Brennan Center: No "Crime Wave" in 2015

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 11:24 AM EST

Has there been an explosion of crime in 2015? It will take some time before official figures are available, so the Brennan Center decided to compile some unofficial figures through October. They surveyed the 30 largest cities and asked for both the murder rate and the overall "index" crime rate (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft). Their conclusion: the murder rate is up 11 percent while the overall crime rate is down 1.5 percent.

It's true that some cities have seen very large increases in their murder rates. But that's not uncommon. The base of murders is pretty small, so it doesn't take much to create a big spike in a single year. The overall crime rate, which has a much larger base, is usually more stable.

Any time the murder rate goes up, it's a good idea to be concerned. But murder rates have ticked up by 10 percent or so on several occasions in the past. There's just a lot of noise in the data. Overall, though, there's little evidence of any kind of explosion in either the murder rate or the crime rate. A few cities (Baltimore, DC, Denver, most of Texas) seem to have a serious problem, but that's about it.

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Louisiana Republican Stokes Fears of Syrian Refugees to Boost Struggling Campaign for Governor

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 10:31 AM EST

In the days since terror attacks roiled Paris, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has been trailing in the race for governor against his Democratic rival John Bel Edwards, has settled on a new strategy for winning over voters: warning them about Syrian refugees entering the state. 

After Edwards released an apparently altered statement on Facebook in the attacks' aftermath noting he would help "to assist the people coming here and fleeing from religious persecution," Vitter's campaign pounced. In a robocall over the weekend, Vitter warned that President Barack Obama's "reckless policies" for allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country would turn Louisiana into a "dangerous refugee zone." (The State Department confirmed to the Times-Picayune that only 14 Syrian immigrants had settled in Louisiana since January 1.) 

On Monday, as Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order seeking to block refugees from entering the state, Vitter released an ad claiming that Obama had been "sending refugees to Louisiana" and that Edwards had vowed to work with the president to welcome them. A day later, Vitter introduced federal legislation that would halt incoming refugee admissions for at least 300 days while a review of the screening process takes place. 

An email sent from the Louisiana Republican Party on Tuesday warned supporters about the possibility of "missing" refugees in the state.  

Just yesterday, David Vitter had to notify the Obama Administration that a Syrian refugee who had been living in Baton Rouge has gone missing. What kind of accountability is that? There is an unmonitored Syrian refugee who is walking around freely, and no one knows where he is.

It turns out that the "missing" refugee in Baton Rouge hadn't disappeared at all. A day before the email went out, the New Orleans Advocate reported that Catholic Charities, the organization that aids in refugee resettlement, had helped the Syrian man for a few days before he left the state to meet with family in Washington, DC. Before he left, the man filed relocation paperwork to the federal government.

Vitter's wife, Wendy Vitter, reportedly works as a lawyer for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities. The organization received a flood of phone calls about the supposedly "missing" refugee, according to the Advocate, and a Jefferson Parish Sheriff warned that "somebody's going to get killed" as a result of the misinformation, according to the New Orleans alt-weekly The Gambit.

Vitter, whose campaign has also been mired in reports that he may have had a love child with a prostitute, will find if his last-ditch effort to lure Louisiana voters is successful when the election takes place on Saturday. 

Alleged Planner of Paris Attacks Killed in Saint-Denis Raid

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 8:41 AM EST

Paris' chief prosecutor announced on Thursday that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected architect of the deadly terrorist attacks that killed 129 people, was killed during Wednesday's seven-hour-long standoff in Saint-Denis, during which some 5,000 rounds of ammunition were exchanged between the police and militants.

The Associated Press reported that the Belgian-born terrorist was identified by fingerprint samples.

Early on Wednesday, heavily armed authorities descended on the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis to raid an apartment believed to be hiding a terrorist cell.

The police say they were able to locate the apartment after recovering a cellphone used by one of the terrorists near the Bataclan concert hall where the attackers killed 89 people.

Two people, including Abaaoud, were killed in the raid. Eight others were arrested. On Thursday, officials confirmed that the woman who detonated herself using an explosive vest was Abaaoud's cousin.

When Will Republicans at Last Get Serious About National Security?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:23 AM EST

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page sings the praises of French President François Hollande:

French security forces Wednesday conducted hundreds of antiterror raids and placed more than 100 suspects under house arrest....Security forces found a weapons cache in the city of Lyon that included Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket launcher....France has some 11,500 names on government watch lists. Many are likely to be detained under the three-month state of emergency that Mr. Hollande declared after Friday’s attacks.

....Mr. Hollande has been right to declare war on Islamic State and order French bombing raids on its capital in eastern Syria. France is still a militarily capable nation, as it proved when it turned back an al Qaeda offensive in Mali in 2013. It can do significant damage to ISIS if it increases the tempo of its current bombing or deploys its Foreign Legion to liberate the city of Raqqa.

....Until America gets a new Commander in Chief, Mr. Hollande is the best antiterror leader the West has.

Hmmm. It's certainly true that Hollande has been among the most hawkish of European leaders. It's also true that France was one of the first to join the US air campaign against ISIS—though their military efforts so far have been little more than pinpricks. But let's roll the tape back to June 2014, when President Obama was first trying to put together a coalition. He and Hollande issued a joint communique with all the right promises, but as France 24 reported, "Behind that facade of unity, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS."

Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs....For the moment, however, no military measures are planned....Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

....The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

That's the best anti-terror leader the West has, according to the Journal. Nobody had "specifically" asked France, so Hollande decided to hang tight and see which way the wind was blowing.

This is the kind of thing that makes it so hard to talk about ISIS and terrorism. It's not as if this has been Obama's finest hour, after all, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the opposition has generally been much worse. Obama waffled over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then Congress bungled things further by refusing to approve Obama's call for retaliatory strikes—with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio joining in. Obama may have been late to recognize the threat from ISIS, but he's still the guy who put together the coalition. France has been a good partner in the fight against ISIS, but that happened only after Obama spent some time cajoling them into action.

And Republicans simply can't be bothered to take any of this seriously. They blather about Obama being weak, but when you ask them for their plans you just get nonsense. They demand "leadership"; they bask in cheap applause lines about a bigger military; they all chime in like puppets to agree on a no-fly zone; they suggest we stop worrying about civilian casualties; they propose more arms for the Kurds; they want to team up with Sunni tribal leaders without saying how they'd accomplish it; and they vaguely imply that we should bomb ISIS differently....or more....or with greater determination....or something.

None of this is remotely serious. A bigger military wouldn't affect ISIS. A no-fly zone wouldn't affect ISIS. Killing civilians would actively help ISIS. The Kurds aren't going to fight ISIS in Sunni territory. Sunni leaders aren't going to be reliable allies until they trust Baghdad to treat them equitably. And sure, we could bomb more, but there's not much point until we have the ground troops to back it up. But Republicans have been unanimously opposed to American troops all along, and Iraqi ground troops flatly aren't yet willing or able to do the job.

I hardly want to be in the position of pretending that Obama's ISIS strategy has been golden. But Republicans make him look like Alexander the Great. They treat the whole subject like a plaything, a useful cudgel during a presidential campaign. Refugees! Kurds! Radical Islam! We need to be tougher!

That isn't leadership. It barely even counts as coherent thought. It's just playground jeering. But right now, that's all we're getting from them.

Jeb Bush Has Missed a Chance to Revitalize His Campaign

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 10:13 PM EST

I'm just noodling around here, but I wonder if Jeb Bush has blown a chance over the past few days. See, I figure his only hope of winning is to let everyone else fight it out for a share of the tea party vote while he gets the lion's share of the other half of the Republican Party. If he's the one guy who appeals to moderate Republicans, he can win.

Now, generally speaking, Jeb has been more moderate than the rest of the field in response to the Paris attacks. But should he have gone further? It wouldn't have been hard. Make a real case for taking in refugees. Propose a serious, conservative plan for dealing with ISIS instead of resorting to jingoism and shibboleths. Criticize the other candidates for fearmongering. Maybe even say that he agrees with President Obama that it's long past time for Congress to act on an authorization for military force against ISIS.

A serious, measured approach like this from a Republican candidate would have been so different, so unexpected, that it could have gotten him some real attention. The press would have swooned. Moderate conservatives would have noticed. Bush would have stood out from the field for the first time. And it would have played to his strengths instead of forcing him into a Trumpesque mold that he's obviously uncomfortable with.

And as an added bonus, it would have been the right thing to do. What's not to like?

Shopping Around Is the Key to Low Prices in Obamacare

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 7:56 PM EST

Abby Goodnough writes today about switching health care coverage each year during Obamacare's year-end open enrollment period:

The Obama administration is encouraging switching as a way to avoid steep increases in premiums — and to promote competition among insurers, as the law intends. Next year will be no different: The price of plans will rise in most states, and the administration says that 86 percent of people who currently have coverage through the federal exchange can find a better deal by switching.

“This may be just one of those environments where there’s a new normal,” said Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.

For many consumers, the volatility in the markets has been a source of anxiety and disruption. To have any choice at all is a welcome development, many say. But switching plans is also becoming an unwelcome ritual, akin to filing taxes, that is time-consuming and can entail searching for new doctors and hospitals each year.

This is unquestionably a downside to encouraging competition in the health insurance marketplace. As carriers jostle for position, the lowest-price coverage is going to change from year to year—and if you're a price-sensitive shopper, that means your coverage is going to change from year to year too.

I suspect this problem will settle down after a couple more years, as insurance companies get more experience with the Obamacare pool and get better at pricing their policies. In the meantime, though, it really does pay to shop around. A new Kaiser study of 2016 rate increases provides some concrete numbers. If you bought the cheapest silver plan in 2015 and then you stick with it in 2016, your premium may go up quite a bit. But if you shop around for the plan that has the lowest price in 2016, your premium will barely change at all. The chart on the right tells the story. For low-income buyers, shopping around means virtually no premium increase at all. For middle-income buyers, it means a larger but still pretty modest increase.

Moral of the story: If price is a major issue for you, shop around! It's a pain in the ass, but it pays off.

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The Latest Issue of ISIS's Magazine Is As Terrible As You'd Think

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 7:20 PM EST

Since the end of October, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the murders of almost 400 people in strikes against France, Russia, and Lebanon. As officials continue to investigate how these attacks were carried out, the so-called Islamic State released its own version Wednesday morning—in the latest issue of its digital magazine, Dabiq.

As Mother Jones has reported before, Dabiq is a recruitment tool for ISIS, which uses the publication to deliver "informative" updates from its territory and articulate lengthy religious arguments that the group says justify its brutal tactics. ISIS's propaganda arm, which began publishing Dabiq after the group's declaration last summer that it had established a caliphate, uploads the magazine online as an English-language PDF and distributes it on social media. (Dabiq takes its name from a farming town in northern Syria, where, according to Islamic prophecy, the caliphate will defeat the forces of "Rome," ushering in a series of events that will lead to the apocalypse—a story that is crucial to ISIS's recruiting tactics.)

Here's what the terrorist group had to say about recent attacks:

Dabiq doesn't add much to what we already know about the simultaneous attacks that killed 129 people Friday at the Bataclan Theatre, Stade de France, and other locations around the Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. As European authorities mount raids looking for anyone who might have been involved in the plot, the magazine states that a total of eight people were involved in carrying out the attacks.

Here's how Dabiq justifies last week's events in Paris: 

A year earlier, on "19 September 2014," France haughtily began executing airstrikes against the Khilāfah [Caliphate]. Like Russia, it was blinded by hubris, thinking that its geographical distance from the lands of the Khilāfah would protect it from the justice of the mujāhidīn. It also did not grasp that its mockery of the Messenger would not be left unavenged. Thus, the Islamic State dispatched its brave knights to wage war in the homelands of the wicked crusaders, leaving Paris and its residents "shocked and awed." The eight knights brought Paris down on its knees, after years of French conceit in the face of Islam.

The alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, gave an interview to Dabiq earlier this year. In it, Abaaoud brags about being pursued by Western intelligence agencies and describes traveling between Syria and Belgium, where he claimed he was leading a terror cell that was broken up by Belgian officials.

Metrojet Flight 9268 crash
In a foreword to the issue, Dabiq's unnamed creators published an image of the bomb they say was used to bring down Metrojet Flight 9268, the Russian airliner that crashed on October 31 over Sinai, Egypt, killing all 224 passengers. The photograph shows a can of Shwepps Gold, alongside what appears to be a switch and detonator for the device.

New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers weighed in on the bomb on Twitter:

According to Dabiq, ISIS originally planned to attack an airplane belonging to the US-led coalition against ISIS, but switched its target to a Russian flight. An Egyptian branch of ISIS has previously claimed responsibility for the attack.

Neither the photograph nor any of the group's claims about the attacks have been verified. Alexander V. Bortnikov, the head of the Russian Federal Security Service, said Monday that Russian investigators had determined that the plane was brought down in an act of terrorism, using an "improvised explosive device" that contained up to one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of TNT.

Dabiq explains how the attack on Metrojet Flight 9268 came about:

On "30 September 2015"…Russia decided to participate directly with its own air force in the war. It was a rash decision of arrogance from Russia, as if it held that its wars against the Muslims of al-Qawqāz were not enough offence. And so after having discovered a way to compromise the security at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport and resolving to bring down a plane belonging to a nation in the American-led Western coalition against the Islamic State, the target was changed to a Russian plane. A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane, leading to the deaths of 219 Russians and 5 other crusaders only a month after Russia’s thoughtless decision…This was to show the Russians and whoever allies with them that they will have no safety in the lands and airspace of the Muslims, that their daily killing of dozens in Shām through their airstrikes will only bring them calamities, and that just as they kill, they will be killed, by Allah’s permission.

Beirut, Lebanon
Dabiq also includes the November 12 suicide bombings in Beirut among a larger list of its recent "military operations":

The soldiers of the Khilāfah in Lebanon parked a motorbike rigged with explosives on al-Husayniyyah Street in the region of Burj al-Barājinah located in the southern suburb of Beirut, a Hizbul-Lāt stronghold, and detonated it on a gathering of Rāfidī mushrikīn. When the murtaddīn subsequently gathered at the site of explosion, one of the soldiers of the Khilāfah detonated his explosive belt in their midst. The operation succeeded in killing more than 40 Rāfidah and wounding over 200 more, and sent a clear message to the Rāfidī allies of Bashar in Lebanon that they are well within the vengeful reach of the Islamic State.

According to CNN, Lebanese investigators apprehended a would-be suicide bomber who survived the attacks, and who claimed to have traveled to Beirut from Syria as part of an ISIS cell.

Roanoke Mayor Makes the Most Appalling Argument Yet for Rejecting Syrian Refugees

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 5:35 PM EST

Here is Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia—a member of Hillary Clinton's Virginia Leadership Council—making perhaps the worst argument we've seen yet for rejecting Syrian refugees:

A take so bad that it prompted this member of Congress to weigh in:


Update: Bowers is off the Clinton team as of Wednesday afternoon.

Even in the Hands of an Expert, Mockery Is Tough to Control

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 3:55 PM EST

I sort of promised myself that I wasn't going to comment again on the whole mockery thing, but President Obama's remarks yesterday are a pretty interesting case study of both the strength and weakness of mockery as a political tool. First, here's what he said about refugees at a press conference in the Philippines. I have a reason for including a very long excerpt, but feel free to skim it since the details aren't that important:

Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there.

And it is important for us to be reminded that we have to be vigilant, that rooting out these terrorist networks and protecting the homeland is hard work, and we can't be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks. That's why we built an entire infrastructure over the last decade-plus to make it much harder for terrorists to attack us; to go after terrorists where they live and plan these attacks; to coordinate with our partners and our allies; to improve our intelligence. All the work that we've been doing in our intelligence communities and our military over the last decade is in recognition of the fact that this is something we should be concerned about and we've got to work hard to prevent it.

But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media.

Understand, under current law, it takes anywhere from, on average, 18 to 24 months to clear a refugee to come into the United States. They are subjected to the most rigorous process conceivable. The intelligence community vets fully who they are. Biometrics are applied to determine whether they are, in fact, somebody who might threaten the United States. There is an entire apparatus of all of our law enforcement agencies and the center that we use for countering terrorism to check and ensure that a refugee is not admitted that might cause us harm.

And, if anything, over the last several years that the refugee crisis has emerged in Europe, we’ve been criticized that it is so cumbersome that it’s very difficult for us to show the kind of compassion that we need to for these folks who are suffering under the bombings of Assad and the attacks of ISIL. They’re victims of this terrorism.

And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome — we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn't admit three-year-old orphans  that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians — proven Christians  should be admitted  that’s offensive and contrary to American values.
I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.

OK. Got that? That was the first two minutes of Obama's remarks. He acknowledged the problem. He also acknowledged that a renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks was understandable. He explained that our screening process for Syrian refugees is extremely stringent. He said he didn't want to play into the hands of ISIS by stoking fear of Islam, and he criticized politicians who did so. No mockery. Just plenty of education and some tough words for partisan fearmongers.

Then he said this:

And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.

That's mockery. And here's the problem. Obama started off by speaking for a full two minutes calmly and rationally—exactly what I think he should have done. Then he briefly offered up a bit of mockery. I actually think that's OK too because it was prefaced with a deep and sustained acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

But can you guess how much of that first two minutes has been quoted? Can you guess how much of the mockery has been quoted? That's right: barely any of the former and mountains of the latter.

This is hardly surprising. The explanatory stuff is boring. How many of you read it all the way through? The mockery, on the other hand, is short and it makes great copy. Of course that's what everyone is going to focus on.

On the bright side, this means Obama got some press and the liberal base got stoked. On the downside, it means that your average reader got the impression that Obama tossed out a few jibes at Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and that was it. You don't even have to quote him out of context to make it look like he doesn't really care much about fears of refugees.

That's the risk of using mockery. Used on its own, it makes ordinary people feel like you're clueless and condescending. But even if you do it right, as Obama did, the way it's reported can end up having the same effect. And that effect is exactly the opposite of what liberals would like to accomplish. So if you care about the real world, and you care about public opinion, keep the mockery to a minimum. That doesn't mean you can't fight back, and it doesn't mean you have to go easy on the fearmongers. You can do both. Just do it in a way that doesn't immediately turn off the very people you'd like to persuade.

The SALt Lamp Explained

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 2:36 PM EST

You might have seen this in the New York Times today:

The president hosted a discussion of climate change at the chief executives’ forum along with Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Aisa Mijeno, a Filipino entrepreneur who invented a lamp that runs on saltwater.

In response to a question about her lamp from Mr. Obama, Ms. Mijeno said that it provided about eight hours of light, as well as power to a USB port for charging a phone. “And all you need to do is you just have to replenish the saltwater solution,” she said, “and then you have another eight hours of lighting.”

Just saltwater? Doesn't that seem like it violates some kind of energy conservation law?

Yes and no. The SALt lamp uses a fairly ordinary galvanic battery that consists of two electrodes and an electrolyte solution of salty water. Replenishing the saltwater will indeed get the lamp going again, but you also need to replace the anode every six months or so. There's no magic here, but there is a substantial engineering challenge. "It is made of tediously experimented and improved chemical compounds, catalysts, and metal alloys that when submerged in electrolytes will generate electricity," Mijeno explained earlier this year.

The other challenge is being able to manufacture the lamp so that it's reliable, cheap, and easy to maintain. If Mijeno's lamp works as advertised, it will produce about 90 lumens of light at a cost of $20, plus $3 every six months for a replacement anode. It's designed for areas with no electricity grid, and should be safer than kerosene lamps. She hopes to have it on the market in 2016.