of an attack is to run,” [DC delegate Eleanor Holmes] Norton said. “And I think it’s a failure that that’s what people think. The best thing to do most of the time is to stay in place.”

No, no, no, no, no, Ms. Norton! Get with the program! The best thing to do will be whatever “Drownie” and his FEMA flunkies decide is the best p.r. move for Master.

UPDATE, 9/11: How FEMA delivered Florida for Bush, by Charles Mahtesian,, 11/03/2004:”Seldom has any federal agency had the opportunity to so directly and uniquely alter the course of a presidential election, and seldom has any agency delivered for a president as FEMA did in Florida this fall.” Via digby. Nice to know they can deliver when it really counts.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

The Washington Post March

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th August 2005

Rejoice, Comrades! The September 11 State Sponsored March To Support Our Troops As They Struggle For Freedom and Permanent Military Bases in Oil Rich Territories has the Support Of Our Glorious State’s Free Press, A Vanguard Sandwich Maker, and the Selflessly Patriotic Military Equipment Industry:

We are proud to have the following supporters for the inaugural America Supports You Freedom Walk:

Stars and Stripes
Pentagon Federal Credit Union
Lockheed Martin
ABC WJLA-TV Channel 7 and News Channel 8
WTOP News Radio Network
Washington Post
Washington Convention & Tourism Corporation

Comrades! Together, We Can Join With Our Nation’s Military in the Inaugural Appropriation of the Anniversary of Our Nation’s Great Tragedy for the Political Purposes of Our Leader and His Trusted Advisors! They Have Made Our Grief Their Own by Eminent Domain!

Comrades! Join With Me! Send Patriotic Messages to All September 11 March Supporters, but Especially to Our Glorious Free Press, Sharing Your Appreciation for its Support for This March and for its Patriotic Role in The War Struggle War That Has Made This March So Necessary To the Continued Good Fortunes of Our Leader!

Comrades! Join With Me! Register for the Inaugural State Sponsored September 11 March To Support Our Troops As They Struggle For Freedom and Permanent Military Bases in Oil Rich Territories!

And remember to dress appropriately! America Supports You Freedom Walk!

UPDATE, 8/13: The Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reports: “The Washington Post has no plans to withdraw its co-sponsorship of a controversial Sept. 11 memorial walk being organized by the Department of Defense, according to Publisher Bo Jones. But, he said the paper would pull out if the event turns out to be some kind of pro-war or political march.” (Via The Left Coaster) The walk concludes with a concert by Clint Black; Strupp concludes his article with the lyrics of Black’s country hit, “Iraq and I roll.” The Washington Post: stupid? Servile? Both? Our lines are open — you make the call!
UPDATE, 8/17: Post Drops Plan to Promote Pentagon Event
UPDATE, 8/22: Sunday New York Times lead editorial: “The event is an ill-considered attempt to link the Iraq war to the terrorist attacks of 2001, and misguided in almost every conceivable way.”

Posted in Post | No Comments »