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

December 22, 2011

Counterterrorism: Legalizing Illegality

By David K. Shipler

You may have noticed a pattern in counterterrorism since 9/11. First, the executive branch violates the law, provoking an uproar of outrage, and then Congress changes the law to permit the violations. This has happened several times in the last decade, most recently in the National Defense Authorization Act’s mandate that suspected terrorists be imprisoned by the military, possibly indefinitely. President Bush started doing just that without clear legal authority, locking up three U.S. citizens in military jails until the courts intervened. Instead of acting to prevent a recurrence, Congress has now codified this extraordinary power.

The peculiar dynamic here is very different from the one seen in the 1970s, after the FBI and other federal agencies illegally spied on civil rights and antiwar groups.

December 12, 2011

Big Father: The Government as Parent

By David K. Shipler

When President Obama endorsed the decision to overrule good science and put Plan B contraceptives beyond the reach of girls without doctors’ prescriptions, he cited his role “as the father of two daughters.” It was a revealing remark, because this was not the first time that government had played an immoderate part in family life—not quite Orwell’s Big Brother, but something of a Big Father, taking over a task that rightly belongs to parents to choose how to raise and guide and converse with their child.

It is conservatives, the supposed champions of limited government, who most often want government to act like Big Father. In Tecumseh, Oklahoma, parents got the public high school to do random drug testing after a mother discovered her son and friends using drugs in her house. She and other parents couldn’t cope with their own children. In Stockton, Missouri, a father enlisted a conservative pastor to get the public high school to remove a popular and powerful book, about an American Indian facing racism and poverty, because of a brief passage extolling masturbation. Some parents, unable to talk with their kids about sex, are relieved to shift the burden to the school, or to see the topic erased altogether from available readings.

December 5, 2011

Poverty: How Much Is a Family Worth?

By David K. Shipler

We’re being peppered with a lot of numbers that tell us less than we need to know about financial hardship. We have the 99 percent and the one percent. We have the 8.6-percent unemployment rate. We have the average payroll tax cut of $1,000 this year, which next year will become either $1,500 or $0, depending on how well Congress dysfunctions before Christmas. Either 46.6 million or 49 million people are poor, depending on whether you want to reduce “poverty” by using the official formula based on families’ 1950s spending patterns, or would rather reconcile yourself to living in the 21st century, whose facts of life produce the higher calculation by the Census Bureau.

It is hard to get to the human story of poverty, and none of these numbers takes us there. A more revealing statistic helps, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves: a household’s net worth—assets minus liabilities.

November 23, 2011

In Search of Thanksgiving

By David K. Shipler

The Monday before Thanksgiving, the head of Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., urged an assembly of high school students to mark the holiday by giving thanks, by reflecting on the people in their lives who had contributed to their well-being. The act of expressing gratitude in itself, he said, had been shown to improve well-being.

Then he introduced me as the morning’s speaker, and I flipped the question around. What did they want to be thankful for? What would they like our generation to leave them in this world that would deserve their gratitude?

November 14, 2011

Tortured Republicans

By David K. Shipler

A flicker of discomfort crossed Herman Cain’s face in last Saturday’s debate as he was asked about torture. He appeared to be considering the question. For a moment that lasted only as long as his first two sentences, he seemed about to take the high road: “I do not agree with torture, period.” Then he came up with an idea suitable for a banana republic: Leave it to “our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture.” Yet in a final twist, he took a position different from military leaders’ by endorsing waterboarding, which (he may not have known) the Army Field Manual explicitly forbids. He said it wasn't torture. Michele Bachmann followed suit. Rick Santorum had already announced last May that John McCain, who was tortured for five years as a P.O.W. in North Vietnam, doesn’t understand the issue.

Behind this spectacle is an unpleasant truth: Republicans who can’t kick the addiction to torture have been enabled by President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, who could have created an investigative commission to nail down the facts, expose them to public scrutiny, and puncture the myth that reliable information is obtained by abusing prisoners.

November 8, 2011

The Blurry Poverty Line

By David K. Shipler

Now that the Census Bureau has offered a more realistic way of calculating poverty, the outdated method should be discarded instead of retained as the “Official Poverty Measure” used to determine eligibility for government benefits. It was designed in the 1960s, when the average family spent about one-third of its budget on food, a proportion that has fallen to one-seventh as housing and other costs have soared. So it makes no sense to take the price tag of a minimum food basket and multiply it by three. But that will continue to happen unless Congress and the administration act—a hard act to perform with federal and state governments in fiscal straits.

November 2, 2011

Palestine: The Theoretical State

By David K. Shipler

Finally the Palestinians have gained complete, uncontested control over a piece of territory: several comfortable chairs in the hall at Unesco’s Paris headquarters. If their quest for national recognition continues along this path, the Palestinian state will expand to similar furniture in various exquisite meeting rooms in Geneva and New York, rendering Palestine the first country to exist in committee but not in reality.

There is something terribly sad about this spectacle.

November 1, 2011

Can Israel Survive?

By David K. Shipler
(Published in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Moment)

The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival
Hirsh Goodman
2011, $26.99, pp. 288

 “Can Israel survive? The question used to infuriate me,” Hirsh Goodman begins in The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. “Does someone wake up in Britain, or America, or even Burundi, and ask themselves whether their country can survive?”

No, not yet. But nobody asked that question about the Soviet Union either, except for the dissident Andrei Amalrik, in his aptly titled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? It did, but only seven years past the date he chose as a sardonic nod to Orwell. Add Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and now Sudan, and throw in the non-state actors—al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, which have the leverage to ignite war and shape international politics—and the world order of nation states seems stricken by impermanence. It’s a wonder that the Palestinians want the United Nations to grant them a status so precarious.

October 25, 2011

Mission Accomplished?

By David K. Shipler

The true results of the two wars ending in Iraq and Libya are likely to be long in coming. The death of Col. Muammar Qaddafi does not close the book on Libya, and the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in December is certainly not the last chapter in Iraq. The only reliable prediction is that whatever seems obvious today will eventually prove incomplete or incorrect. Especially in the Middle East, wars usually fool the hasty pundits and reward the patient historians.

October 12, 2011

Democracy and Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

It is autumn. The Arab Spring has lost some of its lush promise in Egypt, and a familiar pattern is emerging. We have seen it elsewhere. More freedom means more license for all expression, not just the admirable and uplifting. The hatreds of one group for another, long buried under the boot of autocracy, are suddenly released, widening the fissures along the boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, language, tribe, or religion. So it has been in nearly every country that has thrown off dictatorship, from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia, and now to Egypt, where churches have been burned, and Coptic Christians massing in protest have been brutalized by security forces and Muslim toughs. Almost invariably, it seems, the path from authoritarianism to democracy passes through the swamp of bigotry.

October 1, 2011

Crime or War: Execution or Assassination?

By David K. Shipler

The Obama administration should release the secret Justice Department memo justifying the placement of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, on the CIA’s kill list. The legal questions are far from clearcut, and the country needs to have this difficult discussion. A good many Obama supporters thought that secret legal opinions by the Justice Department—rationalizing torture and domestic military arrests, for example—had gone out the door along with the Bush administration.

September 2, 2011

Under Obama, Civil Liberties Left Impaired

 By David K. Shipler
(Published in the Sept. 19, 2011 edition of The Nation)

Caricatures created by politics never fit comfortably into the Oval Office. Eisenhower was less deferential to the military than he seemed likely to be, Kennedy was not at all beholden to the pope, George W. Bush was smarter than portrayed and Barack Obama has not led a charge from the left—least of all on behalf of the civil liberties that have eroded since September 11, 2001.

In pursuit of both terrorists and common criminals, Obama has perpetuated so many of the Bush administration’s policies that even Republicans might take heart.

August 31, 2011

Extreme Measures

By David K. Shipler
(Published in the American Prospect, Sept. 2011)
The abuse of the Constitution that followed September 11, 2001, was neither surprising nor inevitable. It was not a surprise, because it wasn’t the first time in American history—but the sixth, by my count—that fundamental rights had been violated during spasms of fear over national security. It was not inevitable, because prominent voices might have called the country back to its principles. There is no telling whether such appeals would have stood against the tide, but one man’s words did make a difference in the emergency command center at FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue several hours after the attacks.
Read full article

August 4, 2011

The Door From Reality to Etheria

By David K. Shipler

Years ago, a simple footpath encircled the island. I believe this without being certain. Perhaps I am remembering what I merely wished had been true, but I would like to think that I used to circumnavigate this island on foot without difficulty. The trail led clearly as it does now from the little beach on the northeast corner clockwise along the eastern length, meandering through spruce woods close enough to the shore to see the sparkle of the water through the trees, then around the southern tip, slightly inland up the western side, and finally to the sweeping flat rocks on the north. Surely I walked that route with ease.

July 28, 2011

The Mosaic Theory

By David K. Shipler
(published on the Web site of the American Constitution Society)

The Supreme Court has an opportunity next term to play catch-up in applying the Fourth Amendment to the advanced technology of surveillance. The Court has granted the Obama administration’s cert. petition seeking to overturn a well-reasoned opinion by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit requiring law enforcement to obtain warrants when secretly installing GPS tracking devices on vehicles.

This could be a mundane case or a landmark, depending on which way the justices go.

July 23, 2011

Raising My Debt Limit

By David K. Shipler

I have decided to raise my debt limit. After due deliberation, negotiation, posturing, and pandering, it has become clear that most of my needs can be paid for by somebody else so that I can reserve my money for my wants. Needs and wants are very different, although I often get them mixed up.

July 8, 2011

Constitutional Detours

By David K. Shipler
(adapted from The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties, published in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, July-August 2011)

The glass through which Americans could see their Constitution was gradually losing clarity. Small, superficial cracks and microscopic crystals, discovered by National Archives technicians in 1995, would eventually bring opaqueness, and the hand-written codes of freedom would disappear from view.

June 25, 2011

Free to Search and Seize

By David K. Shipler
(published on The New York Times Op-Ed page June 23, 2011)

THIS spring was a rough season for the Fourth Amendment. The Obama administration petitioned the Supreme Court to allow GPS tracking of vehicles without judicial permission. The Supreme Court ruled that the police could break into a house without a search warrant if, after knocking and announcing themselves, they heard what sounded like evidence being destroyed. Then it refused to see a Fourth Amendment violation where a citizen was jailed for 16 days on the false pretext that he was being held as a material witness to a crime.

June 21, 2011

Working Near Poverty at Wal-Mart

 By David K. Shipler

The Supreme Court’s decision that female employees of Wal-Mart did not have enough in common to be certified as a class in a discrimination lawsuit took me back some years, to conversations I had with Caroline Payne, who worked at Wal-Mart and elsewhere. Here is an excerpt from my book The Working Poor.

The new millennium arrived in a crescendo of American riches. The nation wallowed in luxury, burst with microchips, consumed with abandon, swaggered globally. Everything grew larger: homes, vehicles, stock portfolios, life expectancy. Never before in the sweep of human history had so many people been so utterly comfortable.

Caroline Payne was not one of them. A few weeks after New Year’s Day, she sat at her kitchen table and reflected on her own history.

May 27, 2011

Bin Laden's Immortality

By David K. Shipler
(Published by The Daily Beast/Newsweek May 26, 2011)

The damage that Osama bin Laden did to the United States went far beyond the attacks of September 11 and will outlive him, at least for a time.

In search of safety from his grand scheme of unending terrorism on American territory, the country jeopardized key constitutional rights at home, and most of those compromises remain in force, both in law and in practice.

May 19, 2011

Notes From a Book Tour

By David K. Shipler

Last evening a high school student handed me a note after a talk I’d given on civil liberties. It was at Vroman’s in Pasadena, California, one of the dying breed of precious independent bookstores holding on for dear life here and there across the country.

The student didn’t say anything, just smiled shyly, gave me a sheet of lined notebook paper folded in thirds, and turned away. I wish she had stayed, because when I had a moment later to read what she’d written, I wanted to talk with her.

May 6, 2011

Pragmatic Torture

By David K. Shipler
(Published on The New Yorker's News Desk, online, May 5, 2011)

Advocates of torture who enjoy tormenting the rest of us with the hypothetical ticking-bomb scenario might be tested with the counter-hypothetical proposed by Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard. In his 2009 book, “Justice,” Sandel writes,

“Suppose the only way to induce the terrorist suspect to talk is to torture his young daughter (who has no knowledge of her father’s nefarious activities). Would it be morally permissible to do so?”

It would be interesting to hear the answer from those who are hauling the country back into the repugnant debate over whether torture “works.”

April 29, 2011

Obama's Race

By David K. Shipler

Americans who are honest with themselves can perform a mental exercise to test the proposition that Barack Obama is a victim of racial prejudice. Change his race to white and, for good measure, change his Kenyan father to a Swede. Name him Olander. Then listen closely to what is being said about Obama, apply it to Olander and hear how it sounds. Is it off key? Does it have resonance? Would 41 percent of Republicans believe that a president with a Swedish father and a white mother from Kansas was born in another country?

Arab-Americans have been doing a variation of this for years to make the point that if “Jews” are substituted for “Muslims” or “Arabs” in cartoons or epithets, the result in polite company would be a gasp of horror.

April 16, 2011

The Trickle-Up Theory

By David K. Shipler

Way back in the Dark Ages of 2008, when the stock market tumbled into freefall and the financial system congealed like a solidly frozen daiquiri, I had a theory. It turned out to be completely wrong—well, not completely, but correct only in a way I didn’t imagine.

I figured that the hardships of poverty, now spilling up into the middle class, would inspire the collective American passion for solving problems.

April 11, 2011

Military Commissions: A Dangerous Precedent

By David K. Shipler

(Published in the Los Angeles Times Apr. 10, 2011)

The system of military commissions that will try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 plotters contains a dirty little secret. Hardly anybody talks about it, but it's a key reason for concern as the apparatus becomes established.

It is this: The commissions can operate inside the United States, and they have jurisdiction over a broad range of crimes. Nothing in the Military Commissions Act limits the military trials to Guantanamo detainees, or to people captured and held abroad, or even to terrorism suspects. Nothing prevents the commissions from trying noncitizens, arrested inside the country, whom the president unilaterally designates as "unprivileged enemy belligerents." In other words, the law permits military officers to try non-Americans from Alabama and Arkansas as well as Afghanistan.

March 31, 2011

Violating Rights: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

By David K. Shipler

During research for my book The Rights of the People, I asked a communications class at Stetson University to write their answers to a few questions, including whether “you expect that your e-mails, phone calls, letters, checking accounts, conversations in your rooms, credit card use, computer hard drive, personal items in your home, etc. will be, or should be, beyond the reach of government investigators without judicial authorization.”

March 24, 2011

Wars of Choice

By David K. Shipler

The air strikes on Libya and the hand-wringing in the United States illustrate a cold fact about waging war these days: We are fair-weather fans. If we win, the warfare is a good idea; if we don’t, it isn’t. Only after Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s fate is determined will our attack be solemnly judged to have been brilliant or foolhardy, a stroke of heroic selflessness or fumbling incompetence.

March 17, 2011

The Train to Hiroshima

By David K. Shipler

Hiroshima is a long, safe distance from the damaged nuclear reactors in northern Japan, but it is close to the surface of my thoughts. That the only country attacked by nuclear weapons should now, 66 years later, face a threat from the peaceful use of nuclear power puts a particular edge on the injustice. I wish I could be in Hiroshima to hear how this tragedy of 2011 is playing in the minds of those who lived through 1945. Schoolchildren will soon find out, if they ask the right questions.

As spring comes, many schools in Japan organize trips to the city so that children can listen to aging survivors tell their stories. The bullet train from Tokyo was full of kids the day I went in May 2007.

March 11, 2011

Muslims Exposed: Unprotected From Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

Buried among the many dumb things that Ron Schiller of National Public Radio said on his secretly taped YouTube debut was one noble, principled statement that was right on target but has received little attention. It was a lucid denunciation of bigotry—anti-Muslim stereotyping in this case—and an affirmation of journalistic ethics that require reporters to leave their personal opinions out of their professional work.

Schiller, NPR’s chief fundraiser at the time, was talking about Juan Williams, whom NPR fired as an analyst last fall after he said that people in “Muslim garb” made him nervous on planes. In one sentence and a flurry of defensive media appearances, Williams legitimized the most forceful image of Muslims in the panoply of prejudices: that they are violent and deserve to be feared.

March 3, 2011

Self-Censorship: To Write or Not To Write

By David K. Shipler

One April morning in 1984, my friend Amos Elon, the Israeli writer, appeared unannounced at my door in Jerusalem. He looked grave, without the touch of wry irony that often played around his eyes. He had walked the few blocks from his house to give me startling news, which he was not willing to speak about by phone.

What he had to say propelled me into a conflict between ethics and the law, forcing a decision that another reporter might have made another way.

February 20, 2011

Can You Frisk a Hard Drive?

By David K. Shipler
(Published in The New York Times Week in Review Feb. 20, 2011)

If you stand with the Customs and Border Protection officers who staff the passport booths at Dulles airport near the nation’s capital, their task seems daunting. As a huge crowd of weary travelers shuffle along in serpentine lines, inspectors make quick decisions by asking a few questions (often across language barriers) and watching computer displays that don’t go much beyond name, date of birth and codes for a previous customs problem or an outstanding arrest warrant.
The officers are supposed to pick out the possible smugglers, terrorists or child pornographers and send them to secondary screening.