Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 28, 2015

At Year's End, Bits of Good News

By David K. Shipler

            Don’t blame the mainstream press, whose job is to focus on conflicts and problems, for the grim picture of a grim world. You can’t cure an issue until you turn it out into the sunlight. But in this season of holidays and reflections and resolutions, a little light on the brighter spots in our better nature might be part of that remedy, not so much to comfort us as to provide models of what could be. So I offer a few here.
             *The Dallas Dinner Table, which organizes dinner conversations at homes and churches about race, has had so many requests by local residents to participate on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, that it quickly reached its maximum of 500 and had to close registration early.
            *The fear and bigotry toward Muslims inflamed by Donald Trump, and effectively endorsed by the silence of most other Republican candidates, has provoked rebuttals and statements of support for Muslims from some (though not all) Christian pulpits across the country.
*The bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, wrote of “our love for you, our Muslim neighbors,” and pledged “our commitment to find even more effective ways to protect and defend you from words and actions that assault your safety and well-being. We believe God calls us to resist what is divisive, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist, or violent, and we want you to look to us as allies and friends.”

December 14, 2015

Sequel: A Theatrical Idea Reborn

By David K. Shipler

            One year ago, the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.—an otherwise estimable institution—summarily fired Ari Roth, its internationally respected artistic director, who over 18 years had built the center’s Theater J into an inventive forum of dramatic ideas. Roth was compelled by his family history and his creative sensibilities to reach across difficult lines of difference. He did not shrink from putting hard issues before Washington audiences, but always with a strain of hopefulness. He did not like leaving people in despair.
            He did not like leaving himself in despair, either, and in less than a year began a new theater company, appropriately named Mosaic, which is now assembling the polished pieces of diverse experiences into a thematic first season of ambitious plays. In a country and a world that is dangerously polarized, he is searching for paths to healing by looking clear-eyed at momentous conflicts and personal sorrows. Fine art does that. Art filtered by politics does not, and that’s where Roth’s expansiveness collided with the JCC’s timidity.
Essentially, Roth infuriated shallow-minded conservatives by staging plays that portrayed Israel as an actual country with real blemishes and impurities, not the cardboard artifice that right-wing, pro-Israel Americans have constructed in their imaginations. He produced playwrights who put history on display and allowed Arab voices to be heard. He did not censor one narrative in favor of another. He did not simplify reality but invited theatergoers to consider its contradictions and ambiguities, in the Middle East and elsewhere. And now, exiled from the Jewish theater, he is making a promising start doing the same thing on a broader landscape.

December 9, 2015

The Next Affirmative Action

By David K. Shipler

            College admissions officers who want racial diversity on campus have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with a conservative Supreme Court that dislikes racial preferences. The next probable step, once the Court decides the case it heard today (Dec. 9), is to shift from race to socioeconomic class as a means to assemble a creative variety of students. This would have pluses and minuses as a substitute for race-based affirmative action, which the Court seems poised to restrict severely or to strike down entirely in the current case, Fisher v. University of Texas.
            Class could be used as a proxy for race and ethnicity, given the overrepresentation of African-American and Latino households at lower income levels in the population as a whole. But the blacks and Latinos admitted to the most selective universities would be very different from those who get in under current racial preferences, large majorities of whom are middle- or upper-class, with only tiny fractions from poor backgrounds.
            “At the top twenty law schools, 89 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos (and even higher proportions of whites and Asians) come from the top socioeconomic half of the population,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg, citing a 2011 study, while only 2 percent of all law students in those schools come from the bottom quarter. “Another study finds that the proportion of black students at elite colleges coming from the top quartile of the socioeconomic distribution increased from 29 percent in 1972 to 67 percent in 1992.”

December 5, 2015

Mixing Opinion into News

By David K. Shipler

            The New York Times violated a worthy tradition today by publishing an editorial on its front page, above the fold, in a space previously reserved for facts and analysis, not opinion. It was a mistake, and I’ll bet I’m not the only former or current reporter for the paper who hopes it doesn’t happen again.
            The Times has been one of the last American news organizations to maintain a high wall between news and editorial. This is a peculiarly American practice, unusual even among other democracies. But it has been badly eroded by Fox News especially, which taints much of its reporting with politics. MSNBC, some radio broadcasters, and smaller newspapers have also allowed news coverage to be corrupted by partisan perspectives, while The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and some others still cling to what we denizens of the newsroom used to call, in decades past, “the separation of church and state.”
            Reporters were so zealous about this firewall that the newsroom would rumble with murmurs of discontent when a certain editorial writer, who opined on urban affairs, descended periodically from his exalted perch on the tenth floor of the old Times building to the third-floor newsroom to find out from me and other writers what was actually going on in the street. We talked to him but were careful not to listen to him and to pay no attention to whatever he wrote on the topics we covered.

November 25, 2015

Next Thanksgiving

By David K. Shipler

            Thanksgiving is the best of American holidays. It is either religious or secular, depending on your preference. It is unburdened by materialism and free from jingoistic patriotism. It celebrates neither war nor triumph. It is not a day of mourning or grievance. It does not merely turn a page on the calendar but prompts a turning inward in reflection. The only true indulgence is the elixir of good food, best observed in our closest circles of family and friends.
            Only there, for those of us who have that safe place of intimacy, does giving thanks come easily this year. If we have good health, good love, good friendships—if we have enough money to sustain us comfortably, work that we enjoy, lives that educate us constantly—gratitude flows clearly. Our act of thanksgiving is about the present, and the past that has led to our bounty.
            We cannot give thanks for the larger world. Let us hope that next Thanksgiving we can, at least in some measure. I would wish then to be grateful--
            *for the decency of my fellow Americans, who snuffed out the hateful bigotry and bluster of Donald Trump and his mob of followers, overcoming them at the polls to retain our nation’s purpose and ideals.

November 20, 2015

Textbooks for Peace in Israel and the West Bank

                As published at The New Yorker online
A small, sad record was set on Thursday, for the largest number of deaths in a single day in the two-month rash of scattered attacks by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. Five people died, two by stabbing in Tel Aviv and three by automatic gunfire near Alon Shvut, a Jewish settlement. In the shadow of the attacks in Paris, however, this everyday violence has slipped nearly out of sight. It has become so routine that it remains in our peripheral vision.

No peace talks are scheduled, and even if they were they would need to reach more deeply into ordinary beliefs than negotiators can usually manage. Those beliefs are shaped in schools, which fail to teach children to think sympathetically about the other’s past and recent history. As touchy-feely as this might seem, education has grown into an unavoidable obstacle to co-existence, for it misinforms perceptions across the lines of conflict.    Continue reading at The New Yorker.

November 17, 2015

Surveillance: A Cautionary Note

By David K. Shipler

            In the rush after the Paris attacks to step up surveillance, the usual arguments are being heard on one side about violations of civil liberties, and, on the other, about obstacles to monitoring because of what CIA director John Brennan derides as “hand-wringing” over government intrusion. But there is a less visible problem, often mentioned by former intelligence officials: Excessive, unfocused surveillance has produced floods of information beyond what the professionals can digest and analyze.
            At an illuminating panel in Washington two months ago, three former officials of the National Security Agency—Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe—made precisely that point, and if you talk to others who have been in the business, many of them will tell you the same thing. The petabytes of data that have been vacuumed up almost indiscriminately since 9/11 are stored untranslated, unread, and unsifted in digital files, well off the radar of the agents who are charged with spotting radicals before they commit the next atrocity.
            The American Civil Liberties Union, whose overriding goal is to protect constitutional rights, came up with the perfect metaphor after the Patriot Act diluted the Fourth Amendment’s protections in 2001: You don’t find a needle in a haystack by increasing the size of the haystack. Yet expanding the haystack is what was done, and is what is now being proposed.

November 8, 2015

Ban Before Reading

Friends and family congratulated me, book sales bounced a little and a 10-year-old title was suddenly under discussion by people who had never read it. I had been awarded literary recognition of a peculiar kind, one that brought me no euphoria. Along with six other books opposed by conservative parents in a wealthy school district near Dallas, my book “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” a nonideological portrayal of lives near the bottom, was suspended from the English curriculum at Highland Park High School, where it had been used in advanced placement classes.
Continue Reading

November 4, 2015

The Rabin Assassination and the Judgment of History

Killing a King:The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel Dan Ephron W.W. Norton & Company
2015, pp. 304, $27.95

Review in Moment Magazine by David K. Shipler

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago produced instant analysis of unusual accuracy. Typically, it takes decades for the air to clear enough for history to make a sound judgment, especially in the Middle East. But when Rabin was shot in the back in November 1995 after a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, the Israelis of various camps who either mourned or celebrated what they thought the murder meant for their country turned out to be exactly right.
   They were right that Rabin’s death would result in a loss of momentum toward the concessions necessary to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. And they were right that the assassin, a religious extremist named Yigal Amir, did not act alone, in a sense: He drew ideological sustenance from a significant segment of Israeli society where Rabin was detested and denounced as traitor, Nazi, Arab-lover and defiler of God’s plan for the Jews.
   Amir was an activist and organizer, and within circles of like-minded friends, he made little secret of his lust to kill Rabin. He staked out positions at Rabin’s apartment and elsewhere several times, and finally pulled the trigger in complete harmony with the hatred purveyed by a radical absolutism that has gained in political power ever since.
   This turning point is meticulously documented by the journalist Dan Ephron in his compelling account, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. A former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek who covered the rally and the murder trial, Ephron interviewed both Rabin’s and Amir’s families and associates, sifted through court and investigative records, and pieced together an authoritative narrative that will serve as a valuable record of history.
   It is also a page-turner. You don’t want to put it down, because even though you know the outcome, Ephron does such diligent reporting in getting inside the mind of the assassin, the thinking of Rabin, and the miscalculations of the Shin Bet units charged with providing security that practically every page carries the tense energy of fresh insight.
   Along with fellow right-wingers, Amir was deeply alarmed when the Oslo accords signed in 1993 by Rabin and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, laid the groundwork for an Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza. A Palestinian Authority governed by Arafat would get limited control over a patchwork of zones, a prospect that sent Amir and others “scouring the Talmud for laws that Rabin might be violating,” Ephron reports. Although Arafat would have no authority over Jewish settlers, who would remain under Israeli law and security protection, Amir concluded that the prime minister had become a moser, “a person who handed over Jews to a hostile power.” The idea had been discussed in the haredi press, which had raised the question of whether Rabin might be subject to the Talmudic concept of din rodef, defined as “the law of the pursuer,” which “permitted a bystander to kill the aggressor in order to save the innocent victim,” Ephron notes. This argument came to constitute Amir’s religious rationale for the assassination.
   “Amir clearly stood on the margins of the right-wing camp,” Ephron concludes. “But its mainstream leaders had goaded the extremists with their ugly rhetoric and its rabbis had furnished the religious justification for violence.”
Intelligence officials worried about an assassination attempt, but Rabin gruffly rebuffed their pleas that he wear a bulletproof vest. And Amir was not on the radar of the Shin Bet, whose monitoring concentrated on Palestinians; the agency underestimated the threat from Jews. Those Jews who did come under surveillance were mostly “national religious” settlers on the West Bank, and Amir did not fit the obvious profile. He was ultra-Orthodox, lived not in a settlement but in the coastal town of Herzliya and studied law at Bar-Ilan University.
   The Shin Bet’s entire file on Amir, Ephron found, consisted of a single page with a few sentences noting that he tried to organize a militia to attack Palestinians and that he took students for weekend visits to settlements. But, according to Ephron, his boasts about plans to kill Rabin went unreported by a Shin Bet informant, who thought him “nothing but a blowhard.”
   Amir was especially inspired by Baruch Goldstein, a settler who stormed into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, spraying gunfire across the sea of kneeling Muslim worshipers and killing 29 before survivors beat him to death. “The Goldstein massacre captivated Amir and also taunted him,” Ephron writes. “Amir regarded himself as a doer and others as talkers and compromisers… If Amir thought sacrificing himself might be a courageous way to derail the peace train, Goldstein had beat him to it.”
   Indeed, Amir’s sense of urgency to kill Rabin rose and fell as the prospects for a peace agreement advanced and faltered. The more hopeful the diplomatic progress, the more driven Amir became to end it. With a 9mm Beretta stuck in his belt and a clip containing armor-piercing bullets made by his brother Hagai, he traveled to demonstrations and showed up at Rabin events, trolling for an opportunity. Once, riding on a bus full of protesters to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, he thought his chance had come. But at the last minute, Rabin canceled his appearance to rush to the scene of a bombing elsewhere, part of a series of attacks by Palestinian radicals who were as eager as the Israeli right to torpedo the peace process. 
   Hagai spent 16-and-a-half years in prison as an accomplice and was then mined by Ephron on points of Yigal’s thinking. Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, provided the author with intimate details and even with her father’s blood-stained clothing, which Ephron carried in hand luggage to a forensic expert in the United States to answer a key question: whether a hole in the front of Rabin’s shirt had been made by a bullet. Since Amir had shot him in the back, a frontal wound would have suggested a second shooter, perhaps a conspiracy. The expert’s verdict: not a bullet hole, but probably a surgeon’s rapid work to get a tube into the dying prime minister’s chest.
   The great sorrow in this story is the fragility of the middle ground. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side could hold the posture of accommodation and compromise against the fierce winds of violence. Those forces of moderation deserve more attention than they usually receive, and in these pages, too, Ephron might have explored them more thoroughly.
   Yet his solid reporting leaves the reader space to reflect on what might have been. Could Rabin have survived politically amid the suicide bombings? Would Arafat have been more conciliatory with Rabin than he was with subsequent prime ministers? Could more astute politicians have used the country’s surge of raw grief to sustain the peace process?
   “The opponents of compromise in both camps had nowhere near the power and influence they hold now,” Ephron notes. “The process itself had yet to be contaminated by sustained waves of violence and settlement expansion. And the rapport between Rabin and Arafat—the deciders of their generation—had evolved into something workable. For all those reasons, Rabin probably stood a better chance of forging a durable reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians than any leader before or since.”

October 22, 2015

Cheapening the Holocaust

By David K. Shipler

            As if the Palestinians hadn’t done enough to Israelis, Prime Minister Netanyahu now blames them for the Holocaust by fabricating a tale that Hitler had not planned to exterminate the Jews of Europe until the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, suggested it in 1941. Netanyahu thus lends his office to the sordid practice of manipulating and distorting the Holocaust, a timeworn occupation in the Middle East.
            When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, posters appeared in Jerusalem depicting the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, wearing a tie covered with swastikas, doctored from the backwards swastika pattern on the tie he inexplicably wore when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1977. Begin was shown as the obsequious Jew with a yellow Star of David on his lapel, the label the Nazis had required. Pedestrians walked past the posters unfazed, accustomed as they were to such smears.
            If Begin ever saw those caricatures, he must have been stung. He himself had survived the Holocaust by fleeing Warsaw for Lithuania, where he was arrested by the Russians, spent a year in Soviet prisons, and was released to join the Polish army. In 1982, I happened to interview him in his office soon after he had been called by President Ronald Reagan, who had likened the carnage during Israeli’s bombardment of West Beirut during the war in Lebanon to “a holocaust.”
            “He hurt me very deeply,” Begin told me, “and I said to him, ‘Mr. President, I know what is a holocaust.’”

October 13, 2015

The Cold War Quagmire

By David K. Shipler

                You’d think with all the hand-wringing in Washington over Russia’s foray into the quagmire of Syria that some Middle Eastern plum was about to fall into Russia’s lap—at American expense. And so it would be if the Cold War rivalry were still operating, when every gain by one superpower was considered an equivalent loss by the other. But that’s not the case now, and it’s time for both Russia and the United States to abandon the zero-sum game in favor of a more carefully calibrated set of calculations.
                The two countries’ interests are not identical, their strategies differ, and their motives diverge. They are headed for a proxy war, each arming different factions. But their fundamental national security concerns overlap significantly, and both would surely find solace in a stable Syria—even a secular dictatorship—where ISIS, the Islamic State movement, had been crushed. American ideals notwithstanding, a Jeffersonian democracy in Damascus is not in the cards. So there is room for inventive Russian-American cooperation.
                Vladimir Putin doesn’t do democracy—not at home, not abroad. He doesn’t accept the American faith that a pluralistic political system will naturally arise from the ashes of a destroyed dictatorship. It is painful to recognize that he has a point, at least as witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. The next country on that list would be Syria, should President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown. One form of autocracy would surely be exchanged for another.
Putin comes out of a deep Russian culture that abhors a power vacuum and fears anarchy—especially when they occur in his own back yard.

September 24, 2015

The Hunger for Heroes

By David K. Shipler

            Washington’s adoring reception of Pope Francis has been cleansing. Scrubbed of the toxic rhetoric that passes for debate in this town, his simple truths have been elevating. His calls for human decency have been inspiring. His embrace of dialogue as he faced Congress this morning was not merely a pleading but a moral teaching. And despite the tiresome babble of CNN commentators trying to squeeze his various messages into familiar political boxes, Francis summoned the best in America with a challenge to lift our gaze beyond those boundaries and see again, with exhilarating clarity, the reasons for our great ideals.
            You do not have to be Catholic, or even religious, as I am not. You do not have to agree with every view that Francis holds, as I do not, to see him as a hero, a secular hero badly needed in the tumultuous vacuum of righteousness that afflicts our time.
The modern era has precious few: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev (if you’re not a Russian who detests him), Malala Yousafzai (have you forgotten her already?).
We need heroes. We need figures to admire. We need our lives driven by something larger than ourselves. We need to play a part in a higher purpose. Occasionally, someone of goodness, or a mission of virtue, comes along to satisfy this yearning. As often, probably more often, it is someone of malice—or a corrupted idea. Religion can be either. As Francis said today, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”

September 16, 2015

The Iran Deal: Israel Wins Twice

By David K. Shipler

The Senate’s failure to block the agreement with Iran may look like a defeat for Israel, whose government lobbied so intensely against it, but in reality Israel is likely to benefit in two ways if the deal is implemented. First, Iran will be impeded in pursuing nuclear weapons. Second, Israel will get more security aid from the United States.
The first point has been ferociously debated, of course. The second, however, is indisputable. The Obama administration was reportedly eager to start talks with Israel about enhanced assistance as the Iran deal was completed. Democratic supporters of the agreement, pressed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel organization, are ready to improve their political standing by by compensating Israel with new weaponry.
An example is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who declared when he endorsed the Iran deal, “The U.S. should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating.” That’s the bunker-busting bomb, which might be able to reach buried, fortified nuclear facilities. It would presumably enable Israel to start a war that the United States would have to finish.

July 18, 2015

The Common Ground Between the United States and Russia

By David K. Shipler

            Washington may regard Vladimir Putin as the world’s Number One Nuisance, but he came through in the Iran agreement, just as he did in 2013 by negotiating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria (minus chlorine, unfortunately, which has industrial uses but has been weaponized). Before its thinly disguised invasion of Ukraine, Russia also shared intelligence on terrorism and other security matters. Unpublicized contacts among Russian and American military and civilian intelligence officials were reportedly frequent and productive; perhaps they still are.
So, a new overlay of common ground should be drawn onto the map of conflict between Washington and Moscow. President Obama, answering a well-placed question by Thomas Friedman Tuesday after the deal restricting Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, said this:
            “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
            Quite an endorsement. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Preventing Iran from going nuclear is as much in the Russian interest as it is in ours. Look at a map. Iran is in Russia’s back yard. If there is any constant in Russian history (and there are several), it’s the importance of the back yard. Ukraine is also in Russia’s back yard. You mess with the back yard, you mess with house and home. And while Putin can certainly be faulted for his aggression against Ukraine, for exaggerating Western designs on Russia’s security, and for fostering jingoism among the Russian public, his country and the United States share important overlapping interests.
            Let’s make a short list:

July 1, 2015

A Constitution Informed by Social Change

By David K. Shipler

            If you spend time reading the Supreme Court’s majority and dissenting opinions in the landmark same-sex marriage case, a transcendent principle jumps out at you. It has little to do with the definition of marriage or the widening acceptance of homosexuality. Rather, it is the notion that society should be alive to its own injustices, even those unseen in the age when solemn constitutional texts were written. Later—nearly 150 years later in this instance—practices that were once acceptable emerge as violations of the rights set down at a very different time.
This is the crux of the ideological dispute between conservatives and liberals on the Court, and it is articulated in this case with unusual clarity. The conservative dissenters define liberty in the narrowest terms—to Clarence Thomas it means freedom from physical restraint and imprisonment, nothing more.
To Antonin Scalia, the clock simply has to be turned back to the date of the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment, whose clauses banned the states from denying any person “the equal protection of the laws” or depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Those were the provisions that the Supreme Court found were being violated by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
Scalia scoffed. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” he wrote, “every state limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so.” Case closed.
Compare that with Anthony Kennedy’s fluid view of liberty in his opinion for the slim 5-4 majority. Kennedy is not easily categorized as liberal or conservative; he is often a swing vote. Here, however, he effectively endorses the liberal concept of a living Constitution by emphasizing its place in a shifting world.

June 22, 2015

The Mainstream Roots of Bigotry

   By David K. Shipler

        The alleged murderer Dylann Roof may have entered the bible study group in Charleston from that fringe of white supremacists that have always plagued America, but the stereotypes they hold of African-Americans are also woven into much mainstream conservative commentary by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others. One telling overlap is their assertion that whites are in peril; Beck has called Obama a racist who hates whites, Roof is said to have expressed fears that blacks were taking over, threatening whites.
Ironically, the election of a black president has enabled old racial assumptions to be embedded and camouflaged within legitimate political criticism. The images are cleverly encrypted, but they may be blatant as well. Google “Obama ape” and you will see dozens of Photoshopped pictures of Michelle and Barack Obama as primates, playing off that traditional American calumny of blacks as subhuman. You can buy them on T-shirts and babies’ onesies. When they are circulated online, sometimes by Republican office-holders, the caricatures create an odd counterpoint of racial prejudice alongside the non-bigotry that most voters demonstrated by twice electing the first African-American in the White House.

June 11, 2015

Surveillance: Edward Snowden's Wishful Thinking

By David K. Shipler

            To risk all by being a whistleblower, you have to believe deeply in your society’s capacity for self-correction, and Edward Snowden—after periods of doubt—is a believer, it seems. Last week he hailed “the power of an informed public” in driving Congress to make modest trims in the National Security Agency’s authority to collect data on Americans’ electronic communications. This is the way an open democracy is supposed to work: expose the wrongdoing and provoke reform.
But before we celebrate with embarrassing rhapsodies, let’s remember how far the United States has to go. The 9/11 trauma has not yet healed, and the post-traumatic security measures—some sensible, others excessive—have compromised the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Many of the extreme methods of intrusion remain intact. Some have proved worse than useless, overloading intelligence professionals with terabytes of distracting information that’s hard to search and sift for the ominous patterns of incipient terrorism.
So there are both practical and ideological reasons to abandon the excesses, yet they seem likely to stay largely in place until several conditions develop.
If earlier spasms of anxiety in American history are any guide, violations of constitutional rights in the interest of national security come to an end when, a) they are so egregious that their disclosure inflames the public; b) the perceived threat diminishes; and/or c) courts find the measures illegal or unconstitutional. Early signs of each of these can be seen, but only as slight beginnings of what may become significant trends.

June 1, 2015

The First Amendment and the Freedom to Hate

By David K. Shipler

Metro said Thursday that it will not allow new issue-oriented advertising in the transit system after a controversial pro-Israel group sought to place ads featuring a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, a drawing that was linked to deadly violence in Texas this month.
--The Washington Post

            Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the White Aryan Resistance wanted to put ads on Washington Metro trains and buses featuring a cartoon from the gallery it labels “Kikes.” For example, take the one that portrays a long-nosed, thick-lipped, cigar-chomping giant leering maliciously as he applies a drill bit to the stomach of a smaller, terrified blond fellow he’s holding down with a meaty hand. “Never forget, white man,” says the caption, “the Zionist Jew is working around the clock to DESTROY YOU.”
            Or, let’s imagine that some purveyor of one of those Photoshopped images of Barack and Michelle Obama as subhuman primates (you can see dozens by Googling “Obama Ape”) decided to display it throughout the capital’s transportation system. Picture buses circulating through the streets of Washington adorned with posters of an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish monster or President Obama morphed into a chimpanzee.
            There might not be a risk of violent reaction. But it’s a safe bet that very few Americans would defend the parade of such ugly bigotry against Jews and blacks. Consider, then, the application to Metro by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative to buy space for the winner of its cartoon contest in Texas—a drawing featuring the traditional stereotype of a fierce, raging Arab, glaring and waving a curved scimitar as he declares, “You can’t draw me!” The artist, out of the frame, replies, “That’s why I draw you.”

May 12, 2015

Pamela Geller and the Anti-Islam Movement

(published on The New Yorker Web site)

By David K. Shipler

     The winning cartoon in the contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad, early this month in Garland, Texas, which two gunmen attacked, depicts a fierce Prophet waving a scimitar and saying, “You can’t draw me!” The artist, whose hand and pencil are visible, replies from outside the frame, “That’s why I draw you.”
     And so the principle of free speech confronted American society’s unwritten code of restraint on contemptuous stereotyping. .  . Freedom of expression suddenly looked like two overlays on a map, the legal landscape and the cultural landscape, each with its own boundaries. . . . 
     Virtually all the alarm over the coming Islamic takeover and the spread of Sharia law can be traced back to an old document of questionable authority and relevance, “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America.” Dated May 22, 1991, it was found in 2004 by the F.B.I., buried in one of a large number of boxes uncovered during a search of a house in northern Virginia.

May 5, 2015

Another View of Vietnam Veterans

By David K. Shipler

(Published on The New Yorker website)

      From time to time during the American war in Iraq which began in 2003, aging Vietnam veterans wearing baseball caps and khaki jackets emblazoned with pins, patches, and the names of their units gathered at the small commercial airport in Bangor, Maine. A few older vets of more noble wars were sometimes among them, frail men from the Second World War and Korea, as they assembled in the passenger lounge to greet returning troops when their planes touched down for refuelling. Bangor would be the arrivals’ first contact with American soil since they left for the zone of combat.
     At the gate, the Vietnam vets usually formed two lines—as an avenue of welcome, of course, not a gauntlet. They were giving something that many of them felt they had not received decades earlier. . .
     Through the years, our varied ways of thinking about the Americans who fought that war, which ended ignominiously forty years ago this week, have been characterized by tension between a sense of virtue and a sense of shame. Americans cannot agree amongst themselves on what happened there, on what might have happened had we done one thing or another differently, or on what would have happened if justice and morality had prevailed.

April 27, 2015

Manipulating History in Open Societies

By David K. Shipler

            Russians used to tell a joke in communist times: What’s the definition of a Soviet historian? A person who can predict the past.
            Disfavored officials were air-brushed out of photographs and deleted from textbooks. Wartime atrocities were ignored, and history was burnished with heroism. It was done by government edict, making the synthetic past immune to correction. It also made the Soviet Union very different from open societies, where (we believe) facts will survive and truth will ultimately prevail.
            But will they? Look closely and you can see that pluralistic democracies also manipulate history, notwithstanding their spirits of fluid inquiry and acerbic debate. Critics can dispute distortions, of course, as they do vigorously in both the United States and Israel, two countries where portrayals of history are often bent by the emotional weight of war. Yet distortions endure, for nature abhors a moral vacuum when it comes to war, and war is exactly that: a moral vacuum.
            A fresh search for virtue is underway this spring, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, illustrated by the air-brushed history in a new documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, to be broadcast by PBS April 28.
            The film is the anguished tale of panicky Americans rushing to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible before North Vietnamese tanks roll in. Many of the images are familiar, the personal accounts less so. They are gripping stories of Vietnamese made vulnerable by their military service or their employment by the U.S. government, and of daring American officials organizing an airlift out of chaos.
            The trouble is, the brief historical set-up to this climax is so badly flawed that after the movie was first screened last year, a strong letter urging revisions was sent to Kennedy, signed by more than 30 correspondents who covered the war (including me). It didn’t help. (See link to text of letter in righthand column.) The film’s crucial silences lead the viewer to think that the ceasefire called for in the 1973 Paris agreement was violated by only North Vietnam, that no misdeeds by the U.S. or South Vietnam contributed to the peace plan’s demise.
            No mention is made of South Vietnam’s military offensives after the supposed ceasefire, of the rampant corruption and drug addiction in the South Vietnamese military, or of the failure by all sides to pursue the political settlement outlined by the agreement. Absent is the illicit involvement of American ex-military men in arming South Vietnamese aircraft for bombing runs violating the ceasefire.
The silences add to the dramatic effect—the South Vietnamese as innocent victims, the Americans as pure humanitarians—which heightens the nobility of those who struggled compassionately at the end. But by creating an occluded lens through which to view that finale, the film lets “a false narrative take root in the public mind,” the correspondents’ letter observed. The troubling result was aided briefly by WGBH, the sponsoring public television station in Boston, whose resource for teachers featured a six-minute clip of the one-sided history, until it was taken down around the time of a complaint about it by a former correspondent, Arnold R. Isaacs.
“If you consult reputable historians and any serious journalist who covered that history, I believe a large majority will tell you that this video presents fiction, not historical fact,” he wrote to WGBH. “It is a safe bet that only an infinitesimal minority of teachers or students who might see this video will know enough to recognize its faults.”
Isaacs (in the interest of full disclosure, my brother-in-law) had been there at the end, for The Baltimore Sun, and wrote a powerful, authoritative book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, chronicling the period from the Paris agreement through those final weeks and days. Among his objections to the film’s history was its clip of Vietnamese struggling to get onto a World Airways flight from Danang to flee south, ahead of the North Vietnamese advance. “Watching that video,” he wrote to me last week, “if you didn’t know it beforehand you would have had no clue that the people mobbing the hatchway were virtually all soldiers who had shot their way through crowds of civilian refugees to get to the plane. As I wrote in Without Honor, it landed in Saigon with four women, three children, three old men, and 320 soldiers.”
The film is being broadcast under the rubric of WGBH’s and PBS’s American Experience, which has decided to brook no criticism on its site. Jim Laurie, who covered the war for NBC, wrote a solid piece on the historical inaccuracies but was told it would not be posted unless his direct criticisms of the film were deleted. For example, he notes that the film leaves unchallenged the assertion by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that officials thought the Paris accords could lead to permanent division, as in Korea, a fanciful argument that Kissinger himself could not have believed, given that “the United States has stationed more than 30,000 troops in Korea for more than sixty years to guarantee a two state situation on the peninsula,” Laurie wrote. “In Vietnam no such role for the US was ever envisioned.”
“Also missing from the film’s narrative is any reference to the incompetence and corruption of some of the South Vietnam command,” he added, quoting Loren Jenkins of Newsweek seeing South Vietnam’s Economic Minister in 1974 handing out $100 bills to commanders in Danang in Hue. “They lined up like school boys at a candy store for their handouts,” Jenkins said.
Even the history that survives WGBH’s hatchet will not be visible to the public until after the broadcast, Laurie told me. His piece will be posted only on Wednesday, although “I argued that people might go to the website for more information during or just after the broadcast and would find no corrective there.” Laurie sardonically called this “my ‘American Experience.’”  
If Americans can’t agree on facts about a war long ended, imagine Israelis’ debates over the origin of their continuing conflict, their War of Independence in 1948. It took decades for textbooks to acknowledge that Israeli troops expelled Arabs, and longer for massacres of Arab civilians to be exposed. A respected Israeli historian, Benny Morris, documented about two dozen massacres but could not confirm one case in particular, at the village of Tantura, which recently embroiled both Israelis and Americans in a battle over artistic freedom.
An Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, grew up near Tantura hearing stories of the killings. He believes that excavating history and listening to the other’s narrative are essential to Israeli-Arab coexistence. So he built a play, “The Admission,” around fictitious Arab and Jewish men, now friends, who were both at the village—the Arab as a witness, the Jew as a commander. Their children dig through layers of memory and denial, leaving the audience “deeply unsettled and unresolved,” in the words of Ari Roth, who produced the play in Washington, D.C., as the artistic director of Theater J. It is a genre designed “to break somebody open so that they can pick up the pieces outside the theater,” he said. Perhaps this can “ultimately effect change in society by leaving the theatergoer devastated, pulverized, opened up, and agitated.”
Theater J, in the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, had been under fire for years by a small group of conservative American Jews who decried, as slanderous, plays and discussions exploring Israel’s morality. Urging donors to withhold contributions, they made fundraisers nervous, particularly when the argument turned on a moment of disputed history.
“The Admission” got full houses and rave reviews, the usual index of theatrical success. But the Jewish Community Center, heading into a capital campaign, cancelled Roth’s annual Middle East festival, then fired him after he told the press about the conflict. He has now launched a new enterprise, the Mosaic Theater Company, which next year plans a new play by Motti Lerner, After the War.
You can bet that Roth will put unwelcome truths on his stage, resisting the admonition that even in an open society, you sometimes have to predict the past.

April 25, 2015

The Parochialism of Grief

By David K. Shipler

            We awoke this morning to the terrible news of the devastating earthquake in Nepal, where our son and daughter-in-law used to live doing humanitarian work, and where they have many friends. Through them, we also know several people there, so our natural and urgent need was to learn whether our friends and theirs were OK. Fortunately, the answer was yes, all were accounted for, which brought a sense of great relief. And then I felt a wave of guilt for being relieved just because those who perished were unknown to me personally. Was it enough to ache with diffuse sorrow at a distant tragedy, instead of being cut by a sharp edge of personal grief?
            We each live at the center of concentric circles of affinity, from our immediate families close in the middle, to rings of wider relatives, to dear friends, then more casual or professional acquaintances, and out into the wilderness of humanity at large. And within that vast reservoir of anonymous people, our connections and concerns—and pain of loss—are often determined by how alike the victims are to us.
            Years ago, a bunch of us reporters at The New York Times tried to graph the way this unconscious calculation shaped news judgments.

April 13, 2015

The Long Arc of Injustice

By David K. Shipler

            Earlier this month, a black man named Anthony Ray Hinton, convicted of murder thirty years ago, finally walked free in Alabama, out of death row. The finger of guilt now points to many others: not just the real killer, who may still roam the land, but also hasty police officers, blinkered prosecutors, careless ballistic examiners, politicians who won’t adequately fund criminal defense for the poor, and judges up and down the hierarchy from trial courts to appellate courts. The case is such a cold window on the dangers of the death penalty, which if carried out cuts off all possibility of revision and reversal, that it seems worth posting excerpts here of the detailed examination in my book Rights at Risk:

The law is a labyrinth, best comprehended by the high priesthood of attorneys who fashion and interpret its abstruse language. No unschooled layman, standing nakedly unrepresented before the terrible engine of the criminal justice system, can possibly fathom the hidden dangers of error—or the invisible shields that offer unnoticed protection.
Hinton’s court-appointed lawyer, Sheldon Perhacs, was given too little money to hire a reputable firearms expert to dispute the questionable findings of a police lab, and was still bitter about it decades later. The “expert” he could get for the $500 the court provided, a one-eyed retired engineer who couldn’t operate a comparison microscope, had jurors laughing in ridicule. Perhacs needed $10,000 for a qualified toolmarks examiner from New Orleans, because the case against Hinton for two murders rested entirely on a dubious lab report. It purportedly matched Hinton’s gun with bullets from the bodies, but the results were more ambiguous than prosecutors let on. Perhacs could not mount a persuasive rebuttal without a true expert.

April 3, 2015

Israel and Iran: The Enemy of My Enemy

By David K. Shipler

            History is a fickle thing, and given Israel’s intransigence toward Iran today, and toward the nuclear deal just negotiated, it’s worth remembering how differently the two countries’ interests lined up thirty-five years ago, even after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel’s then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, invited me down to his ranch for a chat. He had a specific purpose, which emerged during our long conversation on a range of subjects. The point he pressed most urgently was the need for the United States to repair its relations with Iran. The country was a major player in the region, he argued, not to be ignored by Washington in the aftermath of the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He believed the Americans should be reaching out to Tehran, cultivating a restoration of ties.
            His view was self-serving, in that Iran was the chief counterweight to Iraq, Israel’s archenemy at the time. Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel, Jordan had a weak military. Syria and Israel were technically still at war but were observing a de facto peace along their common border on the Golan Heights.
But Iraq was a formidable military power in the region, and a threat. It had never endorsed the Arab-Israeli armistice of 1948, was helping finance the Palestine Liberation Organization, and had tried to go nuclear—an effort halted by Israel’s bombing in June 1981 of its nuclear reactor.
So Israeli officials quietly celebrated the grinding Iran-Iraq war as it went on year after year, reasoning that Iran would handicap and preoccupy Iraq and, in the longer term, serve as a balance against aggressive impulses in Baghdad. The enemy of Iraq was, well, if not a friend, at least a convenience. Indeed, Sharon publicly accused the US of arming Iraq with heavy weapons during the war.

March 25, 2015

Pressuring Israel

By David K. Shipler

            “If the United States decided it wanted to stand by the Palestinian people, we’d have our state in forty-eight hours,” Muhammad Arrar told me several months ago. He was a sinewy man in his mid-forties, a council member in Jalazoun, the West Bank refugee camp. “Israel is America’s fifty-first state,” he continued, in a standard line you hear from Palestinians. Then he added a plea: “In America in the 1700s, a majority of Americans stood up with their weapons and fought, and they raised their rights of liberty.”
This refrain was on the lips of virtually every Palestinian I encountered in the camps, in schools, in government offices; it was a naïve caricature of Israel as a kind of vassal state that could quickly be brought to heel by a flick of the superpower’s wrist. I tried to explain the limits of Washington’s power. Nobody accepted my brilliant analysis. I could see, through their veneer of courtesy, that they thought I was the one being naïve—or disingenuous.
But the relationship is complicated and contradictory, and its core—the dollars and hardware that bolster Israel’s military security—remains undamaged by the recent tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Largely overlooked in the reporting on Monday’s speech by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—whose criticisms of Netanyahu were given front-page coverage—was his affirmation of the nuts-and-bolts commitment, his impressive listing of the muscular, technologically advanced weaponry already in the pipeline. He pledged unflagging support, while criticizing Republicans for holding the defense budget, which includes aid to Israel, at 2006 levels.

March 17, 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Palestinian State

By David K. Shipler  

No matter who forms the next Israeli government, whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog, a bet on statehood for the Palestinians is about as good as money in a Ukrainian bond. Netanyahu has said, not on his watch, and Herzog has not said. Palestinian leaders, especially in Hamas, have done nothing to make Israelis feel secure enough to take the gamble. Conditions can always change, of course, but for the foreseeable future, a two-state solution looks dead.
The idea didn’t last long. Thirty years ago, hardly any Israeli Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state. The only Jewish-led political party to do so was the tiny Communist Party, which garnered only a handful of seats in the Knesset and never joined a governing coalition. Even liberal leaders of Peace Now, the movement that campaigned against Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would not come out for a Palestinian state back then, for fear that they would be discredited among the rest of the Jewish population.
A sea change in Israelis’ attitudes accompanied the 1993 Oslo Accords, which won the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and allowed Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders to come in from exile to set up an interim administration in a patchwork of areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Serious negotiations were launched with the ultimate goal of two states living peacefully side by side.
Public opinion polls showed a sudden jump in the percentage of Israeli Jews supporting Palestinian statehood: to 46.9 percent in 1994, fifteen months after the accords were signed.

March 10, 2015

Iran: Threatening and Threatened

By David K. Shipler

            Why would hardliners in Iran want to forego the prospect of becoming a nuclear power, especially when faced with hardliners in the United States and Israel, both in possession of nuclear weapons? The question is raised again by the condescending little lecture on the American constitutional system, delivered by 47 Republican Senators in the form of an open letter. Without Congress or the next president’s approval, they told Iranian leaders, no agreement by President Obama would by honored by Washington.
            Undermining the full faith and credit of the United States has now been extended from financial matters to foreign policy. Republicans, who lament our supposedly weak president, work relentlessly to weaken him. (Don’t think Vladimir Putin fails to take notice.) And while I admit to knowing no more about Iran than any informed citizen—never having been there and having read too little about that complicated country—I really wonder why policymakers there would want to take the huge gamble of abandoning their weapons program when their apparent enemy the United States cannot be counted on to uphold its side of a bargain.
            Yes, Iran would like to get out from under the crippling sanctions, which have grown internationally and strengthened during Obama’s tenure. They deny Iran markets for its oil and access to international financial institutions. Yes, Iran’s theocracy is tempered by cross-currents of moderation among those partial to opening the country to Europe, the United States, and the rest of the industrialized world. And yes, Iran has refrained from actually going nuclear, notes Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia, despite its reported ability to do so for the last decade. “The entire U.S. intelligence community and most of our allies—apparently including Israel—have concluded with high confidence that Iran has not made a decision to build a bomb,” Sick writes.
            Why not?

March 5, 2015

Policing in Blue and Black

By David K. Shipler

            The most racist institutions in America are police departments. Decades after the military launched sophisticated efforts to train and educate in cross-racial interaction, long after colleges and corporations saw their interests served by diversifying and managing relations within their communities, many police forces remain impervious to revisions of attitude that followed the civil rights movement. Especially in small cities and counties, but even in pockets of larger urban departments, racial stereotyping governs many officers’ assumptions and behavior.
So the Justice Department’s devastating report on the department in Ferguson, Missouri, comes as no surprise to anyone who has researched the problem or, more vividly, has lived it.    African-Americans who encounter white cops—and sometimes black cops—have been telling the rest of us horror stories steadily, in between the egregious beatings and killings that periodically prompt us to rediscover the affliction, conduct investigations, promise reform, and then move on.
If the Justice Department wants to make real change this time, it would take a leaf from the Defense Department’s book. At Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the Pentagon runs a sophisticated set of trainings for officers and enlisted personnel at the Defense EqualOpportunity Management Institute (DEOMI), which also conducts surveys into the climate between races and genders in military units. Nobody would pretend that DEOMI has erased racial tensions in the services—or sexual assault, obviously—but it has helped open the lines of confrontation with those issues, and it has populated the ranks with people who get it.

February 27, 2015

Crossing Israel's Demographic Divide

By David K. Shipler

            On some unknown day in some recent year, according to the most reliable estimates, the demographic scales were tipped by the death of an Israeli Jew or the birth of an Arab baby. The Jews lost their majority in the ancient, weary land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as the number of Arabs reached parity with the Jewish population, at 6.1 or 6.2 million each, depending on who’s counting. Every Israeli knew that the day was coming, but few noticed its stealthy arrival under the camouflage of their twilight war with the Palestinian Arabs, which has blurred visions of the future.
            Now what is to be done? That is the profound question for Israel, one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems ill-equipped to address, despite his many years in office. It is the question that will lurk behind his speech to Congress on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, because the answer—whatever it may be—is equally critical to Israel’s survival as a democratic sanctuary.
            Will Israeli Jews, as a minority going forward, continue to dominate the Arab majority? Will the current hybrid of military occupation and hostile disengagement continue endlessly, or will an exit be found? Will that exit create two states side by side, and will they exist in accommodation or ongoing violence? Or will the “solution” be one state? And if so, what would that state look like with an Arab majority and a Jewish minority? Would all Arabs, including those from the West Bank and Gaza, enjoy equal citizenship in a full democracy, as Arab citizens of Israel technically do now? If so, they will outvote the Jews, and the character of Israel as a Jewish state will be lost. If not—if Arabs are consigned to a lesser status of limited rights—will the uneven relationship justify the hateful a-word, “apartheid,” already thrown about loosely by anti-Israel zealots?