Political MoJo

United 93

Fri Apr. 28, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

The recently released film United 93, which tells the story of the hijacked plane that didn't reach its target on 9/11, is being hyped as a "gripping, provocative drama" and an account of how Americans found courage on that day. But filmmaker Paul Greengrass can't seem to decide whether he wants the tale of "the flight that fought back" to be a blockbuster epic or a grittier, documentary-style work of historical fiction. And ultimately, he fails to deliver either.

Watching the trailer for United 93—which suggests an action-packed blockbuster—is a completely different experience from watching the movie itself. In the actual film, September 11, 2001 is portrayed as an ordinary day that unravels into confusion and panic. Neither the passengers of Flight 93 nor the hijackers are mythologized. During the confusion, the humanity of everyone involved is revealed: the stewardesses, the passengers, the military personnel, the hijackers. But as long as the passengers aren't portrayed as heroes, their struggle feels almost futile—embodied in their final, chaotic rush on the cockpit. In a moment, the violence is over and the plane crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside.

The simultaneous scenes of confusion in the film—in the FAA, in the military, in the flight itself—don't live up to standard-issue action films. Everything is presented chronologically, but not with enough clarity to answer the question, "Who knew what when?" A history-minded viewer is left to ask, "Is this real? Did this really happen in response to that and at that point in the sequence of events?" And then there's the scene of white Christians praying in the back of the plane and fanatical brown Muslims praying in the front of the plane—an image hard not to read as intending to portray "the clash of civilizations."

While Greengrass paints a picture of some of the people involved with the day's horrific events, viewers seeking entertainment will likely be disappointed and viewers seeking an informative, inspiring, historical narrative will likely be unsettled. Even the host at our screening seemed pressed to find the right words to introduce the movie, "Enjoy the—," she said, catching herself. "I don't know if enjoy is the right word."

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How to spot a terrorist

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 11:57 PM EDT

I really had no idea how to spot a terrorist until I studied the manuals published by the Phoenix FBI, the state employees of Virginia, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Now that I have absorbed these manuals, I not only know how to spot a terrorist, but I have discovered that I probably am a terrorist.

The Phoenix FBI manual was published while Clinton was still president. The Joint Terrorism Task Force was formed to "help preserve the American way of life." Its flyer requested that citizens contact the task force if they saw any of the following:

Defenders of the U.S. Constitution against federal government and the UN
Groups of individuals engaging in para-military training
Those who make numerous references to the U.S. Constitution
Those who attempt to police the police
Lone individuals
The Phoenix Sheriff's Office did not care for the flyer, and it had a short life.

On to Virginia...This manual tells us to beware of the following people:

Members of anti-government and militia movements
Property rights activists
Members of racist, separatist, and hate groups
Environmental and animal rights activists
Religious extremists
Members of street gangs
According to the authorities in Virginia, terrorists stand out in the crowd because of the stuff they carry:
Sketch pads or notebooks
Maps or charts
Still or video cameras
Hand-held tape recorders
SCUBA equipment
And finally, there's Texas, whose manual shares with us some characteristics of terrorists:
Focused and committed
Team-oriented and disciplined
Familiar with their physical environments
Employ a variety of vehicles and communicate by cell phone, email, or text messaging
Try not to draw attention to themselves
Look like students, tourists, or businesspersons
Travel in a mixed group of men, women, and children
Avoid confrontations with law enforcement
Use disguises or undergo cosmetic surgery
Well, there you are. Could someone pick you out of the crowd as a terrorist? As an emailing, camera-toting, focused and committed animal rights activist who sometimes looks like a businesswoman, frequently references the Constitution, and still has some leftover costumes from my years in New Orleans, I'm as good as gone.

Will Bush policy stop Jack Bauer from leaking to Sy Hersh?

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 11:23 PM EDT

The Bush administration's hypocritical crackdown on intelligence leaks, if applied in the alternative reality of TV's thriller show, 24, could prevent courageous Counter-Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer from getting the truth out about the president's central role in a conspiracy. At first we all thought the president was just a bumbler, but it turns out he's actually a mastermind in an evil plot to drum up the fear of terrorism as a way to promote an overseas invasion aimed at seizing oil fields. Fortunately, that plot-line is so far-fetched it could never, ever happen in the real world, such as in the run-up to the Iraq war.

If Jack Bauer leaked the truth about the conspiracy orchestrated by the President, however, he'd probably be swift-boated by the likes of Anne Coulter and William Bennett.

On the TV show, Bauer obtains through various nerve-wracking feats of derring-do a tape recording of President Charles Logan talking with an aide about how he delivered nerve gas to terrorists and allowed the former president, David Palmer, to be assassinated. During a recent episode, Bauer seeks help from Defense Secretary Heller in making the tape public:

12:08 A.M.
Jack takes [colleague and former girl-friend] Audrey Raines and [Defense Secretary James] Heller inside an empty hangar and plays them the tape recording. Logan gave the terrorists the Sentox gas, but planned to deploy the gas before it reached Moscow. This would provide him with an excuse to exercise the military terms of his arms treaty with [Russian Premier ] Suvarov. Jack thinks it was a play to control the oil supply in central Asia and that [ former president] David Palmer found out about it. Heller is not surprised at Logan's actions. Jack asks Audrey to accompany her father to present this evidence to the Attorney General.

But in subsequent weeks, Bauer had turn over the tape to one of the bad guys, renegade CTU agent Christopher Henderson, to keep his love interest, Audrey, alive and then commandeer a jet with a Henderson accomplice at the helm to regain the tape. All the good guys are now working to obtain and use the the tape to expose the President's plot and his treasonous link to terrorists.

In last night's episode, an evil snitch in CTU, Miles, ingratiates himself himself with the President after Bauer returns to CTU with the tape in hand by seeking to destroy the digital recording with a high-tech device. Tune in next week to find out what happens to the recording. But, through all this maneuvering, why didn't Jack Bauer just arrange to play or upload the recording to tech wizard Chloe O'Brian so she could copy it – and then leak the recording to Sy Hersh, Lisa Meyers or other investigative reporters? If he could do so, he could expose the plot. We can image the possible conversation:

Oh, Those Unfair Tax Cuts...

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 3:49 PM EDT

Speaking of gas prices, apparently Republicans in Congress now think it's "unfair" that wealthy oil companies are enjoying lavish tax breaks. The rich don't "need" extra tax cuts, we're told. Well then, if they really want to go there, I can think of a much better place to start. Focusing on excessive oil company profits, of all things, in a conversation about tax justice is myopic in the extreme.

Can Maliki Disarm the Militias?

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 3:26 PM EDT

American officials are stumped as to how Iraq's new prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is going to carry out his pledge to disarm the Shiite and Kurdish militias that are carrying out a de facto civil war in the country:

Administration officials said that in his meeting with Ms. Rice, Mr. Maliki spoke of "re-establishing trust" among Iraqis by acting quickly to restore electrical power and root out the influence of militias in Iraq's police forces, which number about 135,000 nationwide.

With an estimated thousands of these forces in Baghdad alone infiltrated by the Badr brigade, a Shiite militia whose members have been accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis, American officials said they did not know what sort of muscle or conciliation Mr. Maliki would use to carry out this pledge. "It's clearly one of the high priorities for the government," Ms. Rice said. "How they go about that I think is something they will have to work through." Mr. Rumsfeld, asked how American armed forces could do the job, said: "The first thing I'd say is, we don't. The Iraqis do." The new Iraqi government "undoubtedly and unquestionably will be addressing the question," he added. "Other countries have dealt with these issues. It's possible that these things can be done."

A lot of hand-waving, in other words. But does anyone think it's realistic for the Shiite parties to disarm their militias? Back when the CPA was running things, their approach to the militias involved creating a "virtuous circle," as Spencer Ackerman reported last year: "If security increased around the country and Iraqis reconciled their deep religious and ethnic divisions, the parties would no longer require paramilitary 'insurance policies.'" Getting rid of those paramilitaries would, in turn, improve security further. It was a pretty good idea in theory.

Except that the CPA tried this approach for two years, and it didn't work. Security never improved, stuff never got built, political developments got worse, not better, and the main Shiite parties are all — somewhat understandably — built up their militias for protection against a growing Sunni insurgency. And that, in turn, is making the security situation even worse. It's a cycle that seems structurally impossible to reverse, even if Ayatollah al-Sistani is now ordering the militias to disarm. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that Rice and Rumsfeld are shrugging and saying, "Well, figure it out somehow." No one has any idea how to fix things.

One also can't help but suspect that Rice and Rumsfeld's overt backing for Maliki will only make the latter's job harder, not easier. Iraqis, as we've learned, aren't terribly keen on taking their marching orders from Washington: Only a year ago, Rumsfeld warned the Shiites not to purge the security forces of ex-Baathists, and yet they did just that. (UPDATE: See this story; some Shiites are already angry at the visit.)

Meanwhile, Spencer had a new piece up the other day noting that Iraq's new prime minister might not be the best person to reconcile the country after all — Maliki has been involved in nearly every move that's pissed off the Sunnis over the last few years. And in very related and very scary news, Shiite militiamen are moving into the oil-rich and Kurdish-dominated city of Kirkuk, ready to take the city back from the Kurds. One has to wonder whether even Rice and Rumsfeld believe that things are heading in a positive direction...

Demagoguing on Gas Prices

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 2:57 PM EDT

Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias argues that the Democrats are doing the smart thing politically by proposing some ludicrous bill to lower gas prices this summer that Republicans will be forced to vote against. Maybe he's right. At the same time, there's a rather big dilemma here.

Oil prices are in all likelihood going to continue rising from now until whenever the oil runs out. And what's more, higher oil prices are, all things considered, a good thing—they'll spur people to use less gas and give everyone incentives to find alternatives to our oil-based economy that's literally burning up the earth. From that perspective, oil prices should actually be higher than they are now. Much higher. Ideally, Congress would levy gas taxes on everyone to hasten this process along, especially since we don't have a whole heap of time left before the carbon concentration levels in the atmosphere become irreversible.

But no one's proposing any such thing—because it's political suicide. And it's political suicide because the main narrative in Congress is that gas prices are somehow "too high," that they "should" be lower, and that it's somehow within Congress' power to make them lower (it's not). And that's the main narrative because it's always the "smart thing" politically to demagogue on this issue. Is this cycle somehow going to end if and when Democrats ever retake Congress? Probably not. Back in 1993 Democrats passed a 4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and... promptly lost power. Meanwhile...

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Wounded soldiers return home to another fight--bill collectors

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 9:08 PM EDT

The Government Accountability Office is releasing a report tomrorrow that hundreds of American soldiers wounded in Iraq have had their debts turned over to collection agencies.

ABC News tells the story of Army specialist Tyson Johnson, who had just been promoted when a a mortar round exploded outside his tent, wounding him in the left kidney and the head. The injuries forced him out of the Army, which then demanded he repay an enlistment bonus of $2,700 because he had served only two-thirds of his tour. Johnson was unable to return the money, his account was turned over to a collection agency, and he ended up living in his car because of his bad credit record.

ABC also tells the story of Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, who lost his leg in a roadside bomb attack. The Army continued to pay him his $2,000 combat bonus pay while he was hospitalized, and then demanded that he give it back. Kelly says he was threatened with the propect of dealing with a collection agency and having a bad credit report.

Apparently, wounded soldiers are taken off of the battlefield quickly, and the payroll system is not designed to keep up with their change of status. The Army has decided to forgive the debts of soldiers such as Johnson and Kelly. This decision came after ABC aired a program about the issue in the fall of 2004, but according to Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, there may be many more soldiers who have to deal with debt collection because of the faulty system.

KBR in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 8:01 PM EDT

If you haven't already seen it, I'd highly recommend James Glanz' piece in the New York Times on how KBR—of Halliburton subsidiary fame—botched a pipeline project in Iraq. It definitely gives a vivid sense of just how and why reconstruction has been such a travesty. Meanwhile, Daniel Gross reports in Slate that KBR really hasn't been profiting much off its Iraq contracts thus far, although given that the Bush administration is going to leave a fine legacy of global instability in its wake, the company will probably have ample opportunity to redeem itself and smart investors should buy stock. Or something.

Democrats Cozy Up to Wall Street

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 4:26 PM EDT

Here's a headline worth noting: "Democrats beat Republicans in 2005 Fund-Raising on Wall Street." My suspicion has always been that the Democratic Party has snuggled ever closer to the financial industry over the past decade partly because it's one of the few corporate sectors that doesn't conflict in an obvious way with any other major liberal interest group.

Democrats have to get corporate donations from somewhere, the thinking goes, and the financial sector doesn't usually clash overtly with labor unions. It's not part of the military-industrial complex. It doesn't pillage the environment. It screws over ordinary voters in opaque and non-obvious ways. What's not to like? Indeed, it's a pretty natural ally for a "liberal" party in dire need of campaign cash.

The downside is that a party that jumps in bed with the financial sector is going to end up backing the sorts of anti-progressive measures—from the recent bankruptcy bill, to financial deregulation, to inflation targeting by the Fed—that all strike me as just as malignant, if not more so, than, say, an energy company donating to Tom DeLay in exchange for the right to pollute or pour MTBE into our drinking water or whatever. And increasingly, the Democrats are doing just that. In some ways, it would almost be preferable if, say, Hillary Clinton was getting her money from ExxonMobil and Halliburton, rather than Citigroup and MetLife. (Okay, probably not, but you get my point…)

Ranks of Uninsured Growing

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 3:03 PM EDT

In case anyone was under the illusion that the health insurance situation is improving in this country, a recently-released Commonwealth Fund report sets things straight. 37 percent of low-income workers are currently uninsured, up from 33 percent in 2001. And the number of low-income workers who have gone without insurance at some point in the past year is 53 percent. This despite the fact that Medicaid is ostensibly supposed to help cover this group (it doesn't, of course, and has way too many gaps to be fully effective, but that's another story).

"Moderate income" workers, making between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, aren't doing too well either—the number of uninsured has risen from 17 percent five years ago to 28 percent today. And this all matters: more than half of all uninsured adults have debt or medical bill problems. 59 percent of uninsured adults with a chronic illness had to skip a treatment or a prescription. Those adults are much more likely to go to an emergency room than those with insurance. It's a crisis.