Back to their roots…

The Vatican weighs in on the cartoons of Muhammad:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Vatican, commenting on a series of satirical newspaper cartoons that have outraged Muslims, said freedom of expression does not include the right to offend religious sentiments.

…The Vatican suggested, however, that where free speech crosses the line and becomes offensive to a religion, national authorities “can and should” intervene.

Pretty strong words for a religion that only a few centuries ago was being oppressed by various national authorities because their very existence was considered offensive.

(Link by way of The Volokh Conspiracy…)

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How many dead?

Today we’re marking the 2000th American military death in Iraq. It’s important to recognize landmarks like this, even though 2000 is an arbitrary number and even though counting only American deaths is rather parochial of us anyway. But lest we get too caught up on numbers it’s also important to remember that this doesn’t count contractors and other “outsourced” military functions: men and women who were just as involved in fighting the war as their enlisted partners. That adds a minimum of 105 confirmed American casualties, but the simple fact is that nobody knows even how many contractors are working for us out there, much less how many casualties they’ve suffered. Landmarks are important times to reflect on where we are and the price we paid to get there, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the cost has been more than just what is easily counted.

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Report card on Karen Hughes

I don’t get it. With all the credentials Karen Hughes has, including managing Bush’s already stellar communications, ghost-writing his autobiography and of course her Bachelors in Journalism and 7 years as a local TV-news reporter, how could she be having such trouble mastering the subtle diplomacy and cultural differences involved in Middle-Eastern politics?

Maybe if she had more experience with Arabian horses…

(Thanks to Dorothy for the link.)

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Why have the Senate confirm Supreme Court nominations?

Here’s what Alexander Hamilton had to say on the purpose of Senate confirmations:

To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity. In addition to this, it would be an efficacious source of stability in the administration.

It will readily be comprehended, that a man who had himself the sole disposition of offices, would be governed much more by his private inclinations and interests, than when he was bound to submit the propriety of his choice to the discussion and determination of a different and independent body, and that body an entier branch of the legislature. The possibility of rejection would be a strong motive to care in proposing. The danger to his own reputation, and, in the case of an elective magistrate, to his political existence, from betraying a spirit of favoritism, or an unbecoming pursuit of popularity, to the observation of a body whose opinion would have great weight in forming that of the public, could not fail to operate as a barrier to the one and to the other. He would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.

Of course, if the president has no shame then all bets are off…

(Thanks to Jay for the quote.)

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Running the country on fantasy and wishful thinking…

Population Services International is a great nonprofit organization — they’ve got all the business skill you’d expect from a creative and up-and-coming company, especially when it comes to brand management and culturally-appropriate marketing. But instead of making the big bucks here in the states these people dedicate their skills in the poorest regions of the world — distributing and convincing people to use safe-water solutions, nutrition supplements, mosquito nets and bedding to prevent malaria, and safe-sex education material and condoms to prevent AIDS. They’ve had an incredible track record over the past decade, applying the practical, level-headed thinking more often found in business than in a field where people often think with their hearts more than their heads. As a PSI spokesman puts it, “We’re dealing with the world as it is. It’s not always pretty.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is not long on practical, level-headed thinking. Ultra-religious conservatives have been accusing PSI of “supporting prostitution” because they host educational games to teach prostitutes about safe sex and how to use a condom. These groups no doubt think a better way to stem the world-wide flow of AIDS is to simply convince prostitutes to accept Jesus as their savior and recognize that anything but abstinence before marriage is a sin. Well, it looks like these groups will soon get their chance: the Baltimore Sun reports that USAID decided to cut large amounts of funding for PSI in favor of faith-based organizations:

Contract decisions had typically been made by USAID officials with expertise on the topic, but the July 19 withdrawal decision was made by a high-level political appointee, said a public health official familiar with the region. “It was surprising to yank a [proposal] that was so far advanced,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity and fear of reprisal.

On Aug. 11, USAID reopened the bidding process, but with significant changes. The agency reduced funding by $3 million, altered selection factors to put less weight on experience, and eliminated the goal of increasing condom usage. It also added language noting “the strength of community and faith-based organizations and their advantages in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

Michael Magan, deputy assistant administrator for Latin America, declined to comment on the changes in the request. Magan took the post after working in Ohio on President Bush’s 2004 campaign. Previously he was head of the agency’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, established by the president.

Not all Republicans are on this crusade — in particular Larry Craig (R-ID), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) have all asked USAID to reconsider. Let’s hope these senators can speak loud and strong for the part of the Republican party that still believes in reality over fantasy and what works over wishful thinking.

(Thanks to my favorite well of truth for the link!)

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Newspeak update

From: Ministry of Truth
Subject: Newspeak update

Please be informed that the phrase Global War on Terrorism is obsoleted in favor of the phrase Global Struggle Against Violent Extremists. Changes will be reflected in the upcoming tenth edition of the Newspeak Dictionary.

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Finding evidence to support our theories

According to some psychologists, people subconsciously try to find evidence to support their own theories. It’s more than just the optimist seeing the glass half full and the pessimist seeing it half empty — the pessimist will actually go out of his way to find an empty glass and then say “see, I was right.” I think that’s the main explanation for why some people always sabotage themselves just when things are about to go well, while others always land on their feet.

Post 9-11 America is showing this symptom on a societal level. The Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq is a prime example, of course, but it’s also pervasive in society at large. The Terrorist is the perfect boogyman — he’s so ill-defined and inscrutable that we can and do project anything that scares us onto him. And then we go out and find the evidence to support that fear, be it a glitch in airport security or the arrest of someone who once visited an Al Qaeda training camp. Some of that evidence is real — this week’s attack in London is just the latest reminder that there is some basis to our fear — but most of it is simply driving ourselves into a panic playing games of “what if?”.

The Hemant Lakhani case, featured on this week’s This American Life radio show, sounds like a perfect example of finding (really, manufacturing) evidence to support a theory. Here’s somebody that the FBI approached and asked to supply a missile to terrorists. Lakhani agreed, but couldn’t actually deliver. After waiting 22 months for him to actually commit the crime, the FBI provided the missile to him themselves, and then arrested him. The guy is clearly amoral, but also pretty clearly incompetent, and he didn’t even have the idea to provide terrorists with weapons until the FBI suggested it. Setting him up like this so we can throw him in jail is like airport security confiscating grandma’s nail clipper — it was never a big threat to begin with, but when they find it we all breath a sigh of relief while we visualize the horrible things that might have happened had we not gotten lucky this time.

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2000-page report on Afghanistan abuse leaked to NYT

The latest abuse report leaked to the New York Times is absolutely medieval. Beating prisoners to death, chaining them to the ceiling… and now it’s suspected that at least one of those murdered was just an innocent bystander arrested by an Afghan guerrilla commander who wanted to win the trust of the US by handing over insurgents.

Can our military chain of command really be so dysfunctional that higher-ups didn’t have an idea of what was going on? And after they did know what was up, why on Earth did they wait so long to do anything about it:

Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar’s death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army’s criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were “remarkably similar” to those used at Bagram.

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