Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the 9/11 Attack in Benghazi

So Who Knew What, and When?  Does it Matter?

The conservative media is alive with the discussion of what the President knew about the security concerns in Libya and the cover-up, or lack of details on the event itself following the 9/11 assault on our embassy.  The mainstream and liberal media are equally invested in saying this is much adieu about nothing.  It was just an unfortunate tragedy that the President had very little involvement or influence over.
Since we are deep into the election season, this has obviously become a big campaign issue and the social media sites like Google+ and facebook are alive with the various support organizations, media outlets, and individuals posting and reposting accusations, rationalizations and defenses.  In fact, facebook itself has gotten into the act of censoring the postings.

So why am I throwing my two cents in?  There was something I saw today from an acquaintance, posted in defense of the President, that said she did not believe any sitting President of the United States, no matter what party, knowingly allows American citizens or soldiers [to] die!   It went on to say “All these men carry tremendous weight on their shoulders, we do not know the full story of what they face.  Shame on anyone who would point a finger in this way!”

I would like to respond to that posting on why these issues solicit criticism and continue to circulate.

First things first, it is a simple, unavoidable, fact that all our Presidents have been in a position where they knowingly send American’s into harms way with an understanding that some of them will die.  That is the nature of the job of Commander in Chief.  There is risk in almost every endeavor we set out in, whether it is a survey of the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, a couple of World Wars, support for an invasion of a small Caribbean island, setting off to explore our nearest neighbor the Moon, or opening a consulate in a newly liberated country.  Those who are involved in these things know and accept the risks inherent in them.  What they ask of their commanders and leaders is that they do what they can to reduce those risks and improve the possibilities of success and their safe return.

So the first legitimate question to ask is did our senior political leaders do what they could to reduce the risks to US personnel in the Libyan consulate, especially as we approached the anniversary of a momentous event in the Jihadist-terror campaign?  This should be any easy question to answer, did they recognize the increased potential for violence and have plans in place to deal with it?  Unfortunately, in retrospect it is too easy to answer – no they did not.  You can rationalize this in many ways, but in the end it comes down to the President and the Secretary of State did not take adequate precautions to safeguard the US Consulate.

The second and much harder question to answer is how did our senior political and military leadership react when they were presented with evidence the consulate was under attack?  The details of when they recognized they had a serious problem, and what decisions they made both immediately and in response to changing situations are really at the center of what all this controversy is about.  I am reminded of the events of the summer of 1972 when they discovered a break in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building.  What started as a low-level burglary, ultimately brought down the President because of his stonewalling and cover-up.  What we see from this administration are shifting stories and opposing statements that appear to serve politically expedient purposes rather than to uncover the truth.  When linked to a President who has spent a great portion of his administration laying the blame for all the ills of the country on his predecessor it leaves open the question of where the President thinks the buck stops!

Because we are in the last weeks of the campaign, the immediate political implications of burying or highlighting it are exasperated even more so than would be normal.  Add to that the main stream media’s attempts to bury the story, and the conservative media’s push to expose it, you have the makings of a political firestorm the President seems unable to make go away with a simple wave of his hand and is unable or unwilling to lay out the verifiable facts as he knows them for the public to put this issue to bed.  It seems a lot like the swirling around over the release of his birth certificate that he used for a couple of years to create an us versus them issue.  For a President who was elected on the promise of open and transparent government I am still waiting for the window to open.

Last question, does it matter?  It will matter to historians, but I expect it won’t matter to very many voters.  If you are a supporter of the President you will empathize with the agony he must feel and ignore the hard questions.  If you are not a supporter you will believe he made bad choices and will use those belief’s to reinforce your vote.  In either case it won’t change whom you were going to vote for.  I don’t know how those who are truly undecided will process the conflicting stories, but I would guess they will decide on domestic issues like employment or health care, and not use this abstract event that does not directly affect their life as the tipping point.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Facebook and Censorship

I saw this story Facebook Censors Navy SEALS to Protect Obama on Benghazi Gate on one of the news pages I read.  The original posting was made a political action committee called Special Operations Speaks and was up for about 24 hours when Facebook removed it for violation of Facebook’s Statement or Rights and Responsibilities.  I know many of the senior members of the PAC
I would expect someone might believe Facebook’s action was unconstitutional.  It was not, the first amendment prohibits the Government from abridging our right to worship and free expression.  It does not address a private enterprises right to, in fact, the expectation is that media will censor content that is presented.  This will become more prevalent as the Internet grows and is placed under increasing government regulation.
What I did find interesting is how the censors at Facebook central could take this action, that while political, the meme, is not threatening or in other ways any more inflammatory than what other political action groups have posted.  But whoever is in control of censorship central has this clear rule to hide behind.  Rule 5.  “Protecting Other Peoples Rights,” sub-rule 2.  “We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement or our policies.”
So the important lesson to take away is some faceless gnome at Facebook can remove anything you post, anytime they like.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why Polling Shouldn’t Be Reported as News

When I was taking my graduate statistics course it was a point of debate in the class on how you can, through manipulation, make statistics infer anything you want.  The point of the discussion was to undersatand how personal bias and agenda can potentially cloud the results of even the most rigid surveys or samples.
Today our news channels inundate us with poll after poll purporting to show how Americans feel about almost any topic you can think of.  Each poll is presented as indisputable evidence of whatever agenda the news organization wants to push.
For example, lets take the latest AP Poll - Racial Attitudes Topline (Oct 28), being pushed around the news world.  It is supposed to show how average American’s have become more, not less, racist since the election of President Obama.  The Washington Post felt compelled to defend the legitimacy of the poll in this article,  Washington Post -- How the Associated Press polls on racial attitudes were conducted, but in that defense I see no explanation on how academic bias was accounted for, or how they legitimatized the assumptions on human performance in measuring implied feelings from association.
So what kinds of Headlines come from this online survey? 
Washington Post – “AP Poll: A slight majority of American’s are now expressing negative views of blacks”
 The Guardian (UK) – “Racial prejudice in US worsened during Obama’s first term, study shows”
 NY Times – “The Price of a Black President”
The Hill (blog) – “Poll:  Racial attitudes towards blacks could cost Obama at the polls”  (I would recommend the Hill get a new Headline writer if this is the best they can do).
You know, I read the poll numbers, and there is a minor shift between 2010 and 2012 in approval ratings for the President, but then the economy still stinks and we’ve listened to two negative campaigns slamming each other for the past year, so shouldn’t we expect a shift in approval ratings?  As far as the race questions all three categories, White, Black and Hispanic shifted but I am not sure how in the limited sample size they had you could say with certainty it was beyond the margin of error found in any polling sample.
I wonder if the fact that any time someone is critical of the President some media type feels compelled to label that critic as a racist would have anything to do with these findings?
There is one thing I would take as a certainty.  Chris Matthews of MSNBC will have a field day with this poll.  I doubt he’ll read it, but I would expect he will cite it often, without any realization of his potential role in the shift, if in fact there is one.  

On the Death Penalty

I read a Blog Post the other day, and have been following the comments, on the issue of a State’s right to execute individuals?  The timing for the question comes after listening to a John Grisham book The Confession, whose premise is an innocent black man is executed before the hero and antagonist can arrive and overcome the bias of the Texas courts and Governor. 
Capital punishment, like other moral debates, stirs strong emotions and entrenched positions both for and against.  The purpose of judicial punishment is justice, not revenge, so unlike the Old Testament’s proclamation of “an eye for an eye” the court should not be metering out the sentence based on the emotions of those who’ve been victimized.  Those in favor of execution seem to cite two reasons for the continuation of the death penalty as a viable option.  The first is to ensure the safety of the population, and the second is to deter others from committing similar crimes.  Those opposed, point to the potential for error in the sentencing and the inhumanity of the sentence. 
The Supreme Court, as the court of last appeal, has ruled on a significant number of cases.  Often the plaintiff (the convicted), petitions the court for relief under the provisions of the 5th, 6th or 8th Amendments.  Sometimes convictions and the penalty are upheld, other times they are overturned.  Proponents will often cite this as validation the judicial system works and the risk of error is so small as to be acceptable.  I find no evidence the SCOTUS rules on the accuracy of the conviction; rather its focus is on the State’s compliance with the Constitutional safeguards.
As I consider the arguments for capital punishment I am not convinced that it actually serves to accomplish either of its two stated goals.  Murder is a violent act, and so often it is carried out by those who’ve given little thought to the consequence of their action, either to themselves or those who are affected by the death.  Within our separate state systems the timeframe from event to penalty is so long that I don’t know how anyone can think the potential for a death penalty presents a true deterrent? With the decision on seeking a death penalty resting in the hands of the prosecutor there are so many political considerations that come into play with the choice I am hard pressed to believe protection of the population is a central consideration at all.  All too often, the Prosecutors seem most interested in how quickly they can move from arrest to conviction with the least amount of effort.
On the other hand, I am unconvinced that life imprisonment is a more humane option to a death sentence.  While it would be nice to think of prison as a rehabilitative institution, reshaping the lives of the convicts to return them to useful members of society there is no evidence that our various systems even come close to fulfilling this role.  While it seems morally reprehensible to kill an innocent human being, a large percentage of our population advocates for that everyday, so apparently it is not that bad.  It is somewhat funny that on the one hand the same person can argue for the rights of a convicted killer while making other choices that run counter to that position.
So what is the right answer?  I don’t think there is one.  If we are to be a nation of laws we must work with our legislators to insure those laws are clear, unambiguous, and constitutional, and we must then hold our Judges, Prosecutors, and Defense Council’s to an expectation that those laws are fairly, and equally applied to all who come before the court. 
Since we are dealing with human institutions there will be mistakes and abuse, the founding fathers recognized this and put into place the checks and balances we have today.  The real question is are those checks and balances still working or should we consider some other safeguards?  For example, as science has unlocked DNA, should positive DNA connections be required for conviction, or would the compulsion for DNA sampling be against the accused rights?
At the end of the day, I guess I believe the State, and by this I mean the government of the State, has a right to set whatever level of punishment the general population agrees to, and is Constitutionally valid.  In some States that may mean the most severe penalty is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and in others it may mean execution.  While this may, on the surface, appear unjust it is within the rights we have assigned ourselves as a nation.  I can live with that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

And So We Come Full Circle?

In 1779, while serving in the Virginia General Assembly, Thomas Jefferson authored a bill of legislation that would ultimately become the basis for our Constitution’s First Amendment.  Titled A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, it was passed by the assembly in 1786, and laid out the principle that individuals could not be compelled by the state to participate in, or financially support organized religion, nor could he be compelled to alter his beliefs though civil penalties. 
I would draw your attention to this excerpt: “That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical;”
As a founder, along with James Madison, of what is today the Democratic Party I find it interesting that his party now seeks to compel, through law and regulation, principles that stand in direct contrast to his sentiments.  Maybe it is because they see themselves as something other than what they are?
You can believe what you will, but it is unmistakable that the proponents for Women’s Rights carry with them the same organizational fervor, as any Puritan living in Salem Mass in 1692.  They demand the government fund their right to choose, and when in a position of power have used their authority to force that obligation on those who hold different moral beliefs.  They have become, in every sense, the very thing that Thomas Jefferson argued so critically against.  When the expression of your belief is labeled as a war on woman, and is intended to disqualify one for public office, it would seem to be in direct opposition to what Thomas Jefferson labeled as man’s natural right.
I wonder what side President Jefferson would take in this debate?
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