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December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: this is America

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It already feels like the debate over Kathryn Bigelow's new movie Zero Dark Thirty has been going on forever, and it just opened in theaters today. I watched it last night and was totally knocked out. It's one of the best of the year: powerful, tense, complicated, heart-breaking--everything you want in a great movie. Plus, it shows how freaky Mark Strong looks with hair.

But the debate hasn't been about the movie itself; it seems to be about the access to classified information the filmmakers may or may not have had, and most of all, the morality and tactical utility of torture. Is the torture of our enemies ever OK? What constitutes torture? And does it work?

These are all the wrong questions, in my opinion, at least when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. The movie isn't asking any of these questions. Torture happened in our name, whether we like it or not. So did a lot of other things in our country's effort to avenge 9/11, kill bin Laden, and thwart terrorism: bribes, bombings, occupation of sovereign nations, many thousands of military and civilian deaths, and lots and lots and lots of public money spent on wars. These are all things our country did, and does.

The real question here, from the movie's perspective, is: was it worth it? After all that, did we get what we wanted? There isn't a clear answer in the movie, but those questions are a lot more interesting, and maybe scarier, than a rehashed debate over the effectiveness of torture. And for the record, no useful information is extracted during a torture scene in this movie. It's Jessica Chastain and her brain that find bin Laden, not waterboarding.

As technically amazing as it is, I found it hard to get inside the movie at first, because I wasn't feeling emotionally involved in the characters or the story. That all changed by the end, but the chilly, detached style of the movie and the characters is one of the filmmakers' strengths. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we see war and intelligence through the eyes of people who aren't ideologues or deciders. They're hunting terrorists or defusing bombs because it's their job, and they're good at it. It's a procedural about our national desire for revenge, as performed by the people who fight our wars and avenge our deaths for us. It's a view of who we are as a country that we don't often get to see, and it's not comforting. The Hurt Locker is about a guy happily doing the incredibly dangerous job he was born to do, but Zero Dark Thirty barely has any of that triumphant spirit. It all ends in tears.

This movie is going to win Best Picture, isn't it? That's gonna be one bleak clip montage.

Also, it generated my favorite movie poster of the year. The redacted one. So great.

December 6, 2010

Four Lions: suicide bomber slapstick

Four Lions

Four Lions

You know this new movie, Four Lions, the terrorism satire? Just by being a terrorism satire, it's shocking. It's always going to be too soon for some people to handle this movie, and there are a couple of moments that made even a hardened cynic like me gasp. It's the blackest movie I've seen in years, but it's also a light and occasionally sweet comedy about some very humanized jihadists in the UK.

Watching this movie in the theater is an especially strange experience because of all the weird times that the audience laughs. Sure, everybody laughed at the funny costumes and the scene of the terrorist rapping on one of his video messages (above) but what about during the suicide bombing sequences, which got more than one weirdly shrill giggle from the audience? Are suicide bombs funny? Not usually, but apparently sometimes, yes, they are.

Let's remember that the UK suffered a more recent lethal terrorist attack than we did, so it's arguably too soon for them to be laughing about this stuff, too. The director, Chris Morris, is probably best known in the US as the guy who plays the over-confident boss man on the show "The IT Crowd", which has been on IFC lately (video). He also anchored an early TV news spoof called "The Day Today", which was on in the UK in 1994 and also featured Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, who went on to do In the Loop.

Four Lions and In the Loop would be good to watch together: they're both about the War on Terror and the useless morons on either side who are fighting it. The same two guys, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, wrote both movies. In the Loop has a purely cynical view of the incompetent and selfish idiots who started the war in Iraq, but Four Lions is a little more complicated. Its characters are nicer and goofier than the In the Loop guys, so they're less odious on the surface. But their goals are much worse. As lovably inept as they are, they still want to kill people. As Chris Morris says, "Terrorism is about ideology, but it's also about doofuses."

A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert both liked the movie a lot, which isn't surprising, but conservative talk radio star Michael Medved LOVES it. Medved interviewed Morris on his show a few weeks ago. Maybe we'd be better off if we all start thinking of terrorists, in Morris's words, as scary but also ridiculous.

Here's the trailer.

November 17, 2010

Airport scanners and civil rights

Airport Scanner at O'Hare

OK, I understand about the need to uphold civil liberties and the slippery slope that leads to sentencing people to labor camps because of a Twitter post. But can I just say that I am not really all that bothered by the naked full-body x-ray airport scanner. For some people this is a much bigger deal, I get it.

I don't want any NSA ghoul wiretapping my phone or reading my email or financial and medical records, but if someone in a room at an airport sees a hazy outline of my body for 1.5 seconds, big whoop. Much worse things are happening to us all the time, they just don't make us feel as icky and naked. Our government now has the right to invade your space in all kinds of nasty ways, for any reason, in the name of security. That kind of invasiveness just doesn't happen to involve walking through a giant machine and lifting your arms while it radiates you.

As for health concern for frequent flyers, that's another story. Roger Ebert's looking at the important issues on his Twitter page: "Does the government know the long-term effects of full body scans on frequent fliers, like airline crew or George Clooney?"

The TSA says the radiation you're exposed to by going through a full-body scanner is less than you experience by actually being on an airplane, and it's apparently also less than the radiation generated by cellphones, and we walk around all day pressing those against our skulls. But just because the TSA says they're safe doesn't make it so, as an American Airlines pilot said, "All they're telling the public is that it's fine. We're looking for some science."

Now it's going to be National Opt Out Day the day before Thanksgiving, and there will be delays and loud complaints if enough people really do start to push back on this one. While you're at it, opt-outers, could you please organize a national uprising against the Patriot Act?

August 25, 2010

Movie trailer by anti-Muslim cab stabbing guy

Last night a "very drunk" 21 year-old guy was arrested for stabbing the driver of his cab after asking him if he was Muslim.

From the Times article:

After falling silent for a few minutes, the passenger began cursing and screaming, and then yelled, "Assalamu alaikum -- consider this a checkpoint!" and slashed Mr. Sharif across the neck, and then on the face from his nose to his upper lip, the alliance said. ("Assalamu alaikum" -- "peace be with you" -- is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

The assailant, Michael Enright, was an SVA film student who had recently been in Afghanistan shooting his documentary, Home of the Brave, about US soldiers.

The trailer is on YouTube:

It features young soldiers talking about what inspired them to enlist (9/11) and what it's like to be part of a tight-knight group of soldiers (they've got your back) and, actually, makes being a soldier in Afghanistan look pretty fun. There's basic training and motivational speeches in an auditorium, and also Christmas and birthday parties and playing with a friendly dog. Doesn't look like the film includes combat, probably because as a film student he wasn't allowed to see any action.

But clearly Hollywood has defined what we think war is supposed to look like, because there's a trailer for another movie called Home of the Brave that looks far grittier and more violent. This one is about Iraq, not Afghanistan, and it stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, and 50 Cent, but when you watch the trailer, the on-the-ground scenes look a lot more war-like than the documentary. It was directed by the guy who produced all the Rocky movies.

More bombs, fewer birthday cakes.

Anyway, it seems like Michael Enright was deeply attached to the US soldiers he met and other friends who were deployed, and somewhere along the way he went nuts. Interestingly, he was also a volunteer for Intersections International, a nonprofit that works to overcome racial and religious boundaries, in their veteran's dialogue program.

The cab driver is going to be OK.

June 23, 2010

McChrystal: the Stillwater of the U.S. Military

General McChrystal looking sad

Tough break, General McChrystal. Yammering to Rolling Stone about your ineffectual boss was a terrible idea, but it really seems like he lost sight of how his words would sound outside of the Paris bars where he hung out out with journalist Michael Hastings.

The issue of Rolling Stone won't hit the stands until Friday, and it's already the most significant/disastrous article of the year. It's worth reading. We already know about all the disses on Obama and no-nonsense military tough-talk, but there's some funny and surprising stuff in there, too. McChrystal sounds like a guy who's serious about his job, totally dedicated to his soldiers, misguidedly wedded to his counterinsurgency fantasy, and almost superhumanly disciplined. With the notable exception of his tendency to mouth off to reporters.

A couple of interesting bits:

  • McChrystal allegedly eats only once a day, and in the month (!) that Michael Hastings spent around him, he witnessed him eating exactly one time
  • His staff refers to themselves as "Team America", referencing the movie by the South Park guys in a way that causes me a lot of confusion about their degree of self-awareness
  • He's tighter with Karzai than the US ambassador or any other civilian government reps
  • He was personally involved in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, one of the darker moments of this war
  • He wrote 7 short stories for the West Point literary journal while he was there

Michael Hastings did a short interview with Newsweek (his former employer) over the turmoil his piece has created, and discusses why McChrystal was so open with him. Specifically: he has no idea.

He's still in Afghanistan now, and says that he doesn't know why McChrystal agreed to talk to him in the first place. But it does seem like a lot of the more candid (aka ill-advised) stuff might have come out because a) they were in Paris and Berlin for some of the time, rather than in Afghanistan, and b) what was supposed to be two days of interviews turned into a month because of the the Icelandic ash cloud.

So I guess things got a little looser as time went on, and McChrystal and his staff probably stopped thinking of Hastings as a journalist. It happened in Almost Famous, when Stillwater got a little too cozy with their 15 year-old Rolling Stone reporter, and I guess it happened in real life, too.

One other interesting thing about Michael Hastings: he's also the guy whose girlfriend visited him while he was working for Newsweek in Baghdad as part of her job with a political nonprofit, and while she was there got killed in a Sunni ambush. He wrote a book about it.

June 7, 2010

Club security: has it come to this?

Water Taxi Beach, LIC

I headed out to Long Island City yesterday afternoon to see Tom Middleton and his party DJ house/mashup style and frolic in the early evening sun. I'd heard they have pretty extensive security there, but let me tell you my story. It's graphic.

At the main entrance, the security lady went through my knapsack, rummaging around and quickly checking out the wallet, lipgloss, tissues, and magazines. She shook out a pair of shorts and a tank top, then came to a pair of underpants I had in there from the previous day. "We've got a pair of panties here!" she said to another security guy. "More panties?" he said.

She fixated on my dirty undies at the bottom of my bag and sort of pawed at them. I was lost. "Is there something, um, wrong with...panties?" I asked, not sure if I should be trying to explain what I was doing with underwear in my bag or what. She said, "Well, a lot of girls have been spraying GHB onto a pair of panties and carrying them into the club in their purse. Then they sniff their panties and get a hit."

I reacted with an expression of speechless confusion and horror, which must have convinced the security lady of my innocence. She handed me my bag and let me inside with my non-GHB-enhanced panties, that I'm very confident no one would have any desire to sniff.

People! Is this what we've come to? Huffing our panties in clubs? Creating security alerts over a pair of embarrassingly non-sexy cotton underpants in a backpack?

It was a funny and ridiculous situation, but the absurdity of it reminded me of airport security and how the TSA adds new rules in response to whatever attempted terrorist act happened most recently. We have to take off our shoes and can bring on only travel sizes of liquids, not because anyone necessarily thinks travelers are hiding bombs in their flip-flops or Vitamin Water bottles, but in reaction to something Richard Reid did in 2001. You raise suspicion at a club if you have a pair of underwear in your bag because someone got busted smuggling drugs on her panties.

I have to believe these reactionary security measures are designed to create an illusion of security rather than to make us more secure. People who are determined to bring drugs into a club or a bomb onto a plane will just move on from shoes and bottles of liquids and underpants and find some other way that security workers don't screen. We've gotten ourselves into a Red Queen's race, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

Keep your panties on, ladies.

April 6, 2010

No Blizzards™ for troops = Outrage

Dairy Queen Blizzards

A couple of weeks ago, Command Sgt. Michael T. Hall announced on his blog that most of the fast food chains currently on military bases in Afghanistan will not have their contracts renewed, and will be closing. Dairy Queen, Burger King, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday's, and that old mainstay of mall food courts, Orange Julius, will all be heading out of Kandahar and other big bases.

The reason, he says, is that using limited transportation resources to bring in Whoppers and P'Zones can delay the delivery of essentials, like "ammunition, food and water." Clearly, what Command Sgt. Hall is implying here is that he does not consider Dairy Queen's Fudge Brownie Temptation Waffle Bowl Sundaes (960 calories!) to be food.

There's some real uproar happening in the comments on the Reuters article about the announcement, "No fries with that: fast food axed at Afghan bases". Many angry responses from readers stem from an assumption that buying a hamburger and fries while stationed on a military base is a precious luxury.

They're either angry that our government would deny our hard-working troops something so wonderful and comforting as crappy fast food, or they're angry that they (the reader) didn't get any fast food options when they were stationed in Korea, and these guys today are a bunch of wusses. But they're not especially angry that young Americans have been fighting a war in Afghanistan for 8 1/2 years, and in all that time, we've failed to find Osama bin Laden or bring peace and stability to the country.

A few choice examples:

  • What will they cut next? Clean clothes?
  • Came on guys! our Soldiers need to be feed and feed good!
  • if was getting SHOT AT EVERYDAY i would like to enjoy a whopper in my free time
  • When I served I was in indian country, tree bark was the meal of the day. It's a lot better that the GI's don't eat the garbage that these companies put out. I've also heard that mcdonalds meat will not decompose in a compost pile, nor will french fries.
  • eat you big mac and shut the fuc & up and enjoy the freedom you have, given to you buy people who are willing to die JUST FOR YOU! dumb ass. SGT U.S. MARINES ret!
  • When our other two sons came home from Iraq they couldn't get enough candy, fast food, etc. (One son lives on pizza and slurpees for two months!) I'll be happy to give my boy(s) any kind of junk food they want when they are safely back home.

And a couple of comments from people who were stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq earlier in the conflicts:

  • I am prior service, and currently work in this region, I am a professional Chef cooking for the troops. As far as the fast food joints go they are ripping the solders off with the prices they are charging $11.00 for a 6 inch pizza get real, $7.00 for a burger and fries and the burger taste like camel meat and yes I know what camel taste like.
  • I don't see where any of these companies should be on base. When I was in we had chow halls making specials all the time. The worst thing I can say about the food was that they over cooked the seafood and sometimes you could taste the iodine sterilizing solution we cleaned with. But that was before somebody decided to privatize our soldiers food. Now who knows what they are being fed for someones profit. Semper Fi.
  • I recently returned from a 15 month tour in Iraq. It used to piss me off seeing all these fast food places, and all the out of shape soldiers scarfing this crap down. I felt embarrassed just watching them. You want to do something on your down time? Go lift some weights.

Only a few comments suggested that instead of giving our troops cruddy junk food to buy as some sort of imagined treat, we could let them buy beer like European soldiers can. Also, hardly any comments mentioned another change coming to military bases that's in the same article: fewer first-run movie screenings. I'd be outraged.

March 30, 2010

The illusion of subway safety

NYPD Hercules force on the subway

After Monday's terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro, the New York papers reported that the NYPD was stepping up security on our own subway: "Deadly Moscow subway suicide bombing triggers security alert in New York".

Phew! Way to stop those Chechen separatists from attacking us.

While we probably don't need to worry about the Black Widows riding the A C E line, there are real threats on our own subway system: early Sunday morning, two guys were stabbed to death on the No. 2 train over a tossed Duane Reade bag that accidentally hit the killer.

As of today, the killer still hasn't been caught. The Times points out that the Christopher Street station, where the stabber got off the train, doesn't have any security cameras in it. And of the 4,000+ surveillance cameras installed in the subway system after 9/11, about half of them don't work.

The Daily News reports that the Christopher Street station didn't have an agent at the token booth that night, because it was closed last year due to budget cuts. So there's no good description of the killer; the Times says he is "described only as Hispanic."

In other MTA security news, the Daily News reports that the MTA has eliminated the cops stationed at the exit of the Midtown Tunnel and the towers at the Verrazano Bridge on weekends. Instead, the bridge and tunnel will be monitored by, you guessed it, surveillance cameras.

So today we've got cops from the NYPD Hercules unit with M16's riding the 6 train to provide the illusion of security against terrorists in Russia, while the guy who actually stabbed real people on our own subway is still out there.

A couple of great quotes from subway riders questioning yesterday's heavily armed cops:

"I think it's excessive," said Holly Celentang, 26, a rider from Queens. "I feel there should have been a bit more of a thought process before they did this. We can't lose our heads over something that happened in another country and make New York City look like we are at war."

Torey Deprisest, 23, who was vacationing from Ohio, said he was stunned at the show of force.

"I think it's ridiculous," Deprisest said. "The attack happened in a different country and had nothing to do with Americans. I'd be nervous seeing cops with machine guns on the train. It makes people afraid when they don't need to be."

March 15, 2010

Don't wear your Granite State gear to Gatwick

Live Free or Die t-shirt

London's Gatwick airport recently apologized to a traveler who had been stopped while going through security and asked to turn his t-shirt inside out before proceeding through. The security worker said some airlines might find the shirt "a bit threatening" because of its small printed slogan: "Freedom or die".

While the grammar of that statement is a little shaky (wouldn't it be "freedom or death"?) a t-shirt slogan isn't exactly the greatest security risk airports face. The man in the shirt, Lloyd Berks, said of his outfit choice, "It is turquoise and white, it is just a design t-shirt, it is not gothic or in your face."

Nothing like some of the more overtly gothic t-shirts one can buy in New Hampshire-themed retailers, that proudly display the popular though sort of politically flamboyant state motto, "Live Free or Die".

The Red Sox-inspired shirt in the photo above, sold as a "Dead Sox shirt" online, is probably whimsical and hilarious in New Hampshire. British airport security might not get the baseball/guns/libertarianism visual joke, though--they'll just see a gun freak in a terrorist shirt.

February 24, 2010

Women in subs

There's a brief little news item today announcing that the Pentagon has decided to allow women to work on Navy submarines, which I hadn't realized was something they couldn't do already. With all the attention Don't Ask Don't Tell has gotten lately, I sometimes forget about the tons of military jobs that women still aren't allowed to do (though as the Times reported last summer, they're increasingly doing those jobs anyway.)

So now that men and women can serve together on submarines (party sub!) and considering that Don't Ask Don't Tell's days are numbered, I can imagine one glorious day when there are gay and straight men and women all crammed in together on a submarine.

I'm pitching the sitcom! It will be like "How I Met Your Mother" meets "Glee". On a sub.

How I Met Your Mother and Glee on a Submarine

November 6, 2009

The men who really do stare at goats

Men who stare at goats, Clooney and Spacey

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens today, and while it has some great cast members (Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, and Jeff Bridges, who all buoy up the Kevin Spacey deadweight) and some funny visual jokes about the woo-woo era of the US military in the 70s, it might not be the greatest movie. Manohla Dargis liked it OK, but says it "doesn't add up to anything. It's wacky, amusing."

Even if it's light and inconsequential, it sounds like there are a few transcendent moments, and the story is based on the delightful and real Stargate Project, which Manohla describes as "born in the fields of Vietnam and baptized in the hot tubs of the New Age movement, it brings together Buddhism, pantheism, militarism and old-fashioned hooey-ism, the idea being that war can be waged with love, eagle feathers and assorted paranormal techniques -- with a few martial arts moves thrown in."

Since the real Stargate Project is probably the most interesting thing here, Wired analyzed the military operations and experiments that appear in the movie and reports on how much of the wacky stuff was real. A few highlights:

Actually, it might be more fun to just read Lt Col Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion field guide, which tells you how to create a movement of peace, positive visualization, and harmony with the universe, but within the US military.

Was there ever a decade as self-confidently goofball as the 70s?

July 27, 2009

Dirty politics and In the Loop

In the Loop and Burn After Reading haircuts

In the Loop is a little funnier than the other summer comedies, and dark dark dark-- it's meaner than The Hangover and more linguistically vulgar than Bruno. There's enough spectacular profanity in In the Loop that I guess the producers didn't bother to fight with the MPAA and potentially set a precedent for earning an NC-17 rating solely for swearing. It's unrated.

You can read the reviews (A.O. Scott in the Times, and the Washington Post review which unfortunately isn't by the paper's In the Loop columnist) and hear all about the witty barbs and conniving, selfish characters in the US and UK governments all trying to keep their heads above water as their leaders shove them toward war.

The movie is about Iraq and Bush and Blair and Rumsfeld, but it doesn't use any of those names. Instead it's about all the smaller government players scrambling to understand the larger machinations at work, and pointlessly trying to influence outcomes that have already been decided by people who don't care about democratic process or making the world a better place. It reminded me of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", a great play (and less great movie) about the two minor players in Hamlet, bewildered as they try to understand what's going on and what they're supposed to be doing while all the big Shakespearean guys are making things happen. Mostly they stand around and play acrobatic word games.

The word games in In the Loop are funnier. The best is lead British communications guy/Rottweiler, Malcolm Tucker, who in one scene accommodates an American official's sensitive ears by pronouncing his favorite swear word "F-star-star-cunt".

Anyway, I saw some parallels between this movie and the Coen Brother's Burn After Reading, another DC political comedy about people who think they're "in the loop", but are really small players in over their heads inside a political machine that chews them up and spits them out. Burn After Reading has an ambitious but bumbling duo, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who try to blackmail an ex-CIA agent with a document that they think is a lot more important than it actually is. In the Loop has ambitious but clueless British aides and Secretaries excitedly caught up in the debates leading to the Iraq war, while actually being used by the US government to fabricate evidence to legitimize a baseless war that's going to happen anyway.

The American staffers aren't really in the loop, either. Assistant Secretary Karen Clark, who has Frances McDormand's exact sandy bob haircut from Burn After Reading (above), gets shut out by another State Department big, Linton Barwick, who's an amalgam of every senior member of the Bush administration. He's played by David Rasche, who also played J.K. Simmons's CIA assistant in the funniest scenes in Burn After Reading.

It's a great little movie, but has no redeeming characters and the story spins away to nothing by the end. In the Loop is getting better reviews than Burn After Reading did, partially because it's less slapstick and more talky and the swears are a lot more creative, and because we're impressed by British comedy over here and expect the Coens to be more serious than they actually are.

You can watch episodes of the UK TV show "The Thick of It", which is the predecessor to In the Loop and has some of the same characters--they're all up on YouTube. Here's the first one. And here's an interview with the writer/director Armando Iannucci about making the Iraq war funny and the lax security they encountered at the State Department.

July 24, 2009

Friday reading

The Orphan

A few movie links:

  • I don't know why Manohla Dargis keeps putting herself through screening every single awful rom-com that comes out when they all offend her sensibilities and give her more opportunity to incinerate Hollywood studios for presenting single women as spineless imbeciles in push-up bras who live in desolate agony until they land a man. Actually, I guess that's the reason right there.

    This week's version of her perennial pissed-off review is for The Ugly Truth. Apparently she'll never lose her appetite for these movies, as long as she can call each one "a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema," as she does in this version.


  • Adoption advocates are worried that Orphan will make people believe that kids in foster care are evil Russian demons who will kill you and your family
  • .
  • And here's the Times review of Orphan. The little girl who plays the title character, the adorable 11 year-old Isabelle Fuhrman, sounds like the best part: Manohla calls her "very self-possessed" playing her role "with an exotic accent and predatory habits that suggest she worked for SPECTRE back in the motherland before landing in America as an undercover devil doll." AP says she more than rises to the challenge of some "gnarly stuff" she does onscreen.

And in other news: AP looked into the 911 systems improvement tax that you pay through your cellphone bill, and found out that money has been used for lots of unrelated stuff. In New York state, only 15% of the $1.20 monthly tax was used for 911 improvements--the rest was used for things like police uniforms and general state budget shortfalls.

June 29, 2009

Lynndie's back

Lynndie England, 2009

After causing a crisis in US military morality, being the subject of an Errol Morris documentary and spawning the global internet photo meme "Doing a Lynndie", what is Lynndie England up to in 2009?

Not a lot. She hardly leaves her house, she's depressed, she can't get a job, and she's on welfare. AP has a piece on her today about her upcoming pulpy-sounding biography called Tortured: Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib and the Photographs that Shocked the World.

Lynndie served half of a 3 year sentence for her role in Abu Ghraib, but says she's still getting treated unfairly. "They think that I was like this evil torturer ... I wasn't." We all know that the highest levels of government authorized "enhanced interrogation" of suspected terrorists in Iraq, but the lead prosecutor from Lynndie's case points out that prisoners that she was guarding at Abu Ghraib weren't terror suspects, and none of them were interrogated. As the article says, they weren't terrorists, they were regular suspected "Iraqi-on-Iraqi" criminals. Her mistreatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners was just as unacceptable as mistreating any suspected criminal in a US jail would be.

So here's Lynndie, back in West Virginia with her 4 year-old son, getting turned down for restaurant jobs because the other employees said they would quit if the manager hired her. Clearly, moving back to one's rural hometown and sending around a bunch of resumes that say "Lynndie England" on them isn't a good post-release employment strategy.

November 17, 2008

Presidents and email

Bush on a video conference

"Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

That's the email that Bush sent out to friends and family just before his inauguration in 2001, announcing his self-imposed moratorium on sending emails during his presidency.

There are a few great little details about that email, which is like a miniature time capsule of email communications in the early part of our decade. "Cyberspace"? William Gibson invented the word in 1982, and at the time of Bush's reference it was probably still a relevant word. The Wikipedia entry gently points out that in recent years it has "lost some of its novelty appeal."

Also, his private email address: G94B@aol.com. You've got the date-specific address that looked behind the times about 30 seconds after he created it (94 is probably a reference to the year he became governor of Texas.) And, of course, AOL.

The Times predicts that Obama will send out some version of the same message before long, since all presidential correspondence is part of the public record. The emails that he will probably stop sending for the next 4 years are reportedly "crisp, properly spelled and free of symbols or emoticons" though he sometimes sends out short exclamations too ("Sox!"). (Isn't that what texting is for?)

AP says, "Often a president uses the equipment of personal assistants," suggesting that Obama might keep emailing using his aides' BlackBerrys. Sneaky. He'll probably have a few favorite staffers that let him use their BlackBerry and bum the occasional cigarette too.

October 13, 2008

NYC club security

Santos Party House

[photo of Santos Party House by down by the hipster]

A quick comparison of two clubs in New York.

Cielo: I went two Fridays ago to see Nick Warren. Arrived at 11:00, line is already stretching down the block. Bouncers use a handheld scanner to verify my driver's license while I'm still standing out on the street. Once inside the building, the barcode on my ticket is scanned by another handheld reader, and more bouncers examine every purse, wallet, pocket, Altoids box, and lipgloss applicator very closely. They look carefully between every bill in every wallet. Everything is taking forever. A female bouncer puts her hands actually inside of my underwear. They appear to have drug testing equipment and every so often some of the kids trying to get in are abruptly escorted out.

Once I regain some sense of personal boundaries and get inside, there are some regular club kids dancing, and also a whole lot of guys in striped shirts and ties getting Grey Goose bottle service. The bar is a chaotic, heaving nightmare. Nick Warren is OK, but overall it's a stressful downer. Maybe Cielo should just hire El Al's elite security staff to work the door more efficiently. I used to like this place, too (at least on weeknights.)

Santos Party House: I went here last Saturday to see Z-Trip. Walked down an empty Lafayette Street at 11:30, right through the door, paid in cash, and was on the dance floor about 15 seconds after approaching the club. Didn't even get carded. The crowd was mixed in every way, everyone's dancing, and there's good beer on tap for $7. No line at the bathroom. A fun, completely easy night.

Maybe it's just that Cielo has been around since 2002 and the owners have seen many clubs get raided, and Santos is new enough that it hasn't yet (it opened in the Spring.) But when getting inside a club feels like intake processing at a federal detention center, that is not a good club.

August 5, 2008

I bet the Red Cross is loving this photo

Bruce Ivins, Red Cross volunteer

The weirdest story in the news is the unfolding drama of Dr. Bruce Ivins, the government scientist suspected of being behind the anthrax letters of 2001. The FBI's investigation for the last 7 years has mostly been a mess, and they still haven't released real evidence that links Dr. Ivins with the anthrax letters.

Ivins killed himself last week with an overdose of Tylenol with codeine, which is a really bizarre way for a scientist who deal with deadly chemicals all the time to opt to poison himself. It's a really slow, painful death, taking days to destroy your liver.

The case has already generated lots of negative publicity for every organization that Ivins had a connection to. Without any real evidence to point to, the media is reporting random bits of information about him that have nothing to do with the anthrax case. Among them:

  • The Red Cross. Ivins was a volunteer with his local chapter, and the AP photo of him above has been all over the news for a couple of days now. Is there ever good press about the Red Cross? I don't think there is.
  • Kappa Kappa Gamma. Ivins was allegedly obsessed with the sorority after dating a Kappa in college, and visited houses around the country in the 70's and 80's. The anthrax letters may have been posted from a mailbox near the Kappa office at Princeton. Of course, this has nothing to do with anything, and reports about Ivins' interest in Kappa seem to have been leaked by the FBI to make him look suspicious and creepy in a way that is not at all connected to anthrax.
  • Tame-sounding porn. Ivins also rented a post office box, where he got pictures of blindfolded women mailed to him. Again, who cares.

And how about the details of the FBI's investigation? They interrogated his two kids using highly suspect methods. In the Times: "They had even coercively questioned his adopted children, Andrew and Amanda, now both 24, with the authorities telling his son that he might be able to collect the $2.5 million reward for solving the case and buy a sports car, and showing his daughter gruesome photographs of victims of the anthrax letters and telling her, 'Your father did this,' according to the account Dr. Ivins gave a close friend."

The FBI also searched his house last fall, and "bureau surveillance vehicles openly followed the scientist for about a year." He was escorted out of his lab last year, which a colleague said was "so humiliating. It's hard to believe."

Dr. Ivins was reportedly suicidal for the last month and was hospitalized for 2 weeks in July, claiming that the FBI was going to arrest him for 5 murders. Which, of course, they would have done, if they had gotten credible evidence against him. The FBI had already admitted botching their misguided 2002 investigation against another scientist in Ivins' facility, Dr. Steven Hatfill, who just got a $4 million settlement.

So he ended up killing himself. Ivins' suicide is probably going to become a part of the FBI's case against him, but look: I've seen The Long Goodbye. Just because a suspect kills himself doesn't mean he did it. In a way, his suicide is going to let the FBI off the hook for a sloppy investigation that never found convincing evidence of Ivins' guilt.

But if he actually did do it (and there's some evidence, mostly circumstantial), the best motivation for mailing those anthrax letters that I've seen is that he wanted to focus attention on the threat of biological warfare. In the Times' article from the weekend: "To some anthrax experts, while reserving judgment on Dr. Ivins’s case, his identification as a suspect fit a pattern they had suspected might explain the crime: an insider wanting to draw attention to biodefense." He also held patents for anthrax vaccines.

Pretty ironic that the US's only deadly biological attack ever might have come from one of our own government employees, who had been honored for exceptional civilian service in 2003 for his work in anthrax.

June 23, 2008

WMD or single malt?

Whisky distillery

Ever wonder what secret WMD plants look like? They look like whiskey distilleries. Wired has a funny story today about our intelligence agencies and how they gather information about the chemical weapon development around the world.

Bruichladdich, a small whiskey producer on Islay in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, got an email one day from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (part of DoD), asking why their distillery webcam had recently gone offline.

Yikes. The folks at the whiskey company had a quiet heart attack, cleared out their bank accounts, smuggled their families out of the country, then nonchalantly emailed back asking why the DoD was interested in their non-threatening little distillery.

Someone in the Chemical Weapons department said they had been using the distillery's webcam as part of staff training because chemical weapon processes look very similar to the distilling process.

The distillery posted the story on their site, with emails from the DTRA agent who contacted them. Explaining her employer's interest in the distillery, the agent wrote a very friendly, non-Rumsfeldian email explaining the similarities between making whiskey and making WMDs:

"As part of a training class we went to a brewery for familiarization with reactors, batch processors, evaporators, etc. before going in the field. It just goes to show how "tweaks" to the process flow, equipment, etc., can create something very pleasant (whiskey) or deadly (chemical weapons)."

So, of course, Bruichladdich started producing "WMD 1 - The Weapons Inspectors" whiskey, and created a graphic to help the casual webcam surveiller distinguish between the two different kinds of WMDs:

Whisky of Mass Destruction

[click to enlarge]

[I just learned this story is several years old. Rats.]

February 7, 2008

Romney fights terrorism by quitting

Romney is out

After winning the primaries and caucuses of 6 states, Romney has decided to drop out of the race.

Not because he doesn't think he can win. But because if he stayed in the running, the terrorists would win.

During his speech, he said:

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

That'll show 'em! Try splitting the vote now, insurgents!

The only downsides I can see to this news are that Romney's telegenic press secretary, Kevin "Mitt but handsomer" Madden, won't be on TV anymore. Same for Tagg, everyone's favorite Romney boy. Sorry, Tagg-hags!

[tx T-Rock]

January 11, 2008

Illegal surveillance suddenly not quite so scary anymore

Terrorists Beware cartoon

Or rather, we'll be listening provided we paid the phone bill this month. My favorite headline of 2008 so far:

FBI wiretap cut off for unpaid bill

The inspector general of the Justice Department wrote in a recent audit, "Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence."

Pretty ballsy for a telephone company to actually cut off the FBI's service. Whatever phone company this is, the only chance they have of not getting prosecuted for conducting illegal surveillance is that the administration keeps swearing that it wasn't the company's fault--the government made them do it.

Be sure to send in that cable bill, FBI! I hear "The Wire" is really good this year.

October 30, 2007

Maybe crime would pay if criminals weren't such morons

Firefighters arrested for firehouse arson

Lots of funny, sort of pathetic stories in the papers today about crimes gone wrong:

  • More details have surfaced about the two firefighters who apparently torched a firehouse over the weekend, whose movements were all captured on surveillance video in what the Times calls "hardly a well-planned caper." Richard Capece and Michael Izzo bought a gallon of gas at the BP gas station on 38th St and 10th Ave, using Capece's debit card, and carried it in their own gas can. The NY Times story notes, "they also took a blue cigarette lighter from the station without paying for it, but no theft charges have been filed."

    The Daily News reports that Capece "was all smiles" on the W. 38th St firehouse's surveillance video, which caught Izzo "holding a lighter against the gasoline-soaked door" 15 minutes after their gas purchase, then a minute later, running back to their car and driving away. Neither firefighter worked at the station they burned, and a FDNY source says they didn't appear drunk in the videos, so everyone is pretty much assuming they're just a couple of pranking idiots. Izzo "was not well-liked by [his first] firehouse, or by his current one for that matter," as the FDNY source told the Daily News. He was also recently charged with assault in NJ. No one was injured in the fire, which was quickly put out.

  • Alleged crime boss Michael Uvino got busted on tape for pistol-whipping and threatening two enemies who robbed his card game in Long Island. In his bail hearing yesterday, Uvino's lawyer claimed that all he was packing during the taped threat was a BB gun. Judge Jack Weinstein didn't buy it: "I've never heard of Mafia members carrying BB guns... Most people in New York, if they are going to brandish a gun, will brandish a real gun. Unless they're suicidal." On the tape, you can also hear a handgun being cocked, and Uvino complaining to his informant associate, "I was trying to hit him with that fucking chair... Catch him with the metal part across his neck. All I did was fucking hurt my wrists."
  • Two men charged with calling people while posing as Equifax employees and scamming them for their credit card numbers now claim that they were targeting Bangladeshi people. Because, they say, Bangladeshis are "the ones who brought down the towers." So now they'll likely be charged with grand larceny plus a hate crime, because "targeting any ethnic group - even mistakenly - exposes them to additional penalties," according to prosecutors.
  • And in another story of confusion over terrorism and ethnicity, Brooklyn jeweler Rimon Alkatri is on trial for framing five other jewelers for plotting a suicide bombing. He apparently called the police, mobilizing a $100,000 operation, when he heard one of them saying "Allah akbar" on the phone. The defense lawyer points out that this is a common expression among Arabic speakers (known as the takbir), not a call to arms, and also that all five of the supposed conspirators are either Christian or Jewish.

September 11, 2007

Which news makes the news?

Margaret Warner in Pakistan

You may have heard that CBS News anchor/albatross Katie Couric recently went to Iraq. Some things people have been talking about related to her mission:

  • It was a publicity stunt for ratings.
  • It was not a publicity stunt for ratings.
  • Katie carefully considered her decision to go to Iraq, since she has 2 young children.
  • Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has already been to Iraq three times, and Bob Woodruff of ABC World News went to Iraq last year, where he was badly injured.
  • Nobody did soul-searching interviews with them before they left about their young children.
  • CBS News producers are "proud" of the show and Katie's journalistic chops despite all the viewers they've lost since she came on.

It's a good thing CBS didn't send Katie Couric to Iraq and Syria for ratings, since all that media coverage didn't get anyone to actually watch her show. Last week while she was there, the Evening News tied its own all-time low record.

In other news news, I bet you haven't been seeing any news coverage about Margaret Warner of PBS's News Hour, who was in Pakistan, home to al-Qaida and recent suicide bombings, at just about the exact same time that Katie Couric was in Iraq. Her pieces were awesome, and she did interviews with politicians (former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif), people on the street, local journalists, and business people. She seemed to really like being there, calling Islamabad "a political junkie's paradise," and it was a great series.

Incredibly, Margaret Warner's News Hour bio doesn't say if she has any small children who she, as a mother, might have taken into consideration when planning her trip.

July 30, 2007

Best news from Iraq I've heard in four years

Iraqis celebrate football win

One of the best things about reading Iraq-related news today is all the pictures of jubilant Iraqis with smiling painted faces, waving flags (and, OK, sometimes guns) and whooping it up over their country's inspirational victory in the Asian Cup soccer tournament on Sunday.

In addition to the obvious horrors of daily life in Iraq, the country also hasn't played in the World Cup since their sole appearance in 1986. Saudi Arabia, who Iraq beat in the final, usually dominates the Asian league. This win has made some Iraqis feel more hopeful for a unified, peaceful country. From the Times: "Ayad Aziz Nader, a bare-chested Baghdadi sweating from the exertions of his celebration, said, 'This football team has given Iraqis happiness and everything which has been missing for them.'"

The pictures of happy Iraqi soccer fans are great.

Iraqi football fans

Iraqi football fans

And Iraqi-American soccer fans, too!

Iraqi American football fan

It's not the most meaningful event in recent Iraq history, maybe, but there's no better PR than a lot of happy young Iraqis having a big nationwide party to boost the country's image. Go Iraq!

I heart Iraq!

June 15, 2007

What security looks like in the new Hamas-ruled Gaza

A Reuters photo from the security area of the customs hall at the border between Gaza and Egypt.

security at the Gaza/Egypt border

Yikes. I'm guessing that you don't have to worry about packing your shampoo in a 3 oz. bottle when you run your bags through this scanner.

Meanwhile, one man living in Gaza takes an ambivalent, and depressingly pragmatic, approach to the new local bosses. "Today everybody is with Hamas because Hamas won the battle. If Fatah had won the battle they'd be with Fatah. We are a hungry people, we are with whoever gives us a bag of flour and a food coupon," said Yousef, 30. "Me, I'm with God and a bag of flour."

April 19, 2007

McCain: all washed up

McCain

Remember how John McCain used to command respect, even from Democrats? Well, I think those days are over. A painful anecdote from a campaign stop in South Carolina yesterday:

In response to an audience question about military action against Iran, the Arizona senator briefly sang the chorus of the surf-rocker classic "Barbara Ann."

"That old, eh, that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran," he said in jest Wednesday, chuckling with the crowd. Then, he softly sang to the melody: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, anyway, ah ..."

Agghh. Wonkette has video.

Earlier this week, Slate had an article called "McCain Self-Destructs" about his recent statements about having "no Plan B" for Iraq. A few days after saying that, he said that he would withdraw our troops from Iraq if it became clear that we were losing. Slate refers to an "appalling" NY Times interview in which McCain said that his unwavering support for the war has cost him some of his former popularity, but that "Americans will not continue to support an overseas engagement involving the loss of American lives for an unlimited period of time unless they see some success," he added. "And then, when they run out of patience, they will demand that we get out."

So basically, he'll condemn the Democrats' plans for withdrawing our troops, until later, when he's President, when he'll withdraw our troops.

He's currently 12 points behind Giuliani in polls. I think he'll become a more distant second soon. As ADM says, McCain represents the worst dropoff since the transition from the second to the third season of Lost.


February 20, 2007

The metaphorical war

George W and George W Bush

Our government's struggles in dealing with Iraq are leading to some weird and increasingly desperate rhetoric. The President's speech at Mount Vernon yesterday in honor of the other George W's birthday drew parallels between the Revolutionary War and the war on terror:

"Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life. And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone."

I wonder what an Afghan or Iraqi civilian would say about the U.S.'s role in defending their way of life. Anyway, in remarking on the dubious similarities between George Washington and himself, Bush tantalizingly said, "After winning the war, Washington did what victorious leaders rarely did at the time. He voluntarily gave up power." !!!

But, remember: Bush will never be a victorious leader, so don't get your hopes up.

And a couple great examples from last week that I should have mentioned earlier.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin, from Missouri: "Picture Davy Crockett at the Alamo. He has his back to the wall. Santa Ana has got thousands of troops. So he gets his BlackBerry out. He checks with Congress. Congress says, 'Hey, Davy, we really support you but we're not going to send you any troops.' That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."

Republican Rep. Virgil Goode, from Virginia: "I fear that radical Muslims who want to control the Middle East and ultimately the world would love to see 'In God We Trust' stricken from our money and replaced with 'In Mohammad We Trust'." [link includes video]

Muslims don't worship Mohammad, Congressman.

January 29, 2007

Democrats will definitely start getting tough any day now

Hillary demands that the US leave Iraq within this century

At a campaign event in Iowa yesterday, Hillary Clinton took her political cues from one of our all-time favorite Tom Tomorrow cartoons [thanks, ADM].

The headline says it all--Clinton: U.S. out of Iraq by January '09.

The Modern World cartoon is from 2002, and so far all his predictions have been forehead-smackingly accurate.

January 4, 2007

The latest jerky thing our President did

Bush has your mail

The Daily News reports today on the postal bill that President Bush signed at the end of the year--specifically, that he added one of those signing statements he's so fond of to it.

The bill was mostly general stuff about the mail, and reiterated that first class mail cannot be opened by the government without a warrant. But Bush's signing statement contradicts this, saying that he has the right to open people's mail in emergency conditions. The News' caption above pretty much says it all.

Though opening people's mail is still actually illegal, Bush's assertion that he can do it in the case of "exigent circumstances" could certainly be interpreted as an outright declaration that this is already going on. After all, it's the one year anniversary of the uncovering of electronic surveillance, which is supposed to be illegal, too.

Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokesperson, says that Bush was just stating a right that he already has. "In certain circumstances--such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb'," she said, "the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches."

Help! Help! Save us, Nancy Pelosi!

October 18, 2006

Who's Older?™: Former Threats to Freedom

Muammar Gaddafi   Saddam in court

Today's edition of Who's Older?™ asks you to consider two world figures who used function as bogeymen for the free world, and these days have become more or less cuddly and harmless: Muammar al-Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Both men used to be terrifying threats to the U.S., but have been replaced by more active lunatics like Kim Jong-Il and the more-wacky-than-scary Hugo Chávez.

Gaddafi was an Islamic socialist, and had ties to Black September and the Lockerbie bombing, but more recently has denounced al-Qaeda, and revealed Libya's WMD program in 2004 and invited weapons inspectors to come in and dismantle it. In April of this year, Libya hosted a Concert for Peace marking the 20th anniversary of US bombing of Tripoli, where Lionel Richie performed and praised their current peacefulness.

Saddam is in the news today for his ongoing trial, where a Kurd testified about a massacre by Saddam's army in 1988 ("I ran and fell into a ditch. It was full of bodies. I fell on a body. It was still alive. It was his last breath"), but who can forget last year's reports of him eating Doritos in his cell, gardening, and writing poetry?


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