2013 - %3, January

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 11, 2013

Fri Jan. 11, 2013 11:09 AM EST
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Lennon pulls the lanyard to fire a D-30 howitzer during a test at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 6, 2013. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kleynia R. McKnight.

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Beetlemania: Insects Are Gobbling Up 1,000-Year-Old Trees

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:21 AM EST
Whitebark pine trees dying from pine beetle infestation in Bridger-Teton National Forest

Mountain pine beetles have spent the last decade decimating more than 4 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain West. Beetles are a natural part of the forest ecology, picking off old or unhealthy trees and keeping the healthy ones resilient. But a warming planet—2012 was the hottest year on record—means not enough beetles die off in cold snaps. Instead, they produce more quickly, boring under bark, laying eggs, and weakening trees until they die.

And now, the continuously warm weather has emboldened these creatures to flourish in forests of whitebark pines—stately old trees that survive at high elevations—as well. In a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers describe the beetles' deadly effect on whitebarks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

                                         2002                                              2011

National forests impacted by bark beetles in the Rocky Mountain West USDA Forest Service

Photographer and activist David Gonzales has spent much of the last four years poking around that ecosystem, venturing into the high-altitude whitebark pine stands of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest to attempt to defend these ancient trees from the explosive beetle epidemic, a practice he's deemed "treefighting." Along with volunteers and students, Gonzales spent three years tacking pouches of pheromones onto individual trees to try and trick beetles into thinking they were already inhabited, though he has mixed feelings about guiding beetles from one tree on to another. This past year, Gonzales' group planted 3,000 young whitebark saplings, which if they survive the planting process, can live for a millenium.

"Treefighter" and photographer David Gonzales
Taylor Rees/Instagram

Ecologists consider hearty whitebark pines to be a keystone species of the northern Rocky Mountains: The trees' nutrient-rich seed cones provide sustenance for grizzly and black bears, several bird species, and squirrels; their roots prevent erosion in thinly soiled peaks; their branches serve as wind barriers and shade snowpack at high elevations, meaning snow sticks around longer and less water evaporates before summer months. "They pick the places that other plants can't survive—bad soils, really dry," says GIS specialist Wally MacFarlane in Gonzales' 2011 documentary Seeing Red, about beetlekill in the Yellowstone area. "You kind of appreciate them for that—their ruggedness." Gonzales certainly does. "They live in the absolute worst conditions, yet they produce the best plant-based fat and protein in the ecosystem, and are paragons of energy efficiency," he says. "They are showing us that we can do a much better job of dealing with our own energy."

But unlike neighboring lodgepole pines, which co-evolved with the pine beetle and developed defenses against the bug, whitebark pines are very vulnerable to beetle attacks, since they haven't evolved to create enough of the compounds (like resin) that repel or kill bugs or disrupt their communication systems, according to the Wisconsin study.

Healthy whitebark pines USDA Forest Service/
Wikimedia Commons

The research did reveal one hopeful sign: When the beetles entered areas mixed with lodgepoles and whitebark pines, the critters were more likely to choose lodgepoles over whitebarks.

A mountain lover and avid skier, Gonzales has watched mountain pine beetles spread through 95 percent of the whitebark forests in greater Yellowstone, leaving many mountainsides a rusty grey color from dead trees. The hard part, he says, is that given that the trees already grow at the highest altitudes, "there's nowhere else for them to go; they can't find higher ground."

Gonzales says around 75 percent of the whitebarks he planted with his crew in June seemed to have survived when they checked back on the saplings in September, and he plans to try and plant even more in the summer of 2013. And treefighting seems to be catching on: Student groups from as far away as Brooklyn and Hanover, New Hampshire, came to plant trees and document changes in whitebark stands this past year. Gonzales celebrates the growing attention and involvement, but remains pessimistic about the forests' susceptibility to beetles and climate change: "I think we're going to see more tree species affected. Unfortunately, treefighting is going to become a growth industry in the coming years."

Trees dying from beetle infestation often turn a reddish color, like these in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. David Gonzales/TreeFight.org

In Theaters This Weekend, a Civil Libertarian's Nightmare

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:06 AM EST
From left: Zero Dark Thirty, Gangster Squad.

If there were ever a weekend for someone like Glenn Greenwald to avoid going to the movies lest he risk vomiting and seething with self-righteous indignation in the theater, this would be that weekend.

With Gangster Squad (Warner Bros., 113 minutes), we get a pulpy endorsement of extrajudicial killing, made all the more palatable by Ryan Gosling's roguish charms. Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia Pictures, 160 minutes) delivers a history lesson in how America conquered Bin Laden through the sheer force of torture, with feminist overtones. Both films, which open on Friday and are rated R for "strong violence," are inspired by actual events, both are tied to delays and real-life controversies, both features scores of composite characters, and both have acclaimed directors.

First off, I'd like to point out that I do not believe that movies or any other works of art should be condemned—or properly assessed, for that matter—purely through the prisms of moral questions. That is a lousy and dull way to consume popular culture, and if I were to adhere to such a stringent code, it would be extremely difficult to appreciate films like D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which is widely acclaimed for legitimate, non-white-supremacist reasons.

Having said that, you're in for a fairly decent and reasonably engaging time at the multiplex this weekend, whatever the premium you place on human rights.

Watch: Fox News Wonders Why Armed Citizens Don't Stop Mass Shootings

Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Picking up on our deep investigation into mass shootings, Fox News this week struggled to grok why arming "the good guys" to stop massacres is actually just a big NRA fantasySenior editor Mark Follman sat down with the network to explain our investigative findings. (Shocker: Fox's report conveniently ignores key details of shootings it cites from Colorado and Nevada; recently we exposed the same deceptive tactic by others using these same cases.) Watch:

Explained in 90 Seconds: What the @#% Is Climate Change Doing to El Niño?

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Imagine this is your office: a tropical island skirted by coral-packed azure waters, somewhere near the equator between Hawaii and Tahiti. Your job involves a lot of swimming. Tough, huh? "My field research is the best part of my job," says Kim Cobb, Associate Professor of Climate Change at Georgia Institute of Technology. "It's probably the reason I have stuck with corals for the last 15 years."

Stuck with, and collected and sampled. For the past seven years, Cobb and her lab team have been recontructing the history of El Niño events across several millenia by taking core samples from corals in the Pacific. That process has uncovered reams of fresh climate data. And it's within this new, longer baseline of temperatures from the tropical Pacific that Cobb spotted something surprising: "The 20th century is significantly, statistically stronger in its El Niño Southern Oscillation activity than this long, baseline average," Cobb says. El Niño events have gotten worse.

That led Cobb to wonder: Is man-made climate change, and the level of carbon in the atmosphere, shifting in El Niño events along with it? Or should we chalk it up to coincidence? "We need a lot more data," Cobb says. But Cobb's 7000-year baseline study should push researchers in the right direction to discover more connections between Earth's complex climate systems, and the role man-made climate change is playing.

Cobb's results have been published in the latest edition of Science.

Was Hitler Really a Fan of Gun Control?

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Near the outset of his rant on Piers Morgan Tonight on Monday, conspiracy peddler Alex Jones warned that the Second Amendment is all that stands between democracy and dictatorship. "Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chávez took the guns, and I'm here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!" he screamed.

Two days later, the Drudge Report published this visual echo of Jones' claim:

Meanwhile, Google searches for "Hitler gun control" are spiking.

Of course, attempts to equate gun control with fascism are bogus. But the "Hitler took the guns" argument has long had a prominent and fairly effective role in America's gun control debate despite its obvious reductionism.

Its origins can be traced back to at least the early 1980s, when opponents of a Chicago proposal to ban handguns invoked it in the largely Jewish suburb of Skokie by "reminding village residents that the Nazis disarmed the Jews as a preliminary to sending them to the gas chambers," the Chicago Tribune reported. In 1989, a new pro-gun group called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership began arguing that the 1968 federal gun control bill once favored by the NRA's old guard "was lifted, almost in its entirety, from Nazi legislation." (That false claim is still being repeated.)

In 1994, JPFO founder Aaron Zelman implored the NRA's board to seize on the alleged Nazi connection:

Some of you may even have figured out that unless the NRA changes its strategy, the law abiding firearm owner in America will go the way of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe: extermination…The choice is yours; you can turn your back on a failed strategy—one of compromise with evil-doers—and attack the concept of "gun control" by exposing the Nazi roots of "gun-control" in America. Or, you can persist in a failed strategy, and accept your own extinction.

Whether or not the NRA was influenced by his advice, that same year its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, published Guns, Crime, and Freedom, in which he claimed, "In Germany, firearm registration helped lead to the holocaust," leaving citizens "defenseless against tyranny and the wanton slaughter of a whole segment of its population." The following year, President George H.W. Bush famously resigned from the NRA after LaPierre attacked federal law enforcement officials as "jack-booted government thugs" who wore "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms." More recently, Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer who has represented the NRAargued (PDF) that "if the Nazi experience teaches anything, it teaches that totalitarian governments will attempt to disarm their subjects so as to extinguish any ability to resist crimes against humanity."

So did Hitler and the Nazis really take away Germans' guns, making the Holocaust unavoidable? This argument is superficially true at best, as University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explained in a 2004 paper (PDF) on Nazi Germany's impact on the American culture wars. As World War I drew to a close, the new Weimar Republic government banned nearly all private gun ownership to comply with the Treaty of Versailles and mandated that all guns and ammunition "be surrendered immediately." The law was loosened in 1928, and gun permits were granted to citizens "of undoubted reliability" (in the law's words) but not "persons who are itinerant like Gypsies." In 1938, under Nazi rule, gun laws became significantly more relaxed. Rifle and shotgun possession were deregulated, and gun access for hunters, Nazi Party members, and government officials was expanded. The legal age to own a gun was lowered. Jews, however, were prohibited from owning firearms and other dangerous weapons.

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Are Big Cities More Dangerous Than Small Ones?

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Are big cities more dangerous than small ones? Of course they are. This is so obvious that it's not even a question most people would think of asking.

And yet, if you'll bear with me for a bit, it turns out there's more of a mystery here than you might think. In 1996, for example, Ed Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote wrote a paper trying to figure out why there's more crime in big cities. They came up with a couple of reasons. First, there's more valuable stuff to steal in big cities, so robbery is more profitable. Second, it's easier to be anonymous. If you mug someone in Mayberry, there's a good chance your victim will recognize you and report the crime. Beyond that they threw up their hands, suggesting that perhaps the rest of the difference might be due to the fact that families are less intact in big cities. But even after running batteries of statistical tests, they were still left scratching their heads. Sure, there are more broken families in big cities, but that "still leaves unanswered the question of why this variable is so important in leading to criminal behavior." What's more, "the results on higher benefit levels and lower arrest rates are intriguing but also not entirely satisfying."

Well, if that's not satisfying—and it isn't—how about an answer out of left field? Maybe the real answer is that big cities aren't much more dangerous than small ones. Let me explain.

One of the hallmarks of a good theory is that it answers questions you didn't even know you had, and it turns out that the answer to this mystery might lie in the association between gasoline lead and violent crime. I mentioned this briefly in "Criminal Element," my magazine piece about the lead-crime connection, but it deserves a little more explanation. So here it is.

In a nutshell, the lead-crime hypothesis is simple: Exposure to gasoline lead in small children produces heightened aggressive tendencies. When an entire generation of children was exposed to lead in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, thanks to the boom in auto sales after World War II, it led to a huge rise in violent crime when the children grew up in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. The more lead they were exposed to, the more crime you got.

So where did we see the most exposure to gasoline lead? Answer: in places with the densest concentration of automobiles. And that's in the inner core of big cities. In the early '60s, big cities had double the ambient air lead levels of midsize cities, which in turn had air lead levels 40 percent higher than small cities. (Nevin, p. 316.) So if lead exposure produces a rise in crime, you'd expect to see a bigger rise in big cities than in small ones. Over time, big cities would become increasingly more dangerous than small ones.

Likewise, when lead was removed from gasoline, and children started to grow up normally, you'd expect to see a bigger crime decrease in big cities. Over time, crime rates would start to converge.

And that's exactly what we see in the data. In the '70s and '80s, when big cities had their highest levels of lead-poisoned teenagers, they really were more dangerous places than small cities. But we began removing lead from gasoline in the early '70s, and right on schedule, crime rates in big cities peaked in 1991 and then started falling. The chart on the right tells the story. The top line is average rate of violent crime for every city in America with a population greater than 1 million. (Only Chicago is missing, because it lacks complete data.) The bottom line is the average rate of violent crime for cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000.

The convergence between big and small cities is startling, and the biggest cities have shown the biggest drops. Violent-crime rates have declined by more than 75 percent in New York City and Los Angeles since their peaks in the early '90s.

So the surprising truth is that big cities are only a bit more dangerous than small ones. For a few decades it seemed otherwise, but this was mostly an artificial difference driven by higher concentrations of gasoline lead. Take that away, and it turns out that Los Angeles isn't much different from Modesto.

Short Takes: Soul Food Junkies

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Soul Food Junkies

ITVS

63 minutes

Seasoned. Battered. Smoked. Fried. Collard greens, fried chicken, corn bread, mac and cheese, sweet potato pie. Byron Hurt's Soul Food Junkies makes you hungry and makes you think. In this insightful cooking show twist, Hurt traces black cuisine and its culture from slave times to the present using artful woodcuts, archival footage, a buffet of voices, and plenty of casserole dishes. At one point he partakes of a vat of corn and turkey necks at a tailgate party. "This is how we survived, this is what they gave us," the cook says. But the cheap high-calorie food once meant to keep slaves working bears a modern price, contributing to high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity—especially as mama's fried chicken is replaced with the Colonel's.

Surely We Have Learned Some Lessons Since 2001?

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 2:35 AM EST

Fred Hiatt is disturbed by President Obama's apparent desire to disengage in Afghanistan and, more generally, to intervene less often in foreign countries. This inclination toward disengagement has taken hold of American public opinion before, he says:

Traditionally two philosophies have fueled it. One sees the United States as a moral exemplar but believes we aren’t obliged to solve the world’s problems.

The other is skeptical about America’s moral standing to impose its will, believing that more often than not it has used its power to exploit other people on behalf of U.S. corporations or other selfish interests.

Today a third strand entwines those two: a sense, fueled by the deep U.S. recession and China’s rise, that America is a declining and overextended power that can no longer afford to lead as it has in the past.

I'm not especially trying to pick on Hiatt here, but whenever I read things like this I'm just gobsmacked. There is, pretty obviously, a fourth strand that Hiatt is either stubbornly unaware of or else simply chooses to ignore: that there are lots of interventions that the United States simply can't undertake successfully. What's more, the kinds of interventions that crop up most frequently in the modern world are precisely the kind we're least likely to succeed at.

In the last decade we've launched two disastrous foreign wars. They weren't disastrous because of mismanagement—though obviously they were mismanaged—they were disastrous because their ultimate success depended on extensive postwar nation building in an alien society. And despite David Petraeus's best efforts, that's something we simply aren't able to do. It might not even be possible to do in the modern era, when controlling tribal rebellions via periodic salutary massacres is frowned on.

Consider Afghanistan. We've now been there for over a decade. Every two years or so, the administration in charge has conceded that previous efforts were misguided and announced a new, more deeply thought-out strategy. These strategies always sound plausible and the people in charge always seem dedicated and capable. Nevertheless, none of them have worked. Three years ago, Obama implemented the biggest reset of them all, sending in more troops, and then still more, all under the command of a general thought to embody the very best of what we've learned about counterinsurgency and nation building. This new strategy hasn't worked either. It hasn't come close to working. By the only test that matters—what would happen if we left?—it's been an utter failure. If we leave now, within a year Afghanistan will be all but indistinguishable from the Afghanistan of 2001.

This isn't because America is declining or overextended. It's not because the U.S. Army is incompetent. It's because we're trying to do something nobody knows how to do.

Anyone who's been paying attention for the past decade knows this. Anyone who's been paying attention should, by now, be profoundly skeptical of using military force to reshape the culture of the Middle East. If the goal is solely to win a quick military victory and then leave, intervention might occasionally still be worth considering. But the truth is that this is seldom a useful goal in the kinds of conflicts we're most likely to encounter these days.

Hiatt writes as if it's still 2001 and we haven't learned any of these lessons yet. It's inexplicable.

Corn on MSNBC: Can We Actually Pass Gun Control Laws?

Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:47 PM EST

Next Tuesday, Joe Biden will be presenting his recommendations on gun violence to Obama. Can Democrats really sell gun control legislation to Republicans getting their arms twisted by the NRA? With MSNBC's Martin Bashir, David Corn discusses how the President can build a political coalition for gun control.

Read Mother Jones' special report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.