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From the Book Front

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve fallen over two months behind in writing about the books I’ve been reading. This has had the unfortunate effect, whenever I’ve been tempted to write about the book I’m reading at a given moment, that I’ve not allowed myself to do so, since I think to myself that I have to write about other books first. Worse still, as I move on to each new book, I no longer remember the specific details that so excited me about previous books. As a result, my remarks about these books will be regrettably cursory. But by getting the backlog cleared, perhaps I will be able to do a better job with upcoming books.

Just after last Christmas, I wrote my third post about Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which I had finished so that I would be ready for Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which I anticipated receiving as a present. I did get it, and I began to read it, getting introduced to the three principal characters Wilkerson would track in their journey as part of the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the industrial cities of the north. Wilkerson’s book was every bit as wonderful as I expected. However, I was making slow progress on it, and soon Robert Crais’s new crime novel The Sentry, which I had pre-ordered from Amazon, would arrive. Once it did, I put Wilkerson aside and devoured it, writing about it here. Alas, Wilkerson got put aside yet again, because next up was yet another Amazon pre-order, Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, which I also devoured, and wrote about.

At that point, rather than return to Wilkerson, I decided to finish two books that had come out in February 2010 and that I had bought at the time. One, Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World, describes six independent journeys in different parts of the world, and I had read one and a half of them a year earlier. How I stopped at the time is a mystery to me. It’s quite an engrossing book, and I made quick work of it on resuming, as described here. The other was Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, which I wrote about in early February after reading the first of its three parts. I promised to say more when I finished it. Two weeks later, by which time I was already on to the next book, I made a list of the items I be writing posts about, including my promised second installment on Country Driving as well as the book I was then reading, but neither happened.

Now I’m ready to pick up the trail.

1. The pity about my not writing more on Hessler’s Country Driving two months ago is that the second and third parts of the book were so different from, and more satisfying than, the first, and now I don’t have much to say. The first part described Hessler’s drive along the Great Wall and some of the people he encountered. The second focused on a rural mountain village a couple of hours outside Beijing where Hessler rented a weekend home. Over several years, he became almost a member of the family who rented the house to him, years during which the village underwent great change as roads were built that drew it closer to Beijing. Hessler would, for instance, routinely drive up to the village on Fridays, picking up their young son from the boarding school he attended in a larger town down the mountain, taking the boy back to school at the end of the weekend. We are able to appreciate the great changes families even in peripheral areas undergo during this period of rapid development through the experiences of this particular family. The third part features life in a newly built factory town in the south of China, as Hessler spends time with the owners of a new factory and with a family of workers who move to the new town to find work. Hessler is a sympathetic listener and insightful storyteller.

2. I might have felt, after traveling in Siberia, all over the world, and China with Frazier, Conover, and Hessler that it was time to put such books aside, but I had one more to go, Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. When it was published last August, the weekly and Sunday reviews days apart in the NYT tempted me, and I downloaded the small sample for my Kindle. This didn’t get me much past the Prologue — or maybe it was only the Prologue — giving me little sense of the book as a whole. But in February, I decided to take my chances and download (buy) the full book for the Kindle.

The book is built around the organizing principle that the eponymous tenth parallel of latitude forms a dividing line between Christianity and Islam, a line Griswold proceeds to visit in six African and Asian countries. Griswold justifies the significance of this line in her chapters on Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia, based on climate and geography, but to the extent that it serves as a dividing line in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, this seems to be more a function of circumstance than of any fundamental feature. Nonetheless, the conflict is real, and is vividly displayed in Griswold’s background passages, conversations with participants, and direct experience. The book is extraordinary, and as Mark Oppenheimer observes in opening his NYT review, “The most impressive thing about ‘The Tenth Parallel’ is that Eliza Griswold lived to write it.”

One theme that emerges is the role European and American missionary or evangelical groups have played in some locales in fostering Christian political or terrorist groups every bit as inflexible as their Muslim opponents. Griswold brings to these conflicts her background as the daughter of Frank Griswold, an Episcopal priest who served as Bishop of Chicago for nearly a decade and then as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

3. After this sequence of books, I was way overdue for a novel. The problem at this point was, I already had the novel picked out, but couldn’t start it yet. As I explained in a Kindle post last month, I’ve been eager for some time to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I had been warned by an Amazon review that it was not suitable reading on a Kindle because of a lengthy portion of the book, set as a Powerpoint presentation whose slides were unreadable. I would have simply ordered the hardcover, except that the paperback was due out in another two weeks, and at a price lower than the Kindle price. I decided to pre-order the paperback and wait for it.

This might have been a good time to return to Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons. Instead, with the new golf season in full swing and the Masters approaching, I decided to go back to a book I had ordered for my Kindle two falls ago, when the Kindle first came. At the time, I was looking to load books on that would cover a range of interests and thereby be sure to keep me engaged during our then-upcoming trip to Europe. To complement my novel and my Venetian history book, I chose James Dodson’s lengthy biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. I’ve read so much about the period from late 1930s to mid 1950s during which Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson dominated the US golf tour. I had never, however, developed a coherent understanding of those years. In particular, I knew of Ben Hogan’s near-fatal car crash in 1949 and his miraculous return to golf in 1950 (he wasn’t even expected to walk again), culminating in his US Open victory that year at Merion. And I knew of his amazing 1953 season, winning the Masters, the US Open, then heading over to Scotland to appear for the lone time in his career at the British Open, winning at Carnoustie. But the details had eluded me. Now was my chance to learn more.

Dodson’s book is the ultimate in breeziness, a style of writing to which I needed to adjust. Especially when I stumbled into errors such as the one early in the book in which Herbert Hoover is described, “during the long hot days of 1921” as “Cal Coolidge’s new secretary of commerce.” Surely I’m not the only reader who knows that Coolidge was the vice-president in 1921, not the president. Warren Harding (War Harding?) would have had to do the appointing.

No matter. Dodson has quite a story to tell, and he’s quite a storyteller. We can breeze on by such errors (Dodson also has FDR serving as president in 1932) when there’s so much else to hold our interest. If I were still reading the book rather than having finished it four weeks ago, I would have so many incidents to retell. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s a rich tale, with highlights such as Hogan’s Texas forebears, his early relationship with Byron Nelson at the club where they were both caddies, his marriage, his multiple narrow losses in major golf tournaments in the mid 1940s, his victories, the crushing playoff loss to Jack Fleck at the 1955 US Open, his battle with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the great 1960 US Open, his later years. And in the background, the story of the growth of Fort Worth during the twentieth century.

4. I finished the Hogan biography on a Sunday, with Egan’s novel due to arrive two days later. It did, and I jumped right in. But I wasn’t far along when I read of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s request under the state’s Open Records Law for the emails of University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, as I recounted here. I was so upset by the McCarthy-esque effort at intimidation that I was inspired to read his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, as I explained in that same post. I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began immediately, finishing late Wednesday night. I will devote a separate post to Cronon’s book, which I urge all of you to read.

5. What next? I suppose A Visit from the Goon Squad, and then The Warmth of Other Suns. But I have a feeling other books will intervene.

Categories: Books

Mountaintop Removal Mining

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

Categories: Business, Environment

Masters 2012?

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Augusta's 12th hole (of course)

I have this dream that some year, in early April, I will find myself in Augusta, Georgia, attending the Masters. Preferably accompanied by Gail. We’ve been to a PGA Championship together — the 1998 PGA at Sahalee in nearby Sammamish. We’ve been to a US Open together — the 2002 Open at Bethpage Black near where I grew up. And we’ve been to a British Open together — the 2004 Open Championship at Royal Troon near where our friends the Browns grew up. The Masters is overdue.

There are obstacles. One is that getting away in April is harder than getting away in June, July, or August. But the principal obstacle is the unavailability of tickets. The Masters famously limits the number of tickets sold, and those they do sell are permanently taken. Like season tickets for a football team, they are renewable year-to-year, and from what I understand, they can be passed down, at least within a family. Masters officials strongly discourage resale of tickets, claiming that scalped tickets will not be honored and the sellers will lose their rights. But this must not be enforced in any serious way, since tickets are always available — at a price. They may be the most sought after scalped sports tickets in the US, or perhaps second only to the Super Bowl. I investigated last year, when I was on sabbatical and our getting away in early April seemed plausible. But the prices discouraged me, along with my fear that I’d pay a thousand bucks or more for invalid or fraudulent tickets.

Actual Masters tickets are not just rare, but modestly priced, as is everything at the Masters, from the famous pimento cheese sandwiches to the souvenirs. This makes the huge cost of tickets in the secondary market all the more cruel, in contrast, say, to Super Bowl tickets. I have come to accept that some day I’ll accept the cruelty, pay the price, and go.

But maybe not! The lords of the Masters have taken pity on us. As patrons have allowed their subscriptions to lapse, a pool of tickets has been built up, and last week those lords announced that they will be made available by a random selection process, starting next year. This morning I applied.

It’s not the best arrangement. Only single-day passes are available. If I understood the wording correctly, you can’t do better than getting a pass for a single practice day (Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday) and, I gather in a separate random process, a pass for a single tournament day (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday). The series passes remain unavailable. Would it be worth the effort to fly to Georgia just for a single day of golf?

Well, we can decide that later. First we have to be chosen. This morning, I filled out the application. One can request up to 4 passes for the practice days and up to 2 passes for the tournament days. I requested 2 passes for each category.

When Gail got home, I excitedly told her that we were entered in the lottery, but once I explained the conditions, she didn’t share the excitement. She wasn’t too keen to make the trip just to get on the course for a single day. She suggested I go with someone else, such as our friend and fellow golf fan John. Again, we can work that out later. First we have to be chosen. And we can work out later whether we’ll actually be free to travel in April.

For now, I will dream.

Categories: Golf

The Masters, 2011 Edition

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Charl Schwartzel sinking putt on 18 to win Masters

[Photo by Zachary Boyden-Holmes/Augusta Chronicle]

I have to say something, don’t I? My favorite sport. One of the year’s four major men’s tournaments. The one whose televised production is the best of all golf tournaments. (Few ads, no network promos, great camera work.) Almost eight months since the previous major. The beautiful course.

There truly is nothing like Masters Sunday. Whatever happens, I’m going to be watching, and I’m going to love it, as one champion emerges amid all the heartbreak.

Sure enough, this is how yesterday went, except that it was even better than anyone could have imagined. If you saw it, I need say no more. If you didn’t, I can’t possibly capture the drama. Eight players led or were tied for the lead coming home. As many as six were tied simultaneously, as players kept reaching a cumulative score of -10 and falling back. Finally, Tiger made it into the clubhouse at -10, after a glorious front nine that set high expectations and a flat back nine that gave him a piece of the lead. Then Geoff Ogilvy joined him at -10, thanks to a back nine stretch of five straight birdies. But too many players were even with them or just behind, with holes still to play. Finally, Adam Scott moved to -11. And then came Jason Day, also at -11. And then they moved to -12. It became clear that -10 wasn’t going to do it.

And finally, what will never be forgotten by golf fans, Charl Schwartzel’s glorious final four holes. He had opened with wondrous a chip in birdie from off the green on one and a hole in from the fairway for an eagle on three to jump from -8 to -11, only to fall back with a bogey on four. Then came ten straight pars, keeping him at that seemingly magical score of -10. And then: a birdie on the par five 15th brought him to -11, as Scott and day ahead of him were making their moves. A birdie on the par three 16th put him at -12. A birdie at the par four 17th and he was in the lead at -13. Safely on the green in two on the par four 18th, all he needed was two putts from 18 feet to win. But the way he was putting, you just sensed that he was going to go for it. He did, the ball dropped in, he had his fourth straight birdie, he was at -14, and the Masters was his.

Boy oh boy. A great start, a historic finish, those ten straight pars in the middle. What a round! What a tournament!

Categories: Golf

Change We Can Believe In, XVII

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Drone Warfare

David Cloud’s story in yesterday’s LA Times on a US drone attack 14 months ago in Afghanistan is a must-read. (Hat tip: James Fallows.) Here is an excerpt from its opening:

Nearly three miles above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a pickup truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the pre-dawn darkness.

The vehicles, packed with people, were 3 1/2 miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.

At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted.

“We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”

“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time.”

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

“Oh, sweet target,” he said.

None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

In a post on the war in Afghanistan last month, I raised the question of what our goal there is at this point, nearly a decade into the war. In revealing the horrors of drone warfare, Cloud provides further evidence that this is a war we can’t “win”, whatever winning would look like.

It’s Obama’s war now, drones and all. As Glenn Greenwald suggested in a tweet today, “The only sensible response to this story is to award a second Nobel Peace Prize.”

Categories: Technology, War

Stopping in at the Met, Addendum

April 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Jacopo Bassano, The Baptism of Christ, Unfinished 1592, Oil on canvas

Gail has reminded me that in the post I just wrote on Stopping at the Met, I omitted one of the highlights of last Monday’s visit: Jacopo Bassano’s baptism of Christ. As we were working our way around the European paintings in order to see recently stored works by Filippino Lippi, Velasquez, and Hans Memling, our host suggested we also look at the Bassano, a relatively recent Met acquisition.

At first glance, as we entered the room, I imagined the painting to be a depiction of one of Christ’s stops along the Stations of the Cross, while Gail thought specifically that it looked like a deposition. The Met’s online catalogue entry makes the very same point:

Spectral figures of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, and three angels are shown in a nocturnal landscape. John leans forward and, turning back, baptizes Christ, who is also depicted leaning forward, as though shedding his scarlet robe. His tormented face expresses foreknowledge of his tragic destiny. The three angels serve as counterpoints: one, holding Christ’s robe, gazes at him ecstatically while a second angel looks upward, at the mystical apparition of a dove in the black sky. The horizon is lit by the rays of the setting sun.

This extraordinary picture—deeply expressive and unique in Renaissance painting for showing the Baptism of Christ as occurring at night—is the last known work by the great Venetian painter Jacopo Bassano, who left it unfinished when he died in 1592. It was viewed by his heirs as his artistic testament and was retained by them rather than completed and delivered, as would have been the normal practice. They evidently felt that, as in the case of Michelangelo’s and Titian’s unfinished works, the picture fully expressed Jacopo’s intentions. …

… Bassano here explores an expressive intensity—dark in mood as in palette—that is a direct and deeply personal response to Titian’s late pictures (in particular Titian’s two versions of the “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” and his unfinished “Pietà”, painted to decorate his own funerary chapel). The pose of Christ is as though taken from a “Way to Calvary” and this analogy must have been on Bassano’s mind.

It’s quite a powerful painting. Next time you’re at the Met, be sure to see it.

Categories: Art, Museums

Stopping in at the Met

April 9, 2011 Leave a comment

John Monteleone, Archtop Guitar, Sun King, 2000, Spruce, maple, ebony; sunburst finish (yellow to red), cutaway

We flew off to New York early last Saturday morning, returning very late Tuesday night.
Other than recounting the loss of part of a tooth and complaining about the absurdly late broadcast times of major sporting events in the eastern time zone, I haven’t reported on any of our activities. It being a family visit and all, there’s not much to say, really. But perhaps a few words are in order about our short stop Monday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are so many tempting exhibitions at the Met right now that it was difficult to choose from them. We started with Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. The initial objects on display are some extraordinary examples of stringed instruments of all types, from violins of Stradavari and Amati to a Stradavari guitar and a variety of mandolins. The Stradavari guitar, pictured below, is described as follows:

The Rawlins is one of four known surviving guitars made by the famous Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari. These instruments are unusual among extant Baroque guitars because of their lack of decoration, but they are probably more typical of the guitars created at the time. Stradivari used the same woods for his guitars—spruce for the top and maple for the sides and back—as he did for his violins. His guitars are the oldest surviving examples using these woods, which are standard for modern archtop guitars and mandolins.

Antonio Stradivari, Guitar, The Rawlins, 1700, Spruce, maple, ebony

The heart of the show is the work of three New Yorkers, as explained on the show’s webpage: “Since the 1930s, makers from this tradition in the New York region have become especially well known for their extraordinary archtop guitars. This exhibition examines the work of three remarkable craftsmen from this heritage—John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone—their place in the extended context of Italian and Italian American instrument making, and the inspiration of the sights and sounds of New York City.” There are so many examples to choose from. I’ll display one below, as well as the one up top:

James D’Aquisto,Archtop Guitar, Blue Centura Deluxe model, 1994, Spruce, maple, ebony

You can explore more guitars from the show here.

We were, alas, one day too late to see the Lod Mosaic, Roman mosaics circa 300 CE that were discovered in 1996 during a road construction project in Lod, Israel.

We raced over to the mosaic exhibition site, but the mosaic had already been removed.

I should perhaps explain that the Met is closed to the general public on Mondays, but open to lots of people nonetheless, from staff to assorted hangers-on. We were in the hanger-on category and, had the good fortune to be taken around by a staff member with access to many areas, which is why we were able to get to the place where the mosaic had been, in hope that some portions of it hadn’t been lifted off the floor yet. As consolation, we headed up to the Islamic Galleries, currently closed for renovation, expansion, and reinstallation, where we got a sneak peak of a small new room with wooden ceiling and walls being carved as we watched by Moroccan craftsmen. This will be a must-see when the space re-opens near the end of the year.

What next? A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child. As the webpage explains: “Filippino Lippi is one of the great artists of fifteenth-century Florence. Among his principal patrons was the wealthy banker Filippo Strozzi (1428–1491), who commissioned a Madonna and Child for his villa at Santuccio, west of the city. This painting was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by Jules Bache in 1949. In preparation for an exhibition on the artist that will be held in Rome next year, the picture was taken to conservation for examination this fall. A test cleaning revealed that beneath a thick, discolored varnish there was a beautifully preserved, richly colored painting. So striking is the transformation that the picture seems a new acquisition.”

Madonna and Child, ca. 1485, Filippino Lippi, tempera, oil, and gold on wood

Richly colored indeed. The colors were ravishing. And we had the pleasure of enjoying the painting at our leisure, with the room to ourselves.

Our host then suggested we see two more recently restored paintings. First was Velasquez’s 1624 portrait of King Philip IV:

Velázquez, Philip IV, King of Spain, probably 1624

And then a painting I’ve long loved, Hans Memling’s Annunciation:

Hans Memling, The Annunciation, 1465–75, Oil on wood

Finally, the briefest of stops at the exhibit of Cézanne’s Card Players, among which were the fellows below:

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, ca. 1890–92, Oil on canvas

And then we had to head off to Long Island, with so much left unseen.

Categories: Art, Museums

Change We Can Believe In, XVI

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Fear Trumps the Rule of Law

I’m a little late getting to this, because of our trip to New York, and by now what needs to be said has been said widely elsewhere.

On Monday, Attorney General Holder announced

that the Obama administration “will prosecute Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other people accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before a military commission and not a civilian court, as it once planned. …

[This shift] marked a significant moment of capitulation in the Obama administration’s largely frustrated effort to dismantle counterterrorism architecture left behind by former President George W. Bush. President Obama, in one of his first initiatives, had announced his intention to close the Guantánamo prison in a year, a goal that he failed to fulfill.

Mr. Holder said Monday that he stood by his judgment that it made more sense, based on the facts and evidence of the case, to try Mr. Mohammed, described as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and the four others in a federal court.

The NYT editorial page didn’t pull its punches the next day, in an editorial titled Cowardice Blocks the 9/11 Trial:

On Monday, Mr. Holder’s dream for demonstrating the power of the American court system crumbled when he announced that the trial would take place not in New York City or anywhere in the United States but before a military commission at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.

That retreat was a victory for Congressional pandering and an embarrassment for the Obama administration, which failed to stand up to it.

The wound inflicted on New York City from Mr. Mohammed’s plot nearly a decade ago will not heal for many lifetimes, yet the city, while still grieving, has thrived. How fitting it would have been to put the plot’s architect on trial a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, to force him to submit to the justice of a dozen chosen New Yorkers, to demonstrate to the world that we will not allow fear of terrorism to alter our rule of law.

But, apparently, there are many who continue to cower, who view terrorists as much more fearsome than homegrown American mass murderers and the American civilian jury system as too “soft” to impose needed justice. The administration of George W. Bush encouraged this view for more than seven years, spreading a notion that terror suspects only could be safely held and tried far from our shores at Guantánamo and brought nowhere near an American courthouse. The federal courts have, in fact, convicted hundreds of terrorists since 9/11. And federal prisons safely hold more than 350 of them.

. . . Monday’s announcement represents a huge missed opportunity to prove the fairness of the federal court system and restore the nation’s reputation for providing justice for all.

Shortly after Holder’s announcement, Jane Mayer wrote:

Today’s news that K.S.M. is slated now for a military commission in the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, rather than facing a criminal trial in the civilian justice system that Holder believed was more fitting, may indeed be the defining moment for the Obama Justice Department, defining it, unfortunately, as incapable of standing up to to the political passions still stirred by the threat of terrorism.

Holder and some of the smartest prosecutors in the country had prepared what they believed was the strongest case possible against K.S.M. Lawyers involved in the effort told me they had spent years on it, and had files filled with killer evidence, just waiting for trial. Careers had been devoted to compiling an impeccable case. By using the civilian justice system, Holder had wanted to send several important messages, among them that terrorists are criminals, not some new breed of super warrior, and that the U.S. legal system is the strongest, fairest, and most credible system in the world. A guilty verdict arrived at in front of the world, in a public trial, with ordinary citizens sitting in judgment of K.S.M., would be internationally accepted as legitimate, in a way that no military tribunal ever will be. Or so the thinking went.

Despite Holder’s defiant reiteration today of his preference for trying K.S.M. in the federal courts, human-rights advocates were critical. “The administration has gone to great lengths to defend its authority to make these decisions, but has done little to exercise it,” Human Rights First president Elisa Massimino said. “Holder’s defense of executive prerogative today is stirring, but it comes too late without White House backing. The administration had months to act before Congress tied its hands on this. It failed to do so. There’s no substitute for leadership on this issue—and it has to come from the top. Without it, you get what we have today: capitulation to the agenda of fear.”

Obama left Holder high and dry, choosing the politics of fear over the rule of law.

Categories: Law, Politics, War

TV Sports Idiocy

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

This idiocy is an old theme, but one we west coasters don’t pay the price for. I paid the price this past week, though, what with flying into New York on Saturday, the day of the NCAA men’s basketball final four round, and then being in New York Sunday for the women’s final four and Monday for the men’s championship game.

The idiocy? Games that start at 9:20 PM or 9:30 PM eastern time. For the semi-final rounds, that was the start time of the second games. And on Monday night, the championship game started around 9:30.

It’s not like I actually care all that much, but believe me, I don’t care enough to stay up that late. On the other hand, we did just get in from Seattle, so we weren’t exactly on eastern time. Which is to say, I did catch the end of the UConn-Kentucky men’s semi-final Saturday. As for Texas A&M’s upset of the UConn women on Sunday, I missed that one. And the UConn men beating Butler Monday? Well, I was reading, but still awake, so I turned it on to catch the end. However, if I lived in the eastern time zone and were going to work the next day, I would have skipped it.

By Tuesday, I was fully adjusted to east coast time, but that was our night to fly home, so we would be missing the the women’s championship. Plus, with our 8:00 PM flight delayed and our arrival in Seattle scheduled for near midnight PDT (or 3:00 AM EDT), I mostly wanted to sleep. As it turned out, I could have watched the entire game, since a selection of TV stations was available via satellite on the small screens in the airplane seat backs, but this didn’t even occur to me. After a late dinner, I went to sleep. When I awoke somewhere around 2:00 AM EDT, I turned my screen on for the first time and stumbled on the game highlights on ESPN.

I watched about as much of the basketball as I wanted to. It remains a mystery to me why the powers that be think it’s in anyone’s interests to have games end at 11:30 on weeknights. Or later. I’m just thankful that I’m usually here in the Pacific time zone.

Categories: Sports, Television, Travel

Travel Nightmare, 2

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, okay, it wasn’t really a travel nightmare, but it wasn’t such a great experience either, and my last post was called Travel Nightmare, so this seems like as good a title as any for this one.

That last post described the start of our trip to New York early last Saturday morning. This one is about our return trip Tuesday night. We were on an 8:00 PM flight out of JFK, with an announced delay earlier in the day of at least 15 minutes, and we were through security around 6:30 PM. With time to kill, we headed to the Delta lounge, for which we had privileges, and found a corner with three seats. Joel settled in and plugged in his phone. We headed over to check out the snack options — crackers and cheese, a packaged hummus spread, celery and baby carrots — and I grabbed a couple of the baby carrots as Gail moved on to the bar. As I caught up with her, I started chewing a carrot, and suddenly I bit into something really hard, like a small stone.

I didn’t quite know what to do. I didn’t want to swallow it, but had no napkin to spit it into. And anyway, a carrot? What could be stone hard in a carrot? As Gail ordered something to drink, I deposited the contents of my mouth in my hand, then threw it out. I then got some water, picked up some hummus spread and crackers on the way back to our seats, sat down, and wondered just what it was that I spit out. A clue was that something sharp in the back of my mouth was stabbing my tongue. A little investigation and I realized my tooth had acquired a sharp point. That stone must have been some dental work, or part of the tooth itself.

What it was exactly would stay a mystery for a while. I determined that the troublesome tooth was #18, the one in front of my rear left wisdom tooth. Fortunately, it wasn’t yet 4:00 back in Seattle, so the dentist office would be open. I called and made an appointment for the next day, yesterday.

The plane we were flying home on was late into JFK from Las Vegas. We boarded some 45 behind schedule, but thanks to weak headwinds and the enormous padding built into the schedule (what was once scheduled for 6 hours was scheduled for 6 hours and 40 minutes), we were just a few minutes late, landing a little before midnight Seattle time. Yesterday morning, I was off to the dentist.

The diagnosis — the carrot broke off part of my tooth. I spent the next 1 3/4 hours in the dentist’s chair. When I got home, the left side of my mouth was so numb, and my tongue so uncomfortable, that I could hardly talk. Gail thought I was over-doing it a bit with my mumbling. And I couldn’t eat comfortably either. I tried to eat some cheerios, but gave up. For the next hour, I was convinced some cheerios had lodged under my tongue, but I couldn’t move them out with the tongue and couldn’t feel them with my fingers. Every 5 or 10 minutes, after abandoning the preceding effort and figuring I just had to wait for the anesthetic to wear off, I’d try once again to find those elusive cheerios. There had to be a reason my tongue was so uncomfortable, talking or eating so difficult.

Finally, around 3:00 in the afternoon, I made one more effort and hit paydirt. There was something in there for sure. I grabbed hold, pulled, hoped my mouth wouldn’t turn inside out, and out came one of those hard cylindrical cotton rolls dentists stick in mouths. Relief! I could talk again. My tongue felt normal. Maybe I could even eat again.

But carrots? Forget it. I’m done with them.

Categories: Food, Travel