Fair Accounting: A Perspective on the Legacy of the 9/11 Terror Attacks

Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society

Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society

Fourteen years ago today, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In Pennsylvania, the passengers and crew of an additional flight lost their lives in a brave attempt to regain control of their hijacked aircraft. By the end of the day, nearly three thousand Americans were dead as a result of a senseless act of carnage.

Every year, the citizens of the United States remember the horror of that event, the inarguable tragedy of the lives lost, and the heroism of brave men and women who gave everything to help others. To the extent that some people are still grappling with a sense of loss, this is fine. But to the extent that it has come to be one of the defining features of the modern American mythos – a nation shaped by violence, grief, and fear – it is not.

On 9/11, we tend to bow or heads and remember the toll – measured in blood, sorrow, and (to a lesser extent) riches – exacted on American soil. Few seem willing or able to recall how our leaders squandered the unity inspired by those events and embarked on a catastrophic campaign of foreign intervention. Nor do many seem to spend much time thinking about the restrictions on civil liberties and the forfeiture of American ideals justified in the name of defense. 9/11 provided men like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld the capital the needed to initiate a savage campaign of foreign war, domestic spying, and torture.

9/11 has helped to cultivate a national sense of victimhood. The events of that day have played a fundamental role in sculpting important swaths of domestic and foreign policy, and the results have been largely disastrous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Indeed, the number of soldiers who have died in those wars is more than double that of the civilians and public servants killed on 9/11. As of 2015, roughly 210,000 Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani civilians have died as direct result of those wars. A federal bill providing medical assistance to 9/11 first responders was not passed until 2010. And, to the considerable chagrin of men like the ever mendacious Dick Cheney and bumbling George W. Bush, the fact that large areas of the Middle East are a quagmire of violence and despair today is at least partially attributable to decisions made in the direct aftermath of 9/11.

None of which is really to criticize anyone who wants to pass the day mired in patriotic paraphernalia and sentimentality or posting inspirational, heart-warming videos to their favorite social media outlet. 9/11 was a monumental tragedy perpetrated by vicious criminals. There’s no reason we shouldn’t remember it as such. But we should be careful not to let the horror and anguish of an event 14 years ago become the bread and butter of our national identity. September 11, 2001 was a horrible day in American history. Unfortunately, the entirely justifiable sense of loss and righteous indignation inspired by those events has largely been used as leverage to squeeze civil liberties at home and pursue perverse policy agendas to dubious ends overseas.

Properly boiled down, the question amounts to this: how appropriate is it to annually solemnize one crime when callously or carelessly forgetting its equally atrocious offspring? Certainly 9/11 was awful, but viewed objectively, what the United States did after was worse. The death toll, both civilian and military, has been much higher. Likewise, the costs in treasure have been staggering – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq accounted for 20 percent of the amount added to the U.S. national debt between 2001 and 2012, ultimately costing around $6 trillion dollars. And what did we buy with all that blood and treasure? The fruits have been nebulous at best.

Which brings us squarely down to my real beef with 9/11 memorializing. The only thing we seem to have gotten out of 9/11 and all the blood spilled thereafter is a right to spend a day each year feeling sorry about something that happened 14 years ago. For me, the ticket isn’t worth the price.

John Oliver and Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption – Televangelist Fraud and the Scam of Religious Exemption

That comedians have become the most reliable source of serious investigate journalism is a state of affairs that is, well, weird, to say the least. But with the 24 hour new networks abdicating their responsibility to inform the public, it really isn’t surprising. So it is that we have folks like John Oliver and his staff delivering some of the best long form journalism on television. Last night, they tackled Televangelists, and the result was glorious (if infuriating).

Televangelists are the undisputed kings of high-dollar hucksterism. These men and women – vile, mendacious scum, all of them – rake in millions of dollars by taking advantage of hopelessly gullible people. They live in ostentatious mansions and own private jets, while the otherwise innocent dupes who fund their decadent lifestyles flounder in poverty and disease. Televangelists are almost unspeakably reprehensible human beings, and thanks to the permissive stance adopted by the federal government regarding anything even vaguely resembling religious belief, their crimes have gone – and probably will forever go – unpunished.

Cynically speaking, it can be difficult to find sympathy for the victims of these degenerate predators. They are, after all, stupid enough to fork out chunks of change that they can ill-afford for prospective rewards that they have no hope of ever receiving. But the problem with that line of thinking is that is mistake the nature of critical thought. It suggests that everyone is – or at least ought to be – a perfectly rational and discriminating decision maker. Yet the reality is that objective evaluation is neither easily achievable nor easily applied. To begin with, an incredulous disposition and a capacity for critical thought are skills that must be cultivated. No one is really born with these things. Certainly individuals might have greater or lesser capacities for them, but they still must be learned. The people who wind up fleeced by Televangelists are people who have never had an opportunity, accompanied by the proper intellectual guidance, the learn how to think. As a result, they are possessed of tendencies that might be callously referred to as stupidity. Indeed, one can even speculate as the kind of people who might populate the ranks of Televangelist congregations: the materially impecunious; individuals who have little more than a high school education, if that; people raised by neglectful or similarly ignorant parents; people who do not read frequently and were rarely, if ever, read to as children; people who spend most of their free time watching TV; people who occupy the lowest levels of society, left hopeless and adrift by poverty and illness. These are the victims of Televangelists.

So if there is to be a target of our ire aside from the Televangelists themselves, it ought to be the Federal government and the IRS. Televangelists should be taxed heavily, barred from exploiting loopholes open to even the most heavily regulated of corporations. They should be investigated frequently, harassed by the FCC and FBI and ever other agency that can find a stake in their game. That Televangelists are able to live in luxury, unchecked by any regulatory authority is indicative of grave flaws in the relationship between government and religion. Specifically, it casts light on the fact that religion – defined broadly – is granted too much leeway. A separation of church and state is necessary for the maintenance of liberty. If that means granted some special status to legitimate churches, narrowly defined, that is fine. But it is clear to anyone with even a shred of decency or simulacrum of critical thought that Televangelists are frauds and snake oil salesmen. Ideally, they should be thrown in jail. Barring that unlikely bit of justice, they should at least be subject to taxation.

Conservative Republicans of Texas – Right Wing Radicals Have Temper Tantrum over LGBT Rights

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Vindication is sometimes bittersweet. A few weeks back I wrote about the growing threat of Right Wing ideological extremism in the United States. Today, an article on a group called the Conservative Republicans of Texas grants sad credence to the views I outlined in that piece.

Apparently, these nuts think a satirical article written in the late 1980s is a kind of gay manifesto, outlining a plan for gay world domination. According to these lunatics – who, I’m deeply chagrined to say, are members of the voting populace and probably own firearms – the American LGBT community won’t rest until every man and boy has been sodomized.

This is grossly disappointing stuff, and in a sense it’s difficult to take seriously. These are, after all, adults in a first world nation. I imagine the majority of these people at least have a high school education, and many of them have probably been to college. Yet they espouse views that might be politely called outlandish, but should be more appropriately categorized as viciously reprehensible.

These people do not have the political bargaining power to achieve their extremist agenda through peaceful means. I don’t think it’s a stretch – given the violent rhetoric employed by members of the Conservative Republicans of Texas and groups like them – to suspect they might be capable of lashing out violently. Society has moved beyond their antediluvian, knuckle-dragging worldview. How long before the realization that the civilized world has left them in its wake, and the associated feelings of disenfranchisement that realization engenders, stimulates a bloody tantrum?

Trophy Hunting the Trophy Hunters – Why the Outrage of Digital Mobs Sets a Dangerous Precedent

Johann Eckstein's (1791) depiction of a mob burning Joseph Priestley's home.

Johann Eckstein’s (1791) depiction of a mob burning Joseph Priestley’s home.

Trophy hunting has recently become a sociopolitical lightning rod. With the high profile cases of Walter Palmer and Sabrina Corgatelli circulating through the headlines and echoing across social media, people are taking note of a form of recreation whose propriety is in need of serious evaluation. To the extent that this has drawn attention to issues of sportsmanship, fair chase, and conservation, it has been a positive development.

However, these developments have also cast light on something rather ugly. Clamoring for justice and retribution, denizens of the internet’s most popular social media platforms have allowed their understandable feelings of disgust and outrage to coalesce into reactionary mobs. While I can sympathize with the underlying sentiment – the feeling that what these people have done is hideous and reprehensible – the response has been altogether baffling.

Make no mistake: this type of behavior sets a precedent whose sinister implications are myriad. The potential for ideological allies to cohere into frenzied mobs – posting people’s personal information, calling for their termination at their place of employ – whenever they catch a whiff of dissension is something everyone should look at with sickening unease. The winds of righteous indignation can be rather indiscriminate. What sates one person’s lust for justice stands to infringe on another’s ability to achieve the same.

The signal fact that nothing good has ever come from acquiescing to the demands of mobs should not be casually swept aside when you happen to find yourself agreeing with the base sentiments that stimulate a given mob’s rancor. Would it not seem an affront to the ideals of individual liberty and freedom of expression if Christians began to demand the termination of vociferous atheists? Would it seem appropriate if conservatives clogged the social media account of an organization upon learning that one of their employees had recently had an abortion?

People will sometimes do things we don’t agree with. There will even be times when it might be possible to pose a strong argument that those things are unethical. But the idea that anytime someone offends the boundaries of someone else’s ideological sensibilities is a time we can expect the formation of digital witch hunts, bent on driving their targets from their place of work and leaving them no quarter anywhere in the public sphere, is truly abhorrent.

People should feel free to debate ideas – even contentiously, when civility seems beyond reach. They should not, however, feel it their right to foist their ideas on others through the brute force of mob outrage. There are far more productive means of combating nefarious behaviors like trophy hunting.

For instance, perhaps you might consider pouring all that emotional energy into an email to your congressman, demanding a ban on the import of trophies. Or maybe give a few bucks – as much as you can – to a reputable conservation agency and do your part in undermining the economic incentives associated with trophy hunting. Maybe the World Wildlife Fund, the National Geographic Society, or the National Wildlife Federation. It might not be a sure cure for your raised hackles, but it will definitely do more to help preserve the species the opponents of trophy hunting are concerned about protecting than getting a few individuals fired.

Just don’t make it your mission to become the cosmic hand of justice. That’s never worked out well for anybody.

Johann Jacob Wick's (1585) depiction of the burning of three witches in Switzerland.

Johann Jacob Wick’s (1585) depiction of the burning of three witches in Switzerland.

The Religious Right’s Persecution Complex – How Imaginary Grievences Are Radicalizing the Far-Right

Caravaggion's depiction of the crucifixion of Peter.

Caravaggio’s depiction of the crucifixion of Peter.

In accepted social science parlance, terms like social exclusion and marginalization typically refer to situations in which individuals or communities face real barriers from participation in society. That is, they are too poor to participate in the economy or afford the minimum standards for meaningful engagement with society. They are unable to afford the clothes they need to appear “presentable” or, too consumed with the task of making ends meet, incapable of investing enough time and energy in their children to sculpt stable and productive members of society. Alternatively, they might face discrimination based on their ethnic heritage or perceived racial differences. In some cases, they might even be systematically disenfranchised, legally or practically barred from participating in processes of self-governance.

None of this is true for a large portion of the Religious Right, who nonetheless feel persecuted and alienated by everyone else’s efforts to build a better world. To my knowledge, no is preventing them going to church, no one is crucifying them or feeding them to lions, no one is telling them they can’t go certain places on account of their beliefs.Their sense of having been ostracized from society at large is mostly a product of their imagination. But to the extent that their feelings are rooted in anything observable in the real world, it is the decline of their dominant hand in dictating the social agenda. Frankly, they are upset that they no longer get to call the tune to which everyone else must dance. No longer in a position to legally arbitrate moral issues and foist their beliefs on others, they feel their hold on society – poisonous as it is and has always has been – slipping away.

19th century depiction of Christian martyrs in Roman Colosseum.

19th century depiction of Christian martyrs in Roman Colosseum.

As a result, the Religious Right has taken to nurturing a persecution complex. For the most part, the results are innocuous – if obnoxious – complaints registered from the pulpits of Fox News or the endless recesses of social media. They whine and complain, occasionally throwing themselves on the ground to scream and kick in a full blown tantrum. But for the most part, their erroneous feelings of persecution have registered as little more than an incessant source of annoyance for those living under the auspices of more enlightened, forward-looking segments of society.

However, I see in these conditions a strong potential for ugliness. There is a sense in which Dylann Roof and John Russell Houser can be taken as symptoms of White Conservative Christian Persecution Complex, and harbingers of what is to come. Though Houser’s crime is almost certainly attributable to mental illness, he and Roof share a set of motivations rooted in far-right ideology. The same can be said for the recent spate of arson targeting black churches throughout the American south.

Additional ominous rumblings might be seen in the Cliven Bundy standoff, when armed right-wing militants gathered at a Nevada ranch to defend its owners right to exploit public lands with impunity. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the event speaks volumes concerning the feelings of its participants: a willingness to use violence to remedy a grievance that could be – and should be – resolved through peaceful, legal means.

Now, a handful of crimes and social disturbances – however horrific and baffling – do not a trend make. So let me absolutely clear that I am not trying to sound an alarmist note, offering some dire prognostication for the world over the horizon. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that when people feel disenfranchised, they tend to act out. Never mind that the sense of marginalization experienced by the Religious Right is one they’ve conjured out of thin air. The fact remains that they think it is real, and a community that believes strongly enough that they are losing their grip on society, having lost sight of all avenues for reasonable action, can be expected to produce a handful of members willing to take radical action.

I do not see a future in which the United States has descended in the chaos of racial strife or sectarian conflict. Nevertheless, I have a strong suspicion that as our society becomes more and more equal, more and more diverse, the Religious Right’s feelings of persecution are going to become ever more exaggerated. Keep in mind, the Klu Klux Klan – perhaps the United States’ oldest terrorist organization – is a product of 19th century conservative religious extremism, formed at a time when their ability to inflict their views – and their abject oppression – on others had been revoked. Today, visitors to the KKK’s official website are greeted with this sentiment:

There is a race war against whites. But our people – my white brothers and sisters – will stay committed to a non-violent resolution. That resolution must consist of solidarity in white communities around the world. The hatred for our children and their future is growing and is being fueled every single day. Stay firm in your convictions. Keep loving your heritage and keep witnessing to others that there is a better way than a war torn, violent, wicked, socialist, new world order. That way is the Christian way – law and order – love of family – love of nation. These are the principles of western Christian civilization. There is a war to destroy these things. Pray that our people see the error of their ways and regain a sense of loyalty. Repent America! Be faithful my fellow believers.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

This is pure nonsense, liberally seasoned with racial animus, paranoia, ignorance, and vitriol. There is no war on white people or Christians, only an urgent and entirely justified need to prevent one group from telling other groups how to behave. Yet some people believe there is. Indeed, strike the white-power rubbish from the quote and you have an opinion not far off from those expressed by Republican presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who stubbornly lament the decline of Christian liberty, absent even the slimmest shred of evidence for the existence of such a decline. Christians – along with members of all other denominations – are as free to practice their religions as they have ever been. Likewise, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly has expressed concern over the demographic changes eroding the Republican base, which is a poorly cloaked way of expressing concern over the prospect of living in an increasingly diverse country. Though this perspective is not the same as that outlined by the KKK, it is definitely somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee

As a nation, the United States has been making gradual, faltering steps toward progress. The legalization of same-sex marriage, steps toward the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, demographic changes making it more and more difficult for hard-line conservatives to win the Oval Office, broader and broader acceptance of different forms of consensual love and gender expression, and gradual trends toward the increasing secularization of society are all good things. Problematic, is that there is a non-negligible segment of society that thinks these things are not only bad, but a direct threat to their way of life. And as a result, we can expect more and more members of that community’s most disadvantaged and ideologically intransigent fringe to act out more and more frequently. Much of this acting out will probably take the form of white-trash assholes hurling insults and racial epithets at children’s birthday parties, or causing a ruckus on some state capitol grounds. Yet some fraction of it is bound to be violent, and this violence cannot be entirely divorced from attitudes common on the Religious Right.

The point here is not to single out conservatism as a particularly fertile ground for the growth of ideological extremism. To that end, I have taken pains to limit the target of my discussion to those who fall under the heading of Religious Right, courteously minimizing the signal fact that many of beliefs that fall squarely under that heading have become mainstream in the Republican party, driving their political primaries to a realm of ever increasing ideological extremity. Nevertheless, there have been plenty of acts of violence committed by people who adhere to extreme leftist ideologies – think of the FARC militants in Columbia or the Red Army Faction in Germany. Radicals on both sides of the political spectrum seem to be motivated by a similar authoritarian streak. Presently, one of the more salient differences lies in the fact that the U.S. Religious Right expresses feelings of victimization and political defeat that lend themselves to unsavory behavior far more frequently than the far-left. Yet one could easily imagine how worsening income inequality, coupled with the increasing disenfranchisement stemming from the Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutcheon vs. FEC Supreme Court decisions, might stimulate far-left zealots to egregious action. But here we have yet another difference: the problems associated with income inequality and the decline of voter’s ability to influence policy are real and the problems bemoaned by the Religious Right are not.

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What’s Really Wrong With What Walter Palmer Did in Zimbabwe

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Walter Palmer (left) posing with a dead lion.

Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer is currently a strong contender for most reviled person on the internet. Days ago, Palmer allegedly baited and killed a popular lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil with the help of two hunting guides. The story is getting attention on social media because the lion was popular among tourists and fitted with a radio tracking collar for study. But the derision Palmer rightly deserves comes from something more general.

Palmer’s actions have given him well-earned status as an international villain, but before I go further in heaping scorn on this prick, let’s make it clear that those people who are threatening the man with physical harm are little better than he is. Palmer’s actions are those of an asshole, pure and simple, but that doesn’t earn him a death warrant, nor does it validate attempts to drive his place of work into the ground. Other people work there too, and they do not deserve to become collateral damage as a result of Palmer’s unsavory behavior.

Now down to brass tacks. Trophy hunting is a repugnant, vile activity. It involves such a level of callous disrespect for the beauty and diversity of the natural world that it is difficult to image anyone who participates in it as anything less than scum. It is indicative of the most decadent sense of entitlement, of a mind that welcomes any opportunity for self-indulgence, regardless of the consequences. There is no ethical deliberation that can produce a substantive claim in favor of killing an animal so you can decorate your home with its remains. Palmer’s behavior is that of a pig, and the same goes for people like him.

Consider the fact that the diversity of the natural world is plummeting at an alarming rate, potentially signalling the onset of a sixth mass extinction event. The population of African lions, for instance, has dropped from an estimated 400,000 in the 1940s to as few as 32,000 today, largely as a result of human interference. Many African lion populations are highly isolated, running real risks of succumbing to the ill effects of inbreeding depressions. The selfish insolence of a person who thinks it their right to claim one of those animals for personal pleasure is staggering. Alone, trophy hunters from the U.S. kill as many as 600 lions each year – legally. But the fact that it is legal does not make it ethical. Trophy hunting is a sport for rich swine, pure and simple.

To be clear, this is not some anti-hunting screed. Many people hunt ethically. They hunt species with well-managed populations and do so within the limits of established law and widely recognized customs of sportsmanship. They eat the animals they kill and make use of inedible remains whenever they can. These are good people who are often actively involved in conservation.

This is not the case with someone who baits an animal from a vulnerable population that is entirely unaccustomed to human predation, kills it (in Palmer’s case very poorly), skins and decapitates it, and leaves most of its remains to rot in the sun. That is not sportsmanship. That is an act of pure avarice.

Walter Palmer doesn’t deserve death threats, and his coworkers and employees don’t deserve to be driven from their jobs as a result of his behavior. But he – and those like him – do deserve to be regularly reminded that trophy hunting vulnerable, threatened, or endangered animals is a depraved and contemptible form of recreation.

Cecil, the lion that was killed by Palmer and his guides on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.

Cecil, the lion that was killed by Palmer and his guides on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.


An addendum:

It’s worth taking a moment to address an issue that inevitably crops up in discussions of trophy hunting: money. The decadent aristocrats who gallivant around the globe shooting majestic animals for personal pleasure do so at great personal expense, and some of that money makes its way into the coffers of conservation efforts. There are even some indications that the economic incentives associated with trophy hunting have led to an expansion of habitat for a variety of game species, as private landowners attempt to leverage their way into a profitable market. In other words, there are pragmatic reasons why the contentious issue of trophy hunting can’t be adjudicated solely on the basis of its general repugnance.

That being the case, I would suggest the economic value of trophy hunting is more indicative of a methodological flaw in modern conservation efforts, and deeper problems reflective of the apparently paltry value humanity places on the earth’s natural resources. Quite frankly, there is little I find more disheartening than the fact that most societies can rarely see past the dollar value of anything. To be sure, this perspective springs from an idealistic place, but it’s worth keeping in mind that conservation should be a task valued and celebrated in and of itself, regardless of economic returns. I have no idea how to motivate people to selflessly invest in conservation efforts, so a more practical remedial option might be to work to better enforce laws that guide the money from trophy hunting into the right hands and prevent people from killing animals that still have the potential to play a useful role in ecosystem sustainability.

None of which is to back down from my initial position. Trophy hunting is an entirely disreputable activity, and the motivations that drive someone to fly around the world to kill a creature just for the purpose of festooning their den with its remains are completely alien to me. They are clearly quite wealthy, well positioned to do the unspeakable and just give money to conservation efforts. In many instances, direct donations to reputable conservation agencies might offer greater assurance that money makes it to places outside the pockets of venal bureaucrats. Legally done or not, I have a hard time viewing trophy hunting as remotely sportsmanlike. But as long as its practitioners are willing to play by the rules and pay their weight, I’m not sure there is anything in the short term that can be done about it.