Monday, June 30, 2008

Unitary executive = tyrant

Excellent article by Robert Parry of Consortium News ( about the testimony of John Yoo and David Addington before Congress. Yoo and Addington are, of course, two of the main architects of the "unitary executive" theory that teaches the Constitution actually grants the President unlimited authority. This theory was used for a number of the Constitutional misadventures we've seen during the current President's reign, such as torture, wiretaps, extraordinary rendition, and all the other horrors.

Parry's article cuts right to the heart of the matter and calls what Yoo and Addington want to create what it is - a tyrant - and compares their vision of the President with tyrants of the past. It's very well done.


All over the world down through history, political leaders who have engaged in torture and other grotesque crimes of state have justified their actions as necessary to protect their governments or their people or themselves.

It was true when England’s King Edward I had William Wallace – “Braveheart” – drawn and quartered in 1305 for resisting the crown’s rule in Scotland, and a gruesome death was what King George III foresaw for America’s Founding Fathers in 1776 when they stood up to his abuses in the Colonies.

Kings and tyrants often inflicted special pain on people they viewed as challenging their authority and – at such times – they wiped away the rules of justice. But the United States was supposed to be different.

Indeed, reaction to tyrannical monarchs was what compelled the Founders to establish a government of laws, not men, based on “unalienable rights” for all mankind, including protection against arbitrary detention and prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Which is why it was stunning to watch the June 26 hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution as two representatives of George W. Bush’s presidency responded with disdain when pressed on the administration’s extraordinary vision of an all-powerful Executive operating without legal limits.

While Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington treated the committee Democrats with haughty contempt, former State Department lawyer John Yoo expressed the ultimate arrogance of power with his muddled responses and evasions of direct questions.

The soft-spoken Yoo, who authored some of the key legal opinions justifying the abuse of detainees, wouldn’t even give a clear answer to the simple question of what atrocity might be beyond President Bush’s power to inflict.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, cited a news report quoting an ambiguous response from Yoo, who is now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, about whether the President could torture the child of a “war on terror” suspect to induce the suspect to talk.

The Judiciary Committee chairman asked: “Is there anything, Professor Yoo, the President cannot order to be done to a suspect if he believes it’s necessary for national defense?”

When Yoo dissembled, Conyers posed the question more pointedly: “Could the President order a suspect buried alive?”

Yoo continued to fence with the congressman, avoiding a direct answer.

“I don’t think I ever gave advice that the President could bury somebody alive,” Yoo said, adding he believed that “no American President would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.”

Pointedly, however, Yoo avoided a direct response to the question of whether he believed the President had the authority to do it.

Pulling Fingernails

Later in the hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, returned to the administration’s legal theories that Bush holds “plenary” – or unlimited – power at a time of war and that the President’s motivation, i.e. protecting the country, justifies taking extreme actions.

“So, if I want to take somebody’s fingernails out if I think it’s for the good of the country, that’s not torture?” Cohen asked. “If I want to cut someone’s appendage off, it’s okay as long as I think it’s important for the country? …

“Is there anything you think the President cannot order in terms of interrogation of these prisoners in a state of war?”

Again, dodging a direct answer, Yoo responded that those examples “are not addressed in these memos. … I would say there are things I don’t think any American President would order in order to protect the national security and one of those things is the torture of detainees.”

At this point, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, subcommittee chairman, interrupted:

“This is the second time today … that you’ve said that you don’t believe an American President would order certain heinous acts. Would you answer the question, not would he order it, but could he order it under the law in your opinion?”

Yoo responded, “It’s not fair to ask that question without any kind of facts,” prompting Nadler to rephrase the question again:

“There’s nothing conceivable to which you could answer ‘no’ that an American President could not order this without knowing facts and context?”

Yoo: “I can’t agree with that because you are trying to put words in my mouth attempting to get me to answer some broad question covering all circumstances and I can’t do that.”

Though refusing to answer, Yoo reaffirmed – through his circumlocution – what has been a central tenet of Bush’s view of presidential power, that there are no limits to his power for the duration of the “war on terror,” even though it is a vague conflict that has no definable end and that is fought on a global battlefield including U.S. territory.

In other words, it is the opinion of the right-wing lawyers who have constructed this legal theory that Bush truly can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants anywhere in the world as long as he couches his actions under his Commander-in-Chief authority.

And when it comes to torture, other word games come into play, such as categorizing “waterboarding,” a form of simulated drowning that has been regarded as torture for centuries, as something other than torture. Reality is all in the eye of the all-powerful President.

Though this right-wing concept of unlimited presidential power appeals to some Americans who consider their personal safety more important than the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it is so radical a break with American traditions that even its chief advocates, such as Yoo and Addington, duck and weave when the questions are presented directly.

Election 2008

This theory of an all-powerful President now is at stake in Election 2008, as was made clear after the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, on June 12 that the administration couldn’t deny habeas corpus rights to detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, some of whom have been held as long as six years.

In his dissent, right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia not only challenged the majority’s legal arguments but pushed the emotional hot button that by recognizing this ancient right for challenging a government’s power to imprison someone, the Supreme Court was putting Americans in danger.

The ruling, Scalia said, “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.” Three other right-wing justices – Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito – concurred in Scalia’s dissent.

Reacting to the Supreme Court, Republican presidential candidate John McCain backed the right-wing minority and called the majority's ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

By contrast, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama sided with the majority, calling habeas rights for detainees “an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law.”

If elected, McCain has vowed to appoint more justices like Roberts and Alito – George W. Bush’s choices – meaning that if a President McCain gets to replace one of the five majority justices, the new court might well reinterpret the Constitution to legalize an all-powerful President who can act much like ancient kings once did.

Then, if a President thinks that it might be a good idea to torture someone’s child or bury somebody alive, the questions about the limits of his authority might not be hypothetical anymore.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Fruitcake" Christianity?

Wonderful article by Jim Wallis of Sojorners, discussing James Dobson's recent attack on Obama as putting forth a "fruitcake" interpretation.

I'll let Wallis speak for himself, he hits this one very well. I would only suggest to Dobson that, as someone who dwells on the fringes of American politics, he might be well-served to avoid at all costs describing other people's positions as "fruitcake." You know, the whole glass houses thing.


Dobson and Obama: Who is 'Deliberately Distorting'?

James Dobson, of Focus on the Family Action, and his senior vice president of government and public policy, Tom Minnery, used their "Focus on the Family" radio show Tuesday to criticize Barack Obama's understanding of Christian faith. In the show, they describe Obama as "deliberately distorting the Bible," "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter," "willfully trying to confuse people," and having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."

The clear purpose of the show was to attack Barack Obama. On the show, Dobson says of himself, "I'm not a reverend. I'm not a minister. I'm not a theologian. I'm not an evangelist. I'm a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. in child development." Child psychologists don't insert themselves into partisan politics in the regular way that James Dobson does and has over many years as one of the premier leaders of the Religious Right. He has spoken about how often he talked to Republican leaders -- Karl Rove, administration strategists, and even President Bush himself. This year he tried to influence the outcome of the Republican primary by saying he would never vote for John McCain or the Republicans if they nominated him, then reversed himself and said he would vote after all but didn't say for whom. But why should America care about how a child psychologist votes?

James Dobson is insinuating himself into this presidential campaign, and his attacks against his fellow Christian, Barack Obama, should be seriously scrutinized. And because the basis for his attack on Obama is the speech the Illinois senator gave at our Sojourners/Call to Renewal event in 2006 (for the record, we also had Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback speak that year), I have decided to respond to Dobson's attacks. In most every case they are themselves clear distortions of what Obama said in that speech. I was there for the speech; Dobson was not.

I haven't endorsed a candidate, but I do defend them when they are attacked in disingenuous ways, and this is one of those cases. You can read Obama's two-year-old speech, [audio link] which was widely publicized at the time, and you can see that Dobson either didn't understand it or is deliberately distorting it. There are two major problems with Dobson's attack on Obama.

First, Dobson and Minnery's language is simply inappropriate for religious leaders to use in an already divisive political campaign. We can agree or disagree on both biblical and political viewpoints, but our language should be respectful and civil, not attacking motives and beliefs.

Second, and perhaps most important, is the role of religion in politics. Dobson alleges that Obama is saying:

I [Dobson] can't seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion because there are people in the culture who don't see that as a moral issue. And if I can't get everyone to agree with me, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. ... What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.

Contrary to Dobson's charge, Obama strongly defended the right and necessity of people of faith in bringing their moral agenda to the public square, and he was specifically critical of many on the left and in his own Democratic Party for being uncomfortable with religion in politics.

Obama said that religion is and always has been a fundamental and absolutely essential source of morality for the nation, but he also said that "religion has no monopoly on morality," which is a point I often make. The United States is not the Christian theocracy that people like James Dobson seem to think it should be. Political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, must be argued on moral grounds rather than as sectarian religious demands -- so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religious convictions must be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don't get to win just because they are religious. They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good -- for all of us, not just for the religious.

Instead of saying that Christians must accept "the lowest common denominator of morality," as Dobson accused Obama of suggesting, or that people of faith shouldn't advocate for the things their convictions suggest, Obama was saying the exact opposite -- that Christians should offer their best moral compass to the nation but then engage in the kind of democratic dialogue that religious pluralism demands. Martin Luther King Jr. perhaps did this best, with his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.

One more note. I personally disagree with how both the Democrats and Republicans have treated the moral issue of abortion and am hopeful that the movement toward a serious commitment for dramatic abortion reduction will re-shape both parties' language and positions. But that is the only "bloody notion" that Dobson mentions. What about the horrible bloody war in Iraq that Dobson apparently supports, or the 30,000 children who die each day globally of poverty and disease that Dobson never mentions, or the genocides in Darfur and other places? In making abortion the single life issue in politics and elections, leaders from the Religious Right like Dobson have violated the "consistent ethic of life" that we find, for example, in Catholic social teaching.

Dobson has also fought unsuccessfully to keep the issue of the environment and climate change, which many also now regard as a "life issue," off the evangelical agenda. Older Religious Right leaders are now being passed by a new generation of young evangelicals who believe that poverty, "creation care" of the environment, human trafficking, human rights, pandemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and the fundamental issues of war and peace are also "religious" and "moral" issues and now a part of a much wider and deeper agenda. That new evangelical agenda is a deep threat to Dobson and the power wielded by the Religious Right for so long. It puts many evangelical votes in play this election year, especially among a new generation who are no longer captive to the Religious Right. Perhaps that is the real reason for Dobson's attack on Barack Obama.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Zakaria as a speechwriter?

OK, it's no secret that I am a huge Fareed Zakaria fan. But his latest Newsweek article ( on what Obama should say about Iraq is pure gold. The Republican nonsense about holding out for "victory" is so hopelessly disingenuous that it barely merits comment. Disturbingly like the Clinton campaign in its' death throes, the current President keeps moving the goalpoasts in a way to salvage his legacy. Never mind all the people who have died in the process.

But the hard-left isn't a lot better, with the message of pull out at all costs. Zakaria's speech really does, in my opinion, strike the smartest course for America in a post-Bush world.


What Obama Should Say On Iraq
The Democratic candidate needs to implement a serious policy based on his long-held views, but informed by the conditions on the ground today.

Fareed Zakaria
Updated: 2:07 PM ET Jun 21, 2008
Barack Obama needs to give a speech about Iraq. Otherwise he will find himself in the unusual position of having being prescient about the war in 2002 and yet being overtaken by events in 2008. The most important reason to do this is not political. Iraq is fading in importance for the public and, to the extent that it matters as an electoral issue, most people agree with Obama's judgment that the war was not worth fighting.

The reason to lay out his approach to Iraq is that, were he elected, the war would be his biggest and most immediate problem. He will need to implement a serious policy on Iraq, one that is consistent with his long-held views but is also informed by the conditions on the ground today. This is what he should say:

"In six months, on Jan. 20, 2009, we will have a new president. But it is not clear that we will chart a new course in the ongoing war in Iraq. Senator McCain has promised a continuation of the Bush strategy—to stay in Iraq with no horizon in sight, with no benchmarks or metrics that would tell us when American troops can come home. In 2006, when levels of violence were horrifyingly high, President Bush and Senator McCain said that things were going so badly that if we left, the consequences would be tragic. Today they say that things are going so well that if we leave, the consequences would be tragic. Whatever the conditions, the answer is the same—keep doing what we're doing. How does one say 'Catch-22' in Arabic?

"I start from a different premise. I believe that the Iraq War was a major strategic blunder. It diverted us from the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan—the people who launched the attacks of 9/11 and who remain powerful and active today. We face threats in Iraq, but the two greatest ones, as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have testified, are Al Qaeda (which is wounded but not dead) and Iran. Both are a direct consequence of the invasion. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before 2003, and Iran's influence has expanded massively since then.

"And then there are the more tangible costs. The war has resulted in over 4,000 U.S. combat deaths, four times as many grievously wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths. Over 2 million Iraqis have fled the country and 2 million more have been displaced within the country. The price tag in dollars has also been staggering. In the last five years, the United States has spent close to $1 trillion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That is enough money to rebuild every school, bridge and road in America, create universal health care and fund several Manhattan Projects in alternative energy. Whatever benefits the invasion of Iraq might produce, it cannot justify these expenditures in lives and treasure.

"But these costs have already been paid. Nothing we can do today, in June 2008, can reduce those expenditures or bring back to life those brave people. We have to look at the situation we're in now and ask, what can we do to create the best possible outcome at an acceptable cost? Economists warn us not to dwell on 'sunk costs' and, while painful, we must move beyond the mistakes of the past and focus on the possibilities of the future.

"The surge has produced a considerable decline in violence in Iraq. General Petraeus has accomplished this by using more troops and fighting differently. Perhaps more crucially, he reached out and made a strategic accommodation with many Sunni groups that had once fought U.S. troops. To put it bluntly, he talked to our enemies. These reversals of strategy have had the effect of creating what General Petraeus calls 'breathing space' for political reconciliation. And he has always said that without political progress in Iraq, military efforts will not produce any lasting success.

"He is right. All today's gains could disappear when American troops leave—and they will have to leave one day. The disagreement I have with the Bush administration is that it seems to believe that time will magically make these gains endure. It won't. Without political progress, once the United States reduces its forces, the old mistrust and the old militias will rise up again. Only genuine political power-sharing will create a government and an Army that are seen as national and not sectarian. And that, in turn, is the only path to make Iraq viable without a large American military presence.

"In recent months there has been some movement on the reconciliation long promised by the Bush administration. It remains piecemeal and limited—nothing like the new national compact that the Maliki government promised two years ago—but I welcome the gains. It is encouraging to see the Iraqi government act against Shiite militias in Basra and Sadr City, which sends a signal that they will be equal-opportunity enforcers of the law.

"More needs to happen. Militias remain powerful in many parts of Iraq. The Sunni tribes that have switched sides must have their members enrolled in the armed forces and police (a process that has moved very slowly so far). Constitutional discussions that have been postponed again and again need to take place soon.

"I have often said that we cannot give a blank check to the Iraq government. And I believe that congressional pressure—the growing frustration of Democrats and Republicans—was an important factor in getting the Iraqi leadership to start moving on outstanding political issues. I believe that we must continue to keep that pressure on the government in Baghdad. The best pressure remains the threat of troop withdrawals. But the obvious corollary is that were the Iraqi government to take decisive action, we should support it by altering the pace of our drawdown. I have set as a target the reduction of U.S. forces at one to two brigades a month, starting in early 2009. Were the Iraqi government to make significant political progress and request a pause in this timetable, and were General Petraeus to support this request, I would give it serious consideration.

"My objective remains to end American combat involvement in Iraq and to do so expeditiously. At some point we are going to have to take off the training wheels in Iraq. I believe that we must have a serious plan that defines when that point is reached. If we define success as an Iraq that looks like France or Holland, we will have to stay indefinitely, continue spending $10 billion a month and keep 140,000 troops in combat. And that is neither acceptable nor sustainable. We will have to accept as success a muddy middle ground—an Iraq that is a functioning, federal democracy with a central government and an army able to tackle the bulk of challenges they face. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have themselves said that no matter what success we achieve, there will remain some Al Qaeda presence in Iraq and some Iranian influence, since Iran is a neighbor.

"I have been a longstanding opponent of the Iraq War. But I am a passionate supporter of the Iraqi people. They deserve a decent future after decades of tyranny and five years of chaos. The United States must continue its assistance and engagement with Iraq on a whole range of issues—economic, administrative and security-related. We owe the Iraqi people this, and we hope to maintain a friendship with them for decades. I have always said that I would not withdraw troops precipitously, nor do I insist that we will draw down to zero. If circumstances require, we will have a small presence in the country to fight Al Qaeda, train the Iraqi Army, protect American interests and provide humanitarian assistance. But it will be small and it will be temporary—which is also as the Iraqi people seem to wish.

Another significant difference between Senator McCain and me is that I would couple the reduction in our military forces in Iraq with a diplomatic surge, not just to push the Iraqis to make deals, but also to get its neighbors more productively involved in Iraq. It is a sign of our neglect of diplomacy that today, five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, only two Arab governments have pledged to name an ambassador to Baghdad. Iraq is not an island. It is a founding member of the Arab League and a crucial country in the Persian Gulf. We need to engage with all Iraq's neighbors—including Syria and Iran—to create a lasting political stability that is supported in the region.

"But finally, I would return to my original concerns. General Petraeus has successfully executed the task he was given, to shore up a collapsing situation in Iraq. But his responsibility was Iraq. His new area of operation stretches from the Arab world into Pakistan and Afghanistan. There lie the most dangerous and immediate threats to American security. The Taliban is enjoying its greatest resurgence since 9/11. Former U.S. commander Gen. Dan McNeill has said we need at least two more combat brigades to fight it. But there are literally no brigades to spare because of our massive commitment in Iraq.

"The president of the United States is responsible not just for Iraq, not just for the Middle East and West Asia, but for America's interests across the globe. We must make our commitment in Iraq one that is limited, temporary and thus sustainable. And we must also be aware that there is a much larger world out there, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Iran's growing ambitions, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, an obstructionist Venezuela. All these require attention. The test of a commander in chief is not to focus obsessively on one battlefield but to keep all of them in view and to use resources and tactics in a way that creates an overall grand strategy, one that keeps the American people safe and the world at peace."


Monday, June 16, 2008

Law enforcement approach to terrorism

A really good post by David Niewart ( that I liked on two fronts. First, I liked the point it makes on how a law enforcement approach to terrorism - where we treat terrorists as criminals, not world leaders - has been far more effective than the current President's strategy. The second point, which I always enjoy, is a little snark on the right wing for failing to notice this obvious point.


That law-enforcement approach
Thursday, May 10, 2007

The jihad-mongers of the right blogosphere have been so busy congratulating themselves for finally having proof -- proof, dammit! -- of their long-running thesis that Muslims are secretly plotting everywhere in America to engage in terrorist attacks, namely, the Fort Dix gang that purportedly was planning to attack an Army base.

The claims about the actual threat these fellows posed have reached quite a fever pitch, as have the claims about the role of citizen "John Does" -- heavily touted by Michelle Malkin -- in the arrests. Suffice to say that the evidence so far does not suggest that this gang was any more likely to actually succeed than the Tri States Militia, which planned a similar attack on Fort Hood, Texas, back in 1997.

But what does stand out about the case is that it was in fact predicated on a long and careful investigation by the FBI -- one that took, in fact, 16 months to put together.

That is to say: These arrests were based upon the law-enforcement approach to terrorism.

Funny that the chief cheerleaders for declaring this case a model of the Future of Terra in America haven't acknowledged that fact.

Malkin provides a nice, clear example. In previous posts, she has complained about "the limitations of the law enforcement approach to terrorism", and sneered at Democrats for supposedly adopting "the Clinton law enforcement approach to terrorism" (a sneer repeated here). She also has approvingly cited NRO's Andrew McCarthy saying that

the law enforcement approach to terrorism, where terrorists get the advantage of our generous due process standards (including discovery about informants), is nuts -- we have to tell the bad guys too much.

Well, we've said it many times:

The Bush approach has been to treat terrorism as though it were a phenomenon mostly related to unrest in the Middle East, the product of brown-skinned fanatics for whom the only adequate response is the full force of American military might. This approach largely treats terrorism as though it exists only in conjunction with a handful of states -- the "Axis of Evil" -- that support it, and containing it means bombing and killing its supporters out of existence.

This was, in essence, the rationale for invading both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Afghanistan, certainly a military response is fully justified, since the state connection to terrorism is clear and unmistakable. In the case of Iraq, however, that connection remains far from clear; though at one time I thought evidence existed to suggest such a connection, it has become painfully clear since that any Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism, particularly al Qaeda, was thin at best.

More to the point, however, is the fact that by making the "War on Terror" primarily a military operation and only secondarily (at best) a matter for law enforcement and intelligence, the Bush administration is focusing on only a rather narrow part of the terrorism spectrum. (Even on those terms, as Matt Yglesias has ably demonstrated, Bush's execution of the "war on terror" has in fact largely consisted of smoke, mirrors, shock and awe.)

The reality: Terrorism is a global phenomenon. It takes the shape not of a singular or even related ideology, but the idiosyncratic form of whatever extremism gives it birth. It is amorphous, and highly corpuscular, sometimes effectively emanating from extremely small groups or even individuals. And it is every bit as alive and well in America as it is in the Middle East.

This has many ramifications, not the least of which is that emphasizing the military component to any effective assault on terrorism -- and there are instances, such as Afghanistan, when a military solution indeed is required -- has an extraordinarily negative effect, particularly if military operations are undertaken through fraudulent circumstances, as in the invasion of Iraq. ...

Any kind of serious War on Terror needs to have the flexibility to respond proportionately and nimbly to various terrorist threats as they manifest themselves, and in this respect a military emphasis is simply too musclebound to be effective. A comprehensive approach will emphasize intelligence and law enforcement -- especially global law enforcement, the very concept of which is anathema to the Bush administration -- while reserving its military options, fraught as they are with multiple collateral hazards, solely for the rare circumstances that warrant them.

You'd like to think the right-wing bloggers might at some point develop enough self-awareness to recognize this. But since we're talking about a right wing that is single-mindedly predicated around naming the Enemy and then scapegoating it, that doesn't seem likely.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Free Speech - uniquely American?

Fascinating article by Adam Liptak of the International Herald-Tribune ( on how other countries in the western world are not nearly as zealous of defenders of free speech as the United States. The basic premise, even in places like Canada, is that there are certain opinions that simply cannot be held, and that people can be punished for expressing.

Or, in other words, the government can force to you think or believe a certain way. Or at least shut you up if you don't.

Perhaps it comes from being raised in the United States, but this is one where I think we've got it completely right. The concept of having a government that can punish you just for an opinion is mind-boggling. And it really does call into question the ability of that government to truly stand up against the tyranny of the majority.

Hate speech or free speech? What much of West bans is protected in U.S.
By Adam Liptak

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
VANCOUVER, British Columbia: A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article's tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States did not say every day without fear of legal reprisal.

Things are different here. The magazine is on trial.

Under Canadian law, there is a serious argument that the article contained hate speech and that its publisher, Maclean's magazine, the nation's leading newsweekly, should be forbidden from saying similar things, forced to publish a rebuttal and made to compensate Muslims for injuring their "dignity, feelings and self respect."

The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, which held five days of hearings on those questions in Vancouver last week, will soon rule on whether Maclean's violated a provincial hate speech law by stirring up animosity toward Muslims.

As spectators lined up for the afternoon session last week, an argument broke out.

"It's hate speech!" yelled one man.

"It's free speech!" yelled another.

In the United States, that debate has been settled. Under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines can say what they like about minority groups and religions - even false, provocative or hateful things - without legal consequence.

The Maclean's article, "The Future Belongs to Islam," was an excerpt from a book by Mark Steyn called "America Alone." The title was fitting: The United States, in its treatment of hate speech, as in so many areas of the law, takes a distinctive legal path.

"In much of the developed world, one uses racial epithets at one's legal peril, one displays Nazi regalia and the other trappings of ethnic hatred at significant legal risk and one urges discrimination against religious minorities under threat of fine or imprisonment," Frederick Schauer, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a recent essay called "The Exceptional First Amendment."

"But in the United States," Schauer continued, "all such speech remains constitutionally protected."

Canada, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all have laws or have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Israel and France forbid the sale of Nazi items like swastikas and flags. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust in Canada, Germany and France.

Last week, the actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, was fined €15,000, or $23,000, in France for provoking racial hatred by criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep.

By contrast, U.S. courts would not stop the American Nazi Party from marching in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977, though the march was deeply distressing to the many Holocaust survivors there.

Six years later, a state court judge in New York dismissed a libel case brought by several Puerto Rican groups against a business executive who had called food stamps "basically a Puerto Rican program." The First Amendment, Justice Eve Preminger wrote, does not allow even false statements about racial or ethnic groups to be suppressed or punished just because they may increase "the general level of prejudice."

Some prominent legal scholars say the United States should reconsider its position on hate speech.

"It is not clear to me that the Europeans are mistaken," Jeremy Waldron, a legal philosopher, wrote in The New York Review of Books last month, "when they say that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect against certain forms of vicious attack."

Waldron was reviewing "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment" by Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times columnist. Lewis has been critical of attempts to use the law to limit hate speech.

But even Lewis, a liberal, wrote in his book that he was inclined to relax some of the most stringent First Amendment protections "in an age when words have inspired acts of mass murder and terrorism." In particular, he called for a re-examination of the Supreme Court's insistence that there is only one justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence.

The imminence requirement sets a high hurdle. Mere advocacy of violence, terrorism or the overthrow of the government is not enough; the words must be meant to, and be likely to, produce violence or lawlessness right away. A fiery speech urging an angry racist mob immediately to assault a black man in its midst probably qualifies as incitement under the First Amendment. A magazine article - or any publication - aimed at stirring up racial hatred surely does not.

Lewis wrote that there is "genuinely dangerous" speech that does not meet the imminence requirement. "I think we should be able to punish speech that urges terrorist violence to an audience, some of whose members are ready to act on the urging," Lewis wrote. "That is imminence enough."

Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Boston, disagreed.

"When times are tough," he said, "there seems to be a tendency to say there is too much freedom."

"Free speech matters because it works," Silverglate continued. Scrutiny and debate are more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship, he said, and all the more so in the post-Sept. 11 era.

"The world didn't suffer because too many people read 'Mein Kampf,"' Silverglate said. "Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea."

Silverglate seemed to be echoing the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose 1919 dissent in Abrams v. United States eventually formed the basis for modern First Amendment law.

"The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market," Holmes wrote. "I think that we should be eternally vigilant," he added, "against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death."

The First Amendment is not, of course, absolute. The Supreme Court has said that the government may ban fighting words or threats. Punishments may be enhanced for violent crimes prompted by race hate. And private institutions, including universities and employers, are not subject to the First Amendment, which restricts only government activities.

But merely saying hateful things about minority groups, even with the intent to cause their members distress and to generate contempt and loathing, is protected by the First Amendment.

In 1969, for instance, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of a leader of a Ku Klux Klan group under an Ohio statute that banned the advocacy of terrorism. The Klan leader, Clarence Brandenburg, had urged his followers at a rally to "send the Jews back to Israel," to "bury" blacks, though he did not call them that, and to consider "revengeance" against politicians and judges who were unsympathetic to whites.

Only Klan members and journalists were present. Because Brandenburg's words fell short of calling for immediate violence in a setting where such violence was likely, the Supreme Court ruled that he could not be prosecuted for incitement.

In his opening statement in the Canadian magazine case, a lawyer representing the Muslim plaintiffs aggrieved by the Maclean's article pleaded with a three-member panel of the tribunal to declare that the article subjected his clients to "hatred and ridicule" and to force the magazine to publish a response.

"You are the only thing between racist, hateful, contemptuous Islamophobic and irresponsible journalism," the lawyer, Faisal Joseph, told the tribunal, "and law-abiding Canadian citizens."

In response, a lawyer for Maclean's all but called the proceeding a sham.

"Innocent intent is not a defense," the lawyer, Roger McConchie, said, in a bitter criticism of the British Columbia hate speech law. "Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense."

Jason Gratl, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which has intervened in the case, was measured in his criticism of the law forbidding hate speech.

"Canadians do not have a cast-iron stomach for offensive speech," Gratl said in a telephone interview. "We don't subscribe to a marketplace of ideas. Americans as a whole are more tough-minded and more prepared for verbal combat."

Many foreign courts have respectfully considered the U.S. approach - and then rejected it.

A 1990 decision from the Canadian Supreme Court, for instance, upheld the criminal conviction of James Keegstra for "unlawfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group by communicating anti-Semitic statements." Keegstra, a teacher, had told his students that Jews are "money loving," "power hungry" and "treacherous."

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Robert Dickson said there was an issue "crucial to the disposition of this appeal: the relationship between Canadian and American approaches to the constitutional protection of free expression, most notably in the realm of hate propaganda."

Dickson said, "There is much to be learned from First Amendment jurisprudence." But he concluded that "the international commitment to eradicate hate propaganda and, most importantly, the special role given equality and multiculturalism in the Canadian Constitution necessitate a departure from the view, reasonably prevalent in America at present, that the suppression of hate propaganda is incompatible with the guarantee of free expression."

The distinctive U.S. approach to free speech, legal scholars say, has many causes. It is partly rooted in an individualistic view of the world. Fear of allowing the government to decide what speech is acceptable plays a role. So does history.

"It would be really hard to criticize Israel, Austria, Germany and South Africa, given their histories," for laws banning hate speech, said Schauer, the professor at Harvard, in an interview.

In Canada, however, the laws seem to stem from a desire to promote societal harmony. Three time zones east of British Columbia, the Ontario Human Rights Commission - while declining to hear a separate case against Maclean's - nonetheless condemned the article.

"In Canada, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, nor should it be," the commission's statement said. "By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to 'the West,' this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice toward Muslims and others."

British Columbia human rights law, unlike that in Ontario, does appear to allow claims based on statements published in magazines.

Steyn, the author of the Maclean's article, said the court proceeding illustrated some important distinctions. "The problem with so-called hate speech laws is that they're not about facts," he said in a telephone interview. "They're about feelings."

"What we're learning here is really the bedrock difference between the United States and the countries that are in a broad sense its legal cousins," Steyn added. "Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

al Qaeda 2.0

Fascinating article by Marc Sageman of the Washington Post (), discussing how the youth movement of the jihadists is very different from the bin Laden-style radicals. The United States had a hard enough time adapting to the "new" type of war against bin Laden and his group. Will we be smart enough and flexible enough to recognize and adapt to this new thinking?


The Homegrown Young Radicals Of Next-Gen Jihad
by Marc Sageman
Sunday, June 8, 2008; Page B01

We are fighting the wrong foe. Over the past six years, the nature of the international Islamist terrorist threat to the West has changed dramatically, but Western governments are still fighting the last war -- set up to fight an old al-Qaeda that is now largely contained. Unless we understand this sea change, we will not be able to ward off the new menace.

The version of al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden founded is a fading force. After a week in which five detainees who allegedly planned the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities were arraigned before a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it's worth remembering that the terrorists behind 9/11 were mostly young, well-educated middle-class expatriates from Muslim countries who had become radicalized abroad, especially in the West. Such key 9/11 plotters as Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi met and became radicalized as students in Hamburg, then went to Afghanistan looking for al-Qaeda. But over the past six years, most of the professional terrorists who fit this profile have been eliminated during the U.S.-led manhunt for "high-value targets." The few that remain are huddled in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, struggling to extend their reach beyond Pakistan.

That old guard is still dangerous and still plotting spectacular attacks. But it is the new wave that more urgently requires our attention. This cohort is composed of homegrown young wannabes who dream of glory and adventure, who yearn to belong to a heroic vanguard and to root their lives in a greater sense of meaning. Inspired by tales of past heroism, they hope to emulate their predecessors, even though, for the most part, they can no longer link up with al-Qaeda Central in the Pakistani badlands. Their potential numbers are so great that they must now be seen as the main terrorist threat to the West.

This threat is not well understood by U.S. policymakers. After 9/11, I realized that spectacular instances of collective violence such as terrorism and the Holocaust tend to be the product of small-group dynamics, not individual action. (As a former CIA case officer who ran programs in Afghanistan in the 1980s, I learned how hard it was to motivate groups to perform field operations.) I began putting together graphs and charts to see how friendships and kinship groups had shaped al-Qaeda's networks. I was able to recognize these concepts precisely because of my isolation from the U.S. government, which was focusing on old, top-down, command-and-control theories. And I worry again today that those charged with protecting us are not being imaginative or rigorous enough to understand the next generation of jihadists.

Unlike their pre-9/11 predecessors, today's would-be terrorists are usually the poorly educated teenage children of unskilled and secular Muslim immigrants. They have been born, raised and radicalized in their host countries (unlike, say, Atta, an Egyptian who recoiled at modern Germany). This new generation's youth culture celebrates a sort of "jihadist cool."

Consider the "Hofstad Netwerk" in the Netherlands, which I believe is typical of this new wave. It consists mostly of young people who were born in Holland or immigrated to that country very early in life. They met around their neighborhoods, in Internet cafes or in online chat rooms, then self-radicalized through their admiration for the supposed Islamist heroes fighting the West. One man linked to this cohort, Mohammed Bouyeri, repeatedly shot the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 on an Amsterdam street. Other members of this informal network reportedly planned to murder prominent Dutch politicians and bomb the Dutch parliament, a nuclear power plant and Amsterdam's international airport.

Or consider another network that sprang up in placid surroundings: the group of second-generation immigrant men and youths in the Toronto suburbs who Canadian authorities allege plotted to set off truck bombs in Toronto, bomb the Canadian Parliament and kill Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They reportedly spent time praising their terrorist heroes on the Internet and living out mujaheddin fantasies by playing paintball games in rural Ontario.

What makes next-gen terrorists tick? How did these ordinary kids come to be so attracted to political violence? The process of radicalization consists of four prongs, which need not occur in sequence. Here's the recipe: having a sense of moral outrage; seeing this anger as part of a "war on Islam"; believing that this view is consistent with one's everyday grievances; and mobilizing through networks.

Many Muslims feel a powerful sense of moral outrage at the treatment of their coreligionists, be it the sight of U.S. troops killing Muslims in Iraq or the aftermath of police harassment of local mosques. To lead to political violence, a next-generation jihadist must come to believe one simple sound bite: that there is a "war against Islam."

Unlike their fanatical predecessors in the old al-Qaeda, the new terrorists are not particularly religious. The defendants in the Hofstad trials, the March 2004 Madrid bombing trial, the Toronto case and the many trials in Britain are not intellectuals, let alone Islamic scholars. Many became religious only a few months before their arrests, and some are not religious at all. The new generation is not likely to be swayed by abstract arguments. Young jihadist wannabes do not go to Iraq to have theological debates; they go there to blow themselves up.

The problem has been worse in Europe than in the United States. In the land of the American dream and the melting pot, a broader, more inclusive view of American-ness undermines the jihadist insistence that the U.S. government is at war with its Muslim citizens. Notwithstanding some ugly jeering by nativist bigots and some clumsy profiling by law enforcement, ordinary Muslim Americans simply do not feel some "war on Islam" in their daily experiences.

But things are far less cheerful in Europe. The children of unskilled Muslim immigrants there face discrimination across the continent, resulting in striking unemployment rates. Many non-Muslim Europeans resent having to compete with Muslim immigrants for low-level jobs and worry that poor immigrant suburbs mean higher crime rates. Anti-immigrant sentiment, which propelled far-right parties to win around 20 percent of the vote in contests in France, Austria and Switzerland in recent years, only reinforces the message of rejection -- and produces grist for the terrorists' mill.

There are many angry young Muslims in the world, of course. What transforms a tiny number of them into terrorists is mobilization by networks. Until a few years ago, these networks were made up of face-to-face groups: local gangs of young immigrants such as the Hofstad group or expatriate students such as the Hamburg cell that planned 9/11. These cliques of friends became radicalized together. The group acted as an echo chamber -- amplifying grievances, intensifying members' bonds to one another, deepening their rejection of the values of the host society and making it easier to gradually separate themselves from it.

Over the past two or three years, face-to-face radicalization has started to be replaced by online radicalization. People's beliefs used to be changed in small cliques; now they are being altered in jihadist Internet forums. These forums have become virtual marketplaces for extremist ideas -- the "invisible hand" organizing terrorist activities worldwide. They are transforming the terrorist movement, attracting ever younger members and women, who can now join in the discussions.

The West has successfully contained the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. But al-Qaeda has adapted from the bottom up, producing a network that's scattered, disconnected and decentralized. The new jihadist movement doesn't have an operational leader, but it is every bit as dangerous as the old one.

Marc Sageman is a sociologist, forensic psychiatrist and scholar in residence at the New York Police Department. He is the author of "Understanding Terror Networks" and "Leaderless Jihad."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hope for the future

Great Newsweek article by Christopher Dickey and Owen Matthiews of Newsweek (, discussing how Islam as a whole is rejecting the barbarity of Osama bin Laden's "theology." The article calls bin Laden for what he is - a religious fraud, masking his hatred and political ideology in a mask of religiosity in an attempt to gain power and influence.

It's worked, in no small measure thanks to the current President. After 9/11, we as Americans had a chance to unite the world, join hands with the vast majority of Muslims who find bin Laden repugnant, and turn the world against the jihadists. Instead, we've invaded Iraq, branded bin Laden to the West as the face of Islam (as if Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was the face of Christianity), and given the jihadists both a stage and a training ground.

Barack Obama, during the campaign, has flirted with raising the idea that al Qaeda is nowhere near as dangerous as the Soviet Union, if handled properly. But fear is a powerful motivator, and my guess is you won't hear a lot about it during the campaign.

But make no mistake. By making bin Laden the cartoon bad guy who hates our freedoms and is all powerful, the current President has created a very convenient villian to use in his power grab of a Presidency. But it's a phantom. Sure, bin Laden and al Qaeda are dangerous and need to be fought. But puffing bin Laden up to be the Devil incarnate has only helped him, and hurt us.


The New Face of Islam
A critique of radicalism is building within the heart of the Muslim world.

Christopher Dickey and Owen Matthews
Updated: 2:07 PM ET May 31, 2008
Back in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden had a problem, and it was Islam. He wanted to say the Qur'an gave his followers license to kill innocents—and themselves—in the cause of "jihad." That was how he could justify his global campaign of terror. But that's not what the Muslim holy book says, and that's not the way it was interpreted by any of the great scholars and preachers of the faith.

So bin Laden set about spinning the revelations contained in the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith, which provide much of the context for actual religious practice in the Muslim world. The Saudi millionaire wrote a diatribe that he called a declaration of war and then a fatwa, or religious edict, cherry-picking quotations from Islamic Scripture and calling on dubious scholars to back him up. The tracts were political propaganda, not theology, but for his purpose they worked very well. The apocalyptic notion of holy war he promoted—and the reality of it that he demonstrated on 9/11—became the dominant vision of Islam for those with little understanding of the faith, whether in the West or, indeed, the Muslim world. Even many religious scholars were intimidated.

Now that's starting to change. Important Muslim thinkers, including some on whom bin Laden depended for support, have rejected his vision of jihad. Once sympathetic publics in the Middle East and South Asia are growing disillusioned. As CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week, "Fundamentally, no one really liked Al Qaeda's vision of the future." At the same time, and potentially much more important over the long run, a new vision of Islam, neither bin Laden's nor that of the traditionalists who preceded him, is taking shape. Momentum is building within the Muslim world to re-examine what had seemed immutable tenets of the faith, to challenge what had been taken as literal truths and to open wide the doors of interpretation (ijtihad) that some schools of Islam tried to close centuries ago.

Intellectually and theologically, a lot of the most ambitious work is being done by a group of scholars based in Ankara, Turkey, who expect to publish new editions of the Hadith before the end of the year. They have collected all 170,000 known narrations of the Prophet's sayings. These are supposed to record Muhammad's words and deeds as a guide to daily life and a key to some of the mysteries of the Qur'an. But many of those anecdotes came out of a specific historical context, and those who told the stories or, much later, recorded them, were not always reliable. Sometimes they confused "universal values of Islam with geographical, cultural and religious values of their time and place," says Mehmet Gormez, a theology professor at the University of Ankara who's working on the project. "Every Hadith narration has ... a context. We want to give every narration a home again."

Mehmet Aydin, who first conceived the Hadith project four years ago, when he was Turkey's minister of state for religious affairs, says it is obvious that in the seventh century, the time of the Prophet, life was very different. One Hadith, for instance, forbids women from traveling alone. In Saudi Arabia, this and other sayings are given as a reason women should not be allowed to drive. "This is clearly not a religious injunction but related to security in a specific time and place," says Gormez. In fact, the Prophet says elsewhere that he misses those days, evidently in his recent memory, when women could travel alone from Yemen to Mecca. In its first three centuries "Islam was interacting with Greek, Iranian and Indian cultures and at every encounter [scholars] reinterpreted Islam according to new conditions," says Gormez. "They were not afraid to rethink Islam then."

Liberal Muslim thinkers have made similar arguments in the past, but they were outliers and often not theologians. The Turkish project, on the other hand, has the quiet backing of the ruling AK Party, the world's most successful, democratically elected party with Islamist roots. The professors involved are quick to deny that their work represents some sort of Islamic Reformation—there is no Martin Luther among them, no theses are being nailed to a door. They call what they're doing a "rethinking" or a "re-understanding" of the sacred texts "according to modern concepts like democracy, human rights, women's rights and universal values," says Gormez. Yet their work has far-reaching potential, given the credibility of the source.

Many states, even those like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia that have tolerated radicalism in the past, have come to see that their own stability depends on encouraging greater moderation. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has moved to curb the zealous excesses of some 10,000 imams on the government payroll. The government isn't rethinking basic doctrines, one of the king's advisers, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record, told NEWSWEEK: "Let's say there is a theological debate about how to present their ideas and advice to the public." If a woman dresses a little immodestly by Saudi religious standards, it should be enough simply to say that without calling her a harlot, threatening her with punishment or worse. The idea is to tone down the fire and brimstone, which has inspired young Saudis to sign up for jihad in Iraq and elsewhere.

Across the Muslim world, people appear ready for this new message. Growing middle classes are no longer willing to accept the pieties of peasant life as guides for public and private conduct. "The rules of religion stay the same, but people's attitudes toward religion have changed," says Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government is working to bring Turkey into the European Union. "The urbanization of the country has brought increased wealth and a different understanding of life." Even in theocratic Iran, police frequently cancel speeches by 49-year-old mullah Mohsen Kadivar because, authorities say, "they may cause traffic and public disturbances outside." Kadivar's message? That the Iranian system of velayat-e-faqih, in which a cleric has the final say on all matters of state, is fatally flawed. "It is a centralized interpretation of Islam that is not democratic," says Kadivar. "The government should be answerable to ordinary human beings who live on earth!"

Bin Laden's prescription for change, meanwhile, has led to nothing but death and destruction. Radicals have turned their anger and their bombs against other Muslims whom they deem apostates or simply inconsequential. As a result, they've found themselves isolated. In Iraq, Al Qaeda's forces are on the ropes and largely indistinguishable from gangsters. In Pakistan, polls show public support for suicide bombings has dropped from more than 30 percent five years ago, to less than 9 percent today. In an open letter last year, a Saudi scholar bin Laden had long revered, Sheik Salman al-Oudah, demanded, "Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak, and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of Al Qaeda?"

The most ferocious attack on bin Laden's version of holy war has come from one of the few really respected religious thinkers within jihadist ranks, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Now imprisoned in Egypt, he has known Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command, since they were in university. In a book his Egyptian jailers allowed him to publish last year, al-Sharif writes about the way the Sharia, Islamic law, has been tarnished by Al Qaeda's actions: "There are those who kill hundreds, including women and children, Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of Jihad!" That, said al-Sharif, is unacceptable in the eyes of Allah, of his law and of his people. Once again bin Laden has a problem, and it is Islam.


The great melting pot?

Interesting post by Joshua Holland of AlterNet (, discussing how anti-immigration people separate their antipathy towards illegal immigrants from reverence for their own backgrounds. They've done a very clever, if slightly crazy thing. The anti-immigrant movement is now trying to define illegal immigrants as not, well, immigrants. Apparently the word "immigrant" has too many positive connotations (with the whole Statue of Liberty thing, and all), and demonizing illegal immigrants is much easier if you can convince people those horrible Mexicans don't "count" as immigrants. That way, we can still be this mythical melting pot and still build our fence around Texas and Arizona.

The language is a bit hyperbolic, but I really do like the message, reminding us that in generations past, immigrants were hated, feared, and despised as well. It's just that last time they were Irish, or Italian, or German ... ironically enough, the majority of my heritage.


I've encountered a new argument in my travels, both in the comments here on AlterNet and around the internet. It's perhaps best captured by the motto of the "Illegal Invasion News" blog: "IT'S NOT 'IMMIGRATION' AND THEY'RE NOT 'IMMIGRANTS.'" (This claim is often articulated in that ALL CAPS style so popular with small children and lunatics who are off their meds.)

The word "immigrant" has nothing at all to do with legal status. It means, simply, to move from one place to another for the purpose of settling down. Papers, no papers -- it's all irrelevant to the act of migrating.

The claim can be dispatched easily enough with a little elementary etymology. The word "migration" first appears in the English language in reference to humans in 1611, some 37 years before the modern nation state, with its discrete borders, came into existence. The Latin root of the verb "to immigrate," immigrare, predates that by more than a thousand years. Human migration is a phenomenon that dates back to before homo sapiens even existed -- pre-modern humans migrated wily-nilly. So, clearly, the word "immigrant" has nothing whatsoever to do with one's paperwork being in order; its roots predate the existence of contemporary legal systems.

An interesting question is why they bother making the argument at all? Surely, it's not relevant to the larger issue.

Or so it seems. But it is relevant, in that it is a response to a major problem for real immigration hardliners: the United States is, indisputably, a nation of immigrants and our heterogeneity, contra the howls of many a right-winger, is a big part of what makes America what it is. You can gorge on Bratwursts in Michigan, drink way too much vodka and mingle with decked-out Russian gliteratti in Brighton Beach, still read local Deutsche Zeitungen in small towns in Minnesota, eat Ethiopian food with your hands in L.A., sing weepy Irish ballads over your Guinness in dozens of Boston bars, wander the docks as the Vietnamese fishermen come in for a Texas evening and get the best roast pork in Little Havana. And thank god for all of that -- I wouldn't have it any other way.

But consider how awkward that simple reality is for a nice Irish boy like Bill O'Reilly, or someone like Tom Tancredo, whose grandparents -- all four of them -- immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the first decades of the 20th century. There are a lot of immigration restrictionists of European descent -- people with names like O'Malley, Kowolski or Schmitt -- who are incensed about the current generation of immigrants to America, and to avoid charges of hypocrisy -- or simple cognitive dissonance -- they have an almost obsessive need to distinguish between their forebearers -- "good immigrants" every one -- and these scoundrels coming here today.

Usually, they're content to hang onto the fact that their great-grandparents immigrated legally, but I guess some need to go a step further and deny that those who bypass the system are immigrants at all.

Even the former distinction is weak. Consider the similarities between, say, the wave of European immigration that arrived in the 1880s and 1890s and those who have come over the past decade, and they dwarf the differences. Descendants of the huge waves of European immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries make much of the fact that their great grandparents came here "legally," but they rest their case on a technicality: the only reason they were legal was that there was no law in effect restricting European immigration until the 1920s. In fact, European immigrants didn't even need to identify themselves to get in -- the derogatory word for Italians, "WOP," was an acronym stamped on entry documents that meant the person was arriving "With Out Papers."

It's true those earlier immigrants hadn't violated any law, but they never asked American citizens for permission to come and, while they contributed much to the growth of the American economy they, like their modern counterparts today, were not embraced with open arms by all of American society. In the mid-19th century, gangs would pepper arriving German immigrants with stones; walk into any Irish bar in New York City and you'll find the ubiquitous sign reading, "Irish Need Not Apply." Now those signs are a kitschy testament to Irish integration into American society, but back then they were anything but.

When one listens to the arguments put forth by people like Lou Dobbs today, they're virtually indistinguishable from what was said of those earlier European immigrants: they're invading in huge numbers; they won't assimilate like earlier immigrants have; they won't learn the language like earlier immigrants did; they vote in mindless blocs; they're unclean; their religions are backwards, and etc. Consider Benjamin Franklin's concerns expressed in a letter written in 1753:

Measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans ... Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation ... I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German, two half German half English, and but two entirely English; They have one German News-paper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German ... In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies ... they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

That hearty German stock that had Ben Franklin so concerned would produce such esteemed Americans as Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the infamous "Sensenbrenner Bill" that would have made it a felony to even offer humanitarian aid to an undocumented immigrant, among other provisions. Sensenbrenner is just as concerned with the large numbers of Latin Americans coming in to the country today, and his rhetoric is very similar to old Ben Franklin's. One of the key differences is that in Franklin's era -- and through the middle of the 20th century -- immigration restrictionists spoke of the innate inferiority of other human "races"; in modern times, that's impolitic, so Sensenbrenner and his contemporaries make a big show of distinguishing between "legal" and "illegal" immigration.

In every generation, the gloom and doom predictions about how those newer immigrants would ultimately lead to the nation's destruction have proven overwrought and inaccurate. By the third generation, the Irish, Poles, Italians and all the rest of Europe's immigrants had all become Americans. And so it will be with today's new immigrants. According to a recent study cited in The Washington Post, immigrants today are no different; in fact, the study noted that "immigrants of the past quarter-century have been assimilating in the United States at a notably faster rate than did previous generations."

The similarities don't end with the consistent hostility some Americans have for newer arrivals. Individuals have all sorts of reasons for emigrating, but throughout our history, when large numbers migrate from a single country or region, it's always been in response to some kind of shock in their country of origin, be it civil strife or pestilence or drought or war or economic collapse or natural disaster. Today we have a large number of immigrants from Mexico -- slightly more than half of all new migrants -- which followed the peso crisis, which was aggravated by job displacement resulting from NAFTA's liberalization of agriculture. Again, this is consistent, whether we're talking about the Irish fleeing the Great Potato Famine, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms or Vietnamese boat people fleeing war in South-East Asia. The Wikipedia entry for Swedish emigration to America explains that their numbers peaked just after the Civil War:

There was widespread resentment against the religious repression practiced by the Swedish Lutheran State Church and the social conservatism and class snobbery of the Swedish monarchy. Population growth and crop failures made conditions in the Swedish countryside increasingly bleak.

Aside from the obvious demographic differences between today's immigrants and those of earlier eras, there was another difference. Relative to the native population, the wave of elevated immigration hitting our shores today is nothing compared to previous ones. During the 1980s and 1990s, about 16.4 million immigrants came to America -- a number equaling 7.1 percent of the 1981 population; during the period between 1901and 1920, about 14.5 million new arrivals came to America, but that number represented 18.9 percent of the population in 1901.

Those who like to throw around rhetoric about some huge "invasion" would do well to read some history -- what we're seeing now is a drop in the bucket compared to earlier periods of American history.