Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A no-winner war in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry has declared it "undeniable" that Syria used chemical weapons against the anti-government rebels in a suburb near Damascus. So now the world awaits the reaction from the United States and other Western powers who have declared the use of chemical weapons a tripwire for their intervention in the Syrian civil war.

No one defends the use of chemical weapons, but we shouldn't pretend that they have been off limits since World War I, when chemical weapons killed thousands and left thousands more wishing they were dead. Survivors suffered horrible problems, including disfigurement and scorched lungs that robbed victims of oxygen.

The World War I experience prompted nations to ban chemical weapons, and the ban has been largely effective, with chemical bombs used only in a few conflicts since 1918. But Syria has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons that can be used against rebels, or, perhaps worse, can fall into the hands of the Islamist fighters eager to find new ways to terrify their enemies and kill more "infidels."

What can the United States and its allies do? If they intervene in Syria's civil war with direct combat against the Assad regime, they will sink their fortunes into Syria's cesspool of hatred and intrigue from which there is no easy escape. The United States badly misjudged the cost in time, money and lives of its intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, so claims of an easy and simple intervention in Syria is not reassuring. 

Western sentiments are with the populist Syrian rebels, despite the fact that al-Qaida fighters are a large segment of the rebel forces, and against the despotic and brutal Assad regime. Regardless of which side ultimately prevails, there is no positive outcome from the West's perspective. If the rebels win, a fractured, sectarian regime allied with Islamist terrorists is likely to emerge through years of violent infighting. If Assad prevails, he will rule over a country shattered by years of war and economic catastrophe, and he will have even more reason to oppose Western principles.

The United States cannot win in Syria, no matter who prevails.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When bloggers stop blogging or take a recess

My Blogger home page, from which I write this blog, includes a list of blogs I'm following. Nearly all of them are by people I know or have known, and the latest posts from each of these blogs pops up on the page so I can keep current on them.

Last night, out of curiosity, I clicked on the blog names to see whether I had missed anything. I found that the bloggers I've been following have become a quiet bunch. The latest posts were dated "8 months ago," "two months ago," "two years ago," "three years ago," etc. No wonder I've been reading fewer blogs lately.

I look at this two ways: (1) I've persevered and outlasted most of the bloggers I've known. I'm up to 823 posts, according to my Blogger home page, and I have 65 followers (although, admittedly, at least two of my followers have died — probably not as a result of reading my blog). I began writing a blog when I was a newspaper editor, and blogs were all the rage in the newspaper business. I never really thought I'd take the blogging world by storm, but I had hoped to generate some discussion and provoke some thoughts, either in agreement or in dissent. Alas, I've never made money off of blogging and have frequently wondered why I'm still doing it, nearly five years after leaving the newspaper business. I do it because it's a form of writing, and I enjoy writing, even if I know no one is reading it, except perhaps for 65 people (minus two or more).

My second look at this (#2) is that blogging has become passe. Now it's not blogging that is cutting edge. It's Twitter or Instagram or some other condensed brevity that I might not even be aware of. I see tweets quoted in news articles more often than I see blogs quoted. So while a few people are making some money off of their blogs, the public's attention seems to be directed more toward the 144 characters of a tweet. Celebrities do it. Politicians do it. "Even educated fleas do it ... Let's do a tweet!"

Bloggers: An endangered species?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer is hardly felt before autumn cools the air

It's late August, and the sky looks like November — all gray and wet. When was summer? This has been a year when summer did not come to North Carolina, at least not for an extended stay. Spring was cool and wet and lingered well into July. There have been a few hot days, but there has not been an extended period of days with temperatures in the mid- to higher-90s, a pattern that usually comes every summer, often for more than one episode. No complaints this year from farmers about drought; they complain instead that fields are "too wet to plow."

Already, we've had mornings with the temperature in the 60s with low humidity and a deep blue sky, mornings that speak of autumn days and brisk nights. It's only August, and we know summer often lingers into October at these latitudes; still, these mornings give us hope that autumn will come early and stay late, a mild, refreshing tonic to offset the earlier evening darkness and the morning dark.

The first Monday after a week's vacation, Aug. 5, I immediately noticed it was much darker at 6 a.m. when I walked to the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper. In just one week's time, the angle of sunlight had tilted, delaying dawn for significant minutes. The seasons' shifting is subtle day by day, but when a week's change confronts us, the change seems as swift as the darkness in a room when the lamp is extinguished.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Two decision could result in crime increase

Two changes in criminal justice made the news this week, changes that were greeted primarily with cheers from liberal commentators. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, impatient over Congress' consideration of changes to mandatory sentencing laws, ordered federal prosecutors to downgrade charges against non-violent drug offenders, thereby eliminating the possibility of long sentences. These mandatory sentences had been widely criticized and had been blamed for exponential increases in prison populations.

The second change came from a New York judge's ruling that New York City's "stop and frisk" procedures were racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others have credited the stop-and-frisk laws with removing thousands of illegal firearms from the streets and with reducing violent crime in the city. New York, once one of the most dangerous cities in the country, is now considered among the safest.

Little mention has been made about the potential impact of these changes, but it's not far-fetched to think that reducing sentences and eliminating the random questioning of suspicious pedestrians could result in higher crime rates. Police will tell you that getting just one habitual offender off the street can dramatically reduce the crime rate. One busy burglar, for example, can account for 10 percent or more of the break-ins in a small city. Identify him, charge him, sentence him to a long prison term, and the crime rate goes down significantly, and people's homes are noticeably safer.

America does not want to return to the frightening era of the crack epidemic, when drive-by shootings became commonplace, homes were burglarized by pitiful characters desperate for money to buy their next hit, and armed robberies were on the rise. New York doesn't want to return to the days when subway trains and platforms were frightening gambles with petty gangsters threatening riders with actual or implied violence.

We can hope for the best, that reducing prison populations will make America more productive and reduce the costs of incarceration and that New York City's streets will remain safe while minorities feel respected instead of suspected. But we really don't know how these changes will play out. If the crime rate soars again and innocent residents live in constant fear, we will look back at this week's decisions with regret.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Newspapers' efforts have set them free

This morning's News & Observer leads with the news that the state will pay $12 million to two men who were wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The article highlights the previously reported stories of Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor, both railroaded by unethical acts by local and state investigators. Between them, the two men served a total of 31 years behind bars.

Today's news also highlights the earlier history of Alan Gell, who was convicted of a murder he didn't commit — couldn't have committed because he was in jail at the time of the murder — who had previously received a $3.9 million settlement from the state for the nine years he spent in prison.

These cases are shocking on several levels: $12 million is a lot of money, enough to raise eyebrows in a state that tosses around billions in budget talks; but no amount of money will regain for these men the years they spent in prison, separated from loved ones, missing family events and being treated as guilty criminals even though they were innocent; the state of North Carolina should be ashamed, not just over the embarrassing publicity about monetary compensation and stolen years but also over the disgrace that public employees effectively framed these men so that the state could claim a higher conviction rate and clear these crimes from its books.

One major takeaway from these shameful events is this: Newspaper investigations led to each of the sentences being overturned. Without a free, vigorous and financially healthy press, it is unlikely these travesties would have been uncovered. At a time when newspapers are losing their value faster than a McMansion in a bursting housing bubble and newsrooms across the country are being decimated by budget-slashing publishers, newspapers are as important as they ever were in comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, watching over the public interest and protecting democratic processes.

Don't expect the bloggers, the nonprofit online experiments, the online media sites compiling other people's work, or the radio and television stations more intent on trailing celebrities and sensationalizing the crime du jour to do the work that dedicated, persistent newspaper reporters have done for generations. America still needs newspapers.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Washington Post changes hands

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, has bought the Washington Post. I'll admit it: I never thought I'd see the day when the venerable Washington Post, the newspaper that cracked Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers, would be sold by the Graham family and be owned by a dot-com billionaire.

I feel a personal attachment to the Post. I was a subscriber for three years, when I lived in the Washington suburbs and worked in downtown D.C. The paper was in its heyday in the early 1970s. The weekday paper would land on my stoop with a thud like the dropping of a 100-pound feed sack. It was jammed with advertising, page after page, and filled with news. The classified section alone would be thicker than the daily papers I had read growing up in North Carolina. The Sunday paper would be an all-day read. I would get through a section or two before church and return in the afternoon for a dessert of section upon section, all well-written, fascinating and as satisfying as cheesecake after a fine meal.

When I moved back to North Carolina, I considered taking a mail subscription to the post, but a six-month subscription was as much as my weekly pay; I couldn't do it.

Like all print newspapers, the Post has struggled to remain profitable as advertisers and readers have migrated to Internet sites. The Graham family, which has pulled the Post out of bankruptcy and into the highest echelon of global newspapers, seemed wise enough to bring the newspaper into the 21st century. But the struggle must have been too great and the prospects too grave.

Bezos has promised to keep management in place, but he will almost certainly seek innovations that will return the Post to profitability. What that course will be, I don't know — and neither does anyone else in the newspaper business who has tried to find that key. But the news reporting of the Post must be sustained because without it, without the investigative persistence and the news analysis explained for a mass audience, government corruption might go unfettered and unpunished, and democracy itself could be in jeopardy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A good vacation in a special place

As vacations go, this one was good. I managed to relax a lot on the porch looking out over the lake — a place where I have spent thousands of hours watching the ceaseless movements of the lake. A storm blew in one evening just before dusk and turned the lake into a boiling cauldron of upheaval, and the lightning flashed and the rain poured so fast that the roads around the lake flooded, but the lake just absorbed it all. The lake calmly endures whatever nature sends, and it encourages us to do the same.

I did some minor repairs to the house, which is feeling its age, and read a book, a good piece of fiction that gripped me with its plot and characters and would not let me put it down.

I also managed to go out to eat twice for wonderfully enjoyable meals, sitting outside both times, once by the edge of the lake and once by a downtown street. Both places felt vibrant and interesting. I walked briskly with my wife for long treks of four or five miles, and we tried our hands at paddling kayaks out into the lake and into nearby coves, examining the lakefront houses and enjoying the gentle rocking of the waves.

A good vacation: Some meaningful work, some relaxation, some family time and the quiet, entrancing enjoyment of a good book. Over the past 40-plus years, I've spent dozens of vacation weeks and scores of weekend getaways at this house by the lake, a place known universally in this family as "The Lake" or "The Lakehouse." There were times of great joy and some times of sadness, too. There were many times of excitement and the most relaxing moments of my life. My wife and I have lived in 11 homes in 42 years, and each stop filled quickly with memories, but this house by the lake is the one axis point that has connected us and drawn us back, year after year. The picture of my little daughters in their nightgowns feeding ducks is as clear as the images of my grandchildren flinging themselves off the end of the dock into the lake's inviting waters. Three generations have thrilled to the sight of the mist rising off the lake's surface in the fall and soft ripples of the lake at early morning and near dusk in the summer.

Whether future generations will know the house and its mile-long view of the peaceful water as we have known it remains an open question. The builders have died and have left the house, much in need of repairs and maintenance, in the hands of another generation that loves this place dearly but might not have the financial resources to keep it in the family. How many more of our vacations might be spent looking out from that second-story porch is in doubt. My wife and her sister are determined to keep the house their parents built in the 1960s, not because it's a great house or it's nearby or it's a museum of their lives but because this location, this view looking out over the lake, forms not just their memories but their lives.