Hajj Help?

            Item: Ever since 9/11, there’s been criticism – often in private, sometimes public circles – that the worldwide Muslim voice of outrage is still too muted when it comes to jihadi terrorism. When it comes to the horrific targeting of the innocent. When it comes to cherry-picking the Koran to rationalize sadistic murder.

            Item: Millions of Muslims, representing nearly 100 countries, recently converged on Mecca as part of the annual hajj pilgrimage. 

            Reportedly, there was no evidence of any “Stop Murdering People In Allah’s Name” signs.

Al-Qaida Missteps

 A national security analysis now tells us that Al-Qaida may be on the verge of decline. Apparently you can’t go on indefinitely with indiscriminate killing and maiming without losing appeal in the Muslim world. This is a very good sign.

Another positive turn is the curious post-election, Web message sent by Al-Qaida deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Clearly concerned about the Ultimate Un-Bush as U.S. president, he ridiculed President-elect Obama by labeling him a “house negro.”   

In so doing, al-Zawahiri has helped the Obama administration with its top domestic political priority: developing a sense of bipartisanship and national unity.

It’s one thing for Republicans to criticize, indeed cheap-shot, Obama – but that’s not the purview of outsiders. Obama is the president of all Americans – black and white, Republican, Democrat and Independent  – and we tend to rally around our own when outsiders, especially jihadi mass murderers, deride or demonize one of them. Especially the one in the Oval Office.

Thanks, Ayman.                             

Latest Embargo Vote

For those keeping score at home, the United Nations has – for the 17th consecutive year – voted in the same overwhelming fashion to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Last year the vote on the non-binding (“Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”) resolution was 184-4 in favor. This year it was 185-3. Voting with the U.S. was Israel and Palau – with two abstentions: the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.

            What else hasn’t changed is that this Cold War relic helps no one – save a handful of Cuban-American politicians in South Florida and New Jersey. But in a perverse way – over the years – it has provided Fidel Castro with a perfect foil — Uncle Scapegoat — for his failed Communist experiment.

For the state of Florida and the port of Tampa it’s been economically counterproductive. As a humanitarian matter, it’s a loser by any definition – especially after Cuban-American travel restrictions and remittance rules were tightened. And as a geopolitical issue, it has further underscored America’s already undermined reputation – at the worst possible time – as an arrogant hegemon.  

Even our closest ally in the Southern Hemisphere, Colombia, officially noted that “this kind of action should stop.”

Ten U.S. presidents have maintained the unsuccessful embargo, much to the detriment of America and ill-fated Cubans.  Would that the 11th will shortly send the message around the world that in so many ways, with Cuba among them, it will no longer be business as usual.

Israel will just have to understand. Presumably, Palau will too.

Korea si, Libya si, Cuba no

            So, the U.S. has formally removed North Korea from its terror list, this country continues to chum up with Libya, and the counterproductive, Cold War relic that is the economic embargo on Cuba is still in effect.  

One has nuclear weapons, a track record of selling missiles to rogue customers, and a short fuse. One was complicit in killing Americans. And the other has the aging Castro Brothers — and key members of Congress posturing against it and any meaningful change.

If, indeed, change that we can count on is coming after November 4, the new administration need look no farther than Cuba to underscore that it means business – not business as usual.

Checkin’ In At Checkpoint Charlie

BERLIN, Germany – I hadn’t seen Charlie in a generation. The years have been kind.

Back in 1972 “Checkpoint Charlie” was notoriously known for being the border crossing between what was then East and West Berlin.  

            I had been there as a journalist. The memories cascaded back.

*There was that grim, little guard house, plopped down in the middle of Friedrichstrasse. Perhaps the only thing iconic that ever looked like a back yard Wally Watt shed.

*And Friedrichstrasse itself, which was then dominated by drab storefronts, abandoned apartments, empty lots and a modest museum dedicated to those who had died fleeing from East Berlin.

*I vividly recalled the winter of ’72 and visiting with Checkpoint Charlied G.I.s, who were glad to talk to another American – and yet leery about who I might really be. After about 20 minutes of both somber and animated conversation, one of the soldiers said: “How ‘bout that Super Bowl? Were you surprised to see Miami beat Dallas?”

“Actually, I’m surprised you said that,” I answered. “Dallas won,” I replied.

“I know,” responded the G.I. through a nominal smile. “Just checkin’.”

Checkpoint Charlie checkin’.

Later the subject of Willy Brandt, the former mayor of West Berlin, Nobel Peace Prize winner and then chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, came up. I thought it was cool, ironic — and refreshingly egalitarian — that in such a sobering context the man in charge was not on some authoritarian pedestal, but often referred to as “Schnapps Willy.” It was said endearingly – not derisively.

You could bet that nobody referred — at least in public — to East German leader Erich Honecker in such a delightfully irreverent fashion. And if anybody had earned the right to some serious tippling, I figured, it was Brandt. I said as much.

After much agreement and some salty slapstick, a soldier said: “I noticed that you referred to him as ‘Villy.’”

“Well, that’s how it’s pronounced,” I said.

“But most Americans wouldn’t say ‘Villy,’” he countered.

“Well, I guess I’m not most Americans,” I explained, which probably sounded more smart-ass scribe than Stasi spy. “You know, when in Rome…”

Not that it needed underscoring, but visiting an Allied checkpoint in Berlin back then was an immersion in Cold War reality on a number of levels. In the age of dueling super powers, this was the world’s most infamous tripwire. This was where American and Soviet tanks faced off against each other in 1961. Where emotional demonstrations were routine and escape attempts from East Berlin sometimes ended brutally and tragically.

No surprise that nothing was to be taken for granted — including a lone journalist, purportedly American, showing up at Checkpoint Charlie in the winter of the free world’s geopolitical discontent.

But that was then, and this was not.

            *For one thing, the farther north you now go — past a cheesy, Checkpoint Charlie replica — the more gentrified and glitzy is the formerly dour Friedrichstrasse. A Westin Grand Hotel, Galeries Lafayette, a Bugatti dealer.

            What was once a ghost town artery now teams with conspicuous consumption brand names — Rolex, Patek Philippe, Hermes, Escada, Gucci – plus fancy restaurants and numerous software firms. This is hardly what Honecker had in mind.

Not far is the reconstructed Reichstag (complex), the Brandenburg Gate and the notably accessible U.S. Embassy. Construction cranes are ubiquitous – as are blue, above-ground water pipes.

*The immediate Checkpoint Charlie area, however, has had a less dramatic makeover. It went from grim to generically commercial. A couple of Underground stations, mid-rise office buildings, a produce market, a (Kamps) pastry shop, a storefront museum, other businesses that cater to Checkpoint Charlie tourists, an (outdoor) pictorial chronology of the Cold War and some vendors hawking, of all things, Soviet-era memorabilia. As if.

But back to that Checkpoint Charlie replica. In front of it was a pile of sandbags and an American flag. And a local Berliner in an American G.I. uniform. And a kettle where those wanting a photo could deposit one Euro for a personalized picture of commercialized, back-dropped history. Call it entrepreneurial, but it seemed, well, sacrilegious.

*In the context of America’s involvement in the Middle East and the ongoing hit

our international reputation continues to take, it was gratifying and prideful to be privy to a context where the U.S. was seen as a force for unfettered good. A time when fighting for “freedom” and “democracy” weren’t glib, geopolitical euphemisms for ill-considered, foreign-policy ventures – from Vietnam to Iraq. At Checkpoint Charlie, Americans are still the good guys.

            *And speaking of good guys, how welcome it was to discover Jesse-Owens-Allee, the street that runs along Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

*Perhaps it is just something inimitably German. But I’ve never seen such

strict pedestrian adherence to red lights. There could be no traffic for as far as the eye can see; there could be a pedestrian lane no more than 20 feet across; there could be no police presence. Nobody breaks rank. And, no, the cops don’t morph into storm troopers over jay-walking; crossing on red is just not done.

            *Arguably, there is no more poignant memorial to what war has wrought than the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfurstendamn. The original church, which dates to the 1890s, was virtually destroyed in the bombing raids of 1943. The shell of a spire and part of the entrance hall still remain – now juxtaposed to adjacent memorials.

            *It’s been well documented how Germany has come to moral grips with — and self-understanding of — its Nazi past. Numerous museums and memorials around Berlin are dedicated to the reign of terror, the extermination policy and the memory of Holocaust victims.

            The most moving was the Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe, not far from the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. One room contained diary entries and letters. One in particular left me emotionally limp. It still does.

“Dear Father! I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.” Your J. 31, July 42

A Candidate, A Plan, A DVD, A Test, A Tradition

          *Can Buddy Johnson, Hillsborough’s supervisor of elections, quit while he’s merely behind?

Publicly-chronicled personal and professional embarrassments (remember that “details”-challenged deposition?) might have induced a less, uh, determined candidate to step aside. Not incumbent Buddy who elects to press on — in notably high-profile fashion, no less.

In a campaign where the incumbent has been out fund-raised more than two-to-one by his opponent, Johnson has made news yet again. This time with print and electronic voter-education materials that prominently feature — Johnson. The less-than-nuanced brochure message: A vote for the larger-than-life Johnson equates to “A New Vote of Confidence” in the optical-scan machines.

No one is questioning the funding, per se. Most of it is from Help America Vote Act grants that try to prevent the sort of election debacles that, well, Florida is notorious for. But many see Johnson as unnecessarily eponymous with voting – and unnecessarily conspicuous

Arguably — and ironically — Johnson already has a high enough profile.

*Whatever the final details of the massive financial package negotiated in Washington, every member of Congress and the talking heads of cable television will have a ready take on what made it ultimately palatable – fiscally and politically. From higher limits on insured bank deposits to the visceral fright at seeing a trillion-dollar stock market plunge at the initial news of a non-deal.

But one key political tenet ultimately proved catalytic: When in doubt, (including those politicians who knew they would be against it before they were for it) go euphemistic. Except for those escaping in golden parachutes, nobody wanted anything to do with a “bailout,” which was code for “reward those who deserve the most blame – at the expense of those who deserve little or none.”

But once legislation started being referenced as a positive act of “rescue” and “recovery” — with their connotations of inclusion — it became politically viable.  

The psychology of semantics is not unlike abortion adherents or opponents preferring their “pro choice” or “pro life” labels or second-hand cars selling better as “pre-owned” rather than “used.” 

Once Congress bailed out of the bad rhetoric that precluded political cover and added enough sweeteners, not even Shrieker of the House Nancy Pelosi could prevent a deal.

*Not yet seen on bumper stickers: “Privatize Wealth, Socialize Debt.”

  “There are no atheists in foxholes nor libertarians in a financial meltdown.”

*WWMS? Imagine, the turbulence in the financial markets has yielded this from Liu Mingkang, chairman of the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission: U.S. lending standards, noted Liu, had become “ridiculous.” China, he sagely pointed out, has been curbing mortgage lending amid a real estate boom in order to keep debt manageable. Added Liu: “When U.S. regulators were reducing the down payment to zero or they created so-called reverse mortgages, we thought that was ridiculous.” What Would Mao Say?

*By now, most folks have heard of – and many have seen – that  DVD about radical Islam that’s been bundled inside a number of newspapers, including the two major dailies in this market. The documentary, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against The West,” analogizes contemporary radical Islam with pre-World War II Nazism. I had seen it last year when it caused a First Amendment furor at the University of Florida because of those “Radical Islam Wants You Dead” posters around campus.

A couple of points:

First, “Obsession” is what you would expect: heavy-handed, graphic, agenda-driven propaganda. But true enough to impact and scare. Had Michael Moore or Oliver Stone had this same point of view, they could have made “Obsession” – after including damning American foreign-policy context.

Second, it’s unseemly and insulting for the distributor, the Clarion Fund, to deny that it’s trying to influence the presidential election. We’re only a month out, and it’s specifically targeted to swing states, such as Florida, and key electoral demographics, such as Interstate 4-corridor independents. More fear-mongering, dark-side political pandering is not what an already polarizing election needs.

Third, “Obsession” unfortunately leads to an inevitable stereotyping of Muslims, the overwhelmingly majority of which are not radical jihadists. Or even close. But even a small percentage of a billion – who cherry pick the Koran for rationales to murder infidels and apostates — is no trifling number. Would that it were.

Fourth, “Obsession” ends with Edmund Burke’s famous quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It still applies.

*Oxymoron: “Country First”/Sarah Palin for Vice President.

*Here we go again. Another gathering of college admissions officials has stoked the argument over whether standardized tests (principally, the SAT) should be optional. In some institutions, that’s already the case. The other choice: Should they just be jettisoned altogether?

That’s because such tests can be imprecise; they can be culturally biased; and they can be skewed in favor of those taking test-prep courses.

Here’s another option. Make them mandatory – and keep evaluating their relevance in the context of the test-taker. As we know, the task of admissions officials can also be complicated — and undermined — by grade inflation. Not all curricula are created equal. Not all teachers have meaningful standards. There’s always a need for a more objective tool.

But weigh it; don’t overuse it; and don’t overreact to its inherent limits.

*Remember as a kid when a good Halloween fright usually meant scary music and some shadowy, cob-webbed ambience and probably a lurking zombie or a vampire?

I was reading about Florida’s theme parks the other day and all the investments they have to make in new scares to compete. To compete with each other – and with a popular culture that continually ratchets up gratuitous violence and gore.

Not to sound too impossibly old school, but I do feel for kids who can’t – or aren’t allowed to – be scared by goblins and black cats and graveyards. No, you now need at least a psychopath with a chain saw simulating dismemberment.