Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday Reading

Impossible Choices — David Rohde, a former Taliban captive explains why we’re demonizing the wrong people.

I’m biased about Bergdahl. Five years ago, I was kidnapped by the same Afghan Taliban faction along with two Afghan colleagues while I was on leave from The New York Times, researching a book in Afghanistan. An offer for an interview from a Taliban commander who had previously met twice with European journalists proved to be a ruse. We were abducted at the meeting point and then transported to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

My decision to go to the interview thrust my family and editors into a world where there are no good choices. Kidnapping cases vary, but they all center on the same tortuous questions. Was the kidnap victim innocent or somehow at fault—and does it matter? Is it right to pay a ransom that could encourage kidnappings or fund future terrorist attacks? When is it morally acceptable to let a captive die?

One brave Afghan and one brave Pakistani allowed me to avoid answering those questions. While our guards slept, the Afghan journalist and I managed to escape and reach a nearby Pakistani military compound. After we were nearly shot by sentries, a Pakistani Army captain allowed us to enter the base and saved our lives. (The other Afghan kidnapped with me returned home safely six weeks later.)

Ten days after our escape, Bergdahl was captured by the same Taliban group. Over the last four years, I have talked regularly with Bergdahl’s family and those of other kidnapped Americans. One of them is the family of Warren Weinstein, an aid worker abducted in Pakistan nearly three years ago. His family fears he will die in captivity. In July, he will be 73.

The Bergdahls, the Weinsteins, and every other family I have spoken with express the same sense of desperation, isolation, and crushing responsibility. They incessantly ask themselves if they are doing enough. The sad truth hanging over every conversation is that they do not have the power to save them.

Five years later, the situation has gotten worse.

In every case I know of, the U.S. government has refused to pay ransom and, until Bergdahl, refused to release prisoners. Over the last three years, however, European governments have paid $100 million in ransom to various al-Qaeda splinter groups across the Middle East and North Africa, according to British officials. Israel released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israel soldier.

[…]

During the Iraq war, security consultants began recommending that the abduction of journalists be kept secret. A media blackout, it was hoped, would reduce captors’ ransom demands. It would also, in theory, discourage would-be abductors from seeing kidnappings as a way to gain worldwide publicity for their cause.

When we were abducted in Afghanistan, my family and editors followed that advice. My captors also initially demanded that the case remain secret as well. As had occurred in a half-dozen previous instances, media outlets agreed not to report on our kidnapping.

We will never know the impact of the blackout on my captors, but throughout the seven months I was held captive, they remained convinced that I was a “big fish.” By the time we escaped, their price for my release included $7 million in cash and seven prisoners from Guantánamo—a drop from the $25 million and 15 Guantánamo prisoners they started with.

In the years since I’ve returned home, it’s become clear that one unintended consequence of this blackout strategy is that U.S. officials are under little pressure to address the problem. Anguished families say they regularly visit Washington only to be “patted on the head” by U.S. officials.

[…]

The outcry over the Bergdahl case could create the worst of both worlds. Jihadists will expect prisoner exchanges or large ransoms. U.S. officials will be ever more hesitant to act in kidnapping cases.

Both sides in the furor over the Bergdahl case offer simplistic answers to the growing problem of abductions. Those who say the release of the five prisoners sets no precedent are downplaying the scope of this propaganda coup for the Taliban. Other militants around the globe will likely emulate them.

[…]

The focus of our anger should be the kidnappers. They are the problem, not hostages, their families, or a government that meets a demand. We must unite in fighting the perpetrators of a craven crime—not each other.

A Simple Wedding — John Nichols at The Nation on why each marriage equality ruling is historic.

Shari Roll was clutching the marriage certificate. Renee Currie was clutching Shari Roll. And when their designated officiant, Mike Quieto, pronounced them married, they smiled so perfectly, so naturally, that it seemed as if this was just another wedding on the courthouse steps.

And, of course, it was.

The only distinction was that this was the first legally-recognized marriage of two women in Wisconsin, the first same-sex marriage in Madison, the one of the initial celebrations of the marriage equality ruling issued by a federal judge Friday afternoon. By the end of the night in Madison, 61 same-sex couples had been issued marriage licenses by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, while 68 had been issued by Milwaukee County Joe Czarnezki.

Together for years and very much in love, Roll and Currie could easily have driven to the neighboring state of Iowa, which has since 2009 recognized marriage equality. Thousands of Wisconsin couples, including Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and his husband, Phil Frank, married outside the state after a ban on same-sex marriages was enacted in 2006. But Roll and Currie decided to wait for a future when the state could no longer restrict the most basic rights of loving couples.

“We wanted to get married where we live,” explained Shari Roll.

I understand that. A lot of us who choose to marry in the place where we live, embraced by the people we know, grounded in the values and the unique interactions of the very different communities and states that make up America.

Madison’s uniqueness was evident Friday night, as dozens of couples got their licenses and married on the steps of the downtown building that serves both as the Madison City Hall and the Dane County Courthouse. Judges in robes waited on the steps, meeting couples and performing the marriages as cheers went up from the ever-expanding crowd of well-wishers. Children showed up, brimming with bouquets. I asked who the wedding flowers were for and they replied, “For everyone who is getting married today.” Then they starting handing flowers out to couples who had rushed to the courthouse without much preparation but suddenly felt quite special and very loved.

Then the cops showed up with the wedding cakes. Several Madison Police officers who had been assigned to keep an eye on the proceedings raced off to a nearby grocery store and bought three large cakes. Everyone was eating cake and cheering as the Klezmer band arrived and a fiddler played “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for a pair of women who waited 30 years to marry.

[…]

Today, polling shows Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support marriage equality – a May Marquette Law School poll found 55 percent of voters favor allowing same-sex marriage, while just 37 percent are opposed. Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature have refused to allow the voters to revisit the issue. Walker was still backing efforts by Attorney General JB Van Hollen to block marriages, even as the clerks started issuing licenses.

So it was appropriate that a senior jurist with her own deep roots in Wisconsin, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb, would determine that, “Quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution.” In an 88-page decision that was hailed as one of the most though yet produced by a federal jurist ruling on the issue, Crabb explained that states cannot trump federal guarantees of equality and equal protection with their own discriminatory amendments. And, while Walker and Van Hollen will continue to cling to a past that has been rejected by the courts and the great mass of Wisconsinites and Americans, the future is fast arriving.

And that future allows people to marry the people they love in the places they love.

In their rush to get to the courthouse Friday afternoon, Shari Roll and Renee Currie forgot to bring any cash for the license fee. Roll handed her credit card to friend who ran off to a nearby bank machine and returned with the cash. It was no problem. Shari and Renee were getting married where they live, and everyone was helping out.

The Day the Giants Walked — Lt. Col. Robert Bateman on one soldier’s landing on D-Day.

In the smoke and dust kicked up by the massive pre-landing naval bombardment, the markers leading the way into the beach were missed by the men piloting the landing craft. Sure, they were heading ashore, but unbeknownst to them they were heading for the wrong section of the shore. The place they were supposed to land was more than a mile, some 2,000 yards, to the north. With confusion created by smoke, dust, noise, and fear, the landing craft were well off-target. But time and tide wait for no man, and so when they grounded on the gently sloping sands and the ramps dropped, the men of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and the diminutive general accompanying them, stepped ashore.

Even today Utah Beach is unremarkable. This stretch of the coast is at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, and it is low, with just a single light sand dune abutting the beach. Go there off-season and you can walk these sands, alone, lost in the memories of 100,000 men. You can wander the beaches imagining the approach and the arrival all those decades ago, with not a single person in sight. If you have a vivid imagination, and know your history, it can border on the spiritual. There are no beachside cafes, nor bustling hotels or tourist shops selling kitschy D-Day schlock to interrupt you, as at some of the other landing sites. There is only the beach, where the first of the allies waded ashore, and the world started to change.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was the deputy division commander of the units that landed in the first wave. He had to pull strings to be allowed to land with the dogfaces, but when your cousin is the President of the United States, some of your “strings” can be quite substantial. Roosevelt only played that card, significantly, in order to get in to combat, not to avoid it. Eventually General Bradley caved, and so Roosevelt was there, in the first confusing moments. Confusing, of course, because the terrain did not match what the infantry was expecting. They had maps, but the ground did not match the maps they were issued. What to do?

Two battalions of American infantry were now ashore, and the battalion commanders were wondering, “what do we do now?” And this is the moment when that wizened little man who was not supposed to be there, using a walking stick, made his mark upon the history of the world.

[…]

Roosevelt was not long for this earth, and he probably knew it. I suspect that he did not care. What he cared about were the men, the mission, and the countless memories recorded by the men who served with or under him substantiate that. He was a worthy successor to his father, and might have left a mark known to more, had there been more time. He was not to have that time.

Less than 60 days later, having just been appointed as the commander of his own Division, he died of a heart attack. But on this day, this morning, 70 years ago, he made history. He gave an order, and the men followed, and the world began to change.

“We start…from here.”

Doonesbury — Pay attention.