Commentary Magazine


Topic: Alexandria

SPJ Executive Committee Recommends Renaming Helen Thomas Award

Yesterday, the Society of Professional Journalists’ executive committee voted in favor of renaming the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. But the decision isn’t yet binding — it still has to be approved by the full board of directors, which will vote on it within the next 10 days:

The recommendation issued Jan. 8 by the national journalists’ group, based on anti-Zionist remarks made by Thomas, will be sent to its board of directors within 10 days. The award will still be given, but without Thomas’ name.

“While we support Helen Thomas’ right to speak her opinion, we condemn her statements in December as offensive and inappropriate,” the executive committee said in making its recommendation.

On Dec. 2, in a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., Thomas, 90, said that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”  The remarks raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of an apology for her remarks last summer to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States.

The executive committee’s decision doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Other institutions have already removed Thomas’s name from awards, so the SPJ can follow suit while avoiding too much controversy. On the other hand, if the organization had voted to keep the name on the award, there’s no way it would have been able to get past this incident quietly. The SPJ executive committee said this pretty unambiguously in its press release:

During robust debate on Saturday, the committee considered positions from those supporting Thomas’ right to free speech and those who considered her remarks unbecoming of an honor given by SPJ. The committee decided while both positions have merit, the best way to return the focus to SPJ’s important work would be to distance itself from the controversy now overshadowing this award.

“Let’s work on what unites us rather than what divides us,” Limor said.

This is an understandable position, and I assume the board of directors will vote in favor of the executive committee’s recommendation.

Of course, Thomas’s new employer doesn’t seem to share the SPJ’s aversion to controversy. The former White House correspondent was recently hired as a columnist by the Falls Church News-Press — an alternative-weekly paper in Northern Virginia — and the editor Nick Benton has vigorously defended his decision. Read More

Yesterday, the Society of Professional Journalists’ executive committee voted in favor of renaming the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. But the decision isn’t yet binding — it still has to be approved by the full board of directors, which will vote on it within the next 10 days:

The recommendation issued Jan. 8 by the national journalists’ group, based on anti-Zionist remarks made by Thomas, will be sent to its board of directors within 10 days. The award will still be given, but without Thomas’ name.

“While we support Helen Thomas’ right to speak her opinion, we condemn her statements in December as offensive and inappropriate,” the executive committee said in making its recommendation.

On Dec. 2, in a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., Thomas, 90, said that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”  The remarks raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of an apology for her remarks last summer to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States.

The executive committee’s decision doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Other institutions have already removed Thomas’s name from awards, so the SPJ can follow suit while avoiding too much controversy. On the other hand, if the organization had voted to keep the name on the award, there’s no way it would have been able to get past this incident quietly. The SPJ executive committee said this pretty unambiguously in its press release:

During robust debate on Saturday, the committee considered positions from those supporting Thomas’ right to free speech and those who considered her remarks unbecoming of an honor given by SPJ. The committee decided while both positions have merit, the best way to return the focus to SPJ’s important work would be to distance itself from the controversy now overshadowing this award.

“Let’s work on what unites us rather than what divides us,” Limor said.

This is an understandable position, and I assume the board of directors will vote in favor of the executive committee’s recommendation.

Of course, Thomas’s new employer doesn’t seem to share the SPJ’s aversion to controversy. The former White House correspondent was recently hired as a columnist by the Falls Church News-Press — an alternative-weekly paper in Northern Virginia — and the editor Nick Benton has vigorously defended his decision.

“I’ve had no less than eight hours of personal one-on-one conversations with her since that happened,” Benton told the Washington Post. “She’s not bigoted or racist or anti-Semitic. She has her differences about foreign policy but you’re allowed that.”

According to the Post, Benton has been criticized by Jewish leaders in the past for publishing views that some believed bordered on anti-Semitism. “In 2004, his paper touched nerves with an editorial that some Jewish leaders complained suggested a Jewish cabal controlling U.S. foreign policy,” reported the Post.

The Post is likely referring to a 2004 column written by Benton, in which he endorsed the re-election bid of Rep. Jim Moran, who was running against “the well-financed campaign of a political neophyte, Alexandria attorney Andy Rosenberg.” Benton wrote that the election had become “about a cabal of powerful Washington, D.C., based interests backing the Bush administration’s support for rightwing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s handling of the Middle East conflict trying to upend an outspoken and powerful Democratic opponent.”

It’s not exactly like telling Israeli Jews to go back to Germany, but with those editorial leanings, it sounds like Thomas will feel very much at home at the paper.

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Outreach to Egypt?

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

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RE: Rabbis Spun by Rahm Emanuel

COMMENTARY contributor Abby Wisse Schachter points out that it may be the rabbis — or one, at least — who were doing the spinning. Citing a JTA article, she writes:

“Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after a talk he had with his friend Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel.” So it wasn’t Obama, or Jewy-Jew Emanuel who were worried about Jewish support eroding. It was Moline who was already a self-declared Obama booster who decided it was time to have the White House help a bunch of pulpit rabbis to write their Shabbat sermons. And it seems to have worked. “The rabbis in attendance … took the message home. ‘Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration,’ Rabbi Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Orlando, Fla. ‘I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel.’”

This is the state of at least a significant segment of American Jewry — desperate to shill for Obama, blind to the peril that Israel faces, and oblivious to the historical legacy that awaits them, as well as their precious president, if Iran goes nuclear — or if Israel is forced to do what the U.S. should, namely, use military force to defuse an existential threat to the Jewish state. Again we must ask:

What is it about liberals and the longing for what Neal Kozodoy once so brilliantly called “the ratifying kick in the teeth”? Why do they despise their familiars and love The Stranger who hates them—and hates them all the more for their craven pursuit of him?

And the mainstream Jewish organizations are no better, failing to sound the alarm and incapable of taking on a president whose name remains affixed to the bumpers of so many of their members’ cars. For those who portray themselves as leaders of the Jewish community and friends of Israel but who, as one Israel hand e-mails, “cling to liberalism, secularism and pacifism,” there is now the stark reality that they do so at the expense of the Jewish state.

COMMENTARY contributor Abby Wisse Schachter points out that it may be the rabbis — or one, at least — who were doing the spinning. Citing a JTA article, she writes:

“Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after a talk he had with his friend Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel.” So it wasn’t Obama, or Jewy-Jew Emanuel who were worried about Jewish support eroding. It was Moline who was already a self-declared Obama booster who decided it was time to have the White House help a bunch of pulpit rabbis to write their Shabbat sermons. And it seems to have worked. “The rabbis in attendance … took the message home. ‘Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration,’ Rabbi Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Orlando, Fla. ‘I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel.’”

This is the state of at least a significant segment of American Jewry — desperate to shill for Obama, blind to the peril that Israel faces, and oblivious to the historical legacy that awaits them, as well as their precious president, if Iran goes nuclear — or if Israel is forced to do what the U.S. should, namely, use military force to defuse an existential threat to the Jewish state. Again we must ask:

What is it about liberals and the longing for what Neal Kozodoy once so brilliantly called “the ratifying kick in the teeth”? Why do they despise their familiars and love The Stranger who hates them—and hates them all the more for their craven pursuit of him?

And the mainstream Jewish organizations are no better, failing to sound the alarm and incapable of taking on a president whose name remains affixed to the bumpers of so many of their members’ cars. For those who portray themselves as leaders of the Jewish community and friends of Israel but who, as one Israel hand e-mails, “cling to liberalism, secularism and pacifism,” there is now the stark reality that they do so at the expense of the Jewish state.

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Jackie Mason He’s Not

A “Taliban militant and Jewish merchant in the desert” joke is pretty much bound to be an accident waiting to happen. For one thing, you’d have to cut fingers off to count the number of Jewish merchants doing business in the Afghan desert. It’s taking the long way around the barn to put one in a Taliban joke: a red flag that the surreally out-of-place Jewish merchant is the real punch line.

But the sin against humor wouldn’t be so much of one against fellowship if the joke didn’t invoke a set of hackneyed, politically freighted stereotypes and then pick one of them as the laugh line. Seriously: a sneaky Jewish merchant withholding water from a desperate Muslim jihadist? What is this, a stand-up club in Ramallah?

It’s a rare joke that can survive being set up on the lines of an editorial posture. Ronald Reagan was a master of such humor, but one key to his success was staying a long way away from stereotypes about any ethnic group but his own. He disclosed as much in an informal moment on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988, when his staff set up an impromptu visit to a popular pub in Alexandria. “You have to understand that for a man in my position, I’m a little leery about ethnic jokes,” he told the pub crowd on that occasion. “The only ones I can tell are Irish.” Reportedly, he then proceeded to bring the house down with the Irish jokes — which, as someone of largely Irish heritage, I can affirm typically feature such topics as drunkenness, maudlin self-expression, indebtedness, and incarceration.

But you can tell jokes on yourself that come off as you-bashing when told by others. That’s a fact of life that is pointless for the amateur humorist to resist. It may be, moreover, that officials at all levels of authority in the U.S. should just steer clear of Taliban jokes anyway. The Jones joke reminded me immediately of another encounter between American officialdom and Taliban humor, back in 2002. The outcome of that one was a policy aboard Greyhound buses banning all Taliban jokes while a bus was in motion. As a Greyhound spokeswoman explained at the time, very possibly with a straight face:

There is a time and a place for everything, including Taliban jokes. However, the time for telling Taliban jokes is when the bus is safely parked at the station, not when it is full of passengers and rolling down the highway.

Words to live by.

A “Taliban militant and Jewish merchant in the desert” joke is pretty much bound to be an accident waiting to happen. For one thing, you’d have to cut fingers off to count the number of Jewish merchants doing business in the Afghan desert. It’s taking the long way around the barn to put one in a Taliban joke: a red flag that the surreally out-of-place Jewish merchant is the real punch line.

But the sin against humor wouldn’t be so much of one against fellowship if the joke didn’t invoke a set of hackneyed, politically freighted stereotypes and then pick one of them as the laugh line. Seriously: a sneaky Jewish merchant withholding water from a desperate Muslim jihadist? What is this, a stand-up club in Ramallah?

It’s a rare joke that can survive being set up on the lines of an editorial posture. Ronald Reagan was a master of such humor, but one key to his success was staying a long way away from stereotypes about any ethnic group but his own. He disclosed as much in an informal moment on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988, when his staff set up an impromptu visit to a popular pub in Alexandria. “You have to understand that for a man in my position, I’m a little leery about ethnic jokes,” he told the pub crowd on that occasion. “The only ones I can tell are Irish.” Reportedly, he then proceeded to bring the house down with the Irish jokes — which, as someone of largely Irish heritage, I can affirm typically feature such topics as drunkenness, maudlin self-expression, indebtedness, and incarceration.

But you can tell jokes on yourself that come off as you-bashing when told by others. That’s a fact of life that is pointless for the amateur humorist to resist. It may be, moreover, that officials at all levels of authority in the U.S. should just steer clear of Taliban jokes anyway. The Jones joke reminded me immediately of another encounter between American officialdom and Taliban humor, back in 2002. The outcome of that one was a policy aboard Greyhound buses banning all Taliban jokes while a bus was in motion. As a Greyhound spokeswoman explained at the time, very possibly with a straight face:

There is a time and a place for everything, including Taliban jokes. However, the time for telling Taliban jokes is when the bus is safely parked at the station, not when it is full of passengers and rolling down the highway.

Words to live by.

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Re: Not in Virginia

Gov. Bob McDonnell wants there to be no doubt about his views. He has released the following statement on the KSM trial:

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell today reiterated his longstanding opposition to the detention or trial of any Guantanamo Bay detainee, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, taking place in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He also noted his agreement with Congressional leaders from both parties that all Guantanamo Bay detainees be put before military tribunals, rather than civilian courts as outlined by the United States Department of Justice. Virginia has several locations, including Alexandria and Newport News, that have been suggested as possible civilian trial locations.

Speaking about the issue Governor McDonnell noted, “Officials in New York City have made clear they do not want a disruptive civilian trial of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad taking place in that city. As they are appropriately acting in the best interests of their citizens, today I am doing the same for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth has been the site of previous terrorism trials, most recently the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui at the federal courthouse in Alexandria. That trial led to ongoing significant disruptions and potential threats for the citizens of that Virginia community, and local leaders have made clear they do not want to host such a trial again.  I strongly oppose any Guantanamo Bay detainees being either held or tried in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes, what other governors will step forward? Is there any state willing to take on the financial burden and security risk of the Obami’s grand experiment? I think it unlikely.

Gov. Bob McDonnell wants there to be no doubt about his views. He has released the following statement on the KSM trial:

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell today reiterated his longstanding opposition to the detention or trial of any Guantanamo Bay detainee, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, taking place in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He also noted his agreement with Congressional leaders from both parties that all Guantanamo Bay detainees be put before military tribunals, rather than civilian courts as outlined by the United States Department of Justice. Virginia has several locations, including Alexandria and Newport News, that have been suggested as possible civilian trial locations.

Speaking about the issue Governor McDonnell noted, “Officials in New York City have made clear they do not want a disruptive civilian trial of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad taking place in that city. As they are appropriately acting in the best interests of their citizens, today I am doing the same for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth has been the site of previous terrorism trials, most recently the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui at the federal courthouse in Alexandria. That trial led to ongoing significant disruptions and potential threats for the citizens of that Virginia community, and local leaders have made clear they do not want to host such a trial again.  I strongly oppose any Guantanamo Bay detainees being either held or tried in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes, what other governors will step forward? Is there any state willing to take on the financial burden and security risk of the Obami’s grand experiment? I think it unlikely.

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Not in Virginia

With the apparent decision by the Obama administration to throw in the towel on a New York trial for KSM, speculation has turned to what other locales might take on the burden of a public trial for the world’s most notorious jihadist. One suggestion has been Alexandria, Virginia, where the 2006 death-penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was held. However, Gov. Bob McDonnell is having none of that. His spokesman, Tucker Martin, had this to say on the subject when I inquired as to the possibility of a trial in the federal court in Alexandria:

The governor is adamantly opposed to that trial taking place in Virginia. He has been unequivocal in his opposition to any trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees taking place in the Commonwealth. He will continue to make his strong opposition clear, and will work with Virginia’s congressional delegation to prevent any Guantanamo Bay detainees from setting foot in Virginia.

Martin referred me to McDonnell’s multiple statements on the topic during the campaign last year when, at one time, Virginia Congressman James Moran evidenced enthusiasm about hosting Guantanamo trials and accepting released detainees in his district. Back in May of 2009, when rumors circulated that the Uighurs might be coming to Virginia, McDonnell declared support for the “Keep Terrorists Out of America Act,” which would have required the president to certify that the detainee did not pose a security risk and to inform Congress as to why a specific location had been chosen. Again in August, then candidate McDonnell released a statement declaring:

I strongly oppose the trials of any Guantanamo Bay detainees being conducted in Alexandria, or anywhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The federal courthouse in Alexandria is located just feet from hotels, shops and apartment buildings. In 2006 the Alexandria trial of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui demonstrated firsthand the tremendous burden such events place on the community.

The bottom line: if the Obami intend to relocate the KSM trial to Virginia, they will get quite a fight from the governor and, I suspect, other elected officials. And frankly, any governor of another state who takes a less adamant stance on the topic is likely to encounter a storm of criticism.

Perhaps it is time to return KSM and his associates to a secure, offshore location where he can be tried before a military tribunal with no risk or further financial burden on the American people. We have one built specifically for that purpose: Guantanamo Bay.

With the apparent decision by the Obama administration to throw in the towel on a New York trial for KSM, speculation has turned to what other locales might take on the burden of a public trial for the world’s most notorious jihadist. One suggestion has been Alexandria, Virginia, where the 2006 death-penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was held. However, Gov. Bob McDonnell is having none of that. His spokesman, Tucker Martin, had this to say on the subject when I inquired as to the possibility of a trial in the federal court in Alexandria:

The governor is adamantly opposed to that trial taking place in Virginia. He has been unequivocal in his opposition to any trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees taking place in the Commonwealth. He will continue to make his strong opposition clear, and will work with Virginia’s congressional delegation to prevent any Guantanamo Bay detainees from setting foot in Virginia.

Martin referred me to McDonnell’s multiple statements on the topic during the campaign last year when, at one time, Virginia Congressman James Moran evidenced enthusiasm about hosting Guantanamo trials and accepting released detainees in his district. Back in May of 2009, when rumors circulated that the Uighurs might be coming to Virginia, McDonnell declared support for the “Keep Terrorists Out of America Act,” which would have required the president to certify that the detainee did not pose a security risk and to inform Congress as to why a specific location had been chosen. Again in August, then candidate McDonnell released a statement declaring:

I strongly oppose the trials of any Guantanamo Bay detainees being conducted in Alexandria, or anywhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The federal courthouse in Alexandria is located just feet from hotels, shops and apartment buildings. In 2006 the Alexandria trial of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui demonstrated firsthand the tremendous burden such events place on the community.

The bottom line: if the Obami intend to relocate the KSM trial to Virginia, they will get quite a fight from the governor and, I suspect, other elected officials. And frankly, any governor of another state who takes a less adamant stance on the topic is likely to encounter a storm of criticism.

Perhaps it is time to return KSM and his associates to a secure, offshore location where he can be tried before a military tribunal with no risk or further financial burden on the American people. We have one built specifically for that purpose: Guantanamo Bay.

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Wright on al-Qaeda

Lawrence Wright, author of the brilliant book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has written an extremely significant essay in The New Yorker, “The Rebellion Within.”

Wright’s article is devoted to an issue that has fascinated me for months now and which I have written on (see here and here): how the tide within the Islamic world is turning against jihadism and more specifically, the significance of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif–who is more widely known by the pseudonym Dr. Fadl–breaking with the extremist and violent ideology he helped develop and popularize. This is one of the most significant and, until now, unreported ideological developments within the Islamic world. (Wright wisely points out that Fadl’s defection is not the only relevant data point; we have seen key Saudi and Palestinian clerics make similar arguments. For example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in October 2007 forbidding Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. And a month earlier, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom Osama bin Laden once lionized, wrote an “open letter” condemning bin Laden).

By way of background: Fadl, an Egyptian, is a living legend within the Islamic world and former mentor to Ayman Zawahiri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda. In November 2007, the first segment of Fadl’s book appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to (in Wright’s words) “reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications.” The result is that “Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare.” Wright argues that Fadl’s book is “a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of Al Qaeda’s theology:”

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.

There is more:

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians-including Christians and Jews-unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing-”such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”-is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. . . .

Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”

Wright’s essay–which includes fascinating details on Fadl’s life, his relationship with Zawahiri, the rift that developed between them, and their recent debate about the nature of meaning of jihad–concludes:

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

“Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”

“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”

The tectonic plates have been shifting within the Islamic world for many months now. Thanks to Wright’s new essay, many more people in this country will recognize what is unfolding and its ramifications for al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. And while there is plenty of work that remains to be done and this struggle is far from over, what we have seen are heartening, far-reaching, and perhaps even pivotal developments in the history of jihad.

Lawrence Wright, author of the brilliant book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has written an extremely significant essay in The New Yorker, “The Rebellion Within.”

Wright’s article is devoted to an issue that has fascinated me for months now and which I have written on (see here and here): how the tide within the Islamic world is turning against jihadism and more specifically, the significance of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif–who is more widely known by the pseudonym Dr. Fadl–breaking with the extremist and violent ideology he helped develop and popularize. This is one of the most significant and, until now, unreported ideological developments within the Islamic world. (Wright wisely points out that Fadl’s defection is not the only relevant data point; we have seen key Saudi and Palestinian clerics make similar arguments. For example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in October 2007 forbidding Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. And a month earlier, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom Osama bin Laden once lionized, wrote an “open letter” condemning bin Laden).

By way of background: Fadl, an Egyptian, is a living legend within the Islamic world and former mentor to Ayman Zawahiri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda. In November 2007, the first segment of Fadl’s book appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to (in Wright’s words) “reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications.” The result is that “Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare.” Wright argues that Fadl’s book is “a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of Al Qaeda’s theology:”

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.

There is more:

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians-including Christians and Jews-unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing-”such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”-is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. . . .

Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”

Wright’s essay–which includes fascinating details on Fadl’s life, his relationship with Zawahiri, the rift that developed between them, and their recent debate about the nature of meaning of jihad–concludes:

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

“Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”

“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”

The tectonic plates have been shifting within the Islamic world for many months now. Thanks to Wright’s new essay, many more people in this country will recognize what is unfolding and its ramifications for al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. And while there is plenty of work that remains to be done and this struggle is far from over, what we have seen are heartening, far-reaching, and perhaps even pivotal developments in the history of jihad.

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The McCain Kickoff Tour

The McCain team held a media call to kick off what they internally call the “Bio Tour” and what is formally known as “The Service To America Tour.” With stops at McCain Field in Mississippi, McCain’s high school in Alexandria, Virginia, the U.S. Naval Academy and in Florida (where McCain went to naval flight school) the tour, according to Senior Advisor Steve Schmidt, will start the “formal process of introducing Senator McCain to the American people.” Schmidt explained that they will do this through “personal stories” which show how McCain’s life and values were shaped and which McCain hopes to use to “connect his past to the present and to the future.”

Schmidt was asked by Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard about Barack Obama’s association with Tony McPeak and Reverend Wright and what this revealed about Obama’s outlook on Israel. Schmidt began by saying, “Senator McCain just returned from Israel. He is a great friend of Israel.” He then went on to explain that McCain understands the role of Israel in the world’s peace and security and the link between Iraq and Israel, noting that bin Laden had declared that his forces would first defeat the West in Iraq and “then in Israel.” He carefully said, “The American people will make a determination about Barack Obama should he be the nominee.” He did say that McPeak and “others” had made ” a lot of disturbing comments,” but that the focus should be on Obama whose rhetoric is “detached ” from reality and who, Schmidt contends, says he favors a few style of politics but who “day after day makes inaccurate and misleading attacks, many personality based.”

I asked him about Obama’s stated intention to raise income taxes on Americans making $75,000 or more and also raise the capital gains tax. Schmidt responded that after the Bio Tour McCain would devote considerable time to talking about the economy. He then damned Obama with faint praise for being “very articulate and very smooth,” but went on to jab him for contending that taxpayers who make $75,000 are rich. Schmidt said bluntly, ” $75,000 is not rich” and explained that these taxpayers are hardworking people struggling to pay the mortgage and save for college. As for a capital gains tax increase, he said this would have a “disastrous effect on the economy.” He then disputed the conventional wisdom that Democrats would be advantaged in tough economic times, declaring that McCain would win the economic argument and explain how Obama’s tax notions would “literally tank the American economy.”

Other highlights: 1) He denied the allegation by Rep. Heath Shuler that McCain was seeking to block discharge of the SAVE border security bill and 2) When asked about Juan Hernandez (a McCain supporter who has become a lightning rod for criticism from activists who opposed comprehensive immigration reform), Schmidt said that what matters is McCain’s own position: to stress border security first, insist on biometric ID cards and employer sanctions for hiring illegals and only then address the issue of people already here in a “compassionate way.” Pressed again about Hernandez, he repeated that what counts is McCain’s views and went on to say that McCain has consolidated support from conservatives to the same degree George W. Bush had done at the same point in 2000.

Bottom line: Schmidt was careful not to count Hillary Clinton out. But from every indication the McCain team seems prepared and itching to take on Obama.

The McCain team held a media call to kick off what they internally call the “Bio Tour” and what is formally known as “The Service To America Tour.” With stops at McCain Field in Mississippi, McCain’s high school in Alexandria, Virginia, the U.S. Naval Academy and in Florida (where McCain went to naval flight school) the tour, according to Senior Advisor Steve Schmidt, will start the “formal process of introducing Senator McCain to the American people.” Schmidt explained that they will do this through “personal stories” which show how McCain’s life and values were shaped and which McCain hopes to use to “connect his past to the present and to the future.”

Schmidt was asked by Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard about Barack Obama’s association with Tony McPeak and Reverend Wright and what this revealed about Obama’s outlook on Israel. Schmidt began by saying, “Senator McCain just returned from Israel. He is a great friend of Israel.” He then went on to explain that McCain understands the role of Israel in the world’s peace and security and the link between Iraq and Israel, noting that bin Laden had declared that his forces would first defeat the West in Iraq and “then in Israel.” He carefully said, “The American people will make a determination about Barack Obama should he be the nominee.” He did say that McPeak and “others” had made ” a lot of disturbing comments,” but that the focus should be on Obama whose rhetoric is “detached ” from reality and who, Schmidt contends, says he favors a few style of politics but who “day after day makes inaccurate and misleading attacks, many personality based.”

I asked him about Obama’s stated intention to raise income taxes on Americans making $75,000 or more and also raise the capital gains tax. Schmidt responded that after the Bio Tour McCain would devote considerable time to talking about the economy. He then damned Obama with faint praise for being “very articulate and very smooth,” but went on to jab him for contending that taxpayers who make $75,000 are rich. Schmidt said bluntly, ” $75,000 is not rich” and explained that these taxpayers are hardworking people struggling to pay the mortgage and save for college. As for a capital gains tax increase, he said this would have a “disastrous effect on the economy.” He then disputed the conventional wisdom that Democrats would be advantaged in tough economic times, declaring that McCain would win the economic argument and explain how Obama’s tax notions would “literally tank the American economy.”

Other highlights: 1) He denied the allegation by Rep. Heath Shuler that McCain was seeking to block discharge of the SAVE border security bill and 2) When asked about Juan Hernandez (a McCain supporter who has become a lightning rod for criticism from activists who opposed comprehensive immigration reform), Schmidt said that what matters is McCain’s own position: to stress border security first, insist on biometric ID cards and employer sanctions for hiring illegals and only then address the issue of people already here in a “compassionate way.” Pressed again about Hernandez, he repeated that what counts is McCain’s views and went on to say that McCain has consolidated support from conservatives to the same degree George W. Bush had done at the same point in 2000.

Bottom line: Schmidt was careful not to count Hillary Clinton out. But from every indication the McCain team seems prepared and itching to take on Obama.

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How They Match Up

Barack Obama is making the argument to superdelegates and adoring groups of voters that he is more electable of the two Democratic candidates and that he will match up better against John McCain. For now, the polls agree, but less dramatically so than one might expect. But is this right?

Hillary Clinton’s “high negatives” are legendary and, if the Obama campaign has proven anything, it is that there is a hunger among Democrats and Republicans alike to jettison the Clintons from the national stage. However, there are several disadvantages which Obama has.

First, we vote, of course, by the electoral college. So the real issue is which states, if any, does he put in play which she does not. Yes, he has run well in red states, but no one seriously believes that he will beat John McCain in Nebraska. At least for now, Clinton polls better among Hispanics and would therefore have a better shot at states which actually are in play, such as Florida and New Mexico. In the habitually important state of Ohio with the famed Reagan Democrats, some of whom are socially quite conservative, there is a good argument Clinton, not Obama, is the stronger candidate. (We’ll find out on March 4 who runs stronger with Democrats, but in the fall Independents and Republicans will be at issue also.)

Second, there is something to be said for Clinton’s argument that she will not be blown off the stage by McCain. Watching Obama’s campaign speech in Alexandria yesterday on CSPAN, I was struck how little there is still there. The vast majority of the speech was utter fluff, lovely and soaring fluff, yes, but still fluff. The rest was rather bland aspirational liberal fare (“give our kids a world class education”). In an election that season that will last six months or more will this wear thin? (Quite possibly. And now that Saturday Night Live writers are going back to work we can expect some delightful spoofs of his video and political messaging.) On foreign policy the problem is more acute. In a debate will he sound credible, with McCain ready to pounce, that our real problem internationally has been our failure to visit with the world’s tyrants?

Third, his ranking by the National Journal as the most liberal Senator reveals a basic truth: for all of the “bringing together” and “reaching out” rhetoric he remains an unblemished and uncompromising liberal–on foreign policy, on judges, on taxes, on everything. I can think of no issue in which he has bucked the Democratic liberal establishment (other than a meek suggestion that merit pay for teachers might not be such a bad idea). If McCain can break through the din of music videos (or wait until they seem strangely stale) he might just make the argument to the great middle swath of the electorate that there is a reason other than soaring rhetoric why Teddy Kennedy endorsed him: he is an attractive spokesman for the platform of the Left that the country has repeatedly rejected.

So, although Clinton has fallen on hard times and is resorting to all manner of silly argument to retain her hopes for the nomination, we should give the lady her due: she may, in a general election, be the stronger of the two candidates.

Barack Obama is making the argument to superdelegates and adoring groups of voters that he is more electable of the two Democratic candidates and that he will match up better against John McCain. For now, the polls agree, but less dramatically so than one might expect. But is this right?

Hillary Clinton’s “high negatives” are legendary and, if the Obama campaign has proven anything, it is that there is a hunger among Democrats and Republicans alike to jettison the Clintons from the national stage. However, there are several disadvantages which Obama has.

First, we vote, of course, by the electoral college. So the real issue is which states, if any, does he put in play which she does not. Yes, he has run well in red states, but no one seriously believes that he will beat John McCain in Nebraska. At least for now, Clinton polls better among Hispanics and would therefore have a better shot at states which actually are in play, such as Florida and New Mexico. In the habitually important state of Ohio with the famed Reagan Democrats, some of whom are socially quite conservative, there is a good argument Clinton, not Obama, is the stronger candidate. (We’ll find out on March 4 who runs stronger with Democrats, but in the fall Independents and Republicans will be at issue also.)

Second, there is something to be said for Clinton’s argument that she will not be blown off the stage by McCain. Watching Obama’s campaign speech in Alexandria yesterday on CSPAN, I was struck how little there is still there. The vast majority of the speech was utter fluff, lovely and soaring fluff, yes, but still fluff. The rest was rather bland aspirational liberal fare (“give our kids a world class education”). In an election that season that will last six months or more will this wear thin? (Quite possibly. And now that Saturday Night Live writers are going back to work we can expect some delightful spoofs of his video and political messaging.) On foreign policy the problem is more acute. In a debate will he sound credible, with McCain ready to pounce, that our real problem internationally has been our failure to visit with the world’s tyrants?

Third, his ranking by the National Journal as the most liberal Senator reveals a basic truth: for all of the “bringing together” and “reaching out” rhetoric he remains an unblemished and uncompromising liberal–on foreign policy, on judges, on taxes, on everything. I can think of no issue in which he has bucked the Democratic liberal establishment (other than a meek suggestion that merit pay for teachers might not be such a bad idea). If McCain can break through the din of music videos (or wait until they seem strangely stale) he might just make the argument to the great middle swath of the electorate that there is a reason other than soaring rhetoric why Teddy Kennedy endorsed him: he is an attractive spokesman for the platform of the Left that the country has repeatedly rejected.

So, although Clinton has fallen on hard times and is resorting to all manner of silly argument to retain her hopes for the nomination, we should give the lady her due: she may, in a general election, be the stronger of the two candidates.

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A CIA Cover-Up?

On January 24, a federal grand jury in Alexandria issued a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, seeking information about who in the U.S. government provided him with classified information that he published in his book, State of War. That book appeared in January 2006, more than two years ago. The CIA may have a hard time keeping secrets, but the Justice Department, we are learning now that this long-running leak inquest has come to light, seems to be very good at it.

There are at least two possibilities why Risen was issued a subpoena. One is that his book badly embarrassed the CIA by exposing incompetence well beyond its familiar inability to keep secrets. In referring the breach to the Justice Department for investigation, the CIA is paying him back. The subpoena, in other words, is part and parcel of a cover-up of agency bungling.

Another explanation is that, thanks to Risen’s book, valuable intelligence sources and methods were compromised, damage was done to national security, and the Justice Department has been tasked with tracking down the malefactors in the intelligence community who broke their oaths of secrecy, violated the law, and dropped classified information of value to American adversaries into the public domain. Because Risen is the only one who knows their identity, he is being hauled before a grand jury.

Which explanation is more plausible? I offer some answers in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard.

On January 24, a federal grand jury in Alexandria issued a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, seeking information about who in the U.S. government provided him with classified information that he published in his book, State of War. That book appeared in January 2006, more than two years ago. The CIA may have a hard time keeping secrets, but the Justice Department, we are learning now that this long-running leak inquest has come to light, seems to be very good at it.

There are at least two possibilities why Risen was issued a subpoena. One is that his book badly embarrassed the CIA by exposing incompetence well beyond its familiar inability to keep secrets. In referring the breach to the Justice Department for investigation, the CIA is paying him back. The subpoena, in other words, is part and parcel of a cover-up of agency bungling.

Another explanation is that, thanks to Risen’s book, valuable intelligence sources and methods were compromised, damage was done to national security, and the Justice Department has been tasked with tracking down the malefactors in the intelligence community who broke their oaths of secrecy, violated the law, and dropped classified information of value to American adversaries into the public domain. Because Risen is the only one who knows their identity, he is being hauled before a grand jury.

Which explanation is more plausible? I offer some answers in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard.

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Is It Any Wonder?

The new Seven Wonders of the World, which were announced last week with great fanfare in Lisbon, are a droll affair. Two are from pre-Columbian America (the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru and the temples of Chichén Itzá, Mexico), two from Asia (the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China), and one from the Middle East (the rock tombs of Petra, Jordan). The modern world comes up rather short (the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as does European civilization in general (represented only by the Coliseum in Rome). Is this list something to take seriously? Does its comprehensive global sweep give it an authority that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—mostly huddled around the Mediterranean—lacked?

Read More

The new Seven Wonders of the World, which were announced last week with great fanfare in Lisbon, are a droll affair. Two are from pre-Columbian America (the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru and the temples of Chichén Itzá, Mexico), two from Asia (the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China), and one from the Middle East (the rock tombs of Petra, Jordan). The modern world comes up rather short (the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as does European civilization in general (represented only by the Coliseum in Rome). Is this list something to take seriously? Does its comprehensive global sweep give it an authority that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—mostly huddled around the Mediterranean—lacked?

The new list was created by the New7Wonders Foundation, whose own website proclaims—and without apparent irony—that it “was created in 2001 by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber.” Weber has certainly been enterprising. Rather than forming a panel of experts, he allowed the public to vote for its favorite monuments. It is no surprise, then, that countries with large populations (China, Brazil, and India) dominate the list, and that monuments without constituencies (one thinks of the Stone Heads of Easter Island) do not figure. How Weber tabulated the votes, or what measures he took to prevent multiple voting, is unclear. The Vatican has speculated, according to the (London) Times, about the systematic exclusion of Christian monuments. As the Times reported,

Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, who heads the Vatican’s pontifical commission for culture and archeology, said that the exclusion of Christian works of art such as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was “surprising, inexplicable, even suspicious.”

One can no more quarrel with such a list than with television ratings. Still, as a thought exercise, one might speculate as to how a contemporary list of wonders might be drawn up—one not dependent on the erratic wisdom of the internet electorate. For one thing, one might turn for guidance to the original Seven Wonders. Several were noteworthy for their bold engineering, such as the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes, which showed their cultures building to the limits of their structural acumen. A contemporary list might recognize structures of similar engineering audacity. Three obvious candidates would be the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France. One might also note that landscape art was represented by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Would it be too chauvinistic to suggest Yosemite National Park as a wonder, one shaped and organized by human intervention?

Whether or not the Vatican is correct about bias, the list certainly ignores one of the wonders of western civilization, the poetic shaping of interior space. Weber’s list of wonders consists of photogenic exteriors—which look good on computer screens, unlike architectural interiors, which need to be experienced. The organized spatial poetry achieved in such buildings as Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome; and Cologne Cathedral is indeed a wonder, and one or more of these monuments certainly belong on such a list. After all, one of the principal reasons for having such a list is educational.

In the end, the new Seven Wonders of the World have less to do with Herodotus than with David Wallechinsky, whose bestselling Book of Lists (1977) ranked the “worst places to hitchhike” or “people suspected of being Jack the Ripper.” Weber’s new list is at best a bit of harmless conversation fodder—although nowhere near as diverting as Wallechinsky’s “famous people who died during sex.”

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