2011 - %3, November

The Great South African Hyena Prison Break

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:39 PM PDT
Hyena philosophy on ballsy jailbreaks: "It ain't no thang."

Hyenas, being total badasses:

Two hyenas escaped from a South African wildlife park Wednesday by chewing through an electric fence during a power outage, but were recaptured within half an hour, the park said.

"The power went off... and the hyenas -- who will chew through wire and even iron bars -- managed to escape," said Earl Smith, general manager of the Lion Park, located just outside Johannesburg. "The hyenas always try to escape if there is a long power failure. The lions don't try to escape," he told the [South African Press Association].

He said park employees tracked the hyenas and recaptured them near one of the main roads leading into Johannesburg...[and described] the animals as "shy and timid" and said there was never any risk to the public...

Yup. That's right. The park's lions—the Cadillac of the animal kingdom that's renowned for owning things—wouldn't even try pulling off this kind of gutsy jailbreak. A hyena, however, will evidently chomp through electrified "wire and even iron bars" if it means tasting sweet, glorious freedom.

If you ever learned anything about hyenas, chances are you learned it from Disney's hysterically racist 1994 portrayal—amoral, wolfish, hate-filled. But despite their tarnished reputation, hyena attacks on people are extremely rare, even more so for fatal ones. And as the AFP article mentions, there was never a moment when the two escaped hyenas were a "risk to the public" (and this was when they were strutting straight into South Africa's most populous metropolitan area). This story is just another quick reminder of how basically everything movies have taught you about wild animals is dead wrong.

(It's also another reminder of how feckless electric fences can be, whether you're a park owner trying to keep some hyenas detained, or you're Herman Cain trying to stem an illegal immigrant invasion by constructing a deadly barbwired barrier along the US-Mexico border.)

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Alleged Waffle House Terror Plotters Inspired By Former Militia Author

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 11:30 AM PDT
Mike Vanderboegh, speaking at a 2010 "open carry" rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia

It's not unusual for people cooking up a terrorist plot to take their inspiration from a novel. Timothy McVeigh was reportedly inspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building by the book The Turner Diaries. The Georgia seniors meeting at Waffle House who were recently apprehended by the FBI for allegedly plotting to kill millions of Americans to save the Constitution also seem to have had a literary influence: Mike Vanderboegh, and his novel, Absolved.

Vanderboegh is a longtime militia activist, often associated with the Oath Keepers (thought he says he's not a member), and he's been active in the Minutemen group that "patrols" the US border to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. His book is about small groups of underground miliita groups who plot to assassinate key law enforcement and judicial officials as a way of fighting back against gun control and gay marriage. Vanderboegh has called it "a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry."

I wasn’t too surprised to see Vanderboegh's name pop up in the Georgia case. That's because I saw him in action last year when he spoke at an "open carry" gun rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia, where a handful of gun nuts and Oath Keeper-types had assembled as close as they could to the District line with a loaded weapon to press for looser gun laws.

Vanderbough claimed to be just "a fat, old scribbler with congestive heart failure and diabetic feet." But he gave a fiery speech at the event that was an invitation to violence. Vanderboegh proclaimed that he was trying to "get the attention of people who are pushing the country towards civil war and that they should back off before someone gets hurt." He led the crowd in cheers of "Oh HELL no!" and warned that "there are going to be consequences for pushing people like us back."

At the time, Vanderboegh was reveling in a spate of media attention he'd gotten thanks to his online calls for followers to throw bricks through the windows of congressional Democrats for passing health care reform. On his blog, the Sipsey Street Irregulars, he had written:

If you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party [that they] cannot fail to hear, break their windows. Break them NOW. Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK THEM."

Vanderboegh expressed surprise when some people actually took him seriously and did throw bricks through the windows of congressional offices. But he wasn't sorry. He told the Washington Post that there were a lot of Americans who "are not only willing to resist this law to the very end of their lives, but are armed and are capable of making such resistance possible and perhaps even initiating a civil war."

Today again, though, he seems a bit shocked to hear that his book, which isn't even published except for a few chapters online, may have inspired some old people in Georgia to allegedly plot a bioterror attack. He has written some angry blog posts arguing that his book is in no way connected to the Waffle House Four:

Absolved is fiction. I hope it is a "useful dire warning." However, I am as much to blame for the Georgia Geriatric Terrorist Gang as Tom Clancy is for Nine Eleven.

Vanderboegh, though, seems to be enjoying the attention. He kindly linked to the Mother Jones story on the Georgia indictments in a roundup of all of his media coverage. He's even posted some stock quotes for lazy journalists seeking comment. Here's a good one:

I congratulate the FBI on their ability to sniff out and entrap old, feeble minded Georgia morons with dreams of terrorist grandeur. Now if they could just apply some of that industry to telling us the truth about the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, we'll all be better off.

The High Cost of Overturning the Individual Mandate

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 10:56 AM PDT

Aaron Carroll is unimpressed by a Politico piece suggesting that getting rid of the hated individual mandate might take some of the steam out of opposition to the healthcare reform law:

Here’s what I think. Support for the law likely closely tracks support for a political party....I have yet to see any convincing data that show there’s a significant portion of America that loves the ACA, but hates the mandate. I see no politicians running on a platform of removing the mandate, but leaving the rest of the law intact. I see no reason to believe that dropping the mandate will do anything to increase support for the President, the Democrats, or the ACA.

Roger that. Opposition to ACA is as much down to cultural markers as it is to substantive objections to what the law does. On the other hand, I'm not sure the chart on the right makes quite the point Aaron implies. What it shows is that if the mandate is overturned, premiums will go up for everyone who does buy health insurance. In theory, that's a point in favor of the mandate: it keeps average premium costs lower. In reality, it means that if the mandate is overturned, opponents will simply have one more rock to throw at ACA. They said premiums would be affordable, but look! They're out of control! The only answer is to repeal the whole law.

Which is more or less what Aaron thinks opponents will say regardless of any actual facts or evidence. And he's right.

Gitmo Detainee Could Be Held Even If Found Innocent

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 10:45 AM PDT
Alleged U.S.S Cole Bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Attorneys for accused U.S.S Cole Bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri want to know if he'll be released if acquitted of all charges. The government's response? We'll think about it.

Al-Nashiri is set to be tried by military commission at Gitmo for his role in masterminding the 1998 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The attack killed 17 US sailors and injured thirty-seven others. His defense attorneys filed an order two weeks ago demanding that the government state whether it intends to continue holding al-Nashiri in military detention should he be acquitted of war crimes. If convicted, al-Nashiri could face the death penalty. The defense expressed the concern that "if Mr. Al-Nashiri is acquitted by the Commission, he will not be released, and his detention by the United States will continue, perhaps for the rest of his life." Because Al-Nashiri is being held in military detention, he can legally be held for "the duration of hostilities." Since the "hostilities" against al-Qaeda might not ever end, even if found innocent of the charges he'd still be subject to imprisonment for the rest of his life. 

The governments response: "We don't have to tell you" and "maybe." In its response filing, the government dismisses the request saying that Congress didn't authorize the commissions to "resolve every aspect of the life of the accused," and that if al-Nashiri should be acquitted, the "appropriate components of the US government" will decide based on "circumstances which are relevant at the time, and which cannot be adequately foreseen at this point." The government has raised the possibility of post-acquittal military detention previously—both in the case of Osama bin Laden's former driver Salim Hamdan during the Bush administration and the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators during the Obama administration—but it's never actually followed through. Following his conviction by military commission, Hamdan served a short sentence and was back home in Yemen five months later.

That said, the government seems pretty confident in its case. Though al-Nashiri was subject to torture, prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty—which in military commissions requires a uninamous verdict rather than the two-thirds threshold for non-capital cases. The detainees the Obama administration doesn't feel confident trying it has simply left in indefinite military detention without plans for trial in either the military or federal systems. The defense's motion though, draws attention to the catch-22s of a legal system in which even acquittal is no guarantee of freedom. 

The Decline and Fall of the Technocracy

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 9:38 AM PDT

Atrios has a complaint:

It's time to do away with the term "technocratic." It creates a category of policies which are The Right Thing To Do, yet the rightness of the policies aren't tested against anything. They aren't tested against democracy (messy pesky voters!) or results (the economy sucks, technocrats, and this is your doing). But merely say the word and we've conjured up images of very sensible highly educated wonky people doing the right thing, even as they destroy the world.

All of that technocratic management has achieved wonders and now messy politics is daring to intrude. Technocrats are doing their best to destroy the world. Intervene, politics, intervene!

Maybe this is just me, but I'd say the word "technocrat" now has mostly negative connotations, conjuring up visions of Robert McNamara more than, say, Jean Monnet. Mitt Romney and Jimmy Carter are widely viewed as technocrats, and not as a compliment. It suggests little men in gray suits scurrying around and staring at their computer printouts without regard to the actual people behind the policies they propose.

It's true, I think, that it also suggests a kind of person who's not influenced by the corruption of politics and has no partisan axe to grind, so in that sense it's positive. But overall, I'd guess that very few people in public life would actually want to be called technocrats these days. It says "out of touch" at least as much as it does "empirical and data driven."

Yes? No? Tell me in comments if you generally have positive or negative feelings when you hear that someone is "primarily a technocrat" or some such.

Judy Woodruff Lets Herman Cain Off the Hook

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 9:14 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan points to this jaw-dropping exchange on PBS two days ago:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you view China as a potential military threat to the United States?

HERMAN CAIN: I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States....They've indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.

I know, I know, who cares? Herman Cain is a clown. But that's not why I'm posting this. What I want to know is this: How on earth can a presidential candidate sit down for an interview with Judy Woodruff, spout a howler about China "trying to develop" nuclear weapons, and not get a followup question to suss out whether he has any idea that China has had nuclear capability for nearly half a century? Did Woodruff really not consider that worth drilling into a little bit?

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UPDATED: Soldier Arrested for Espionage (Video)

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 8:56 AM PDT

Federal authorities have arrested a 22-year-old soldier from Kentucky on unspecified charges of espionage. Spc. William Colton Millay, a military police officer, was picked up in late October on his base in Alaska, Reuters reports. The arrest conjures up memories of another young soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who's spent years in custody accused of passing a trove of classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks. Thus far, the Army and the FBI insist that Millay's case is unrelated to those leaks. "This has nothing to do with WikiLeaks," an FBI spokesman told an Anchorage, Alaska, newspaper. That report also reveals that Millay's unit, the 164th Military Police Company, recently embarked on a difficult war deployment:

Most of that 170-member MP company, the "Arctic Enforcers," left in March for a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan, mainly to train police there. The company lost four soldiers in a roadside bomb attack in Laghman Province in June.

The accompanying photo shows soldiers from Millay's unit training in Alaska for their deployment to Afghanistan back in January. An Army spokesman made it clear to Reuters that Millay had not joined the company downrange, though: "He was part of the rear detachment," the spokesman said. "I don't know why in his particular case he was part of that (rear deployment) but that's not unusual."

GOP Mayor Calls BS on Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Defense of Anti-Union Bill

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 8:25 AM PDT
Members of a firefighters union protest John Kasich's SB 5.

Defenders of Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich's SB 5 bill, a measure that strips most collective bargaining rights for public workers, claim the legislation gives local governments "the flexibility they need to protect the public, while also keeping the maximum number of safety personnel on the job." SB 5, Kasich and his allies insist, will strengthen firehouses and police forces in cities and towns throughout the Buckeye State.

David Smith, the Republican mayor of Lancaster, Ohio, is calling BS. Smith recently laid off 15 firefighters in his city, but told the American Independent that SB 5 is far from the saving grace Kasich and Ohio Republicans make it about to be. Here's what Smith said:

"Senate Bill 5 doesn't save the day for anybody. It's still up to the local government to have a meaningful relationship with their bargaining units, which I think we do, here in Lancaster. In particular, both fire and police have taken zero-percent increases over the last two years without SB5 hanging over anyone's heads. Both fire and police [labor unions' bargaining units] had closed contracts, but they opened them up to allow us to work with them on a number of issues, not just salary."

What's ailing Lancaster, Ohio, and what forced the layoffs of those firefighters, Smith continued, wasn't out of whack pay and benefits. It was a 50 percent cut in state funding exacted by the Kasich administration, part of a wave of cuts whose impact Mother Jones' Mac McClelland depicted in this searing story. And although a slight increase in local income tax set to go into effect might help, Smith said Kasich's decision to do away with the estate tax in two years would also hit Lancaster's budget.

You can also watch Smith defend the importance of full collective bargaining rights before the House education and labor committee in March 2010:

Long-Term Unemployment Getting Worse

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 8:24 AM PDT

Suzy Khimm points us to a new Pew report outlining the continuing cost of long-term unemployment during the recession. Both unemployment and long-term unemployment get worse among the least educated, and long-term unemployment gets worse with age. "The data show that once they lose their jobs, older workers are the most likely to remain out of work for a year or longer. In the third quarter of 2011, more than 43 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year."

In other words, although raw levels of unemployment are lower among older workers, if you do lose your job when you're in your 40s or above, there's a very good chance you're going to stay unemployed for at least a year. That's the price we're paying for our political unwillingness to do anything serious to cut the recession short.

Confederate Flag Activist Behind Georgia Terror Plot

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 7:43 AM PDT
Waffle House: Where bad decisions are made.

My colleague Adam Serwer reported this morning on one of the more bizarre domestic terror plots in recent memory—the alleged plot by four senior citizens in north Georgia to produce and spread ricin and botulinium toxin in Atlanta and Washington, DC, in order to kill millions of people and "save the Constitution." (Because that's not strange enough, the plot was hatched at a Waffle House.)

The whole plot is pretty ridiculous, but what's also interesting is the men behind it. The affidavit names four individuals, Samuel Crump, Frederick Roberts, Ray Adams, and Dan Roberts. According to his Facebook page, Crump is a big fan of a number of conservative grassroots and astroturf organizations, including Americans for Prosperity. He's also interested in "anything about guns," and he's really offended by the concept of paying a 5 cent tax on plastic grocery bags:

Courtesy of FacebookCourtesy of Facebook