Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Explosion in a Wild West

AP Photos
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel A ny other week, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—which killed 14 people, injured 200, and flattened 50 houses all in a town of under 3,000 people—would have dominated the news for days, with the explosion playing over and over again. Instead, most of us wound up watching the whole thing through YouTube videos. Just days earlier, bombs planted at the Boston Marathon had left the country on alert for terrorist attacks. The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators ensured that a deadly explosion in the middle of Texas wouldn’t start the 10 o’clock news or lead Sunday talk-show coverage. The trouble is, while none of us can be fully protected from a person with a bomb, we usually assume the risks in areas under government oversight are much lower. While the incident in Boston helps illustrate the limits of public safety, the explosion in West illustrates a series of gaps in regulation—and the risks those gaps create. The investigation around the...

Decision Points Redux

George W. Bush has had, shall we say, an uneventful ex-presidency. Bill Clinton flies all over the world to raise money for his foundation and Jimmy Carter oversees elections in developing countries, but Bush is content with a slower pace. Important events shake the world, but today The Decider decides to go for a bike ride, have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and maybe paint a picture of a dog. If there's time after, he takes a good afternoon nap. This week, the George W. Bush presidential library will open on the campus of Southern Methodist University. He may have left office with shockingly low approval ratings, but Bush insists that the jury is still out on his presidency. "There's no need to defend myself," he told USA Today . "I did what I did and ultimately history will judge." Bush has been delivering that same line about history being the judge since before he left the White House. It's a way of saying, Sure, I may look like a screw-up to you. But just you...

Fayyad's Choice

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed
AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed Salam Fayyad S alam Fayyad has formally resigned his post as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Note the word formally . In the half-presidential, half-parliamentary, mostly improvised political system of the Palestinian non-state, Fayyad will apparently stay on until President Mahmoud Abbas appoints a replacement, or until elections are held, or indeterminately as his resignation fades from memory. It would be wrong to say that Fayyad has become a caretaker prime minister, because he has always been a caretaker. Abbas appointed Fayyad to head an emergency government in 2007, when the attempt at power-sharing between Abbas's Fatah movement and the Islamicist Hamas movement ended in a brief civil war. The Palestinian parliament, where Hamas has a majority, never approved the appointment. Both the president and parliament have outlived their legal terms of office. Yet Fatah continues to rule the West Bank, just as Hamas keeps ruling Gaza. A week-and-a-...

Beware Of "Ties"

Flickr/Fernando de Souza
Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term. We still don't know much about why the Russian government contacted the FBI regarding Tamerlan, and what he did on an extended trip to Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012. Who knows, maybe Ayman al-Zawahiri himself went to Grozny to meet with him, told him how to make the bombs, and ordered him to carry out the attack. But probably not. It's a lot more likely that we'll find out about some far...

Pete Williams Is a Good Journalist, But He's Not a Hero

At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama. There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of...

Obama Is a Supporting Character

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his news conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House. The president says the economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans and is calling on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less. “Why couldn’t Barack Obama pass gun control?” is a bad question. Not because there isn’t a story to tell about the new push for gun regulations, but because Obama isn’t the main character. On broad questions like gun control and immigration reform, the president has a say, but the show belongs to Congress and all of its dysfunctions. The Manchin-Toomey plan for expanded background checks hit familiar barriers—the filibuster, near-unanimous Republican opposition, skittish red state Democrats—and failed as a result. The president can’t “pass” legislation—the most he can do is influence, pressure, and cajole. And even that depends on...

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be. You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture...

Read Him His Rights

AP Photo/vk.com
AP Photo/vk.com Dzhokhar Tsarnaev T he capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presents an important test for federal and state authorities: Can the United States resist the temptation to violate the civil liberties of people suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism? In some important respects, we seem to have avoided the systematic civil-liberties violations of the Bush administration. But when it comes to informing Tsarnaev of his Fifth Amendment rights, Obama is buying into the myth that ordinary police process is inadequate for dealing with domestic terrorism. It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with Tsarnaev, who has not been read his Miranda rights and who is engaging only in written communication from his hospital bed. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has cited a "public-safety exemption in cases of national security and potential charges involving acts of terrorism" and indicated that Tsarnaev will be interrogated for at least a 48-hour period without being informed of...

Why Did Gun Control Fail?

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Gage Skidmore/Flickr Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. With near-unanimous support from the public, how did President Obama’s plan for expanded background checks fail? The easy answer is it ran into the same barriers that have kept Democrats from passing any legislation over the last two years: Hyper-partisanship, joined with malapportionment in the Senate, routine filibusters, and a 60-vote threshold for cloture. Writing at Buzzfeed, Ruby Cramer and Evan McMorris-Santoro offer a more granular take , critiquing the particular political strategy pursued by the White House: But others said the White House’s campaign was encumbered by allowing urgency to fade; pursuing too many issues at once; overreaching in the early stages of the gun debate; and fundamentally failing to mobilize Obama’s legendary grassroots to pressure lawmakers. Each is a fair point, though it’s hard to see how they...

Ringside Seat: How Much Bull Could a Sen. Chuck Chuck?

When you learned that the suspects in the Boston bombing were ethnic Chechens who came to the United States as children, you may have had any number of thoughts. Chances are, though, that "I'm just glad Obamacare hasn't taken effect, otherwise they might have gotten health insurance subsidies" wasn't among them. But that seems to be where Chuck Grassley's mind went. The Iowa Republican senator said today that the Boston attack showed that we ought not pass comprehensive immigration reform too quickly. "How do we ensure," Grassley asked, "that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?" Grassley was once considered reasonable and somewhat moderate, a legislator who would not only cross the aisle from time to time, but who could be counted on to at least go about the lawmaking business in a civil way. But somewhere along the line, Grassley went off the rails. When the Judiciary Committee was debating the...

Substituting Identity for Motivation

A religious right leader offering his insights.
Let's be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don't really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they're literally Caucasian, but they're also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind. But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity. The sentiment coming from a lot of people on the right today runs to, "See! See! Mooslems!!!" Some...

Conservatives: Boston Means We Shouldn't Do Immigration Reform

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
As soon as it was revealed that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were immigrants from Chechnya—who had migrated as children, following conflict in the region—a predictable crew of conservatives pounced on that fact to disparage comprehensive immigration reform. Here’s Ann Coulter : It’s too bad Suspect # 1 won’t be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now. And also, conservative radio host Bryan Fischer : I think we can safely say that Rubio’s amnesty plan is DOA. And should be. Time to tighten, not loosen, immigration policy. On the other end of things, Iowa senator—and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee—Chuck Grassley issued a statement pointing to the situation as example of how the United States needs to improve its immigration laws : In his opening statement, Grassley also argued the Boston terror case can help strengthen immigration reform since “it will help shed light on the weaknesses in our system … [and] how can we beef up security checks on people who...

Immigration Reform: This Time It's Different

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, leads a "Gang of 8" news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington to discuss the group's immigration-reform legislation. W ednesday's release of the Gang of Eight's 844-page immigration-reform bill has taken a backseat to the coverage of the Boston bombings, currently hurtling toward a tense denouement. Immigration-advocacy organizations pushed back their press calls, and the senators behind the bill cancelled their press conference altogether. But the bill represents a sea change in the way the United States handles immigration. With a wide path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country and a major overhaul of the family- and employment-based immigration systems, it is a decisive shift away from the economic protectionism and anti-immigrant vitriol of the 2007-2008 immigration debate. "If you think of the 2007 bill as first- and second-generation thinking, this is...

Torture Report

Flickr/Shrieking Tree
As Americans grapple with the tragic bombings in Boston on Monday and the U.S. government works to track down those responsible, a new report on detainee treatment after 9/11 sheds important light on some of the measures adopted by the U.S. government in response to that attack. Issued by a panel convened by the Constitution Project , and chaired by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, the 577-page report looks at the broad range of policies and practices that were adopted by the U.S. to deal with detainees after the September 11 attacks. “Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel,” the report’s opening states , “is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” The new report states that in addition to methods that qualify as torture, “American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment. Both categories of...

The Second Explosion

AP Photo/Elise Amendola
AP Photo/Elise Amendola One of the blast sites on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon I n the 21 st century, American malevolence comes in twos. Just as people couldn’t begin to grasp what was happening until a plane hit the second of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the full impact of what took place Monday in Boston didn’t sink in until, 13 seconds after the first explosion, another immediately confirmed the true implications of this particular horror. Tellingly and understandably, the initial response by all of us was to wrestle with the word “terror,” because as much as any word “terror” has become the rorschach of our modern rhetoric, a characterization that transforms the dimensions of an event even as the facts remain the same, when instead we might call what happened merely a “crime.” Was the explosion that took place at the Atlanta Olympics in the summer of 1996 less an act of terror because it came not in twos but ones? For many, long after...

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