Barbarians in the Gates

We left New York harbor on the Norwegian Gem cruise ship on November 23. It was a clear crisp evening and the view of the NYC skyline and points of interest was riveting. We were escorted down the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by two gunboats and two armed helicopters. I don’t know if there was a particular threat to which the authorities were responding or whether this has become standard procedure for large passenger ships traversing the port of New York City. But it stood out to us as evidence that our world is not as it was just a short time ago. For me it underscored the importance of defeating terrorism.

The week before we left, Paris had been shot up by Islamic jihadists. The day before we were to arrive back home, a jihadist couple killed 14 people and injured many more in San Bernardino, California. Jihadist violence is and will continue to be on the march. Radical Islamists around the world rejoice as the rest of the world mourns the deaths, injuries, and suffering of the innocent. Our leaders, along with many media commentators, show their myopia about the nature of the challenge – none more starkly than President Obama and presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Critics of Obama claim that he fundamentally underestimates and/or misunderstands the threat and persists with policy that helps the jihadist cause. This is evidenced by:

  1. His refusal to name the threat as Islamist
  2. His premature removal of American forces in Iraq, which led directly to the creation of ISIL and the establishment of a new caliphate (territory controlled by Islamists)
  3. The release of hundreds of dangerous jihadists from our military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, many of whom have returned to their cause and have killed and injured American soldiers
  4. His challenge and subsequent backing down to the Assad government in Syria which harmed our credibility, aided in jihadist recruitment, and opened the door for the expansion of Russian and Iranian aggression in the region
  5. His generous stance toward Iran, especially in freeing personal assets for known bad actors and clearing a path for their development of nuclear weaponry
  6. His antipathy towards Israel, the only true ally America has in the region
  7. A half-hearted prosecution of air attacks against ISIS targets, wherein American sorties run a meager 12-30 missions per day and release munitions fewer than 25% of the time
  8. His insistence upon bringing Syrian refugees to the United States despite CIA warnings that they cannot be properly vetted
  9. His refusal to tighten security along the Mexican border despite its use by jihadists to enter the U.S.
  10. His rhetorical response to terrorist actions whereby he constantly: a) downplays the scope of the threat, b) admonishes against discrimination toward moderate Muslims, c) uses the opportunity to push the politics of gun control , and perhaps most significantly, d) refuses to admit that policy changes may be prudent.

Those who see things the same way as does Obama look upon Donald Trump’s recent remarks, along with his overall political approach, with a mix of revulsion, incredulity, and amusement. Just this week Trump issued a statement calling for a moratorium on all Muslims entering America. In the resulting hailstorm of criticism from Democrat and Republican political rivals, he clarified that this only applied to non-citizen Muslims who do not currently live in the U.S. But he hedged that stance, citing a Real Clear Politics poll suggesting that as many as 25% of Muslims in America are sympathetic to jihadist goals.

Those familiar with Trump’s methods see what he’s doing here. He uses inflammatory statements such as this to: a) control the media cycle (he’s received more than double the coverage of his nearest competitor for airtime – Hillary Clinton), b) establish an extreme initial position as a negotiation tactic, and c) distance himself from rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, in this case claiming the ground that he is the candidate most serious about protecting American lives.

Critics of Trump (and others in the Republican presidential race) claim that their approach is inflammatory, would lead toward widespread war, promotes racial and religious discord, and violates the constitutional rights of many Americans. This is evidenced by:

  1. Their calls for screening and/or profiling American and non-American Muslims
  2. Costly, both in blood and treasure, policy proposals that would ramp up military efforts in ISIL- controlled Syria and Iraq
  3. Their alienating non-radical Muslims with harsh rhetoric
  4. Aiding jihadist recruiting efforts by increasing the profile of America as a natural enemy
  5. Their willingness to turn our backs to Muslims who are suffering the ravages of war in Syria by denying refugees sanctuary in America
  6. Their blind backing of Israel despite its aggression towards Palestinians
  7. Their seeming not to care about the plight of illegal immigrants in America and their U.S. –born citizen children
  8. Their vilification of natural rivals such as Russia and China which increases the risks of conflict

The space between these two polarities is quite an ideological gulf. Both have some rationale. But both omit important considerations. If we are to elect leaders with better developed worldviews and policies, we need to think things through ourselves. Among the things we all must consider are:

  • How prevalent is the jihadist view amongst the worldwide Muslim population?
  • What is the likelihood and scope of future attacks if we continue our current course?
  • What are the ramifications of a reduction of American influence and power in the Middle East?
  • What steps can we take to reduce the allure of the jihadist viewpoint?
  • Left as a viable entity, what threat does ISIL present to America over the long term?
  • Is there a way for Muslims, Arabs, and other non-American powers to address the jihadist threat without a major American commitment? If so, why isn’t it happening and what must be done to make it happen?
  • How much expense, in terms of resources and sacrifices in freedom and lifestyle, is appropriate to nullify the jihadist threat? If we decide to tolerate a small amount of threat, how much?
  • Can we afford a nuclear-armed Iran? If not, what are we willing to do to stop it?

These are not simple questions and there are no simple answers. As we established, smart people arrive at very different conclusions. In order to come to a more cohesive and effective policy stance, we must openly and honestly examine our values. Fortunately, elections are a perfect way to do this. Unfortunately, the Machine (the Democrat and Republican parties, media, and vested interests) are not interested in the discussion. It’s up to you and me.

In order to do so productively, we must understand the history and dynamics at play. Sadly, most Americans are not well equipped for this task, not because they are unable, but because they are unwilling or do not have the level of education needed to wrestle with the issue. This is okay. It’s why we’re a Republic, not a Democracy. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility as citizens is to know enough to choose our leaders wisely.

So we must familiarize ourselves with the basics. Here’s a quick rundown.

First, jihadist aggression is nothing new. Fundamentalist belief in the teachings of Mohammad means the intolerance of opposition and the call to bring sharia law to every corner of the globe. This worldview requires submission and is the near polar opposite of the values upon which America was founded. What is new is the means by which this goal may be accomplished.

We also must grasp the power dynamics in the Middle East. The nations that exist today were imposed upon the area in the wake of the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in the wake of World War I. The Arabs longed for self-rule, and largely achieved it within the new nations. Complicating the picture is the enmity between the three major sects of Islam – Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd. These populations are not contained within the nations but are spread throughout the region. They represent the major factions that are fighting in Syria today.

Another irritant is the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. The area that Israel occupies was for centuries only important for religious reasons. The few Palestinians who lived there were nomadic and sparse and lived a hard-scrabble existence. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Jews began settling the region en masse throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They lived a different lifestyle and held different values. Those values led to rapid economic development of the area, and the population exploded.

In the wake of the Holocaust, to protect the Jewish people from further aggression, the nations of the world recognized Israel as a legitimate nation of its own. This has never been tolerable to the Arab world, and has been a source of conflict over the past 70 years.

Another seminal event in the rise of modern jihadism was the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran under the feckless foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Iran, despite inevitable abuse of power by the Shah, was well on its way to becoming a modern state ready to join the civilized world. Instead it became a terror-supporting Shi’a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. That legacy plagues the western world to this day.

President Obama sees jihadists as a relatively minor threat. He believes that they are few in number and are not likely to amass significant destructive capability. Approximately 25% of Americans basically agree.

Donald Trump sees jihadists as a growing and significant threat. He believes that if they are not thwarted sooner rather than later, great harm will befall our country. Approximately 75% of Americans agree.

9/11 proved our vulnerability. It is much easier to destroy than create. If a perpetrator is willing to sacrifice him- or her-self, there is little a free society can do to completely prevent attacks. Some of these attacks are likely to be devastating, especially as chemical, biological, or radioactive weaponry becomes available. The reality is that a handful of people could possibly wipe out a city.

Whatever path we choose, we will not prevent all attacks. But it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to keep us as safe as possible.

There is no right for a non-American to enter America. They do so at our pleasure. Our values are such that we prefer to limit no one. We of course prefer peace to war. It’s unfathomable to us that there are people, both abroad and amongst us, who would like to cut off our heads, kill our children in front of our eyes, rape and torture – shoot, maim, and destroy – simply because we do not accept their worldview. But it is the truth.

The barbarians are in the gates. The question for all of is – what are we willing to do to stop them?

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Veteran’s Day in D.C.


It looks like it’s bectom veterans day 2015oming a cherished tradition. For the second consecutive year, I was fortunate to go on a bus trip to D.C. for Veteran’s Day. It is an experience I recommend highly. The opportunity to meet and hear from the many Veterans of foreign wars who congregate at the battle memorials on the National Mall that day is profound.

I never served in the military. The instant connection and camaraderie shared between veterans tells me that it means a great deal to them to connect with another human being who truly knows what their experiences were like. It also means a lot to them when they see many people take a day out of their busy lives for the purpose of remembering and honoring their sacrifices and service. It’s the least we can do.

This year our group began the day at the Holocaust Museum. I worked for a professional a/v company in the D.C. area in the 1980’s we provided the equipment and installation for the many displays when it was first built. But I had never seen them. I had been to the concentration camp at Dachau on a high school trip to Germany. The year was 1977. Thirty two years after it had been liberated and the gas chambers and incinerators closed and destroyed, the place still had a tangible pall. It was as though you could feel the psychic trauma that had taken place there on an unfathomable scale. I have never experienced anything like it since. (That experience is now further away in time than the span between my visit and the camp’s operation. I wonder if that pall remains – I’ll have to visit again someday to see.)

According to the official positions of the governments of Iran and Syria, along with other organizations like Hamas, the Holocaust is a Zionist fabrication. Holocaust denial has long been a worldwide discussion – on American campuses and in publications around the globe. It’s understandable. I would rather this horror not have happened too.

But it did. And the true horror is not specific to Germans. Or Nazis. Or even Jews. It’s what this historical reality says about human nature. All of us, every single one, have the seeds of angelic good and demonic evil within. Evil is actually the path of least resistance. The German people, in the midst of fears of privation and even starvation in a crippled economy as well as residual anger about what they saw as vindictive treatment in the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of WWI, slipped down this path.

When people are fearful, they are vulnerable to their base urges. Stoking fear is the number one tool of the despot. We must remember that Hitler did not appear on the scene as a cruel mass murderer. In the eyes of some but not all of his countrymen, he represented hope and a means to return former greatness and glory. President von Hindenburg didn’t like Hitler. But he believed that he could control him when he appointed him Chancellor of Germany. As Hitler rose, his charisma won the hearts of many. Those who provided political opposition? Well, they typically didn’t live long enough to pose a threat. By the time his true aims were evident, it was too late to resist.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A concept such as Hitler’s Final Solution does not spring immediately into place. It is incrementally built over time. When you see the horrific images of what was done to fellow human beings, it’s jarring. The first instinct is to vilify the perpetrators. But the deeper, scarier, and more pertinent truth is that it can happen anywhere, anytime.

This brings us back to our American fighting forces. It is this force that liberated Europe three times. It is the sacrifice of our veterans that helps keep us off of the slippery path of tyranny. But they can’t do it alone. The fate of a people inexorably lies in their own hands. That’s why we must know the truth of human nature. That’s why we must remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. As a Korean War vets rememberSouth Korean General said in an impassioned speech honoring and thanking the USA and its fighting men at the Korean War Memorial this Veteran’s Day, “we must always remember than freedom is not free.”

America the Beautiful (Ugly)

America the Beautiful Ugly

Judging by my Facebook feed, we should not continue to celebrate Columbus Day. Judging by the sentiment at the 20th anniversary of the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March ominously entitled Justice or Else!, we should not be celebrating July 4th, or really America-as-founded in any significant way. Judging by the logic of the political left as was on display at the first 2016 Democrat Party presidential debate, America has never been America the Beautiful. It is and always has been America the Ugly – racist, unjust, selfish, a scourge to the rest of the world – in dire need of continued fundamental transformation.

America has been taking it on the chin for most of my life. I suppose it began in earnest in the late 50’s and early 60’s with the counter-culture movement, later signified in anti-Vietnam protests and race rioting. Certainly racial politics and progressive, collectivist thinking had been chipping away at the bedrock of traditional American ideals. But it took a while to overtake our institutions.

While I was in grade school, I was taught to love America. People didn’t question America’s innate goodness. We were taught why millions and millions from all over the world wanted nothing more than to have a shot at life in America. The family of my paternal grandfather was like that, having escaped the Bolshevik revolution and ending up in NYC around 1920. When I was ten we went to Disneyland. In the Hall of Presidents, I saw the animatronic Abraham Lincoln deliver his historic speeches about freedom and the importance of the individual. It brought tears to my young eyes. I didn’t encounter vehement hatred for America until I went to college in Boston in 1979.

The first time I walked Harvard Square, student protesters handed me pamphlets about the evil, secretive Trilateral Commission and propaganda from MassPIRG. They were passionate about injustices that I’d never heard of before. They were all “shocked and appalled.” It was surreal and unappealing to me – I didn’t see the utility of living life in that continual state.

The drumbeat then was how the “Bedtime for Bonzo clown Reagan” was going to drive us to nuclear war and economic and environmental ruin. In my first Economics class, I was taught that the world would run out of oil by 2004. That professor also taught Keynesian models that even at age 17 I knew had been discredited. Other claims in the air at that time were that the oceans would be dead by the turn of the century and that we were going to suffer greatly from a rapidly approaching Ice Age.

Though things didn’t quite work out that way, that drumbeat hasn’t quieted. The villains have morphed, but the protest has spread from the University to secondary schools, pop culture, and most traditional institutions.

Life in today’s public schools is markedly different from 40 years ago. Just this week an Oregon boy was sent home for wearing this shirt:

patriotic tshirt

America, at least in its traditional sense, along with Christianity is being ejected from our public schools. In are multi-culturalism, identity politics, and environmental activism. Instead of an Ice Age, we are now taught to fear Anthropomorphic Global Warming. (Actually, proponents have learned not to commit to a particular temperature direction; it’s bad for business. So they’ve wisely shifted to the catch-all phrase Climate Change. Now the $22 billion per year industry has more sustainability regardless of its predictive shortcomings – climate will always change.)

Our children are taught not so much about the miraculous achievement of America’s founding as they are the injustices of European (read: white) aggression. Textbooks are scant on Franklin, Madison, and Harrison and heavy on slavery, the plight of Native Americans, and the history of women’s rights. Columbus is not portrayed so much as a brave explorer who helped spread western civilization but as a greedy, blood-thirsty conqueror who spread injustice and disease. America as founded is deemed guilty of the original sin of slavery and of ongoing rape of the planet. The sentence for these transgressions is death.

This mindset is necessary to continue to expand the State in America. The success of the American Experiment is a stiff headwind against the growth of the State. The State requires a pliant and needy population who are content to trade freedom and opportunity for the security of a safety net. (Our children are no longer taught Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonishment against this.)

The problem for Statists in America is that this has never been the American character. People who have come to America over its history were not meek and mild. They wanted to be left alone, not taken care of. Prototypical Americans want to pursue their dreams and they want to be able to profit from their labors. People like this are brave. They also understand the value of cooperation and specialization. People who value the individual above the state also have respect for others. This breeds compassion and kindness. Cooperative creative endeavors brought about unprecedented innovation and wealth, the “5000 Year Leap” that demarks the modern era. This collective experience has built reverence for free markets and entrepreneurism.

But there is a portion of our population for whom the promise of America has been historically withheld and subsequently less available – black Americans.

Despite civil rights laws and uncountable programs designed to assist blacks to overcome institutional hurdles, large disparities persist. Understandably, resentment is strong as was evidenced by the “Down with America” chants by tens of thousands in D.C. this past weekend. Those who are caught in the whirlpool of dependence rightly feel disappointed. Over the past 40+ years, they’ve been electing Democrats who have promised to deliver to them better prospects. When Obama was elected, the black community was elated, because it signified that the day of promise had finally come. But seven years later, it hasn’t.

This reality places the 2016 Democrat presidential hopefuls in an awkward position. They must embrace the policies of Obama and at the same time distance themselves. It was amusing to watch the attempt during the debate. They had to behave as though they hadn’t held power over the past seven years. Their answers are the same as ever. “There are too many guns!” “More taxes on the wealthy!” “Make Wall Street pay for college for everybody!” “The 1% are greedy!” “The Republicans are holding us back!” “It’s Bush’s fault!” “Raise the minimum wage!” “We haven’t gone far enough!” In a nutshell, they suggested that in order to solve the pressing problems or our day, we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Good luck with that.

It’s an old show. These are characters straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. But if you watch close enough, you can glimpse reality behind the curtain of promises and platitudes. There is a sense, on the part of most Americans, that something is really wrong. People sense that our system is not functioning properly. Most pundits miss it, but this is why Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are polling so well. In normal times, those candidates would have had similar standings as do Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley (all poll at less than 1%.)

Americans know that our system is strained. Yes, the stock market is high. But people sense that we’re in a debt bubble that could not only burst at any time, but when it does it will dwarf the housing bubble of 2007.

Sanders and Trump both boldly and clearly descry the corruption of our electoral system – they both declare that moneyed interests rule the day. They have very different ideas about both the remedies and what a better system would look like, of course. But they both tap into the feeling of disempowerment that many Americans feel. (Sanders, though his performance was spirited and earnest, blew his remote chance of winning the Democrat Party nomination during the debate when he compromised his ethical high ground by calling for the sweeping aside of the ongoing and scandalous national security investigation involving ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

The Democrat candidates vilified and belittled Trump and the other Republicans. For their part, the Republicans, along with prominent conservative pundits, ridiculed the Democrat candidates. What one side accepts as axiomatic, the other discounts. This exchange is perhaps juvenile and distasteful. But it is instructive. Trump calls these hopeful leaders (along with Obama and other past and current leaders) stupid. It makes no sense to him why we would act the way we do on the world stage. His assessment reveals that he’s missing something.

He does not seem to understand the important element of what belies the policies and decisions to which he objects. He fails to perceive that American Statists, including Obama, Clinton, and Sanders along with many others, want some things to which they cannot publicly admit and remain electable. First, they want our system to collapse. They believe that they can build something better in its place. Second, they want a new order that obsoletes nationhood. They want One World government. This is not something you will hear any of them explain. They know it will not be well received. Americans still, funny enough, kind of like America.

The story of America is of course not monolithic. No human endeavor is pure. We label things, in this case America, good or bad based upon our perceptions and values. Statists dislike America as founded. It represents the exact opposite of their ideal. Through their eyes, American history has been a never-ending stream of oppression.

I took my family to NYC a few years ago. In Rockefeller Center, we grabbed a quick breakfast before the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I asked an older gentleman if he would mind if we joined him at his table in the crowded café. He welcomed us graciously. It turned out that he was from Switzerland and a retired commercial airline pilot.  Over the course of his long career with Swissair, he had travelled extensively; to literally every country in the world. In a thick accent, he told my kids this: “Be thankful that you live in America, children. It is the greatest country in the world. It is not even close. By any measure – hospitality, kindness, generosity, fairness, choice, opportunity – America is a friend to all in need – it is the best.”

I’ll take his word for it.