Monday, June 30, 2008

A Sunday stroll in Paris

On Sunday my wife and I walked from where we live in the 11th arrondissement (district) of Paris to the 7th, passing much of historic Paris on the way. We had two goals: A gallery where an artist friend of ours was having an exhibition of her work, and the Catherine-Labouré garden, which is just down the street on the rue de Babylone. The journey was about an hour or so, punctuated by a stop for a Coke and a Perrier in a brasserie as it was a hot, humid day.

We just found out about this particular garden today, in an article about Paris gardens in the New York Times by the paper's former Paris bureau chief, Elaine Sciolino. Although we have lived here for 20 years, we often learn new things about our adopted city thanks to people, like Elaine, who have come here more recently or even visitors who have done good research before coming.

The photo above left is a cafe on the rue Vieille du Temple if I am remembering right.

This is the Paris city hall, the Hotel de Ville.

This is a "vegetation wall" by Patrick Blanc, on the rue de la Verrerie.

A view of the river Seine.

A playground at the Catherine-Labouré garden.

The French never forget Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Columbian Green politician held hostage by FARC in Colombia since 2002.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dodgers beat Angels without getting a hit

Now for this blog's first ever sports item: The Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Los Angeles Angels 1-0 yesterday even though they had a no-hitter pitched against them. Although I, a former Angeleno who has not lived in the city for 20 years, cannot name a single player on either team, this news evoked a powerful nostalgia in my Dodger's heart (which, like that of former manager Tommy Lasorda, still bleeds Dodger blue.)

I was a fan in the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, and the rest of the team that drove us entirely crazy during the 1960s. In those days you could get into the game free with coupons on the bottom of a Fritos box; usually they were games with second-string teams like the Cubs and the Mets (who were terrible in those days), although they gave us one or two Giants games each season. My friends and I discovered a door in the upper decks that was always open and led to a little-used stairwell . We would scoot down several flights of stairs, shoot across the corridor into a restroom in case a security guard was watching, and then stroll nonchalantly into the box seats area to take up whatever empty places were there.

A typical Dodger cycle went as follows: Sandy Koufax would strike out 12 batters in 6 innings, start getting tired and wild, and be taken out for Ron Perranoski; the next day, Don Drysdale would get off to a shaky start but eventually squeak by with a 5-3 win; third day, Johnny Padres would get hit for 2 homers in a row in the second or third inning and Perranoski would come in to pitch the rest of the game. Some rookie would pitch the fourth game, and then it would all start over again. At least, that's how I remember it.

Photo: Sandy Koufax throwing one of his blazing fastballs

Political Update: Glenn Greenwald posts an important, must-read commentary on the folly of the idea that Democrats, including of course presidential candidate Barack Obama, must "move to the center" if they want to win in November. A couple of excerpts:

In the 2006 midterm election, Karl Rove repeatedly made clear that the GOP strategy rested on making two National Security issues front and center in the midterm campaign: Democrats' opposition to warrantless eavesdropping and their opposition to "enhanced interrogation techniques" against Terrorists. Not only did the Democrats swat away those tactics, taking away control of both houses of Congress in 2006, but more unusually, not a single Democratic incumbent in either the House or Senate -- not one -- lost an election.


So what, then, is the basis for the almost-unanimously held Beltway conventional view that Democrats generally, and Barack Obama particularly, will be politically endangered unless they adopt the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and National Security, which -- for some reason -- is called "moving to the Center"? There doesn't appear to be any basis for that view. It's just an unexamined relic from past times, the immovable, uncritical assumption of Beltway strategists and pundits who can't accept that it isn't 1972 anymore -- or even 2002.

Beyond its obsolescence, this "move-to-the-center" cliché ignores the extraordinary political climate prevailing in this country, in which more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe the Government is fundamentally on the wrong track and the current President is one of the most unpopular in American history, if not the most unpopular. The very idea that Bush/Cheney policies are the "center," or that one must move towards their approach in order to succeed, ignores the extreme shifts in public opinion generally regarding how our country has been governed over the last seven years.

Wise observations from Greenwald. So why, then, is Obama doing just what he advises against?

Greenwald Update: Apparently Glenn has gotten into a debate with Keith Olbermann about Obama's support of the FISA wiretapping revisions. He comments on it here, with links to Olbermann's remarks. This might seem like inside baseball to those unable to cover the blogosphere like a blanket, but the issues are critical in my view. Despite how far ahead Obama is ahead of McCain in the polls, the worst thing he could do is be another Mr. Flip-Flop--have the Democrats learned no lessons from the Kerry campaign of '04?

More on "centrism": This time from Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Krugman raises the critical question of whether Obama is a truly transformative candidate or just another Bill Clinton who will compromise and "triangulate" and not make any fundamental changes. Krugman seems worried that it might be the latter. His punchline:

One thing is clear: for Democrats, winning this election should be the easy part. Everything is going their way: sky-high gas prices, a weak economy and a deeply unpopular president. The real question is whether they will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country’s direction. And that’s mainly up to Mr. Obama.

Actually, it's not entirely up to Obama. It's also up to his supporters and how willing they are to make excuses for their candidate, and how willing they are to keep him on the progressive path.

And more from Greenwald: This is the money graf from a more recent post.

The real danger is that those who defend Obama the Candidate no matter what he does are likely to defend Obama the President no matter what he does, too. If we learn in 2009 that Obama has invoked his claimed Article II powers to spy on Americans outside of even the new FISA law, are we going to hear from certain factions that he was justified in doing so to protect us; how it's a good, shrewd move to show he's a centrist and keep his approval ratings high so he can do all the Good things he wants to do for us; how it's different when Obama does it because we can trust him? It certainly looks that way. Those who spent the last five years mauling Bush for "shredding the Constitution" and approving of lawbreaking -- only to then praise Obama for supporting a bill that endorses and protects all of that -- are displaying exactly the type of blind reverence that is more dangerous than any one political leader could ever be.

And with this, I think this blog has posted enough on this topic for today. Go Dodgers!

Jazz: Straight no chaser

This week's "Straight No Chaser" podcast from the always terrific Jeffrey Siegel features a preview of acts from this weekend's Saratoga Jazz Festival. The podcast includes a haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" by Chris Botti. In the podcast, Jeffrey apparently slips up and refers to Jeff Buckley's cover of the song, thus sparking the confused comments by yours truly on Jeffrey's blog entry. Scroll down a bit in the entry and you will find the mp3 file of the program.

You can also listen to a very short excerpt of Botti's cover of "Hallelujah" here, and while I am at it, below also is a YouTube clip of Botti doing Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep."

The photo, of course, is Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was scheduled to perform at Saratoga.

Carl Zimmer talks with Paul Ehrlich

This week on, my friend and colleague Carl Zimmer, one of America's top science writers and author of the new book "Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life", talks with Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich on a range of subjects. Check it out, even if Ehrlich's apocalyptic predictions in "The Population Bomb" 40 years ago have not entirely come true (for more on that subject, read my story in Science a couple of years ago, "The Baby Deficit".)

The Loom

A Talk With Paul Ehrlich About The State of the World

Posted: 28 Jun 2008 09:00 AM CDT


I'm back on, talking this week with Paul Ehrlich about everything from climate change to Polynesian canoe oars to the origins of human culture to why cars are best for teenagers to make out in. Check it out.

Read the comments on this post...

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Addendum: The New York Times gives Carl's book an interesting and positive review today.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Meet Black Venus!

This is from the Culture Project in New York City, I've been on their mailing list since I saw George Packer's play "Betrayed" this past spring. The Culture Project is an exquisite blend of art and politics that deserves everyone's support. New Yorkers and visitors to New York, check them out.

They're hot. They're fierce. They're on the road to fame.

They're Black Venus.

Now you can meet them on Myspace.

It's the long awaited debut of Claudie and Alphine, lead singers of Black Venus!  Meet them here!
expatriate_181.jpgClaudie and Alphine have journeyed from Boston to the streets of New York and the jazz clubs of Paris, finding fame as Afro-jazz divas Black Venus. But will the secrets and emerging tensions between them destroy their relationship and newfound success?

Log on and listen to their new rocking new song "Roller Coaster," one of the sensational original numbers in EXPATRIATE, opening soon at Culture Project. And don't forget to sign on as a Black Venus friend.

Claudie and Alphine, played by Lenelle Moise and Karla Mosley, open in EXPATRIATE on July 7.

Buy your tickets now! The show has a strictly limited engagement!
Visit Culture Project to buy your tickets now, or call 212-352-3101.

Get your tickets for EXPATRIATE! It's the sizzling, summer show you won't want to miss!
EXPATRIATE. Written and composed by Lenelle Moise. Starring Lenelle Moise and Karla Mosley. Directed by Tamilla Woodard. Choreography by Nicco Annan.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Early Stonehenge Pilgrims Came From Afar, With Cattle in Tow

There's been a lot in the news lately about Stonehenge, the iconic, 5000 year old prehistoric monument in southern England. The June issue of National Geographic featured a photo-laden article about the latest discoveries there, and National Geographic Channel broadcast a program entitled "Stonehenge Decoded" at the beginning of this month.

Both the program and the magazine focused on excavations at Stonehenge over the past several years led by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and other well-known megalith experts from the U.K. Parker Pearson and his colleagues have concluded that Stonehenge, together with an earthwork "henge" monument nearby at Durrington Walls, constituted a ritual landscape in which the living venerated their dead. In this interpretation, Stonehenge was the domain of the ancestors and Durrington Walls the domain of the living.

In today's issue of Science, I write about the latest results from this dig, preliminary strontium analysis of the teeth of six cattle found at Durrington Walls, where at least 300 houses have been found during the excavations. The analysis shows that the cattle were brought to the area from as far away as Wales, suggesting that the houses were temporary residences for pilgrims visiting the two monuments during special times of the year (most likely the summer and winter solstices.) None of the cattle came from the immediate chalklands area on which the sites are situated. The Science story requires online access, but within copyright limitations I can give you a few tidbits:

The teeth were analyzed by Sarah Viner, a graduate student with University of Sheffield zooarchaeologist Umberto Albarella. Viner, in collaboration with Jane Evans of the Natural Environment Research Council's Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, U.K., looked at the ratio of two strontium isotopes, 87Sr and 86Sr, in the teeth of adult animals. This ratio varies depending on what type of soil the animals have grazed on: Higher ratios stem from Britain's older geological formations, and lower ratios arise in the younger chalklands of southern England where Stonehenge is located (see map). The strontium "signature" is laid down when the teeth are formed in growing animals and does not change later.

And here is a crucial issue:

Yet the discoveries at Durrington Walls are only relevant to Stonehenge if the two monuments are related. That has been unclear because of uncertainties in dating at both sites. Parker Pearson's team now appears to have closed this dating gap considerably: A reanalysis of earlier Stonehenge radiocarbon dates, published last year in Antiquity, puts the erection of the large stones--which weigh as much as 45 tons and were brought from about 30 kilometers away--at 2600 to 2400 B.C.E. An antler pick apparently used in the construction of the earthwork at Durrington Walls clocked in at 2570 to 2350 B.C.E., and a pig bone there was dated to between 2830 and 2470 B.C.E. "Mike needed to get those two monuments closer together in time, and he's done it," says Richard Bradley, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the U.K., though he notes that some wiggle room remains.

Parker Pearson thinks that Stonehenge's bluestones represented the ancestors of people who came from the site from Wales (the bluestones, weighing 3-4 tons each, were probably transported nearly 400 kilometers to the site by land, sea, and river.) Nevertheless, a second team, led by British archaeologists Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, has proposed the alternative hypothesis that the bluestones were thought to have "healing" powers and that Stonehenge was rather a temple of healing.

The Parker Pearson team will be returning to the area this summer to begin digging at a new site west of the stone pillars, dated to about 3000 B.C.E.--when, as I say in the article, "Stonehenge was still just an earthwork circle and the monument we see today was just a gleam in a prehistoric eye."

PS--You can view some photos of the recent Darvill/Wainwright excavations within Stonehenge's stone circle here. They were taken by Paul Cripps, and the BBC's Timewatch program also covered that dig.

Stonehenge Update (Sept 15): A program about some of the latest work at Stonehenge will be broadcast September 27 both on the Smithsonian Channel and BBC2.

Science Update: A retired radiation expert and a Spanish science writer have sued to stop the Large Hadron Collider, arguing that it could lead to the end of the world. Will they succeed? Will the earth be saved? A true test for the American judicial system.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trigger happy troops and Iraqi civilian casualties

As media analysts have noted, the Iraq war has been falling off the front pages lately, no doubt a combination of apathy, "war fatigue" (a malady often suffered by those who don't have to fight), and absorption in the presidential campaign. Thus I doubt if very many people even bother reading stories like this one in today's New York Times entitled "8 Civilians Killed in 2 Disputed Attacks, Iraq Says." But I think it would be worth it to take a closer look at the article, because when the incidents it relates are magnified hundreds or thousands of times it becomes easier to understand why even the very lowest contested estimates of Iraqi civilian casulaties are in the tens of thousands. It also provides insights into the trigger-happy nature of the American presence.

So let's reorganize the article and juxtapose the conflicting accounts. The first concerns a car with 3 people inside that was shot at as it passed a convoy near the Baghdad airport. Here is the American version of events:

In the shooting near the Baghdad Airport, one of the most tightly guarded locations in Iraq, the American military said “three criminals” fired at soldiers about 8:40 a.m. while their convoy was stopped on the side of the road.

“The soldiers returned fire, which resulted in the vehicle running off the road and striking a wall,” the military said in a written statement. “The vehicle then exploded.” The attack left bullet holes in two of the convoy vehicles, the military said, and a weapon was found in the car, though the statement did not say whether the holes matched the caliber of that weapon.

Now here is the Iraqi version:

Officials at the hospital identified the charred bodies of the dead as those of Hafed Abdul Mahdi, director of the bank at the airport, and Surur Shadid Ahmed and Maha Adnan Yunis, women who worked at the bank.

So when the U.S. military stated that "three criminals" fired on American troops, they are referring to the director of the bank and two employees. Had they robbed their own bank and were making their getaway? We can't be sure, because this brief report does not specify whether they were driving towards or away from the bank (of course they may have been on their way to the bank to rob it.) An alternative scenario might be that they lived double lives as bank employees and insurgent terrorists.

On to the second incident, in which an American helicopter fired missiles into a home in Tikrit. Again, the U.S. version:

The American military confirmed an airstrike had taken place, but said an “Al Qaeda terrorist” had fired at the service members. Soldiers surrounded the building where the man was hiding and called for him to come out, the military said, but after perceiving “hostile intent,” they called in the airstrike.

American soldiers and Iraqi police determined that the man had been killed but did not find other victims, the military said. Four women in a neighboring building “sustained only minor injuries,” the military said.

Now for the Iraqi version: American helicopter fired missiles into a home near Tikrit, killing a family of five, local officials and a relative said.

The episode began when Afar Ahmed Zidan thought he heard thieves prowling near his home in the darkness, a cousin, Hussain al-Azawi, said. Mr. Zidan went outside and fired at them, Mr. Azawi said.

But the men in the darkness turned out to be American infantrymen conducting a search, Mr. Azawi said. They returned fire, wounding Mr. Zidan, who rushed inside and frantically called his cousin to alert him to what had happened, Mr. Azawi said. Then the Americans called in an airstrike that killed Mr. Zidan, his wife and three children, all under 10 years old, Mr. Azawi said.

“The Americans shot two rockets into the house,” he said. The rocket strike also wounded three of Mr. Zidan’s neighbors, who were taken to a hospital, he said.

Officials from the local council in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, said Wednesday that they believed five people had been killed in the American airstrike, and that they had sent a representative to attend the funerals.

Well, this one could have been an honest misunderstanding--but if the soldiers had the house surrounded, why did they need to call in an airstrike, thus killing an entire family, if the Iraqi version is to be believed? Could they not have made some local inquiries about who was in the house?

Indeed, one gets the impression after each of these kinds of episodes that the U.S. military simply makes up stories to cover their tracks (how, for example, do they figure out so soon after such an event that the gunman was from Al Qaeda? Do the terrorists have Al Qaeda membership cards in their wallets? Or do they wear Al Qaeda team sweaters?) Especially telling is that in almost every single case, the American account is contradicted not by reporters interviewing members of Al Qaeda, but local and national Iraqi officials--you know, the people on our side.

Anyone who has followed the Iraq war closely knows that such incidents are daily occurrences. And yet they do not seem to have sparked any changes in the "rules of engagement" for U.S. soldiers, which seem to consist of calling in airstrikes on civilian homes first and asking questions later. So much for "winning hearts and minds."

PS--Next time you see one of these stories in the press, read it carefully all the way through. You will find out more about what is really going on in Iraq than in all the General Petraeus press conferences put together.

PPS--The article I linked to in the lead of this post is a piece in the American Journalism Review titled "Whatever Happened to Iraq?" by AJR senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi. I would urge you to read it.

Image: Iraq Body Count.

Update (June 30): According to today's New York Times, there has been another such incident of civilian deaths and criticism of recent U.S. actions by the Iraqi government.

Update (July 28): A month later, the U.S. miliary has now been forced to admit that the car in which bank employees were riding was, in fact, a car in which bank employees were riding.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The war on teen terror (an article by Human Rights Watch)


The war on teen terror

The Bush administration's treatment of juvenile prisoners shipped to Guantánamo Bay defies logic as well as international law.

By Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director, published in

June 24, 2008 | Guantánamo Bay, Cuba – When Mohammed Jawad took the stand in a courtroom at the U.S. Naval base here late last week, he described a litany of abuse he has endured while detained at Guantánamo, including a sleep deprivation regime known colloquially as the "frequent flyer" program.

"Day and night, they were shifting me from one room to another room," Jawad said. "I don't remember how much time I slept, but it was only a short time before they were knocking on my door and shifting me from place to place. No one answered me why they were giving me this punishment."  
Military records showed that during a 14-day period in May 2004, Jawad was moved from cell to cell 112 times, usually left in one cell for less than three hours before being shackled and moved to another. Between midnight and 2 a.m. he was moved more frequently to ensure maximum disruption of sleep.  
Such tactics used against a detainee would have been severe under any circumstances – Department of Defense guidance limits sleep deprivation to a maximum of four days – but in the case of Jawad, they are particularly disturbing because he was a scared and suicidal teenager at the time. Jawad's military-appointed lawyer, Maj. David Frakt, described the tactics as "sadistic and pointless," and moved to dismiss the charges against his client on grounds of torture.  
Jawad was arrested by Afghan police in December 2002 after allegedly throwing a grenade into a U.S. army vehicle in Afghanistan that severely injured two U.S. soldiers and their Afghan translator. Frakt argues that Jawad was drugged and forced to fight with Afghan militia. Jawad doesn't know his exact birth date, but was 16 or 17 years old at the time. In early 2003, he was brought to Guantánamo.  
According to government records obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, more than 20 detainees under the age of 18 have been brought to the prison camp since 2002. The treatment of underage prisoners at Guantánamo, largely in defiance of international law, is one of various ways in which the Bush administration's policies have tainted prospects for Guantánamo detainees ever to be brought to justice under U.S. law.  
Although most of the 20 juvenile detainees have now been released, three remain, having spent more than a quarter of their lives at Guantánamo. The other two juvenile detainees were each only 15 years old when they were apprehended. Mohammad El Gharani was arrested at a mosque in Pakistan and brought to Guantánamo in early 2002. Omar Khadr, a Canadian, was apprehended in July 2002 after a firefight in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier. Held for several months in Afghanistan, he was barely 16 when he arrived here later that same year.  
The presence of juveniles at Guantánamo first came to light in 2003, when media reports revealed the age of the youngest detainee at Guantánamo – who was only 13 years old. Unable to explain how a 13-year-old could be classified as being among "the worst of the worst," as top Bush officials had described Guantánamo's prisoner population, the Pentagon realized it had a PR problem on its hands. It quickly created a special camp for the three detainees between ages 13 and 15. At Camp Iguana, these children received math and English classes and access to a social worker and recreational facilities. Bizarrely and perhaps without any sense of irony, they were permitted to watch movies including "Cast Away." Defense Department officials proudly gave tours of the special facility.  
That year, on behalf of Human Rights Watch, I had several meetings with Pentagon representatives to discuss the fate of these children. In early 2004, they were released to UNICEF in Afghanistan for rehabilitation. But whenever I tried to raise the case of Omar Khadr (we were unaware of El Gharani and Jawad's cases at the time) I received the same response: "Khadr is off the table; we will not discuss Khadr."  
Unlike with the three boys held at Camp Iguana and released for rehabilitation, the Pentagon has never acknowledged the juvenile status of Khadr, Jawad or El Gharani. Although international law provides that anyone under 18 is a child and entitled to special treatment, the Defense Department created its own standard: Anyone who was 16 would automatically be treated as an adult. When I asked Defense Department officials in 2004 about the rationale for this policy, they had no reply. One official finally admitted to me that it was completely arbitrary.  
During last week's hearing, Frakt, Jawad's attorney, asked the prosecutor who authorized the charges against Jawad: "You did not believe his age was worthy of bringing to the attention of the convening authority?" Lt. Col. William Britt's answer: "No, I didn't."  
The Bush administration's refusal to treat these prisoners as juveniles has had profound consequences for Khadr, Jawad and El Gharani. They have had no access to education or recreation facilities and have been housed in the same facilities as adult detainees. After five years of imprisonment, Jawad remains functionally illiterate. None of the three have been allowed to see members of their family.  
The effects of prolonged isolation have taken a severe toll. El Gharani has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly into the sides of his cell and tried to hang himself. On several occasions he has been placed on suicide watch in a mental health unit.  
Jawad also tried to commit suicide about 11 months after arriving in Guantánamo, by hanging himself by his shirt collar. Prison records also state that he "attempted self-harm by banging his head off of metal structures inside his cell."  
On the witness stand last week Jawad referred to his suicide attempt. "Islam never permits [suicide], but when a person is in great trouble, it was beyond my control. That's why I tried that." His lawyer says that Jawad seems to have lost touch with reality and suffers from major depression.  
At O'Kelley's bar, an incongruous Irish pub at the naval base here, journalists, defense lawyers and human rights observers gather to talk about the bizarre world of Guantánamo. I've heard people express disbelief repeatedly that although the United States has detained nearly 700 suspects at Guantánamo since its inception, it has singled out two juveniles to be among the first detainees prosecuted under the military commissions. Officials associated with the military commissions have suggested that the youths' alleged direct attacks on U.S. soldiers would "capture the imagination" of the American public.  
Strikingly, it was just around the time that Khadr, El Gharani and Jawad were transferred to Guantánamo that the U.S. ratified an international treaty barring the use of children under 18 in armed conflict. The treaty also obligates governments to help rehabilitate child soldiers and help them reintegrate into society.  
In some respects, the U.S. has taken its new responsibilities seriously: Each branch of the armed forces adopted new policies to keep American military personnel out of combat until they reach age 18 and to delay deployment of 17-year-old volunteers. Since 2001, the U.S. has also contributed more than $34 million around the globe to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to demobilize and reintegrate child combatants. Since 2003, $4.5 million in U.S. funds has supported a demobilization program for over 5,000 former child soldiers in Afghanistan.  
The commitment to rehabilitation, however, seems to be missing in action when child soldiers engaging U.S. forces are captured.  
Khadr's attorneys argued at Guantánamo in February that as a former child soldier, Khadr should not be tried before a military commission. They claimed that international law obligates the U.S. to treat Khadr as a victim, not to punish him, and that Congress did not give the military tribunals jurisdiction over crimes by juveniles. The military judge rejected their motion.  
As the proceedings move forward the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to Khadr's juvenile status. Recently, his attorneys requested funding to secure a child psychologist and psychiatrist as expert witnesses at Khadr's trial. Those requests also were denied.  
International law does not preclude the possibility of prosecuting former child soldiers for serious criminal offenses. But the standards are very clear: Such cases should be handled as quickly as possible through specialized juvenile justice systems. Rehabilitation must be the primary objective, and conditions of detention must include access to family, education, recreation and other special assistance.  
On every count, the U.S. has failed at Guantánamo to meet these requirements.  
The judge in Khadr's case announced last week that Khadr's trial would begin on October 8. Even if acquitted, however, the U.S. government has said that it may continue to detain him "in order to mitigate the threat posed by the detainee."  
Jawad's hearings will resume in August.  
El Gharani has not been charged, and spends his days languishing in a cell with little more than a mattress, a copy of the Quran and toilet paper.

Related Material

Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantanamo
Report, June 10, 2008

The Guantanamo Hearings
Special Focus, May 4, 2008

More on Guantanamo
Thematic Page

Obama is NOT a Muslim, what a smear, what an insult!

The recent reports that Barack Obama is distancing himself from Muslims are detailed enough to be taken seriously, and to be the subject of serious concern. A lot of us rejected Hillary Clinton in part because of her blatant opportunism and implicit and explicit appeals to racism during her campaign. We wanted a more principled candidate, one who will not just say or do anything to get elected. In other words, a candidate who will tell people what they need to hear, not what they think they want to hear. We've already heard Obama pander to the Israel lobby in the worst possible way, and to some extent this has already backfired on him; will he now pander to those who think that being a Muslim is somehow a negative thing, or who have confused being a Muslim with being a terrorist?

Oh, I know, he needs to do this to get elected and then he can pursue the righteous path of respecting civil rights and bringing us all together. Isn't that what all politicians tell themselves? Isn't that essentially what John McCain is telling himself when he plays to the "politics of fear" in his campaign against Obama? That he needs to attack Obama in this way so he can get elected and protect the nation from its enemies?

Here's a novel idea: Instead of pandering to "where people are at" in order to win votes, how about trying to win votes by changing minds? What's that you say? That's what Obama thinks too, that is his new politics? Okay then, let's see it in practice.

Photo: Uncredited on the Website.

Addendum: Speaking of what people need to hear, the International Herald Tribune today features an opinion piece by UCLA professor about the incredibly stifling, totalitarian nature of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, with a focus on the bureaucratic nightmare the occupying power has created. The writer, Saree Makdisi, does us the service of stating what the real intentions of Israeli policy are:

Partly, this occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of slowly, gradually removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make way for Jewish settlers.

What we are seeing, while the United States and much of the world try to pretend that it is not happening, is the slow fulfillment of the original Zionist strategy of taking over all of Palestine (for evidence, be sure to read Ilan Pappe's "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.")

Update: The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows Obama with a 12 point lead over McCain among registered voters. It appears that McCain is suffering from a "passion gap" among conversative voters who just can't get very excited about his candidacy. The opposite is true of Obama supporters, the poll finds. We already saw how Clinton's pandering backfired on her, let's hope that Obama will campaign from that position of strength rather than appearing weak on his principles--as did both Gore and Kerry, with disastrous results.

LANDMARK! Sometime in the last 24 hours, this blog welcomed its 2000th visitor since it opened for business in April. Not all that impressive, perhaps, but hits are up (and comments too) which means I won't be shutting down operations any time soon. The life of a blogger can be lonely sometimes, but nice to know at least someone is reading my spout-offs. Thanks to everyone.

Update (June 26): In a column in the New York Times today, Roger Cohen suggests that Barack Obama visit a mosque as a statement against anti-Muslim prejudice. Not a bad idea.

George W. Bush Sewage Plant

Apparently some citizens of San Francisco are putting a measure on the ballot that would change the name of their award-winning sewage treatment plant, the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant, to honor the presidency of George W. Bush. The New York Times points out that since S.F. voted 83% Democratic in 2004 the measure has a good chance of passing. It would take effect on January 20, when a new president is sworn in and Bush will need all the commemorations that the judgement of history can afford him.

Supporters of the bill also plan to celebrate the inaugural with a "synchronized flush of hundreds of thousands of San Francisco toilets, an action that would send a flood of water toward the plant," the Times reports.

In other news relevant to Bush's place in history, a bipartisan group of more than 200 former government officials, retired military officers, and the like is calling for a presidential order forbidding torture and other "harsh interrogation" methods, as well as the "rendition" of detainees to countries that torture prisoners. That might have to wait until the inauguration as well.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And I'm supposed to lose sleep over Iran's nukes?

The New York Times today has an article by Carlotta Gall basically saying that no one is in charge in Pakistan. It is somewhere behind the first page of the print edition, although it is the right-hand headline story in today's International Herald Tribune. It seems that American officials are concerned that means no one is fighting terrorism. My concern is that Pakistan is a country that actually has an atomic bomb, and the means to deliver it; contrast this with Iran, which not only doesn't have a bomb but according to intelligence estimates has suspended its efforts to get one.

So if no one is in charge in Pakistan, who's got their fingers on the nuclear buttons?

And why are we hearing so much about Iran?

By the way, "rogue" countries would not be so eager to get their hands on atomic weapons were it not for the fact that all of the nuclear powers are in violation of both the spirit and the letter of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which required them to do a lot more than they have to reduce and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons. Pakistan is one of the few countries, along with India, Israel, and North Korea, that have not signed it.

News Backdate: I've just come across a McClatchy story from last week about Guantanamo detainees, suggesting that the U.S. has created more terrorists by imprisoning people there for flimsy reasons. Check it out.

Update (June 30): Apparently even some veteran Cold Warriors, including Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, see the need to finally get rid of the world's nuclear arsenals (perhaps prompted by the fact that they are no longer only in "safe hands.") Read more about it here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, RIP

Back in the 1970s, when Pacifica radio (where I got my start in journalism in 1978) aired Carlin's "Seven Filthy Words" routine, a lot of people thought it was just about talking dirty. But it really was about freedom of speech, and resulted in a close, 5-4 Supreme Court decision in FCC v Pacifica. The Court upheld the right of the FCC to brand the routine "indecent" even if it wasn't "obscene," but that hasn't stopped it from becoming a comedy classic.

You can read Carlin's New York Times obituary here, a Los Angeles Times piece here, and of course there will be many other retrospectives to come (here are lengthy and informative ones from blogger pals Marc Cooper and Andrew Hunt.)

My favorite Carlin routine is the one about the difference between baseball and football, true brilliance:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Provoking terrorism

Today's essential Sunday reading is a piece in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, writing from Hebron, where 800 illegal Jewish settlers are under an Israeli government protection so draconian that the Palestinian residents of the city live under constant siege. As Kristof writes:

The security system that Israel is steadily establishing is nowhere more stifling than here in Hebron, the largest city in the southern part of the West Bank. In the heart of a city with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people. To protect them, the Israeli military has established a massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001.


“For years, Israel has severely oppressed Palestinians living in the center of the city,” notes B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, in a recent report. The authorities, it adds, “have expropriated the city center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically.”

And most importantly:

It is here in the Palestinian territories that you see the worst side of Israel: Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians (almost one-third of settlement land is actually privately owned by Palestinians); Palestinian women giving birth at checkpoints because Israeli soldiers won’t let them through (four documented cases last year); the diversion of water from Palestinians. (Israelis get almost five times as much water per capita as Palestinians.)

Yet it is also here that you see the very best side of Israel. Israeli human rights groups relentlessly stand up for Palestinians. Israeli women volunteer at checkpoints to help Palestinians through. Israeli courts periodically rule in favor of Palestinians. Israeli scholars have published research that undermines their own nation’s mythologies. Many Israeli journalists have been fair-minded toward Palestinians in a way that Arab journalists have rarely reciprocated.

For years, uncritical defenders of Israel (and that includes way too many American Jews) have tried to obfuscate what is in reality a very simple situation: Since 1948, Israel has stolen, expropriated, and occupied Palestinian land, then turned around and used Palestinian resistance as an excuse and cover to steal, expropriate, and occupy even more Palestinian land.

As Kristof implies, however, many Israelis have long understood this fundamental truth, even if many American Jews are far behind in grasping the realities of the situation.

Is it really any surprise that some Palestinians have turned to violence, including "terrorism"? Back when I was a 60s radical, we used to say that the oppressor has no right to criticize the tactics of the oppressed. We were thinking of places like South Africa then, and the struggle against apartheid. I fully endorse the viewpoint that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories is equivalent to apartheid. Those who would criticize Palestinian violence, and the extremism of groups like Hamas, need to show us that they are doing something about the conditions which produce it--otherwise, to put it bluntly, they really have no right to complain.

PS--I came across a remarkable account by a British doctor who visited Palestine last year, vividly photographed and eloquently written. Worth checking out.

Afterthoughts: Sharp criticisms of Israel have become mainstream, as Kristof's piece and many others like it demonstrate. That alone is a significant sign of progress, and of hope.

Photo: Hebron settlers attacking Palestinians.

Update (June 24): The Times today publishes an article about B'Tselem's program to arm Palestinians with video cameras which resulted in a widely broadcast clip of Jewish settlers near Hebron beating a Palestinian family. For more about B'Tselem and its work, check our the human rights organization's Web site.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Obama in Paris

Several dozen Obama supporters turned out on Saturday to support their candidate on the Debilly footbridge, as announced on this blog earlier. In a special surprise, Obama himself showed up to have his picture taken with the crowd. :-)

The French love Obama, as do most Europeans; I just hope the rightwing smearmeisters won't hold that against him they way they did with John Kerry (see previous post.)

Photo: Michael Balter (feel free to reproduce as long as you give me credit!)

Has the spirit gone out of the smear?

Is it possible that the classic rightwing smear tactics just aren't gonna make it this election year? (psst, Barack Obama is--pass it on--Black!) That's the implication in a New York Times story today by Michael Luo, with the amusing title "Ready to Attack Obama, if Some Money Shows Up." Much of the story is about a smearmeister named Floyd Brown, shown in a photo with his son Patrick, both gazing seriously at laptops in the University Place, Washington headquarters of Brown is already in action, producing a television advertisement (see YouTube clip below), playing on some cable stations in Michigan, insinuating that Obama is a Muslim (by the way, what if he were?)

Apparently Obama mentioned Brown and his efforts by name when he announced that he was renouncing public financing. But what if they gave a smear and nobody showed up? That's the gist of the Times article, which predicts that it is going to be much harder this year for professional sleazeballs to scrape up the money needed to spread the sleaze around.

Says the article:

No major independent effort to help Senator John McCain’s campaign has materialized. Although Republican operatives say something will eventually develop, alarm has spread among many, especially after Mr. Obama’s announcement on Thursday on public financing, raising the prospect that he will wield an enormous financial advantage over Mr. McCain in the fall.

Like the good reporter he is, Luo talked to a number of sleazeballs, but things are not looking good:

Several Republican strategists interviewed voiced skepticism about Mr. Brown’s chances of operating at anything other than the periphery of the general election this year, citing the amount of money needed, the difficulty of spreading a message that incites the grass roots and stricter regulation of independent groups.

“There’s a lot of people who are trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but there’s very few people who have,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who helped organize the Swift Boat effort.

I could be wrong, but is it possible that at least some of the mudslingers just don't have their hearts in it this year? After all, Democratic candidates like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry made themselves easy targets by their decisive lack of charisma (yes, I am including Al Gore, it doesn't count if you only get your charisma on when it doesn't count anymore.) And Bill Clinton, who did have charisma (note I say did), survived the biggest army of sleazeballs ever assembled (one which would have materialized again had Hillary Clinton won the nomination.) We have seen a number of leading conservatives say positive things about Obama lately, and even Colin Powell was quoted recently saying he wasn't sure who he was going to vote for, McCain or Obama.

At the very least, the mudslingers are going to have to come up with something better than that attack ad suggesting Obama is a Muslim, because the only people who are going to fall for that kind of thing are those who wouldn't be likely to vote for a Democrat anyway. Obama is the kind of candidate who, rightly or wrongly, makes people dream that things could be better--and in their hearts of hearts, a lot of conversatives might be dreamers too.

PSst--Obama is a liberal, pass it on.

PPS--You probably would like some evidence that what I say above is true. Okay: Hillary Clinton ran through the entire rightwing smear playbook during the primaries, and it didn't work.

News Update: My colleague John Bohannon reports today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, about a new study concluding that the number of war-related fatalities since 1955 is three times previous estimates. The study is published in the British Medical Journal. John does quote some skeptical comment, however, and as most readers know the casualty rate in Iraq is the subject of long-running controversies. The ScienceNOW link is freely accessible for 30 days before it goes behind the paying wall.

Smear Update (June 25): Joe Conason has a post on Truthdig reporting that the smear brigade is gearing up. We shall see how they fare.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bridges for Obama ("Yes We Span")

The organization Democrats Abroad France and other Paris Democrats are organizing a "bridge-in" for Barack Obama this Saturday, June 21, at 3 PM, on the Debilly footbridge in Paris. The bridge connects the Palais de Tokyo on the right bank with the Quai Branly Museum on the left bank (don't miss this fantastic ethnographic/anthropological museum if you are in Paris, it is an architectural marvel.)

The photo at left, taken by my friend and colleague Alison Harris, shows the bridge when there are few people on it. The organizers are hoping to fill it with Democrats (and other Obama supporters) for a huge group photo with the Eiffel Tower in the background. For anyone interested (you have to be in Paris, or get there by Saturday), the bridge is just downstream of the Place de l'Alma. If I make it, I will post a photo of what it looks like when it is full of Obamaniacs.

Photo: Courtesy of Alison Harris

PS--In case anyone is wondering, the corny "yes we span" phrase comes from the organizers, not your highly sophisticated blog host. :-)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

If there are "gay genes," why don't they die out?

A new paper in the journal Public Library of Science ONE offers a possible solution to the "Darwinian paradox" posed by genetic models of homosexuality. I write about the paper in a news story today for Science's online news service, ScienceNOW. The link is free for 30 days, then requires a paying sub, so here is the text below. The journal is public access, however, so you can read the paper as well (good luck with the math!)

"Gay Genes" May Be Good for Women

By Michael Balter
ScienceNOW Daily News
18 June 2008

As gay couples race to the altar in California this week, scientists may have found an answer to the so-called gay paradox. Studies suggest that homosexuality is at least partly genetic. And although homosexuals have far fewer children than heterosexuals, so-called gay genes apparently survive in the population. A new study bolsters support for an intriguing idea: These same genes may increase fertility in women.

Despite some tantalizing leads over the past 2 decades, researchers have yet to isolate any genes directly linked to homosexuality. Nevertheless, a number of studies have shown that male homosexuals have more gay male relatives on their maternal lines than on their paternal lines, leading some scientists to suggest that gay genes might be found on the X chromosome. And in 2004, a team led by evolutionary psychologist Andrea Camperio Ciani of the University of Padua in Italy reported that women related to gay men had more children than women related to heterosexual men. The differences were striking: The mothers of gay men, for example, had an average of 2.7 children, compared with 2.3 children for the mothers of heterosexual men. A similar trend held for maternal aunts.

In new work, reported online this week in PLoS ONE, Camperio Ciani and his colleagues used mathematical modeling to see what kinds of genetic scenarios could explain these results. The team looked at more than two dozen possibilities, such as the number of "gay genes" (one or two), how much of a reproductive advantage the genes provided, and whether the genes were located on the X chromosome or other, nonsex (autosomal) chromosomes. The model that best explained the data consisted of two "gay genes," with at least one on the X chromosome. These genes increased the fertility of women but decreased it in men--a phenomenon previously studied in insects and mammals called "sexual antagonism."

Camperio Ciani's team suggests that these gay genes may actually increase how attracted both men and women are to men rather than making gay men more "feminine," as some researchers had earlier proposed. Although this is bad for male fertility, it is good for female fertility and allows such genes to survive at low but stable rates in a population, the authors say.

Dean Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who pioneered the search for gay genes, calls the study "an elegant mathematical analysis." He adds that the team has come up with a "simple solution" to the Darwinian paradox posed by homosexuality: "What is a 'gay gene' in a man is a 'superstraight gene' in a woman," he says.

Photo: Erin Siegal/Reuters

Cyd Charisse, RIP

PS--While we are in a musical mood, Ken Laster's latest jazz podcast, entitled "A Groove for Dad," is one of his best lately. Here's the playlist--and you can download the podcast here.

Track * Artist * Album
Song For My Father * Horace Silver * Song for My Father
Witch Doctor * Dr. Lonnie Smith * Jungle Soul
Wilkes BBQ * Bobby Watson * From The Heart
Four * Eric Alexander, John Hicks, George Mraz And Idris Muhammad * Solid!
Mode For Joe * Joe Henderson * Mode For Joe
Bags' Groove (take 1) * Miles Davis * Bags' Groove
Canadian Sunset * Jake Langley * Movin' & Groovin'
Midnight Special * Jimmy Smith * Fourmost
Softly as in a Morning Sunrise * Larry Young * Unity
Time of the Season * Larry Golding Trio * As One

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

10 more years in Iraq?

My usual source of morning news, the New York Times, has an article today about an Army "overseer" who was fired after he questioned more than $1 billion in questionable charges to "KBR, the Houston-based company that has provided food, housing and other services to American troops." The key information:

The official, Charles M. Smith, was the senior civilian overseeing the multibillion-dollar contract with KBR during the first two years of the war. Speaking out for the first time, Mr. Smith said that he was forced from his job in 2004 after informing KBR officials that the Army would impose escalating financial penalties if they failed to improve their chaotic Iraqi operations.

The article, by James Risen, is worth reading for its insights into how the war in Iraq has been a major boondoggle for American corporations. But buried in this article is the incredible information that KBR was recently awarded part of a 10-year, $150 billion contract to continue supplying the troops.

A contract for 10 years? I had not heard about this before, but here are more details in a Risen article from May 24:

Last month the Pentagon awarded the companies pieces of a new contract to provide food, shelter and basic services for American soldiers, a 10-year, $150 billion deal that stretches far beyond the final days of the Bush administration. KBR will still get a sizable chunk of the business, but now it will have to share the work with Fluor Corporation and DynCorp International.

The article also points out, as many of you already know:

KBR, previously a subsidiary of Halliburton, once headed by Mr. Cheney, has collected more than $24 billion since the war began. It has 40,000 employees in Iraq and 28,000 more in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Now, it is always possible that I have not been paying attention, and that everyone knows about this but me. Yet somehow I doubt it. What sort of a contract is this? Can a new president cancel it, or are the taxpayers stuck with the bill no matter what? I don't know the answers, but I wonder why we have heard so little about it. Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is supposed to be looking into this sort of thing. In response to Smith's charges, Risen quotes Waxman as follows:

When told of Mr. Smith’s account, Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it “is startling, and it confirms the committee’s worst fears. KBR has repeatedly gouged the taxpayer, and the Bush administration has looked the other way every time.”

Fine words, and Waxman is one of our best representatives, but I wonder why Congress is allowing the lame-duck Bush administration to prop up these war profiteers for another 10 years. Perhaps I am just naive.

Appeasement Watch: The Times also reports today that Israel is talking with Hezbollah about a prisoner exchange, with Syrian representatives in Turkey, and with Hamas about a possible truce in Gaza. Israeli leaders obviously did not take Bush's recent comments before the Knesset (a thinly veiled attack on Obama) very seriously, even if some American politicians did. They must be some of those "self-hating Jews" you sometimes hear about.

Appeasement Update: The Times says tonight (June 17) that Israel and Hamas have agreed on a cease-fire, after, um, talking.

Racism Watch: University of Waterloo historian Andrew Hunt, who blogs at Andrew's Tiki Lounge, had a particularly perceptive post yesterday about a Barack Obama puppet in the form of a monkey. Andrew hits just the right notes on this controversy, and takes bloggers on both sides of the issue to task for their lack of communication skills.

Torture Watch: The Washington Post reports today the findings of a Senate investigation which concludes that top Pentagon officials began exploring torture methods in 2002 and then tried to make it look as though those initiatives came from lower down the military food chain. The first two grafs:

A Senate investigation has concluded that top Pentagon officials began assembling lists of harsh interrogation techniques in the summer of 2002 for use on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and that those officials later cited memos from field commanders to suggest that the proposals originated far down the chain of command, according to congressional sources briefed on the findings.

The sources said that memos and other evidence obtained during the inquiry show that officials in the office of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld started to research the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and other practices in July 2002, months before memos from commanders at the detention facility in Cuba requested permission to use those measures on suspected terrorists.

Torture update (June 18): The Washington Post carries a report today that exams by human rights physicians have found evidence of torture and maltreatment of former prisoners from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The first two grafs:

Medical examinations of former terrorism suspects held by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, found evidence of torture and other abuse that resulted in serious injuries and mental disorders, according to a human rights group.

For the most extensive medical study of former U.S. detainees published so far, Physicians for Human Rights had doctors and mental health professionals examine 11 former prisoners. The group alleges finding evidence of U.S. torture and war crimes and accuses U.S. military health professionals of allowing the abuse of detainees, denying them medical care and providing confidential medical information to interrogators that they then exploited.

Cookie Watch: Oh no, looks like Cindy McCain is at it again. The Huffington Post reports that she has stolen another recipe and tried to pass it off as her own (or perhaps another "low-level" intern did it again.) This time it's oatmeal-butterscotch cookies apparently taken from Hershey's Web site. Doesn't someone as rich as Cindy have a cook she can steal her recipes from?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Abandoned in the Arctic

If anyone is going to be in the Boston/Cambridge area this week, my Boston University colleague Gino Del Guercio is screening his new film at the Harvard Natural History Museum. Details below:

Harvard Museum of Natural History
Thursday, June 19, 7:00 pm
Science Center Hall B
One Oxford Street, Cambridge
This new, 90-minute documentary tells the harrowing story of the Greely expedition which set out in 1881 to build an arctic research station. What began as an ambitious expedition descended into a three-year journey of starvation, mutiny, and alleged cannibalism. The screening will be followed by a short discussion with director Gino Del Guercio, executive producer Geoffrey Clark, and James Shedd, great-great-grandson of Adolphus Greeley. Click here for more information.
No advance reservations or tickets required.
Abandoned in the Arctic
Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Addendum: Boston University science journalism student Nuño Dominguez has posted a preview of the film on the Science Metropolis blog, complete with film clip.

Too much testimonializing about Tim Russert?

The day after Tim Russert died, I briefly posted a somewhat contrarian view to the avalanche of praise and testimonials to the late "Meet the Press" moderator, only to think the better of it and pull the item. My second thoughts were partly due to "respect for the dead," and partly due to a feeling of collegiality with a fellow journalist.

But after watching Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition" yesterday, which featured numerous clips of Russert (including several self-serving ones designed to show what great friends Russert and Blitzer had been), and after reading William Kristol telling us in the New York Times today what an "awfully good guy" Russert had been, I now feel that something contrarian does indeed need to be said (or at least the need to link to those who have already said it quite well.)

In my original post, I linked to Marc Cooper's day-after-death comments, "Requiem for Pope Russert," in which Marc points out the real context for the fawning over Russert:

It should come as little surprise that, precisely at a time when the sanctimony of the Old Media stands threatened by blasphemes, bloggers and an increasingly agnostic public, the choirboys, priests and cardinals of the Media Church should treat the passing of a figure like Tim Russert as if it were the demise of the Pope.

This sounds pretty harsh right after a man's death--a man who, by all accounts, was a pretty "nice guy"--but television journalists like Russert and Blitzer were/are masters at pretending to be tough interviewers while pulling their punches just enough to insure they maintain their access to the great and powerful. Again, as Marc put it:

But with all due respect for the dead, I would rate Russert as a journalist perhaps just above the median average. He certainly mounted his weekly pulpit of Meet The Press well-prepared by a hard-working research staff. He'd have his quotes and video clips lined up meticulously to at least, briefly, put his subject on the spot.

But what was baffling, if not downright maddening about Russert's style, was that he would inevitably pull that knock-out punch and end the encounter with an embrace rather than a roundhouse right. Just when he'd get his guest to start backtracking, dissembling and stumbling, he'd gently let him - or her--go.

Strangely enough, during his prolonged liturgy for Russert Friday afternoon, Bishop Blitzer - chummily reminiscing with former General Powell--noted the same tendency by Russert. But Blitzer found it praiseworthy. He always asked "the tough questions," said the Bishop of Russert. And then he added, admiringly: "But there was always the soft landing." Ah yes, "the soft landing," Colin Powell concurred.

Indeed, without unfailingly pulling that last punch Russert knew very well he would risk excommunication from the Inner Sanctum of the Beltway. A harder landing for his guests could dry up that most cherished of press commodities - access and kinship with the powerful.

Indeed, this kind of "tough" interviewing is just the journalistic style that brings politicians and government officials to give up their Sundays to be interviewed on programs like "Meet the Press" and "Late Edition" every week. Why else would the likes of Dick Cheney have agreed to appear with Russert both before and after the launching of the war in Iraq? In a March 2003 interview with Cheney, just before the invasion (transcript here), Russert did ask some "tough" questions, but then routinely failed to follow them up--thereby letting Cheney off the hook. In a second interview with Cheney in September 2003 (transcript here), Russert pursued a similar style of questioning--lobbing a few challenging questions but ultimately letting the man off. That interviewing style works to the benefit of both the interviewer, who gets to sound tough, and the interviewee, who comes off looking courageous just by showing up.

Some readers may have seen a BBC interview program called "Hard Talk", which has been hosted by a number of the network's experienced journalists over the years, most recently Stephen Sackur. Here the interviewing style is relentless and uncompromising, which at times is uncomfortable for both the person being grilled and the audience watching. And yet the beauty of this approach is that lines of questioning are not immediately dropped as soon as they might make the guest squirm a little, which has always been the hit-and-run style of Russert, Blitzer, et al.

Meanwhile, as Russert is lionized, journalists who have really shown the courage to "speak truth to power"--such as the Knight-Ridder reporters who dug deeply into the Bush administration's justifications for war and found them lacking--work in relative obscurity. How many Americans have heard the names Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay? Not many. I don't even know whether or not they are "nice guys" (sometimes it is the bastards who make the best journalists.) But it would be nice if one day soon, reporters like them received just a tenth of the accolades now being thrown at Tim Russert--may he nonetheless rest in peace.

Photo by AJ Mast/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Addendum: Those who want to pursue the Russert issue further can also check out the Huffington Post's Russert Watch. As many here know, Arianna Huffington and Russert had been feuding pretty heavily lately over her criticisms of him in her new book "Right is Wrong." Examples of her critiques can be found here. I haven't read the book, and Huffington tends to be a bit too gleefully strident for my taste (and a little too arrogant for someone who used to spout right-wing platitudes not all that long ago), but it at least presents an alternative to the sainthood squad.

Another take on Russert: From Thomas Levenson at the Inverse Square Blog, on the dangers of journalists becoming part of the story.

Yet another take: Since I think a lot of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, here is his more sympathetic portrait on Truthdig today (ie June 18.)