August 26th, 2014

Hide-and-seek: Lois Lerner’s emails

Who knew the IRS was so playful? And that hide-and-seek would be their favorite game?

After all—you just try playing it with them, and see how far it gets you.

Nevertheless, the revelations just keep coming:

We all know by now that Lois Lerner’s hard drive crashed in June 2011 and was destroyed by IRS. The emails of up to twenty other related IRS officials were missing in remarkably similar “crashes,” leading many to speculate that Lois Lerner’s Blackberry perhaps held the key. Now, the Observer can confirm that a year after the infamous hard drive crash, the IRS destroyed Ms. Lerner’s Blackberry—and without making any effort to retain the emails from it…

With incredible disregard for the law and the Congressional inquiry, the IRS admits that this Blackberry “was removed or wiped clean of any sensitive or proprietary information and removed as scrap for disposal in June 2012.” This is a year after her hard drive “crash” and months after the Congressional inquiry began.

The IRS did not even attempt to retrieve that data. It cavalierly recites: “There is no record of any attempt by any IRS IT employee to recover data from any Blackberry device assigned to Lois Lerner in response to the Congressional investigations or this investigation,” according to Stephen Manning, Deputy Chief Information Officer for Strategy & Modernization.

“This investigation” is the suit filed by Judicial Watch nearly a year ago against the IRS under the Freedom of Information Act:

…to compel the agency to produce records of all communications relating to the review process for organizations seeking 501(c)(4) non-profit status since January 1, 2010. The lawsuit also asks the court to order the IRS to provide records of communications by former IRS official Lois Lerner concerning the controversial review and approval process.

It’s this same suit that revealed that oh yes, all of Lerner’s emails probably exist on a back-up system, but it would be too “onerous” to retrieve them.

Try playing that game with the IRS, too.

By the way, Judge Sullivan of the DC District Court is the same Judge Sullivan who ruled that prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case were guilty of gross misconduct. Sullivan is an African-American, a graduate of Howard University and Howard Law School who was appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, promoted to the DC Court of Appeals by Bush I, and to the DC District Court by Bill Clinton. It’s an interesting bipartisan history.

August 26th, 2014

Kipling again

When I was in junior high we had to memorize a lot of poetry. One poem was Kipling’s old chestnut (which was not quite as old at the time as it is now, but then again, neither was I) “If.”

A few minutes ago I had occasion to quote the poem. I had still remembered much of it, but not every word, and as I looked it up (thank you, internet!) and re-read it, I noticed two lines I’d forgotten but which seemed to be especially apropos for the right these days:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools…

They are followed by these lines, which seem to fit, too:

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

The left may have felt that way back in 1980, when Reagan was elected, and then again in 1984, when he was re-elected. They certainly managed to build them up again, didn’t they?

The right faces that situation now. Let’s hope the tools aren’t really all that worn out, or that we come up with some more effective new ones. Fast.

August 26th, 2014

Victor Davis Hanson on the madness of America in 2008

I usually agree with Victor Davis Hanson, and admire his writing. But this time I think he’s somewhat off base.

His article is about how America went slightly mad in 2008 when it believed in hope and change and voted for Obama, whose record didn’t indicate all that much to adulate. But Hanson not only leaves out many of the signs that Obama would be exactly the kind of president he has turned out to be, making the madness of the US voter in 2008 even worse than his article says, but his emphasis on 2008 seems strange to me.

It is a whole lot easier to understand how the voter was fooled in 2008 by Obama the smooth-talking newcomer who was (as he himself said) a blank screen on which people could project what they wanted, than to understand America’s much greater insanity in 2012, when that screen had been filled in with the picture of a lying leftist con man.

Hanson also says that America has now woken up; at least that’s what the article’s subtitle indicates. But has it? It has, but not enough for me—not nearly enough. Obama’s poll numbers would have to be down around 20 or so to convince me. What’s more, Hillary Clinton’s would have to be down there in the sub-basement, too.

I hate to sound so pessimistic. And I’m not completely pessimistic; at least there has finally been some disgust with Obama’s presidency; I’ve heard it myself. But I’m not with Hanson on this one.

August 25th, 2014

Hamas has friends in high collegiate places

Historians for Hamas.

No, they don’t call themselves that. But that’s pretty much who they are.

No doubt the crocodile will eat them last.

Many of them are members of the hard left. Even I recognized that fact from some of the names, and Ron Radosh—who was once a member of that august group—recognized many more:

As a historian who has studied the American far Left for many years, and decades ago was part of, I immediately noticed that many on the initial list of signers are veterans of the already old New Left and either supporters of or fellow-travelers of the defunct Soviet Union and the Communist movement. Indeed, I know many of them personally, and are aware of their old affiliations and political allegiances.

They are not only Historians for Hamas, but Historians Who Ignore History. They also ignore recent history—i.e. current events.

Forget for a moment their petition, Israel, Hamas, and all the issues involved. Just contemplate the fact that there are that many members (and probably tons more) of the hard left who are teaching—and apparently teaching history?*—in American universities, and writing books that are assigned to many more students than they can reach individually. This is what we are up against.

The other day, after reading and writing about the summary public execution by Hamas of the 18 supposed Israeli “collaborators,” I wondered how the left can continue to justify and defend this sort of evil. Almost immediately I realized how incredibly stupid I was being. The left, which defended Stalin? Dummy me.

Nor should we wonder what all those feminists are doing on the pro-Hamas list. For the true believer, two and two makes five, or even six or seven or eight, if the left so wills it.

Alan Dershowitz compares Hamas to ISIS: “Everything we rightly fear and despise from ISIS we should fear and despise from Hamas. Just as we would never grant legitimacy to ISIS, we should not grant legitimacy to Hamas.” He is correct.

Of course, there are differences. Unlike ISIS, Hamas is not striving to use the most flamboyantly savage forms of death and dismemberment in order to outrage the sensibilities of the west although, like ISIS, it seeks to inspire other jihadis to join its ranks through its passionate devotion to violence. But Hamas probably would prefer that its killing sprees against its own not get all that much publicity in the west; its main aim in that regard is to dissuade any of its own people who might even think of acting against Hamas. And unlike ISIS, it would like the west to think it only has designs on Israel. But HAMAS is every bit as much a vile terrorist group as ISIS.

Claudia Rossett also has a post on how, despite many similarities between Hamas and ISIS, there is comparatively little outrage at Hamas’ actions as compared to the widespread furor over ISIS.

[* NOTE: But are the signers even really historians? Ought we to take their word for it?

For example, see the Wiki entry for leftist Bettina Aptheker. A PhD in the "history of consciousness"? Excuse me?

I looked up the first eight or so people on the list, and it was an interesting exercise. As expected, there's a heavy representation from the various special interest "studies" departments that began to be inserted into universities as a result of Sixties leftist activism, especially (as with Aptheker) women's studies. Others are specialists in the Middle East, or in something like the specialty of Paul Buhle, whose field seems to be the history of radicalism (and, as an activist leftist from the 60s on, he certainly knows that terrain).

The majority are quite far from what most people would think of as historians, and certainly not objective ones. Granted, it's hard if not impossible to be completely objective. But this group isn't even trying. They most definitely have a huge agenda.]

August 25th, 2014

The greatest of these

During the time James Foley was in captivity, he tried to write letters to his parents, but they were intercepted. Resourcefully, he came up with the solution of composing one and asking a fellow-hostage who was about to be released to commit it to memory and transmit it to Foley’s family.

You can read the letter here. Because of the medium of transmission, Foley probably couldn’t make it as polished as he might have had he (a writer) actually been writing it it down.

So he cut to the chase. His message was about love and memory: love of family and memories of them that sustained him. Love and appreciation for the companions he had even during his terrible ordeal, the bad parts of which (which no doubt were many and severe, even before his death) he ignores. He was trying to reassure his family that their terror and and their fears were not as justified as they ended up being.

Foley’s letter also makes it clear that prayer helped to sustain him. Reading it, my hope is that prayer continued to sustain him in the dark hours of his final suffering on this earth, and that wherever he is now, it is a very good place.

In that spirit I offer this:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

RIP James Foley.

[ADDENDUM: The Anchoress has some words on the matter of prayer, our response to ISIS, and martyrdom.

Here is an article about what Foley himself wrote about how prayer sustained him during his earlier captivity in Libya. And this is what Foley said in an article for the Marquette (his alma mater) magazine on the same topic, including how praying the rosary and sensing the prayers of others helped him.

Anyone who wonders why people keep saying what a strong person Foley was need only read these articles to understand.]

August 25th, 2014

Eric Holder, racial profiler

Here he goes again. According to Andrew McCarthy:

Simply stated, it is impermissible for federal investigations to be commenced in the absence of colorable suspicion based on solid evidence. Yet, despite the absence of any suggestion that Darren Wilson is a racist, we know he has been made the subject of a civil-rights investigation. Obama-administration officials may not yet suspect that Nidal Hasan’s 2009 jihadist mass murder of 13 American soldiers was a terrorist attack, or that the Muslim Brotherhood is anything but a “largely secular” organization. They may have given the benefit of the doubt to Assad (the “reformer”), Iran (our good faith negotiating partner), Al Sharpton (Holder’s civil-rights adviser), and the IRS (not a “smidgeon” of corruption). But not to Darren Wilson. No sooner had the looting followed the shooting than Holder ceremoniously announced a Justice Department civil-rights murder probe.

Based solely on Wilson’s race.

August 24th, 2014

WaPo finds evidence in Sarah Palin’s dumpster that incriminates Darren Wilson and exonerates Michael Brown

Or something like that.

Yesterday the WaPo featured a wordy piece devoted to Darren Wilson’s dysfunctional family of origin, and the racial and other problems in the police force he used to work for, difficulties that seem to have had nothing whatsoever to do with him. As William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection says, it’s guilt by association.

Then, in a lengthy article published the very next day (today), the WaPo tells us what a great guy Michael Brown was.

From yesterday’s article:

…[E]veryone leaves a record, and Darren Dean Wilson is no exception.

People who know him describe him as someone who grew up in a home marked by multiple divorces and tangles with the law. His mother died when he was in high school. A friend said a career in law enforcement offered him structure in what had been a chaotic life.

What he found in Jennings, however, was a mainly white department mired in controversy and notorious for its fraught relationship with residents, especially the African American majority. It was not an ideal place to learn how to police. Officials say Wilson kept a clean record without any disciplinary action…

Wilson has had some recent personal turmoil: Last year, he petitioned the court seeking a divorce from his wife, Ashley Nicole Wilson, and they formally split in November, records show…

His parents divorced in 1989, when he was 2 or 3 years old…His mother then married Tyler Harris, and they lived in Elgin, Tex., for a time, records show. Tyler and Tonya Harris had a child named Jared.

The family later moved to the suburban Missouri town of St. Peters, where Wilson’s mother again got divorced and married a man named Dan Durso, records indicate.

Wilson attended St. Charles West High School, in a predominantly white, middle-class community west of the Missouri River. He played junior varsity hockey for the West Warriors but wasn’t a standout.

There were problems at home. In 2001, when Wilson was a freshman in high school, his mother pleaded guilty to forgery and stealing. She was sentenced to five years in prison, although records suggest the court agreed to let her serve her sentence on probation.

She died of natural causes in November 2002, when Wilson was 16, records show. His stepfather, Tyler Harris, took over as his limited guardian, which ended when the boy turned 18…

After going through the police academy, Wilson landed a job in 2009 as a rookie officer in Jennings, a small, struggling city of 14,000 where 89 percent of the residents were African American and poverty rates were high. At the time, the 45-employee police unit had one or two black members on the force, said Allan Stichnote, a white Jennings City Council member.

Racial tension was endemic in Jennings, said Rodney Epps, an African American city council member.

“You’re dealing with white cops, and they don’t know how to address black people,” Epps said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back, an officer shot at a female. She was stopped for a traffic violation. She had a child in the back [of the] car and was probably worried about getting locked up. And this officer chased her down Highway 70, past city limits, and took a shot at her. Just ridiculous.”…

Police faced a series of lawsuits for using unnecessary force [the article then goes on to describe this]…

The Jennings department also had a corruption problem. A joint federal and local investigation discovered that a lieutenant had been accepting federal funds for drunken-driving checks that never happened.

All the problems became too much for the city council to bear, and in March 2011 the council voted 6-to-1 to shut down the department…

The article goes on and on; you have to read the whole thing to get its full flavor. When it deals with the Ferguson incident itself, there is no mention of Brown’s robbery of the convenience store or his getting physical there or the fact that star witness Dorian Johnson was present at the robbery, has a previous record (including a history of lying to the police about an earlier alleged offense) and therefore had a strong motivation to lie in his tale of what happened when Brown was shot. WaPo reporters Carol D. Leonnig, Kimberly Kindy and Joel Achenbach merely describe Johnson’s version versus the police version as “competing narratives.”

In contrast, here are excerpts from today’s WaPo article on Brown, written by AP reporters Sharon Cohen, Jim Suhr, Alex Sanz, and Ryan J. Foley:

Family and friends recall a young man built like a lineman — 6-foot-3, nearly 300 pounds — with a gentle, joking manner. An aspiring rapper who dubbed himself “Big Mike.” A fan of computer games, Lil Wayne, Drake, the movie, “Grown Ups 2” and the TV show “Family Guy.” A kid who was good at fixing things. A struggling student who buckled down to finish his courses, don his green graduation gown with red sash and cross the stage in August to pick up his diploma…

Kennedy became acquainted with Brown while running a credit recovery program the young man was enrolled in that allowed him to catch up so he could graduate with his class. Brown, he says, could be led astray by kids who were bad influences but by spring, he became focused on getting his degree.

Kennedy also would bring in recording equipment Brown could use for rapping — he wanted to perform and learn a trade to help support himself. “His biggest goal was to be part of something,” the teacher adds. “He didn’t like not knowing where to fit in life. … He was kind-hearted, a little kid in a big body. He was intimidating looking, but I don’t think he ever was disrespectful to me.”

Brown loved music even as a young child. Ophelia Troupe, his art teacher for five years in elementary school, remembers a reserved, polite little boy — he’d always respond “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am.” He kept to himself but lit up when she’d play her son’s beats — which make up the backbone of hip-hop and rap songs — in class as a reward if the students behaved.

Unlike the piece on Wilson, the profile of Brown at least manages to mention the convenience store robbery. This is the way it describes it:

Slightly more than a week later, Brown was shot while walking down the street with a friend. Police have said a scuffle broke out with Officer Darren Wilson after he asked the two young men to move. Some witnesses have reported seeing Brown’s arms in the air — an act of surrender. An autopsy concluded he’d been shot at least six times.

Ferguson police identified Wilson at the same time they released a video of an alleged theft showing Brown snatch some cigars in a convenience store just minutes before he was killed. In the video, Brown is shown grabbing a clerk by the shirt and forcefully pushing him into a display rack.

Brown’s family angrily denounced that video as character assassination.

They’ve portrayed Brown as “a gentle giant,” who liked to post photos on his Facebook page of himself with young relatives, a kid who tried football his sophomore year but abandoned the idea before his first game, fearing he might hurt someone.

“He was funny, silly,” his father, Michael Brown Sr., recently said. “Any problems that were going on or any situation — there wasn’t nothing he couldn’t solve. He’d bring people together.”

Tim Sneed, a 23-year-old neighbor of Brown’s grandmother, says the young man was so low-key he seemed almost invisible. “When he came to my house you wouldn’t even notice he was there,” he says. “That’s how quiet he was.”

Brown had been staying at the apartment of his grandmother, Desuirea Harris, this summer. She said Brown was excited about his future.

“My grandson never even got into a fight,” she says. “He was just looking forward to getting on with his life. He was on his way.”

Brown was preparing to attend Vatterott College, where he planned to study to become a heating and air-conditioning technician.

I do not fault Brown’s grieving family for speaking well of him, although the description of a video as “character assassination” is a case of “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”. I do fault the reporters for presenting such carefully-selected “narratives,’ digging up every bit of dirt possible on Wilson (and since they can hardly find any, on his family instead) and every bit of good possible on Brown.

No one seems to have looked into the marital (or any other) history of Brown’s family, or whether any relatives have arrest records. And rightly so, because it really doesn’t matter; what matters is Brown’s history.

But why, then, is the divorce of Wilson’s parents and their other history considered fair game, and not that of Brown’s parents or relatives? After all, Brown had a mother and stepfather, and a biological father whose name is Michael Brown Sr., so we can conclude that some sort of divorce/separation and upheaval occurred. But it’s virtually never mentioned, either in the AP article or in any other article I’ve been able to locate after doing some quick Googling. Nor is the history of any other family member of Brown discussed; all I could find of any relevance to family history was that the 18-year-old Brown was living with his grandmother for the summer, although we don’t really know why.

The contrast in the coverage is stark, and purposeful. “Competing narratives” indeed.

August 23rd, 2014

Serenades past and present

A while back I went to the Boston Ballet to see Balanchine’s “Serenade.”

Oh, there were other ballets on the program, but I shelled out the money for one reason and one reason alone: Serenade. I’ve written briefly about the ballet before, and it’s one of my absolute favorites—a dreamy pale blue world of unexpected formations and of drifting, floating beauty set to Tchaikovsky’s incomparable “Serenade for Strings.”

Balanchine choreographed the work in 1935 as his first all-American effort. But it’s not dated at all; it’s timeless. His dancers weren’t seasoned professionals, since this was only the beginning of the heyday of American ballet, which he did so much to shape.

But his genius was to make the most of what he had. Different numbers of dancers arriving for rehearsal on different days? Then use the number that arrived and make of it a serendipity, placing them in interesting patterns that defy expectations in a harmonious way. A girl slips and falls during rehearsal? Use it. Another arrives late? Incorporate that, too.

Boston’s effort was lovely and respectful. The dancers are strong and have great technique. But, but, but—I was vaguely troubled the entire time by the ghost of “Serenades” past.

The music was live—great, wonderful! But the first thing I noticed was that it seemed a bit understated, perfunctory, not quite as moving as I recall. The opening tableau, which is famous…


…practically brought tears to my eyes, as usual.

But as soon as the movement started, something felt a little bit wrong. I’m not sure what it was, but probably a combination of factors, complicated in my case by all those memories of masterpiece rattling around. The costumes—not quite full enough in the skirt, and not quite as gossamer. The dancers? They should move almost as though in a trance, and these women seemed too grounded and/or too happy.

There aren’t many videos of “Serenade” on YouTube, considering how famous it is (I believe the protective copyright rules for Balanchine may be particularly restrictive), and what is there isn’t of the company that used to do it the very best, the New York City Ballet. But I did find a few. This first one is short but shows that transcendental opening tableau, which is difficult to photograph because in order to get the whole view the camera has to be far away—but when it is, some of the details are sacrificed and miniaturized, such as the wonderful moment when the dancers’ feet open suddenly into first position (see minute 0:51 here). The video keeps moving back and forth from distant to closeup, which is one solution I suppose but I’d rather it kept to a view of the entire stage:

And here is a good video, consisting of short excerpts from the production of Portugal’s national ballet. The whole thing is well worth watching (it’s only a bit over three minutes long), and is distinguished by offering a short (but unfortunately somewhat truncated) portion of that glorious moment at the end of the first movement when the dancers reassemble into their opening pose and the dancer who is “late” wanders in and takes her place (the sequence begins around 0:45). At 1:42 you’ll see the special effect I described towards the end of this post, and the end of the video features the closing moments of the ballet:

That said, I will go to see Serenade any time, any place it’s performed—because it’s one of the greatest ballets ever made. The first time I saw it I could not believe there could be anything that beautiful, and I still feel the same all these long years after.

[NOTE: It's interesting to read the comments at YouTube for the first video in my post. Several of them are very similar to what I have to say about it. One is this:

The commenter...griping about the filming of the moment when the feet turn out is correct. It is also distracting that the camera moves in and pans ...altogether is a poor filming of two of the most majestic minutes in the history of classical ballet.

Indeed. And also this:

Seeing this ballet always makes me weep. Every time.

It's not a sad weeping, nor a happy one. It has something to do with beauty, and with this:

An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.

Something we all need these days.]

August 23rd, 2014

Hamas takes revenge…

against its own.

Without anything even remotely resembling due process. But that’s how they roll:

Hamas sources in Gaza say 18 people suspected of collaborating with Israel have been executed.

The killings came after an Israeli air strike killed three senior Hamas leaders on Thursday…

Hamas sources said Friday’s executions had been carried out by what it called the Resistance…

Hamas officials told Reuters that the first 11 executions were carried out at an abandoned police station.

Witnesses said another seven people were shot by men in Hamas uniforms outside the Al-Umari mosque in central Gaza.

I wonder if any of these people actually were informants, or whether they were just people who were targeted because someone or other was tired of their continued existence.

Those “three senior Hamas leaders” must have been pretty senior. Here’s some information about the three, along with a 15-year-old photo:

The three officials killed on Thursday are the highest-ranking fatalities since the beginning of the offensive.

Mr. Shamalah oversaw Al Qassam forces for the entire southern Gaza Strip, and Mr. Attar played a major role in arms smuggling, construction of infiltration tunnels and the capture of Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit in 2006, Israeli officials said. Israel accused them of deadly attacks going back 20 years. Mr. Barhoum supervised weapons smuggling into Gaza and helped raised funds for the group, the officials said.

This is the rationale behind the killings of the three, according to Israel:

Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel’s pursuit of Hamas leaders is part of a broader strategy to convince the Palestinian fighters that waging a war of attrition comes at an unbearable price.

“Israel is saying: ‘You want attrition? You are welcome,” Mr. Yadlin, now director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said in a briefing for reporters. “Because our firepower, our intelligence, and our capability to sustain…are much bigger than yours. This is the strategy, and this is what you just saw in a couple of days.”

Israelis and Palestinians said Hamas would eventually replace the commanders. Previous assassinations had shown that Hamas could survive this kind of attack, said Darwish Al Arja, 65 years old, a Hamas supporter living at a United Nations-run shelter in Rafah.

“So long as Palestinian women can get pregnant, there will always be another Al Attar, another Abu Shamala, another Barhoum,” he said.

As for the killing of the supposed collaborators, that’s just par for the Hamas course:

The often-public deaths of informants or so-called collaborators are a routine part of life in Gaza, although instances greatly increase during times of heavy conflict.

Back in 2012, following the last conflagration with Israel in Gaza, Hamas executed a number of Palestinians it had accused of giving up valuable intel to the Israelis. As with today’s killings, the men are executed publicly as a warning not to cooperate with Israeli intelligence efforts.

According to the article, it is also routine for the bodies to be desecrated by the crowds.

This report disagrees, however, that any public executions occurred in 2012, stating that this was the first time such killings were public since the 1990s.

Well, which is it, folks?

[NOTE: Many of the comments to this Jerusalem Post article about the "collaborator" killings are interesting. The first group are to the effect that, if the Gazan Palestinians could only get rid of the terrorists
and stop trying to eliminate Israel, they could have a flourishing economy. These are typical:

I know I'm repeating myself, but it's such a no brainer ... they are sitting on such great beachfront property, if they just had some level of stability and the good sense to put up some nice hotels with all that concrete they could create a good tourist economy that would support many people with good jobs...

I served two stints of IDF reserve army duty in Gaza in the mid-1970's after Sharon had cleaned out the terrorists there. Our base was on the the southern outskirts of Gaza City by the beach with beautiful houses across the street and locals jogging each morning. The shoreline reminded me of Laguna Beach near Los Angeles and the weather was very similiar. A few big hotels and a boardwalk and Gaza could have been a tourist mecca. Instead, Gazans just go to the other Mecca on their Haj and prepare for war.

Other comments mention that if in fact the collaborators who were executed actually were collaborators (which people doubt), then they are the real martyrs.]

August 23rd, 2014

Fire and ice

First the hot vents, now the subglacial lake.

August 23rd, 2014

What about Romney in 2016?

Here’s a solution.

It’ll never happen. But I like it.

August 22nd, 2014

Europe pays ransoms, the US and UK don’t

It’s significant that in the Western world it is the US and the UK that refuse to pay ransoms, and continental Europe that acquiesces. That’s another example of the Anglo-American link, and the European divergence.

Obama may be yearning to be more like Europe, and determined to lead the US in that direction, but so far he isn’t Europeanized enough to have changed our basic policy on this issue.

In fact, the US position on ransoms is still (at least nominally) even harsher than that of the UK (if this report is correct): the US has a policy, at least on paper, of threatening private companies who ransom employees from terrorists with prosecution for violating the law on funding terrorism. The UK government does not pay ransoms to terrorists, but it does not prosecute or even threaten to prosecute those companies who do.

The governments of continental Europe, however, are the culprits responsible for a great deal of terrorist fund-raising:

The French, Italian and Spanish governments, along with others in Continental Europe, have a long record of directly paying ransoms. These deals have secured the freedom of at least nine captives in Syria alone. Considerable sums are involved: al-Qaeda has made at least $125 million (£75 million) from ransoms since 2008, according to a New York Times investigation. Much of this will have come from European governments. In particular, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa has probably raised most of its funding by selling captives to European countries.

Setting a policy on ransoms to terrorists would seem simple enough in principle, although excruciating in execution. Paying ransom is like appeasement or enabling or both. You buy a moment of peace at the expense of feeding the monster. The short term result is that you get the person back. The long term result is more abductions and more terrorism, and the need to pay ever more ransoms.

That’s the way it would seem. However, when dealing with ISIS, this article by Alexander Hitchens makes an excellent point:

[ISIS] is a group with an ideological and propaganda incentive to brutally slaughter citizens of Western nations, in particular Americans and Britons. They have multiple and very lucrative revenue streams, including the oilfields they now control, and do not require the extra few million dollars gained from a ransom payment. As demonstrated by the blanket media coverage of James Foley’s murder in the West, the propaganda value of killing an American citizen far outweighs the few million dollars they would receive for his ransom. When approaching this dilemma like this, the argument against paying ransoms loses its most important pillar – Isil will kidnap Westerners regardless of the financial incentives involved.

So money isn’t really ISIS’s main motivation; it’s probably almost an afterthought. They why did they ask for money for Foley in the first place, if the propaganda value of a beheading is so high? Were they just messing with the Foleys’ (and Obama’s) minds? The ransom demanded for Foley was so very much higher than previous ones paid to other groups that it doesn’t seem to have been serious; perhaps just a cruel tease on the part of ISIS.

In addition, it is not certain that ISIS has actually accepted ransoms even from European countries:

…[T]he French journalist Nicolas Henin, who was held alongside Foley, was released in April after his own government negotiated his release. French President François Hollande denies any funds or weapons were handed over, but many are justifiably suspicious that Isil would settle for much less.

Hitchens doesn’t seem to know that in the US people can be prosecuted for paying ransoms, because he seems to think US companies sometimes pay them. But as US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said:

…it is illegal for any American citizen to pay ransom to a group, such as the Islamic State, that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization.

However, would the US really do anything about it if it were to happen? There’s this:

But the next email [to the Foleys] came with a ransom demand: $132 million, or release of several prisoners held by U.S. authorities…The Foleys and GlobalPost began to quietly raise the money, even though the U.S. government has clear policies against giving money to a terrorist organization such as Islamic State, the heavily armed Al Qaeda spinoff that was holding Foley. FBI and other officials, who were given a copy of the emails, did not try to stop them.

“The appropriate arm of government was aware of every action that we took,” Balboni [of GlobalPost] said. “We were never told to stop doing what we were doing.”

But then the captors stopped communicating…

So it’s not clear what the US would have done had the ransom been paid that way.

And have European governments paid ransoms to ISIS, or haven’t they?:

Four French and two Spanish journalists were released by the Islamic State earlier this year, reportedly following ransom payments. It is unclear whether the money was paid by their companies, their governments or their families…Harf said that ransom payments are “one of the main ways ISIL has been funded.”

One would think that, if everyone would stop paying ransoms to terrorists, these kidnappings might cease. But would that actually happen? ISIS might still find it quite useful to kidnap Americans and Europeans in order to release video after video, horrifying us and increasing the pressure on us, and inspiring more jihadis to join the war against us. For that matter, what’s to stop ISIS from murdering a victim after a ransom is paid? I don’t know exactly how that’s usually controlled for in kidnappings, but it would seem particularly difficult to keep ISIS from some sort of deception on that score.

[ADDENDUM: These differences between the US and European countries regarding ransoms (and ransoms from Muslim terrorists, at that) go back to the earliest days of our nation, if you know the history of the US's role in the First Barbary War

The parallels are fascinating:

Barbary corsairs led attacks upon American merchant shipping in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors, and ultimately tribute from the United States to avoid further attacks, much like their standard operating procedure with the various European states. Before the Treaty of Paris, which formalized the United States' independence from Great Britain, U.S. shipping was protected by France during the Revolutionary years under the Treaty of Alliance (1778–83)...As such, piracy against U.S. shipping only began to occur after the end of the American Revolution, when the U.S. government lost its protection under the Treaty of Alliance.

...Spain offered advice to the United States on how to deal with the Barbary States. The advice was to offer tribute to prevent further attacks against merchant ships. The U.S. Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, decided to send envoys to Morocco and Algeria to try to purchase treaties and the freedoms of the captured sailors held by Algeria...

American diplomatic action with Algeria, the other major Barbary Coast state, was much less successful than with Morocco. Algeria began piracy against the U.S. on 25 July 1785 with the capture of the schooner Maria, and Dauphin a week later. All four Barbary Coast states demanded $660,000 each. However, the envoys were given only an allocated budget of $40,000 to achieve peace. Diplomatic talks to reach a reasonable sum for tribute or for the ransom of the captured sailors struggled to make any headway. The crews of Maria and Dauphin remained in captivity for over a decade, and soon were joined by crews of other ships captured by the Barbary States.

In 1795, Algeria came to an agreement that resulted in the release of 115 American sailors they held, at a cost of over $1 million. This amount totaled about one-sixth of the entire U.S. budget, and was demanded as tribute by the Barbary States to prevent further piracy. The continuing demand for tribute ultimately led to the formation of the United States Department of the Navy, founded in 1798 to prevent further attacks upon American shipping and to end the extremely large demands for tribute from the Barbary States...

Jefferson argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks. Although John Adams agreed with Jefferson, he believed that circumstances forced the U.S. to pay tribute until an adequate navy could be built. The U.S. had just fought an exhausting war, which put the nation deep in debt. Federalist and Anti-Federalist forces argued over the needs of the country and the burden of taxation. Jefferson's own Democratic-Republicans and anti-navalists believed that the future of the country lay in westward expansion, with Atlantic trade threatening to siphon money and energy away from the new nation on useless wars in the Old World. The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages.[citation needed] A$1 million payment in ransom and tribute to the privateering states would have amounted to approximately 10% of the U.S. government’s annual revenues in 1800.

Jefferson continued to argue for cessation of the tribute, with rising support from George Washington and others. With the recommissioning of the American navy in 1794 and the resulting increased firepower on the seas, it became increasingly possible for America to refuse paying tribute, although by now the long-standing habit was hard to overturn.

Go to the link for the rest if you’re unfamiliar with it. Let’s just say that when Jefferson finally became president, he decided enough was enough, and he won the war. That didn’t settle the problem, though; it took the Second Barbary War of 1815 to finish the job.]

[ADDENDUM II: From the link on the First Barbary War:

In March 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli's envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When they enquired "concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury", the ambassador replied:

"It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.]

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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