The new normal: After 20 pilgrims, including several teenagers, were killed and 300 injured by black-and-green-clad gunmen, the U.S. military "reported relatively little violence for the day," reports the Washington Post (via the SF Chronicle) and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki touted the success of Iraqi security forces "in preventing the terrorists from killing innocents."

A couple of years ago, Gershom Gorenberg wrote a great piece for Mother Jones about the Israel Defense Force reservists known as "refusniks" because they refused participate in the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Now various groups of IDF reservists are protesting the war in Lebanon as well, as the New York Times reports:

[One] group of Israeli reservist soldiers who served during the recent fighting in Lebanon, angry about the conduct of the war, on Monday demanded the resignations of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

The reservists, most of whom have gone back to civilian life, say that their training was inadequate and that they were sent into Lebanon with unclear missions, inadequate supplies, outdated equipment and a lack of basics, like drinking water. They called for a national inquiry into how the war was waged.

Last week, I commented that Bush has lost the punditocracy. On Sunday, the Washington Post makes the point that even Bush's most ardent supporters in the media are jumping ship. Exhibit A is from Scarborough Country:

For 10 minutes, the talk show host grilled his guests about whether "George Bush's mental weakness is damaging America's credibility at home and abroad." For 10 minutes, the caption across the bottom of the television screen read, "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?"

But the host was no liberal media elitist. It was Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman turned MSNBC political pundit. And his answer to the captioned question was hardly "no." While other presidents have been called stupid, Scarborough said: "I think George Bush is in a league by himself. I don't think he has the intellectual depth as these other people."

He showed a montage of clips of Bush's famously inarticulate verbal miscues and then explored with guests John Fund and Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. whether Bush is smart enough to be president.

While the country does not want a leader wallowing in the weeds, Scarborough concluded on the segment, "we do need a president who, I think, is intellectually curious."

"And that is a big question," Scarborough said, "whether George W. Bush has the intellectual curiousness -- if that's a word -- to continue leading this country over the next couple of years."

Actually, "curiousness" seems most apt.

Eight months ago, we ran a story by Daniel Duane asking, "Why is the 'Boston Miracle -- the only tactic proven to reduce gang violence -- being dissed by the L.A.P.D., the FBI, and Congress?" Those three parties haven't yet changed their tune, but you can add Oakland to the list of cities where police departments are embracing the "Operation Cease-Fire" approach: They target the top offenders, people whom (what a concept) they don't assume are beyond redemption. They haul them into court and tell them to get it together or else; and for the "or else," they offer help. It works. Incredibly well, according to many; in Boston, the number of murders went down in a matter of months.

All of which is great, though there should be a law that anytime you talk about fighting crime you must mention the economy: I live not far from the neighborhood featured in this New York Times story, and all my neighbors--as tough-on-crime a bunch as you'll ever meet--talk about how ten years ago there used to be real jobs for kids, and now there aren't. For what it's worth, they also say that this was "when Clinton was in the White House," and that if anyone by that name runs again, they're voting for them.

Today five-time Olympic medalist and four-time world champion track star Marion Jones said she's shocked that her blood test from this summer's US Track and Field Championships came up positive for performancing enhancing drugs. Floyd Landis continues to be equally astonished that his (A and B sample) tests came up positive for synthetic testosterone after the greatest comeback in Tour de France history. These days though, designer steroids are so far ahead of the testing science that professional athletes failing drug tests seems to be more an indication of flubbed misdirection than of innocence lost.

And a quick Google search will lead you to drug-free urine which means even amateurs, read: young ones competing for their shot, can game the equally amateur system. Curiously, these kits are available for shipment to all states but Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina and South Carolina. So fake urine samples are okay in 43 states? Good to know. I say we're asking for this as consumers: ever faster, stronger, more exciting athletes, same as we are asking for perfection from our movie stars, who enhance their performance in legal, if equally damaging, ways.

A survey of over six hundred adults from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama reveals that only 16% consider their lives as "back to normal" after Katrina hit their communities. A third of those who have returned to their homes say they may move away, and half of those who have not moved back say they are unlikely to do so. 63% are living in the houses in which they lived before the storm; this is 8% higher than a fall of 2005 survey showed. 60% are in the same jobs they were in before the storm, compared with 61% last fall.

70% of those surveyed reported that someone went out of her or his way to help them last year, and 25% reported that someone tried to take advantage of them. Those most often named were FEMA, contractors and gas stations. Nearly two thirds said that federal and state response has been "fair" or "poor." Almost that many said the same of local government response.

Financially speaking, 25% said that they "lost everything," 24% took a "major financial hit," 38% "suffered some losses," and 12% said they were "not really hurt" financially by Katrina and its aftermath.

Those who were relatively lucky still have to cope with stores with shortened hours, pine beetles that emerged from the fallen trees and are eating their way through yards, and--in some outlying Louisiana parishes--an influx of residents who have helped create major traffic problems. These issues, however, are very insignificant compared with those faced by the people who are living in crowded conditions with extended family, still living in trailers, or who were never even given a trailer by FEMA.

Many life-long residents have gone away and will never come back. Many are facing the challenge of having lost a job or a business. Even worse, of course, are those who have lost loved ones. There is a shortage of cash, a shortage of mental health treatment in some areas, and the continuing nightmare of insurance company failures, neglect and red tape.

The Greatest Love of All

Onetime Osama bin Laden "sex slave" and ex-Days of Our Lives writer Kola Boof delves into Bin Laden's fuzzier side in her upcoming autobiography, Diary of a Lost Girl. No, Boof, who Bin Laden allegedly held against her will and riled against for braiding her hair ( "only monkeys do that!") has no soothing pillow talk to share or insight into how he likes his morning eggs. Rather, we're left again pondering the strange twists and turns of the terrorist king's enigmatic psyche: the man, it seems, is obsessed with Whitney Houston. Boof writes:

"He would say what a nice smile she has, how truly Islamic she is but is just brainwashed by American culture and by her husband - Bobby Brown, whom Osama talked about having killed, as if it were normal to have womens' husbands killed...In his briefcase, I would come across photographs of the star, as well as copies of Playboy. It would soon come to the point where I was sick of hearing Whitney Houston's name."

An excerpt from Diary will appear in the September issue of Harper's Magazine.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, I was touring the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward with local environmental justice advocate Margie Eugene-Richard. Convinced that God needed to be reinserted into the environmental debate, Richard had recently graduated from theology school. We were driving that day through a post-apocalyptic landscape of boats dangling in trees and houses smothering cars, and God was clearly on her mind. "Wake up," she said to an unseen congregation. "As it was in the day of Noah, so shall it be on the day of the Son of Man. Get together."

Nearly a year after the hurricane struck, many evangelical Christians seem to have heeded Richard's advice. Or at least started listening to some unlikely prophets. An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's global warming opus, has earned rave reviews on the aptly dubbed website Inconvenient Christians. The website is helping build on the work of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a group that has angered some fundamentalists by seeking to broaden the right-wing conception of family values. Some interesting blogs have begun to chronicle this nascent movement, among them, God's Green Thumb, published by a student at Pontifical University in Rome.

Last week, a commenter on one of my posts expressed surprise/disgust that "groups with Constitutional law expertise" were assisting West Virginia's Harrison County Board of Education in its fight to keep a painting of Jesus on the wall next to the principal's office at Bridgeport High School in Clarksburg. Such groups have been around for a while, using their legal knowledge to fight the ACLU in church/state separation cases. Of course, this gets a bit confusing from time to time, since the evil ACLU has represented some of the Christian defendants.

At any rate, I thought it might be informative to report that this influx of a certain type of Christian lawyer is supported by Liberty University's School of Law, which trains lawyers-to-be who want to put an end to legal abortion, put prayer back into public schools, and ban same-sex marriage. Liberty University was founded by and is guided by Jerry Falwell, who, you will remember, blamed the ACLU, feminists and gay citizens for the September 11 attacks.

The Liberty University School of Law's vision is to "see again all meaningful dialogue over law include the role of faith and the perspective of a Christian worldview as the framework most conducive to the pursuit of truth and justice."

The provisionally accredited law school was founded in 2002, with $14.6 million invested in it so far. Law school students are not allowed to have any body piercings, nor may they wear Birkenstock-type sandals (because we all know that exposure of the toes causes a lapse in reasoning and scholarship).

Liberty is not unique. Pat Robertson's Regency University School of Law and the Ave Maria School of Law represent two of the fifty or so law schools that have some sort of religious affiliation.

Falwell says that his law school is "training lieutenants for the Lord." Former director for the Birmingham's Center for Study of Law and Church at the Cumberland School of Law Chris Doss says that Falwell's law school is very open about "training people to go forth as Christian crusaders. They are very good at bringing forth converts." And from a Liberty graduate: "It is a misperception about our school that we'll all start pounding the Bible in court. Is there a possibility that you could sit across from an interviewer who thinks you got your degree from a Cracker Jack box? Sure, but if you pass the bar, that speaks for itself."

Indeed it does. Christian law schools are doing their best to prepare their students to be good attorneys so that they will have sufficent influence with clients, courts and society in general.

A six-month investigation by the Associated Press has found that at least 80 recruiters (35 Army, 18 Marine Corps, 18 Navy, and 12 Air Force) were disciplined for sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behavior with potential enlistees last year, way more than in any other decade. The army has had 722 recruiters accused of rape and sexual misconduct since 1996.

The most disturbing reveal:

More than 100 young women who expressed interest in joining the military in the past year were preyed upon sexually by their recruiters. Women were raped on recruiting office couches, assaulted in government cars and groped en route to entrance exams.

So let me get this straight, an army that is struggling with its numbers is taking advantage of the ones who come in to sign up? This is also the same Army that has taken to MySpace to bring in recruits, like this Reserves recruiter who has 554 "friends." Talk about online predators.

Recruitment is a billion dollar business. The DoD committed $1.5 billion to it this year: campus visits, prime time commercials, posters in bus shelters, the full gamut. is littered with tantalizing hooks -- $40,000 signing bonuses, $70,000 for college, and the motto "no bull, no bias, no pressure." But recruiters are feeling pressure to bring on just about anybody, whether they're autistic, grandmothers, or as Mother Jones reported last summer, those accused of rape. The army is even loosening its standards, letting heavier and tatoo-laden become plebes in a push to boost their numbers.

The pressure is obviously too much. Last week the GAO released its findings that incidents of recruiter wrongdoing increased 50% from 2004 to 2005, to a total of 6600 cases. The report points to a number of challenges facing recruiters, the escalating conflict in Iraq, long hours and stiff quotas. But the number one reason they say times are tough? The economy.

Service recruiting command officials stated that the economy has been the single most important factor recently affecting recruiting success. According to Department of Labor data, the unemployment rate fell each year between 2003 (when it was 6 percent) and 2005 (when it was 5.1 percent). The better the civilian job market, the harder DOD must compete for talent.

How about keeping your hands off recruits? That would help in selling the job in a competitive market. As it is, the women assaulted on couches and in cars got an early glimpse of military culture, and hopefully got the hell out.