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

May 17, 2022

Can We Predict a Mass Shooting?

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                 Hindsight is 20/20, so looking back, the warning signs seem crystal clear: the online postings, the violent drawings, the fascination with guns, the peculiar conduct, the disquiet of his peers, even the overt threats, which were missed or minimized by educators, police, and parents. The FBI calls those advance indicators “leakage,” a common characteristic of mass shootings. The coming danger should have been obvious. Or should it?

In recent decades, threat assessment has developed into a sophisticated methodology. So why wasn’t 18-year-old Payton Gendron stopped before he murdered ten people last Saturday at a Buffalo supermarket in a mostly Black neighborhood? Why wasn’t 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley stopped before he killed four and wounded six last November in his Michigan school?

The general answer lies in the failures of many local authorities to follow a 22-year-old FBI recommendation to appoint threat assessment coordinators and teams of skilled professionals on call for quick mobilization to assess risks. The FBI’s 46-page report from back then, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” is a nuanced analysis that ought to be in the top desk drawer of every school administrator and police commander.

“These threat assessment teams have to be multidisciplinary,” said former Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, who led the FBI’s project. “The reason is this: A single person looking at these warning signs might deem them to be not too significant, or they may inflate them, or they may not know what to do with them.” So, she told me, the team should include specialists from the school, the mental health profession, juvenile justice, law enforcement—and ideally, an attorney who could advise on whether, say, a backpack can be legally searched.

Threat assessment is not a perfect art, and over-zealous reactions carry risks to civil liberties. Preventive arrest in advance of a crime would be egregious. But short of that, measured interventions may have prevented mass shootings in “dozens of cases across the country,” according to Mark Follman, author of  Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, a new book reporting on a team in an Oregon school district. In the case of one boy making threats, the professionals embraced him in a “wraparound” approach of counseling, academic help, and programs in and out of school.

The FBI study is an intricate guide through labyrinths of statements, behaviors, and interactions that might raise concern. Yet it also cautions against using rigid checklists to profile or discipline reflexively. Even a threat is not reliably predictive in itself, the study warns, for it can reflect a mere transitory state of mind.

“It is especially important that a school not deal with threats by simply kicking the problem out the door,” the report advises. “Expelling or suspending a student for making a threat must not be a substitute for careful threat assessment and a considered, consistent policy of intervention.” Punishment alone can be dangerous, “for example, if a student feels unfairly or arbitrarily treated and becomes even angrier and more bent on carrying out a violent act.”

Evaluating a threat is a tricky task, and figuring out when not to punish can be as crucial as deciding when to do so. “To understand human behavior,” O’Toole told me, “you’ve got to have people trained and updated,” able to see not only the alarming signs but also to “look for mitigators that minimize the possibility that someone could act violently.” And that training should extend broadly. “There’s a lot of research on warning behaviors,” she noted, “and those warning behaviors have to be shared with parents, with people who work in schools—the janitorial staff, the people who work in the cafeteria. But you also have to share them with other students. You have to have everybody’s eyes and ears on the issue. Students will come forward.”

It’s common, after a shooting, to hear fellow students say that they had noticed unsettling demeanor or troubling remarks. Yet those who know the person best are often reluctant to report, according to a later FBI study of active shootings between 2000 and 2013. Schoolmates had seen concerning behaviors in 92 percent of the cases, spouses or domestic partners in 87 percent, and teachers or school staff members in 75 percent. And in most shootings, they had noticed the troubling  conduct more than 25 months before the attacks.

“When concerning behavior was observed by others,” the study found, “the most common response was to communicate directly to the active shooter (83%) or do nothing (54%). In 41% of the cases the concerning behavior was reported to law enforcement. Therefore, just because concerning behavior was recognized does not necessarily mean that it was reported to law enforcement.” That’s where training can sensitize people to the warning signs and induce them to communicate.

And what are some of the warning signs? In determining whether to take a threat seriously, the FBI’s school-shooter study lays out a long inventory, along with a cautionary note that some of the characteristics may be displayed by adolescents without any violent inclinations. Furthermore, no elements should be taken with special weight, or in isolation, but rather considered as accumulating factors—and only after an actual threat is made.

That’s the recommended protocol. The assessment examines four areas: a person’s personality gained from those who knew him before the threat; his family dynamics; the school dynamics and relationships; and the social dynamics including the student’s friendships, drug and alcohol use, and access to weapons.

Each area contains multiple elements of potential concern. In the personality category, for example, a low tolerance for frustration and failure, and difficulty coping with conflicts, insults, and other stresses can be revealing. Poor resilience, low self-esteem, inappropriate response to instruction and authority, need for control or attention or respect, an absence of empathy, can be considered troubling.

How parents react to a student’s threat is regarded by the FBI as a critical insight into family dynamics. The adults might set no limits and fail to monitor TV or internet use. They might “seem intimidated by their child. They may fear he will attack them physically if they confront or frustrate him. . . . the child acts as if he were the authority figure, while parents act as if they were the children.” It’s worrisome if “they appear unable to recognize or acknowledge problems in their children and respond quite defensively. . . appear unconcerned, minimize the problem, or reject the reports altogether.” Turbulence in the parental-child relationship, including domestic violence or the child’s contempt for his parent, should be part of the assessment.

 A school’s culture should be examined with an eye to how or whether a student fits in. That can illuminate smoldering grievances. Some shooters, it has emerged later, were victims of bullying, ridicule, or ostracism. “Students and staff may have very different perceptions of the culture, customs, and values in their schools. Assessors need to be aware of how a school’s dynamics are seen by students.” A school with tolerance for disrespectful behavior can be a crucible of violence, and if a student who has made a threat seems detached from school, that goes into the mix of concerns.

 In the area of social dynamics, the FBI observes, “information about a student’s choice of friends and relations with his peers can provide valuable clues to his attitudes, sense of identity, and possible decisions about acting or not acting on a threat.” Today, 22 years later, his interactions on social media would be included in the assessment. Whether he can put his hands on a firearm is a crucial question; some states have “red flag” laws permitting confiscation from someone who makes a threat.

It seems reasonable—again, in retrospect—that if the FBI’s methods of threat assessment had been properly applied, Payton Gendron’s shooting spree last Saturday might have been thwarted. A year ago, while finishing his senior year in high school, he had signaled his intent. To a question about his plans after graduation, he answered: murder-suicide. He claimed he was joking. The intervention was incomplete.

State police took him to a hospital for a psychiatric examination, and he was soon discharged. New York State’s red-flag law was not invoked, and no indication has surfaced that school or law enforcement authorities followed the FBI’s longstanding recommendations for further intervention or inquiry. We don’t yet know much about his family dynamics, but his online racist postings went unnoticed, apparently, although they were reportedly on public sites that could have been inspected without a warrant.

Nor did a proper assessment occur last November before Ethan Crumbley, 15, committed his attack in Michigan, although its indicators were visible in “a mountain of digital evidence,” prosecutors declared. He could have been the poster boy in the FBI’s threat assessment. He pictured himself on social media doing target practice with a pistol that his father had bought him as a gift. Some students had “a bad feeling” about him.

The day before the shooting, a teacher reported to school administrators that she’d seen Crumbley looking on his phone for ammunition to buy. The school tried to contact his parents; his mother sent him a jocular text not to get caught next time. The day of the shooting, a teacher noticed a drawing depicting violence and his words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” School officials didn’t help him. They didn’t even look into his backpack—although exigent circumstances, as defined by court precedent, would probably have allowed a warrantless search. He was allowed back in class after his parents wouldn’t take him home; they were later charged with involuntary manslaughter and are scheduled for trial in the fall. Again, none of the FBI’s carefully prescribed inquiries were followed.

In the rear-view mirror, all this looks unambiguous. Even as the FBI gives guidance on “leakage,” though, it counters with careful caveats. As dramatically terrifying as school shootings have been, they are too infrequent to provide a reliably large data base. “Seeking to predict acts that occur as rarely as school shootings is almost impossible,” the study declares. “This is simple statistical logic: when the incidence of any form of violence is very low and a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act.”

                So, hazards lurk in both directions—complacency or denial on the one hand, overzealous risk avoidance on the other. It is a problem laced with the pervasive absence of certainty.

April 29, 2022

Russia's Technology Gaps Risk Accidental Nuclear War

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Since President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced a heightened nuclear alert level and threatened Western nations with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” much of the world has worried that he might go nuclear in his war against Ukraine. But even if he does not, there is another concern: an unintentional, massive nuclear war triggered by a false alarm from Russian early-warning systems, which some experts believe are vulnerable to errors.

                The risk of a catastrophic mistake has been a threat since the outset of the nuclear age, and several near misses have been recorded. But miscalculation becomes more likely in a period of Russian-American tension when leaders are immersed in mutual suspicion. They would have only minutes to make fateful decisions. So each side needs to “see” clearly whether the other has launched missiles before retaliating with hundreds of nuclear warheads. Ambiguity in a moment of “crisis perception,” the Rand Corporation has noted, can spark an inadvertent “conflict when one nation misinterprets an event (such as a training exercise, a weather phenomenon, or a malfunction) as an indicator of a nuclear attack.”

                Russia and the United States are the most heavily armed of the nine nuclear powers, which also include China, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel—with Iran poised to join the club. But only the U.S. has surveillance coverage of the entire globe, provided by three active geosynchronous satellites, with two in reserve, whose infrared receptors can spot plumes of missiles launched anywhere from sea, air, or ground. That data is supplemented by radar on the ground, giving the U.S. the capacity to double-check that a launch has actually occurred.

                Specialists in the field call this verification by both satellite and radar “dual phenomenology,” and the Russians don’t have it reliably. They lack adequate space-based monitoring to supplement their radar.

                What they have is a “terrible and dangerous technology shortfall,” according to Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT and a former scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations.

                He believes that Russian satellites are handicapped by their inability to look straight down and distinguish the infrared signature of a missile launch against the Earth’s terrain.

                                                                                                    Courtesy of Theodore Postol


“Imagine that you took a photograph of a complex and rocky area of ground,” he explained in an email. To pick out an ant, you’d need to find it in “some very small pixel in a vast array of pixels.” In the infrared part of the spectrum, you need multiple high-quality sensors, each with a small enough field of view to discriminate between the background and a rocket plume, and to avoid a false detection from reflected sunlight or extraneous interference.  

April 10, 2022

"Sacred Hatred of the Enemy"

 

By David K. Shipler 

                As the Red Army swept westward into Germany toward the end of World War II, Russian soldiers wantonly burned villages; looted homes, committed rape, and murdered elderly women and other civilians in cold blood. Soviet Major Lev Kopelev, a German-speaking scholar of German literature assigned to the army’s Political Administration to propagandize the enemy, reported the crimes up the chain of command. He argued vehemently against the impulsive executions. He drew his pistol once and stood between a young girl and two Russian tank soldiers who were bent on raping her.

                He saved her, but not himself. Repeated calls for restraint made him a suspect, not a hero. “You engaged in propaganda of bourgeois humanism, of pity for the enemy,” said his interrogator. “You spent your time rescuing Germans and weakening the morale of our own troops; you engaged in agitation against vengeance and hatred—sacred hatred of the enemy.”

Major Kopelev was expelled from the Communist Party, arrested, tried, and sent to the GULAG for nine years. He tells the story in his 1977 memoir, To Be Preserved Forever, whose title comes from the official order stamped on secret police dossiers that are never to be destroyed.

                I have been thinking about him in these terrible days of Russian crimes in Ukraine. Russia’s troops are doing pretty much what their predecessors did back then, as we’ve learned after they’ve retreated from towns near Kyiv. I wonder if there is a Lev Kopelev among them and, if so, what will happen to him.

April 4, 2022

The War of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

 

By David K. Shipler 

                To the extent that we think we know the fears and expectations of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, they seem fraught with contradictions.

On the one hand, Putin labeled Ukraine as an incipient NATO base with malicious designs on Russia itself. On the other, he supposedly thought his “special military operation” would be a cake walk, seizing Ukraine’s capital and toppling its government in a matter of days. How could both be correct?

On the one hand, Putin portrayed Europe and the United States as formidable threats to Russian security. On the other, he disparaged the West as fragmented, decaying, polarized, and weakened by internal disorder. Those two versions cannot coexist in the real world.

                So, which of Moscow’s prophecies have proven true, and what does that imply for Putin’s future posture toward Western democracies? And which of the West’s anxieties about Russia have been realized, and how will those determine policy going forward?

It’s not good news. In the perverse calculus of war, even one side’s frustration and defeat can reinforce the convictions that led it to attack in the first place. So it might be with Putin. His terrifying assault has provoked a flood of NATO weapons into Ukraine, justifying his assessment of the risk posed by the North Atlantic Alliance. And Russia’s war of choice has galvanized most democracies in a unified front of economic punishment, surely enhancing Putin’s dogma regarding Western hostility.

March 22, 2022

Reading Putin's Mind

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                The great guessing game today is about Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner thinking. He is “surprised,” and “shocked,” we are told by numerous commentators in the West: He “expected,” he “believed,” he “thought” that his war against Ukraine would be swifter, easier, and—yes—even celebrated by Ukrainians themselves. He did not think Ukrainians would rise up to defend their country with such alacrity. He did not think the rest of Europe would unite in such a tight formation against him. He did not expect the economic sanctions to be so punishing.              

                Whether this is speculative mind-reading or solid deduction, it’s important to get right, because it will inform assessments of what he might do going forward and what might induce him to stop. That’s why intelligence agencies have teams devoted to interpreting the psychology of world leaders.

It’s wise to recognize how assertions that look ridiculous from outside can look indisputable inside, as in Putin’s charge that Ukraine was a neo-Nazi base preparing military aggression against Russia—and in President George W. Bush’s charge in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Both fictions launched devastating wars, and each side apparently believed them sincerely. Putin, whose dictatorship does not exactly reward dissent, seems to operate in the echo chamber of his narrowing inner circle. “Behind closed doors they repeat the same garbage,” said one Western analyst with access to sensitive information.

                If that is so, then the war is driven by the strong logic of self-deception. That means that it is likely to continue and perhaps conclude with false triumphalism. Putin will need a claim of victory. But to give him that, short of Ukraine’s utter demolition and defeat, will require reading a mind that may be largely illegible.

“I think Putin has been surprised by many aspects of this,” the Russian émigré writer Julia Ioffe told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that Ukraine didn’t fall within a couple of days, by the Ukrainian resistance, and the fact that Ukrainians aren’t greeting him as liberators.” And how did she know that Putin was surprised? She didn’t say.

It’s a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless, that Putin and his military made calculations that they simply got wrong, that his cost-benefit analysis went awry, that perhaps he wouldn’t have invaded had he known.

There is a pitfall here. For Putin, that kind of balance sheet does not seem decisive. The West can load up the debit side with weapons and sanctions, but that still leaves out the “emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical overtones” of his attachment to Ukraine described perceptively by Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before the invasion.

March 7, 2022

Young Voices from Ukraine

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Victims of war are usually caught in the present. In the midst of crisis, it's hard to think about the big picture or what comes next. But six young adults in Ukraine, during an online discussion last week, summoned up the power to reach beyond their personal immediacy into a larger time and place.

                The session, attended by young people from at least twenty-six countries, was organized by a broad array of international youth organizations and moderated by Saji Prelis of Search for Common Ground, which manages conflict-resolution projects around the globe. (Full disclosure: My son Michael Shipler is a vice president of Search.)

                If you have an hour, it’s worth spending it watching the discussion here, because you can hear and see what you cannot read: the chords of sorrow and resolve in their voices, the grieving beauty in their eyes. And by the end, which will not be an end for them, of course, you will be torn by inspiration, which they throw up against the tragedy.

                At Saji’s wise request, not knowing what oppression that elusive future will bring, I am using only their first names, even though they gave consent for their full names to appear on the screen during the live stream. Neither they nor we can calculate the dangers going forward.

Most appear to be in their twenties and early thirties. They are fluent in English. They have the innocence of idealism. They are not children, but they are young enough still to imagine and to strive. They are not yet jaded or calloused or—as far as we can see—wounded. But they understand the wounds of others and are trying to heal them, in part by seeing their struggle as being not only for themselves.

                Yulia is trapped with her two small children in besieged Sumy, near the Russian frontier, having missed the brief opportunity to escape in the first days of the war. The town is under heavy Russian bombardment. Anna, a medical doctor, crossed into Romania, where she is treating evacuees. Alina recorded a gentle but defiant message as she fled to the Kyiv train station. Yuliana, a psychologist in Lviv, is trying to help with trauma. Roman, also in Lviv, is assisting refugees flooding into the city’s train station.

March 1, 2022

Recollections of Kyiv

 

By David K. Shipler 

                An event that now seems sadly remarkable occurred in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 1975, when it was part of the Soviet Union. At the time, Kyiv enjoyed such a pleasant ambiance of broad boulevards and relative prosperity that Communist rulers made it one of a few “closed cities,” along with Moscow and Leningrad, where no Soviet citizen could reside without a government permit. Otherwise, millions would have flocked there to escape the deprivation of the countryside.

Now, thousands are fleeing.

In September 1975, I accompanied three American and two Soviet astronauts on a tour of tentative friendship. During a partial thaw in the Cold War, they had joined with handshakes in space during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, then came down to the hard gravity of Earth, traveling through the Soviet Union together in a pageant of hope. They were received with warm bear hugs and flower-bearing children as they tried jokingly to speak each other’s language and toasted their two countries’ exploratory steps toward cooperation.

 Russian hosts made sure to feature World War II’s Soviet-American alliance that had defeated Nazi Germany; the seven-city trip took the astronauts to significant spaces of wartime memory. Wreath-laying and somber pilgrimages at tombs and monuments were woven into the itinerary: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv, which had been occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1943; a war memorial on the way from the airport to their hotel in Leningrad, which endured a 900-day siege; an evocative monument with religious overtones in Volgograd, the site of the ferocious battle of Stalingrad with its two million dead.

At a dinner in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the Soyuz 19 commander, Maj. Gen. Aleksei A. Leonov, raised his glass in a passionate toast likening the rendezvous in space to the meeting of American and Soviet soldiers at the Elbe River near the war’s end. The Soviets created a collage of two photographs overlapping: the American and Soviet astronauts and the American and Soviet soldiers reaching out to shake hands at the Elbe.

                If any American president ever again wants to strive for an emotional connection with the Russians, here is some simple advice: Remember and celebrate that noble partnership of victory.

February 25, 2022

A Russian Tragedy

 

By David K. Shipler

 

                As terrible as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be for Ukrainians, it also spells suffering for Russians, who cannot shake their own society’s paranoid, authoritarian traditions. Long gone is the modicum of pluralistic politics attempted briefly under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Vanished is the relatively relaxed acceptance of multilateral interests in “the near abroad,” as Russia calls its European neighbors. Now, as if reaffirming its tragic history, Russia is firmly back into autocratic form under Vladimir Putin, with its attendant xenophobia, insularity, and belligerence.

                For all its bigness and might, Russia has a thin skin, easily penetrated by slights and humiliation. There have been plenty of those inflicted by the United States and Western Europe, most dramatically in breaking promises from the early 1990s to refrain from expanding NATO. But even with that, Putin’s pugnacious sense of victimization runs far beyond reality. It depends on a demonization of the outside world as vitriolic as in Communist times. It depends on a vertical flow of power as dictatorial as the czars’.

                Putin’s raging, wounded speech February 21 setting the stage for war brought back a memory from the 1977 Soviet Union, when a Moscow police lieutenant stopped a West German television crew from filming the smoke-damaged exterior of the Rossiya Hotel after a fire that killed at least twenty. The reporter asked why. The officer explained, “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.”

The remark offered a telling insight. To imagine that foreigners were eager to mock Russia over a deadly fire must have required extraordinary self-torment, a loneliness of unfathomable pain. There is every indication, 45 years later, that Russia’s leadership remains stuck in that state of mind.

The sense of persecution echoes into Putin’s current remarks. Ukraine “has been reduced to a colony [of NATO] with a puppet regime,” the Russian president declared. It “intends to create its own nuclear weapons,” and “Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.”  Its policy is “to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation.” It is subjecting ethnic Russians to “horror and genocide” in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which—he neglected to mention—was being wracked by an eight-year civil war that he launched and fueled. Those crimes, he said, were being ignored by “the so-called civilized world, which our Western colleagues proclaimed themselves the only representatives of.” He called Ukraine’s democratic movement, which overthrew the pro-Moscow government in 2014, “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism.”

These dystopian fantasies about Western designs on Russia’s pride and security make a volatile chemistry. Whether he believes them or not, he uses a technique once described by a Soviet professor as characterizing sophisticated propaganda: “a truth, a truth, a truth and then a lie.”

February 14, 2022

The Origins of Cold War II

 

By David K. Shipler 

                The new Cold War, which now grips Europe and the United States, is not all Russia’s fault. A seed was sown in the American assurances broken by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who reversed verbal pledges to refrain from expanding the Atlantic military alliance toward Russia. The Russians didn’t get it in writing, and some analysts doubt that commitments were made, but official records of conversations suggest American bad faith.

That past doesn’t excuse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive effort to reconstruct Russia’s sphere of influence. He has ignored one commitment that actually was put in writing, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which obligated Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Negotiated in exchange for Ukraine’s relinquishing Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, it was brushed aside by Putin in 2014 when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began an ongoing proxy war against Ukrainian forces in the country’s east.

There are myriad reasons for Putin’s own expansionism, including Russia’s historic anxieties about the West’s political and military encroachment. Nevertheless, the past American behavior helps explain his distrust of the U.S., his sense of victimization, and his worries about national security. As exaggerated as those concerns might appear to the West, whose alliance has not threatened to attack Russia, they are amplified by Moscow’s experience with Washington after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said that he was “swindled.”

Declassified documents tell the story of how American officials led the Russians to believe that no expansion would be undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), then later nearly doubled the size of the alliance. Russian and American transcripts and summaries of high-level meetings, posted in recent years by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, record multiple assurances in the early 1990s.

January 19, 2022

The Supreme Court vs. Health and Safety

                                                     By David K. Shipler               

                When the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers, its three most conservative justices also issued a little-noticed concurring opinion with ominous implications. In it, they gave voice to an expansive interpretation of the “non-delegation doctrine,” which holds that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers to the executive branch. When agencies issue broad regulations, the argument goes, they are effectively legislating, thereby violating the Constitution’s separation of powers.

                How far the Court will take this reasoning is an open question. But its most outspoken champion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the concurring opinion, was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in an alarming pronouncement: that even if the law allowed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to issue the mandate—which existing law did not, the 6-3 majority ruled—such a statute should be overturned.

                “On the one hand, OSHA claims the power to issue a nationwide mandate on a major question but cannot trace its authority to do so to any clear congressional mandate,” Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito declared. “On the other hand, if the statutory subsection the agency cites really did endow OSHA with the power it asserts, that law would likely constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority.”

With two more votes on the Court, that position could hobble the federal government’s ability to apply health, safety, and environmental laws across the board. Indeed, a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency, to be argued next month, might provide an opportunity for a ruling of considerable scope.

January 5, 2022

January 6 and the Hypocrisy of "Democracy"

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                 Communist East Germany officially entitled itself the German Democratic Republic. The dictatorship of North Vietnam was named the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And the Trump insurrectionists of January 6, 2021 executed their violence against Congress in the guise of protecting democracy.

                Democracy—that alluring concept, that aspiration, that illusion—is still a moral ideal, even among autocrats and would-be oppressors who wear it as an empty label. In the United States, moreover, the Constitution remains gospel, cited even by those who would shred its principles as fiercely as many religious zealots corrupt their holy texts.

                If the United States has a state religion, the late historian Robert Kelley used to say, it is constitutional democracy. That remains so. The very threats to constitutional democracy are being made in its name. The radical right mob that invaded the Capitol, seeking to keep Donald Trump in power, did not reject democracy; they fought for it, or so they believed, having accepted Trump’s lie that he had won the election. “Stop the Steal” became their mantra. They did not reject the Constitution; they claimed to defend it, even while attempting to sweep its provisions aside.

                The Republican Party, now a conduit for radical-right fantasies and dreams, pretends to bolster democracy while becoming the most formidable anti-democratic force in the United States. Instead of sobering the party, the January 6 assault emboldened Republican-controlled state legislatures to enact onerous restrictions on voting and—more menacing—disempower local officials who administer elections honestly. Election officials, facing death threats, leave their jobs, opening the field to the miscreants. “Election integrity,” the Republicans’ rationale, means the opposite. It sets the stage for elections that would be truly stolen.

                When words come to mean the opposite of themselves, when noble ideas are twisted into tools of their own demise, a society dives into a whirlpool. It is sucked down not just by legal mechanisms or institutional processes. Those are mere cover for the deeper currents of distrust and alienation, of humiliation and an angry sense of helplessness. Those, in turn, nourish a vulnerability to demagogues—not only Trump but Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and other propagandists—and a susceptibility to outlandish tales of malevolent conspiracy. Even if Trump disappeared tomorrow, those currents would still course through much of America.

December 14, 2021

Putin, Emotional Chess Master

 By David K. Shipler 

                You can almost picture Vladimir Putin, perpetual president of Russia, hunched over a chess board the shape of Europe, divining strategies many steps ahead of his fractious, ambivalent opponents. A gas pipeline here, troops and tanks there, propaganda everywhere to set the stage for the twenty-first century’s Great Russian Expansion.

He is a skillful player. He reads the other side, detects its weakness, studies its patterns of resolve and hesitation. He appears coldly rational. Yet some who watch him closely see something beyond careful calculation. That is especially so when the issue is Ukraine, now in his military’s crosshairs.

“Putin’s attachment to Ukraine often takes on emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical overtones.” write Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Alongside his tangible geopolitical concerns, they believe, he is driven by the personal compulsions of historical fabulation and ethereal bonds to a land that he denies constitutes a country. Its capital, Kyiv, was the center of the Slavic state Rus a millennium ago. Its size places it second only to Russia in Europe. Its historic kinship with Russia is exaggerated by the Russian leader to justify making it the target of a sacred claim.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union into fifteen countries along the lines of its fifteen republics, including Ukraine. Imagine the trauma—as if the United States fragmented into fifty independent nations, with a searing loss of dignity and global standing. Putin called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Rumer and Weiss see him impelled to retake the prize of Ukraine to burnish his legacy.

 “No part of the Russian and Soviet empires has played a bigger and more important role in Russian strategy toward Europe than the crown jewel, Ukraine,” they note in their essay. “The country is essential to Russian security for many reasons: its size and population; its position between Russia and other major European powers; its role as the centerpiece of the imperial Russian and Soviet economies; and its deep cultural, religious, and linguistic ties to Russia, particularly Kyiv’s history as the cradle of Russian statehood.”

 Washington policymakers gave no hint of understanding any of that when they moved to fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet collapse.

November 16, 2021

The Secret Taiwan-Texas Deal

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Thanks to Russian hackers, we have a transcript of a startling portion of President Joe Biden’s video conversation last night with Chinese President Xi Jinping:

                Xi: Joe, as you know, I was honored recently to be elevated in history to the esteemed stature of our Communist Party’s two great leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This act signifies one of our most envied powers: to rewrite history. Leaders all over the world wish they could do it.

                Biden: Yes, I noticed, but we Americans don’t envy that at all. We like our history plain and truthful.

                Xi: Oh, do you? I have been admiring the skill of your Republicans in rewriting your history of racial oppression to indoctrinate children in the phony purity of your past. And this, just at the time when you accuse us of oppressing some of our people! That’s called hypocrisy, Joe.

                Biden: Look, man, that’s a long discussion that has nothing to do with our agenda. Let’s get down to the issues. Taiwan is next on the list.

                Xi: Exactly. Taiwan is my subject here. I have a bold idea, which I hope you’ll accept. Taiwan is a thorn in my side—not really part of my empire, not really independent, constantly making breakaway noises, and full of so-called democrats who love chaotic debate and discord. And who, by the way, will never rewrite history properly.

                Biden: So why don’t you just let Taiwan be Taiwan?

                Xi: Even better, let me give Taiwan to you.

                Biden: Huh?

                Xi: Give it away. Then I won’t have to worry over it all the time. It’s really a pain. But I want something in exchange.

                Biden: This is ridiculous.

Xi: You won’t think it’s ridiculous when you hear my proposal. You give me Texas.

Biden: [A funny noise that sounds like a snort, then a burble, then a chortle.] Wow, man, what an idea! We get Taiwan’s economy and great restaurants, and you get—hey, Texas is a bit recalcitrant. You sure you want it?

Xi: We have been studying Texas. The governor there claims to love individual liberty, but our autocracy experts can sniff out wannabe authoritarians. Greg Abbot would be our collaborator as much as Carrie Lam. And the rest of the Republicans, who still love incipient dictators like Trump, who just need to be flattered to become our lapdogs. And who don’t like free elections. And who don’t like public health—think Wuhan, Joe. They’ll fit right in.

Biden: Well, I don’t know about that. They’re pretty difficult people.

Xi: We have ways of taking care of difficult people.

Biden: But they have lots of guns.

Xi: Guns we can turn to our own use. All those swaggering cowboys looking for enemies, perfect matches with our Guoanbu agents. They’ll love each other. Brotherly love, Joe, a real peacemaking mission.

Biden: Hmmm. You know about our independent judiciary, right? Not exactly your style.

Xi: [Huge guffaw.] Independent? Come on, Joe, you don’t have to do propaganda with me. When was the last time you saw a Republican judge rule for the little guy? No, no danger there. I like their impulse to defer to the established authority. And we will be the established authority!

Biden: What about the judges who go against you?

Xi: Ask me that in a few months, and I’ll ask you back: What judges? Where are they?

Biden: I’ll admit, it’s an appealing idea. No more Greg Abbot, no more Ted Cruz, thirty-eight fewer electoral votes. And we get some great Chinese restaurants. But you get all that oil. What do we do for oil?

Xi: Switch to solar and wind, Joe! It’s what you’ve been campaigning for. We’ll just force you to make it happen!

Biden: Yeah, sounds good. But what about the border between Texas and the US? And how do I sell this to the American people?

Xi: Easy, Joe. You tell them you’ll build a wall around Texas, and that China will pay for it. 

 This is satire. It’s all made up, a disclosure made necessary by the absurdity of current reality, which prevents lots of people from telling the difference between truth and fiction.

October 19, 2021

Biden’s Housing Plan as a Key to Children’s Futures

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Let’s assume that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are decent people, not callous to children in poverty. That would mean that they’re merely clueless. They are not connecting the dots. As they insist on slashing President Biden’s proposed $322 billion in housing subsidies, they cannot possibly understand how much lifelong damage that will do to kids.

                 Biden and the Democratic leaders are trying to break a key link in the chain reaction of poverty. Housing is that link. Without government aid, high rents leave less money for food, leading to malnutrition, parental stress, and disrupted living, all of which can impair brain development in young children. The scientific and social research has been clear on this for decades. Yet the connections are rarely recognized by legislators and officials—and journalists as well—who persistently treat each problem and government program as separate and distinct, with little regard for the web of interactions among the hardships that struggling families face.

                In many parts of the country, the private housing market is brutal for low-wage workers. Nationwide, households in the bottom 20 percent spend a median 56 percent of their income on rent.  The rest of their monthly funds are committed to paying for electricity, water, phone, heat, car loans, and the like. What they can shrink is the part of their budget for food. And without proper nutrition during critical periods of early life, children suffer cognitive impairment that is not undone even if food security is later restored. [See A Hungry Child’s First Thousand Days in Washington Monthly.]

                Stress is also a factor in brain development, researchers have found. Even if a family doesn’t become homeless but lives with constant tension over paying the rent and other bills, the anxiety can be absorbed by children, both in utero and after birth. Imagine—if you can—the anxiety of parents who have too little food for their children, for feeding offspring is a most elemental instinct and duty.

Furthermore, children’s biological and mental health is damaged when families have to move repeatedly or reside in poor housing with lead in the water from old pipes, roaches and mold that trigger asthma attacks, and overcrowding that causes household friction.

                The study of stress has been a significant addition to the understanding of the environmental impacts on the brain, to the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) devotes an entire website to updating research on risks and prevention. In its list of what scientists in a seminal study call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the CDC includes housing issues along with more obvious traumas such as suffering neglect and witnessing violence or suicide.

September 25, 2021

America's Callous Border

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Several years ago, a gray-haired passport control official at Heathrow Airport in London, noting “writer” under “occupation” on my landing card, asked me what I wrote. I was finishing a book on civil liberties, I told him, with a chapter on immigration. That caught his interest. He leaned forward, glanced around, lowered his voice and said, “I loathe borders.”

    Funny line of work you’re in, I said. We shared a chuckle, he stamped my passport, and I crossed the border that he loathed.

                We have nation states, and so we have borders. Dictatorships need them to keep people in, lest their countries be drained of the talented and the aspiring. Democracies need them to keep people out—often those with talent and aspiration who are fleeing to safety and opportunity. So far, the United States is lucky enough to be the latter. So far.

                When desperate fathers and mothers are drawn with admiring naïveté to the beacon of America, when they carry their children through months of torment by mountain jungles and predatory gangs, when their courage and towering fortitude set them apart from the masses, shouldn’t they be embraced when they reach the final border of a nation of fellow immigrants that touts its compassion and humanity?

                Cut through the crazy tangle of immigration laws, regulations, and inconsistent enforcement to the essential ethic, and the answer is an obvious yes. But the obvious is not obvious in the White House or in the Department of Homeland Security or in the ranks of the beleaguered Border Patrol, whose horsemen scramble, as if herding cattle, to intercept frantic Haitians wading from the Rio Grande onto the banks of freedom and promise.

September 15, 2021

California's Next Step (I'm Kidding)

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Now that Californians have crushed Republicans’ effort to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom (with 63.9 percent of the votes at last count), maybe the left ought to try what the right has done in Texas: Let anyone sue anyone who helps anyone do something you don’t like. In the case of Texas, it’s getting an abortion.

Imagine if liberal California—or New York, or the District of Columbia, for example—did the same on issues dear to the hearts of “progressives.” The Texas law recently enacted by radical Republicans allows anyone in the entire country to bring a civil suit against anyone in the state who helps a woman exercise her constitutional right to abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Any bounty hunter who wins in court gets $10,000 plus legal fees from the suit’s target, whether doctor, nurse, receptionist, or possibly the Uber driver who takes the woman to the clinic.

The tactic is designed to remove the state as the enforcer and thereby befuddle the courts, which otherwise might enjoin government from putting the law into effect. That gave five anti-abortion Supreme Court justices just enough leeway to refuse to block the Texas law, even temporarily. So, let’s consider what the left might do in return.

First, California could pass a law allowing anyone who refused to be vaccinated against Covid to be sued by anyone anywhere in the country. Going unvaccinated is an obvious public health threat, and while legitimate medical and perhaps religious exceptions could be made, those refusing the shots incubate evolving variants and endanger children and the immunocompromised. Therefore, under the Texas formula, everyone has what judges call “standing” to sue.

September 9, 2021

The Scars of 9/11

 

By David K. Shipler 

                About a dozen years after September 11, 2001, I asked a class of college undergraduates what they remembered about the attacks. They had been kids, and those who answered remembered most vividly their parents’ reactions, not their own. It was a fascinating illustration of one dynamic of trauma: the response of those around you figures into how you carry the injury forward. So it has been with the country’s behavior in the last twenty years.

                Chaya Roth, a Holocaust survivor whose mother and sister were repeatedly sheltered and saved by non-Jews as they fled across Europe, eventually recognized the healing effect of the courageous generosity—a post-traumatic syndrome of another kind. “That is why I never lost faith or hope in people,” she told me. “If one goes through difficult times, but comes out of these alive, it is because in the last analysis there was someone who provided help.”

                What has happened among Americans? Yes, at first we rallied in an uplifting sense of kinship. Three days after 9/11, as I drove to Kent State in Ohio for a colloquium on race, every American flag hanging from an overpass brought a rush of mournful pride, almost tears. At the university, during a small reception, a professor who was surely a star in her church choir suddenly began singing “America the Beautiful.” Some wept openly, others wept within, both in sorrow and in celebration of the bonds of harmony.

 And then? The administration of President George W. Bush, combined with local police departments across the country, proceeded to inflict damage on civil liberties that no subsequent president or Congress has been brave enough to repair. The FBI was instructed to investigate every citizen’s tip, no matter how ludicrous or obviously based on personal vendetta. One FBI agent told me that some of his colleagues shared his distaste for the strategy, worrying that innocents would be targeted.

As indeed they were. Muslims were surveilled, hounded, and jailed on the slimmest of pretexts, and held for months during slow-paced background checks that uncovered no terrorists but might naturally have sown the seeds of antipathy toward the United States. The consequences for those illegally in the country were so severe that abused wives feared calling the police, and some undocumented Pakistani residents fled from the US to Canada seeking asylum. When Canadian authorities couldn’t process them fast enough, they crammed into churches and homes in northern Vermont or took refuge in their own vehicles in the deep of winter.

July 26, 2021

The American Dream of Absolutism

 

By David K. Shipler 

                A crucial feature of the Soviet Union’s dictatorship was its enforcement by peers. Your co-workers, your schoolmates, the fellow members of your local Communist Party committee or Komsomol (Communist youth organization) were primed to call you to account if you deviated from the norm. If you went to church regularly, your Komsomol committee might hold a meeting to denounce you. If you went farther and made “anti-Soviet” statements—criticizing government policy or advocating democratic reforms—your peers in Komsomol might be assembled for a vote to expel you, which would handicap your future job prospects. In the post-Stalin era, imprisonment was usually reserved for the most stubbornly outspoken; less dramatic disobedience could be curtailed by lesser means.

 It was not an airtight system. It aspired to totalitarianism but fell short. It contained eddies of quiet noncompliance, which allowed small pools of independent thinking. But orthodoxy had power, wielded both vertically from the top down, and also horizontally in a milieu of conformity. As a result, most Soviet citizens acquiesced politically and never bumped up against the hard limits of dissent. Newspaper editors, for example, rarely had to be confronted by the censors; writers and their bosses internalized the restrictions, even endorsed them, and so knew the comfortable scope of the permissible.

                That is approximately what the Republican Party appears to strive for in 2021, not only in the party organization itself but in the broader society. It is a new American Dream, aspiring to a comprehensive, unitary way of thinking about history, culture, law, politics, science, religion, and race. The odd thing is that it is pursued in the guise of individualism, touting the preeminence of personal free choice, while in fact it is driven by just the opposite—the thrust of group-think.

                This horizontal enforcement is a hallmark of the emerging Republican strategy. A catechism of professed beliefs is monitored for irreverence, and the punishment is akin to excommunication. Absolutism is required: adore Donald Trump, reject the 2020 election as stolen, dismiss the January 6 insurrection as insignificant, refuse to investigate it.

June 30, 2021

The Republicans' Pro-Poverty Program

                                                             By David K. Shipler

                An irony of Donald Trump’s appeal to struggling, working-class Americans is his party’s complete indifference to their financial hardships. Wherever government can rescue people with direct cash assistance, Republicans are opposed. Wherever government can expand proven programs of aid—in health care, housing, food, day care--Republicans are opposed. See now how some Republicans are coming around to a thinly bipartisan infrastructure bill aimed at only things—bridges, highways, and the like—but are apoplectic over President Biden’s bill to help people. Things vs. people: no contest among the people’s representatives in the Republican Party.

                That coldness is compounded by uninformed moral judgments against those near the bottom. They have long been smeared by conservative Republicans as lazy, undeserving, and unlikely to strive upward without negative incentives—in other words, a whip at their backs.

Punitive provisions are almost invariably woven into Republican-sponsored policy. Assume that they don’t want to work, so cut off their $300-a-week cushion in unemployment benefits. Blame them for not taking low-wage jobs that can’t support their families, yet adamantly oppose raising the federal minimum wage to make those jobs worth having. Condition certain benefits on proof that they seek work or job training, pass drug tests, and avoid arrest—stipulations not made when the affluent get government subsidies and tax breaks such as the home mortgage interest deduction.

                Americans generally, even those technically below the official poverty line, don’t want to think of themselves as “poor,” since the society inflicts shame on the deprived. And those just above poverty, including many of Trump’s white supporters who are highly vulnerable to financial disruption, don’t display much empathy for those a notch or two beneath them. But they should, as many fell into disastrous misfortune during the pandemic and might well press the Republicans they elect to give them something back in return for their votes. 

June 15, 2021

Biden and Putin at a Crossroads

 

By David K. Shipler 

                If President Biden were to act on all the competing (and unsolicited) advice that he’s getting about how to handle Vladimir Putin when they meet tomorrow in Geneva, here’s how it would go: Threaten to harden sanctions, promise to relax them. Threaten to invite Ukraine into NATO, promise not to. Brandish cyber weaponry against Russian infrastructure, propose a cyber treaty against hacking and ransomware. Trumpet outrage over Russia’s rights abuses, make the points quietly and create a working group of mid-level officials for private discussions. Rattle the nuclear saber, seek new arms control. Compete in the Arctic, cooperate in the Arctic. And so on.

It is crucial to get this right, not only to reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation but also to forestall a dangerous new alignment between Russia and China. A Russian-Chinese rapprochement has been discussed for more than two decades. “If the West Continues the Expansion, Moscow Will Drive East,” was the headline of a 1997 piece by Alexei Arbatov, head of the International Security Center at Russia’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations. It’s not a prospect that has delighted Arbatov. “We currently have wonderful relations,” he said a year ago, “but Russia needs to keep its distance. We cannot go back and forth between extremes, from China being the world's greatest threat to it being our strategic ally or partner.”

A couple of old jokes from Soviet days underscore the issue. One quotes a headline from fifty years in the future: “All Quiet on the Finnish-Chinese border.”

Another is one that Biden could update at his summit.

Putin: Joe, I had a dream last night that Washington was all in red. The White House was red, the Capitol was red, there were red banners everywhere.

Biden: What a coincidence, Vladimir! I had a dream last night that Moscow was all in red. The Kremlin walls were red, there were red stars on the towers, there were red banners across the streets.

Putin: What’s so strange about that? What did the banners say?

Biden: I don’t know. I can’t read Chinese.

Putin has surely heard this joke, so if he has even a shred of self-deprecating humor, he’d probably steal the punch line before Biden could get it out.

May 28, 2021

A Hungry Child's First Thousand Days

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician, experiences a troubling revelation whenever she sees a patient in the Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic. The clinic seems like a normal health-care facility in an advanced country, she notes: a waiting room, a medical assistant taking a child to be weighed and measured and then into an examining room.

“But that’s where, in some ways, the picture changes,” said Dr. Sandel, the clinic’s co-director, “because when you walk into the room you see this really cute, what you think is a twelve-month old, but it turns out it’s a two-year old. It’s a two-year old who hasn’t outgrown their twelve-month-old clothes yet.” [Listen to Sandel here.]

Even more serious than what you see is what you do not see: the brain of the child during a critical window of cognitive development. And in that largely invisible universe of neurons and synapses, of myelin sheaths and the neurological connections that are supposed to be generating the abundant future of every small person, lifelong damage is being done. The medical diagnoses are “stunting” and “failure to thrive.”

 That is malnutrition in America, which is chronic among the poor and has soared during the pandemic. Its long-term harm will be one of the most severe legacies of Covid-19.

 The usual incidence of what the government calls “food insecurity” ranges from 13 to 21 percent of American households with children, varying with the state of the economy. Most of them are white, although Black and Hispanic families suffer at higher rates. As school meals ended and vulnerable parents lost jobs during the Covid-19 outbreak, the Grow Clinic’s caseload jumped 40 percent. Nationwide, the rate of food insecurity in families with children rose to 29.3 percent last spring and summer from 13.6 percent in 2019, before the pandemic. With the return of some jobs and bursts of government assistance, the level has gradually declined to 17.8 percent, according to a large sample of adults with children in their households, surveyed by the Census Bureau in April. Seven out of ten who reported that they “sometimes” or “often” did not have enough to eat said they simply couldn’t afford to buy more food.

The recent $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan will help, but not sufficiently or indefinitely. It raises grants by what used to be called food stamps--the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—by up to $100 a month per family. More significantly, the plan’s $3000 to $3600-per-child stipend for one year would re-conceptualize governmental aid if made permanent, evading bureaucratic red tape by providing direct cash payments. Medical professionals say that getting money into parents’ pockets is the best way to treat children’s malnutrition.

Without broader policy overhauls, though, food insecurity seems likely to remain both a result and a cause of hardship, a key link in the middle of a complex chain reaction. For poor families without government housing subsidies, for example, rent on the private market can soak up 40 to 60 percent of income. Paying rent is not optional. The bills for electricity, water, heat, phone, and car loans cannot be ignored. The part of the budget that can be squeezed is the part for food. And that’s what happens.

May 19, 2021

Israel's Failed Strategies

 To watch the PBS documentary, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, click here: https://vimeo.com/550030784 Free of charge.

By David K. Shipler 

                For many decades, Israel has calculated that neighboring Arab counties would think twice before attacking, knowing that a punishing Israeli military reaction would follow. The practice has sometimes worked against nation states. But it has rarely been effective against the non-state actors arising as significant players in the Middle East—among them, as is now obvious, Hamas in Gaza.

                Israel persists nonetheless. “You can either conquer them,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors Wednesday, “and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them. We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence.”

An early demonstration of the strategy came in 1953 after a band of Arab terrorists stole into Israel from Jordan to attack Israelis. The retribution was conducted by a young Israeli colonel, Ariel Sharon, whose Unit 101, known for ruthlessness, crossed into Jordan and ravaged the border town of Qibya, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 Arab villagers.

Later, during the War of Attrition in 1969, Israel responded massively to repeated Egyptian attacks on Israeli positions in Sinai by bombarding Egyptian villages along the Suez Canal. Some 55,000 homes were destroyed, 750,000 civilians were forced to flee, and numerous Egyptians were killed and wounded.

 Along certain frontiers, Israel’s strategy of defense by retaliation—even against civilians—brought peace without peace treaties. Decades before its 1994 treaty with Israel, Jordan worked hard to deny Palestinian terrorists the use of its territory. Jordanian troops patrolled their side of the border as assiduously as Israeli monitored its own.

Syria, despite its refusal to make a formal peace, has kept its border with Israel on the Golan Heights mostly quiet and has been slapped hard for infractions. Egypt’s frontier with the occupying Israeli military in Sinai calmed down in the years between the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the two countries’ historic peace treaty in 1979.    

But failed states can’t be leveraged into compliance. Lebanon’s long civil war weakened the reach of the central government, opening a vacuum in its southern territory that was later filled by the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO, within artillery range of Israel, had no stake in Lebanon’s stability or security, so no threat of retaliation deterred occasional shelling and terrorist attacks on Israel’s north. The solution—the temporary solution—was an Israeli invasion in 1982, which expelled the PLO, only to see an equally hostile replacement eventually take its place: Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which recently fired several rockets into northern Israel. Israel responded with shelling.

If it seems that the kaleidoscope is just being given another shake, and then another, that’s a fair analysis. Take Gaza, that strip of arid land teeming with impoverished Palestinians. In 2005, after thirty-eight years of military occupation that began with Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, it was Sharon, ironically, who as prime minister decided to withdraw unilaterally with no formal agreement or international guarantees. Because Sharon thought like a soldier, not an ideologue, he assessed the Gaza occupation, in conventional military terms, as more of a burden than an asset. Furthermore, an associate of his once told me that Sharon had begun considering that his historic legacy should include some gesture of peace. History has not been kind to him, however, as it rarely is to anyone in that part of the world.

Under Sharon as Defense Minister, Israel itself contributed to the rise of Hamas. As I recalled in a recent letter to the editor of The New York Times, Israel’s military governor of Gaza, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, told me in 1981 that he had been given a budget to help fund the Muslim Brotherhood, a precursor of Hamas, as a counterweight to Communist and Palestinian nationalist movements. Odds are that Hamas would have evolved without Israel’s financial contributions. But the funding was consistent with Israel’s strategic blunders in trying to manipulate internal Arab politics in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank.

The list of self-inflicted wounds by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders runs too long for less than a book-length piece of writing. To summarize: Each side has radicalized the other. Each side has a marksman’s eye for striking the other’s nerves of fear and indignation. Each side has eroded its own middle ground of reasoned compromise. Each side has empowered the most extreme, violent elements of the other.

Palestinians, deprived of ethical, visionary leadership, have missed opportunities for peacemaking with Israel. They have protested with uprisings and terrorism rather than non-violent passive resistance, by which they probably could have impeded Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in the 1970s and 80s, when Israel still nurtured moral objections to the occupation. They launch rockets from Gaza indiscriminately to feed the political fortunes of Hamas rulers. And Netanyahu replies with an onslaught to cling to his prime ministerial sanctuary as he is put on trial for corruption. A word more deadly than “cynical” is needed.

Aside from “forceful deterrence,” Israel’s other strategy has focused on converting areas from Arab to Jewish by settling Jews in place of Palestinians. It is happening in East Jerusalem, whose Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was the point of friction that lit the latest conflagration. There, near the supposed tomb of Simon the Just, a Jewish priest in the Second Temple, right-wing Jews have for years been hectoring Palestinians to move out, sometimes combining intimidation with lucrative offers to buy their property. Israel’s Supreme Court is due to rule on a set of evictions based on a claim that Jews actually purchased the land in the nineteenth century.

But the symbolism is as potent as the law, and more compelling than actual census data. The Arab population of the Jerusalem District continues to rise--from 277,000 in 2008 to nearly 372,000 in 2019. Yet for Palestinians, the evictions resonate with the longstanding injuries of displacement—during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, during the 1967 war when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from the attacking Jordanian army, and since then as Jewish communities have mushroomed among the Arab villages of the West Bank.

Sharon used to call those settlements “facts on the ground.” Much of that ground was seized without due process as Israel exploited the absence or vagueness of land titles from Ottoman times. Still, the modern use by Palestinians was clear enough: vineyards, olive groves, and villages’ common pastureland.

What Israel chooses not to notice is this: Every bulldozed grape vine and olive tree is added to the arsenal of memory. Every vigilante act by Jewish settlers against Palestinians is written on a kind of  cultural balance sheet for the sake of future retribution. That is Israel’s second strategic failure.

The third is based on the assumption over decades that Israel proper can be walled off from the surrounding indignities experienced by Arabs in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Yet while many Arab citizens of Israel—now 20 percent of the total population—yearn for belonging and participation in Israeli society, they are not fully embraced and are not insulated from grievance.

Israeli governments—especially Netanyahu’s—have increased aid to Arab villages. Economic conditions have improved, along with more access to higher education. Before the recent outbreak of warfare, an Arab party was poised to enter a coalition government for the first time. Yet also for the first time since the 1948 war, the country has been rocked by communal violence between Arabs and Jews, often thugs who project their violence onto a big screen of religious and historic righteousness.

The intoxication with righteousness drives the strategies, which continue to fail, again and again and again.

Also published by The Washington Monthly.

May 8, 2021

Freedom of Speech in a Perfect World

 

By David K. Shipler 

                In a perfect world, everyone would be able to distinguish between ridiculous absurdities and reasonable possibilities. Everyone would be curious. Everyone would be open to revising preconceptions. Everyone would be canny enough to drill down beneath the superficial slogans to the facts, to hear the counter-argument, to entertain an opposite viewpoint, and to arrive at an informed opinion based on a foundation of truth.

                In that perfect world, populated by perfect human beings, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would not have banned former President Donald Trump; The New York Times would not have fired its editorial page editor; and the Supreme Court would not now be considering whether a school can punish a student for lobbing online obscenities at the cheerleading squad. Trump’s pro-violence fulminations would have fallen on deaf ears, a senator’s published call for military force against protesters would have lacked resonance, and school officials would have merely shrugged.

                Freedom of speech in that utopia of reality-based common sense would be practically unfettered. The restrictions imposed by law—which are very few in the United States thanks to the First Amendment—would be even weaker. Informal restraints and punishments in the private sector (where the First Amendment does not apply) would not be necessary: Neither the racist slur, the conspiracy theory, nor the personal smear would gain traction in a decent public forum.

                Thinking about that imaginary world is kind of sad, isn’t it? Because it’s not what we have. It’s a fantasy. Instead, in Pogo’s cartoon words, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We ourselves are the enemy of free speech, because our behavior invites the impulse to censor. We allow pernicious words their impact. We filter facts through sieves of ideology and identity, selecting beliefs only within our zones of comfort. Our gullibility, our stubborn aversion to ambiguity, our political tribalism and dogmatism, our resistance to contradiction have all accumulated into a sense that we are acutely vulnerable to words, that our very democracy might tumble down in a torrent of ugly, nutty, vile words. Hence the supposed remedy: the wave of erasing, cancelling, punishing, banning to satisfy a yearning for blank spaces and blessed silences.

                Think for a moment how cheerless it really is for an open, pluralistic democracy to be deeply relieved not to read or hear the utterances of a former president. Think how bizarre to depend on a few private companies to suppress lies that fuel insurrection. How many of us devotees of free speech quietly celebrated the other day when Facebook’s oversight board ruled that banning Trump was legitimate after the January 6 invasion of the Capitol? Yes, the board took issue with the “indefinite” nature of his suspension, because open-ended uncertainty was not in Facebook’s rules. Yes, the board urged that the ban be reviewed in six months under clarified policies. But for now, at least, he is denied that platform, which feels merciful. Is that healthy?

April 19, 2021

Out of Afghanistan

 

By David K. Shipler

                There is a whiff of familiarity in the promised American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The parallels are uncanny, bringing to memory my one brief foray to the country, in the spring of 1988, as Soviet troops prepared to leave after nearly nine years of bloody warfare that ended in their defeat. Their departure opened the way for a fundamentalist Islamic movement to take power, now poised to take power once again.

                “One week from now, I’m going home,” Pvt. Yuri Moshnikov told me then, a grin lighting up his face. He was in a bush hat and light khakis and leaned casually against the gate of a base outside Kabul. Then the smile faded. He had lost friends during combat in Kandahar. “This war is evil,” he said bravely—bravely, for freedom of speech was not established in the Soviet Army. “No one needs this war. Afghanistan doesn’t need it. We don’t need it.” Yet, he continued, “I fulfilled my duty.”

Defeat in Afghanistan comes gradually, like a slow realization. For the Americans, it has taken nearly twenty years as mission creep evolved into mission impossible. For the Russians, it was spread by the US-supported mujahideen, the Islamist forces that received weapons from the CIA via the Pakistanis. These included shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, so deadly that when I flew into Kabul from Moscow aboard an Aeroflot passenger jet, we had to spiral down tightly in a falling-leaf approach while Soviet helicopters whirled around us firing flares to deflect any heat-seeking Stingers heading our way. For a guy with a US passport, being defended by the Soviet military against American weapons felt truly bizarre.

It was also odd, especially in retrospect, for the United States to be arming the wrong side, the side that oppressed women and barred girls from going to school. That side was the one that morphed into the Taliban, which harbored Al Qaeda, which struck on September 11, 2001, which prompted the United States to invade in order to—yes—oust the Taliban, the younger generation of fundamentalists who ruled the country with religious totalitarianism.

Pretty soon, they are going to be back. President Trump wanted out, so in a rare spasm of good sense he hired the skilled Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. But the agreement is turning out to be reminiscent of the Paris accords, which covered the US departure from Vietnam, leaving South Vietnam to fight and lose alone, as the Afghan government is likely to do as well.

April 3, 2021

America Hurtles Forward--and Backward

 

By David K. Shipler 

                According to Sir Isaac Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—a principle of physics, of course, but also true in politics and policy, at least currently in the United States. The country is moving in two directions simultaneously, as if two revolutions in thinking and practice are taking place, one progressing into a new era mobilizing government for economic and social reform, the other pushing hard into an old indifference to social injustice marked by blatant racial and class discrimination.

                Although the two revolutions frame their respective arguments around the size and role of government, they are driven by more fundamental clashes of concept. At root is the question of how inclusive a democracy should be, what problems it can solve, how the common good should be defined, and how near or distant the horizon of vision should be drawn.

Joe Biden, the 78-year-old Washington insider, did not raise radical expectations when he took office just over two months ago. He was forecast as a caretaker president who would decompress the political atmosphere with boring normalcy. Instead, he has quickly emerged as the unlikely catalyst of the most imaginative Democratic movement in at least a generation, perhaps since the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His aspirations are broad and intensely sophisticated, forming an agenda that would apply expansive ideals in mobilizing the nation’s expertise and financial power against the most vexing problems of race, class, health, education, climate, environment, energy, communication, low-paid work, elderly care, aging transportation networks, and just about every other failure in the American landscape.

The opposite revolution would leave all the failures in place, unresolved, and would add to them. It is more than a counter-revolution, led by Republicans who have become more than the Party of No. They go beyond saying no to every advance—no eased voting, no true help for malnourished children, no cleaner air or water, no safer workplaces, no better health care, no sufficient funding for schools, no mandatory wages high enough to support families. The new Republicans—for they are new in the history of the Republican Party—do not merely stand still and block. They are moving at speed back in time.