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The Tea Party takeover of congress has hit a rough spot in its efforts to strike a blow for the "right to life" and make new encroachments on women's rights to reproductive health care.

Abortion Vote Canceled After Republicans Fight Over 20-Week Ban

U.S. House Republican leaders abruptly called off a vote on legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy following objections by rank-and-file lawmakers in the party, including women.

Instead, party leaders plan a House vote Thursday on a separate measure to ban federal funding for abortion.

Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders have been unable to unify a party that now has control of both the House and Senate. Republicans are split among those who want to take a hard line on social issues and those who want to appeal to centrist voters and women.

While tactically this is pleasant news for women's rights advocates, it is just a minor skirmish in the unending abortion wars. Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the historic Roe vs Wade SCOTUS decision establishing a constitutional right for women to make independent decisions about pregnancy. We are still nowhere a national consensus on the issue. Depending on how one reads and parses opinion polls, a plausible argument can be made that there has been a gradual drift in the direction of mild support for a pro choice position. However, there is still a hardcore of implacable foes with a red state geographic base. That gives them the leverage to keep passing laws at the state level that chip away at reproductive freedom.

The problem as I see it is that a large portion of the public wants to find some kind of middle ground position that would enable them to avoid having to take a firm stand on an issue that makes many people uncomfortable. When you logically analyse the two basic positions there really is not practical functional middle position.

If you believe that human life begins at conception and that any voluntary termination of a pregnancy constitutes murder, then the only logical outcome of that position is a complete ban on abortion. If on the other hand you believe that a fetus in utero is part of the mother's body over which she has the right to exercise control, then any restrictions placed on that right is not really acceptable. Those two positions are fundamentally irreconcilable. The political effort has been to try to define some sort of compromise position. That has focused on an age of viability concept. A fetus which has theoretically reached a level of development that would make it possible to function independently with medical support would somehow be more alive than one which has not.

This is in many ways a moving target. Some pregnancies are never viable and naturally end in miscarriages or still births. Advances in medical technology make the notion of age of viability more indistinct. The legal efforts to draw a magic line at 20 weeks, or 24 weeks, or 29 weeks are almost entirely arbitrary and have no real practical medical importance. It is simply a political football. What would the "pro-life" forces have actually gained in passing a federal law limiting all abortions to 20 weeks? Then there is always the wild card of "legitimate rape" exceptions in the debate. The abortions that do get by the restrictions are still abortions. The people who oppose abortions are still unhappy and will continue to protest.

What such political efforts as this do accomplish is to intimidate women in their independence. It cast their rights as contingent on the approval traditional male dominated authority. It also throws a bone to the frothing mobs of abortion protesters, making them think that their ultimate goal is in sight if just keep sending in the campaign contributions.    

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With the announcement that SCOTUS is finally going to deal with all of the growing pile of appellate rulings on marriage equality there is an anticipation of victory among gay rights advocates and our friends. Many people are assuming that the inevitable outcome of this review will be the same sex equivalent of Loving vs Virginia in which the court swept aside anti-miscegenation statutes. They expect to see a clear ruling that marriage between people of the same sex in a fundamental constitutional right applicable to all citizens regardless of which state they live in. That is what I hope will result, but I am not entirely convinced that it is inevitable.

Taking Up Gay Marriage, but on Its Own Terms

The first page of a petition seeking Supreme Court review is the most important. It sets out the “question presented,” the one the court will answer if it takes the case.

The justices do not ordinarily tinker with the wording of those questions. But on Friday something unusual happened: In agreeing to hear four same-sex marriage cases, the court framed for itself the issues it would address.

Lawyers and scholars scrutinized the court’s order with the anxious intensity of hypochondriacs attending their symptoms. Some saw an attempt by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to elicit a ruling that would stop short of establishing a nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.  

What is happening here is that the court has consolidated four separate cases for the purpose of this review. They all come from the 6th circuit which has taken an anti-marriage equality position. Each of these four petitions originally came with their own presenting questions. To some extent what is being done here is to pull all the cases together into a common issue. However in doing so they came up with two related but separate questions.
The court’s first question: “Does the 14th Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?”

The second: “Does the 14th Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”

If the court were to give an affirmative answer to the second question that would seem to render the first one moot. If a state is required to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, then surely it is required to recognize marriages performed in other states. The speculation that is being raised is that a court majority could answer yes the the first question and not to the second. This would result in the sort of middle of the road, split the baby in half, approach that they took in Windsor and set off the ensuing string of contradictory appellate rulings.

The court has scheduled separate arguments on both questions. There really is not much question that there is a division in opinion on the court. They have been kicking the can down the road in search of a majority position. It does seem plausible that they have not already achieved a clear majority consensus on the matter and are just going through the proper procedure so that they can issue a ruling that they have already agreed to. I do not think that the final opinion has been written yet. Loving was a decision issued by the Warren court. The Roberts court is a very different state of affairs.

What would a middle of the road ruling of national recognition but not national licenses mean to people. Obviously a couple living in Alabama could take a trip to California and get married. When they returned home they should be able to heave that marriage registered. However, if you look at all of the weaselly ways that right wings states have attempted to undermine abortion rights, it doesn't seem far fetched to imagine efforts to give out of state marriages some sort of second class status with less than equal rights.

At this point the train is headed down the track. Oral arguments may give further hints about what is going on, but we won't know anything for certain until a final ruling is issued.    

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One of the things that became apparent in the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo was that the Kouachi brothers who were the key figures in the incident had been identified by intelligence authorities as potential terrorists and tracked for a time before dropping them from active investigation. Western Europe is facing a major problem with citizens who are being recruited by organizations such as Al Queda and ISIS. It is a more extensive occurrence there than it is in the US. It is clearly apparent that these connections are producing terrorist attacks on European soil in addition to the conflicts in the Middle East. After the events in Paris last week law enforcement in several countries appears to be adopting a more aggressive approach in an attempt to stop incipient plots before they can mount attacks.

Terrorism Suspects Are Detained in Police Sweeps Across Europe

European investigators moved on a broad front Friday to sweep up suspected militants, with the police announcing that 13 Belgians had been detained in this country and two in France, a day after two other Belgians believed to be planning an attack on police officers were killed in a shootout.

In an action that the authorities said was unrelated to events in Belgium, investigators in Paris said 12 people had been detained overnight. Investigators said they might have belonged to a previously undetected cell that supported one of the gunmen in the terrorist attacks that left 17 people dead in and near Paris. And in Berlin, investigators said they had seized two suspected militants in a series of raids.

The scope and breadth of the police actions across much of Western Europe dramatized the diffuse challenges facing a region far from the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere as it becomes a reluctant front against Islamic militancy.

The problem in dealing with terrorism has always been that it has no single unifying force. Most of the focus has been on terrorism with ties to radical Islamic militant organizations. Clearly such groups exist and provide networks that plan and organize attacks. The incidents associated with 9/11 were probably the most elaborate of such operations. There are of course a variety of other people in any society who pose a potential threat of serious violence. The lines between organized terrorist and lone unaffiliated killers is seldom clear cut. Mentally unstable individuals can be influenced by ideologies without directly participating in an organization.

Yesterday police in Belgium killed two suspects in a shootout and arrested a number of others. The French government arrested two people thought to have been associated with the network in Belgium. No one is very clear on whether this group had any direct connection with the people who organized the attack in Paris.

In Germany, the police have arrested two Turkish men suspected of having links to an organization supporting the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and other radical groups fighting in Syria. In a statement, prosecutors in Berlin said they had no indication that the men had immediate plans to stage an attack.

It was not immediately clear whether the arrests in Berlin were linked to other investigations in Europe. But the sudden flurry of activity seemed to reflect heightened alarm after last week’s assaults in Paris, where, on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and then with President François Hollande.

There are multiple layers to the cultural conflicts that permeate Western European societies. In France there is a widespread endemic conflict between  Muslims and Jews. Most of it revolves around anti-Semitic attacks by young Muslim men against French Jews. Some of this represents serious violence but much of it does not. Much of this activity is not linked to the organized terrorist networks, but the people involved in it are potential recruits for the organized groups. It is highly unlikely that there is any sort of conclusive solution to this problem.

Meanwhile political leaders in France and Germany are attempting to discourage attacks on the broader Muslim communities and people who have no involvement with violence. It is a difficult juggling act to balance with a get tough on terrorism campaign.  

 

Discuss

The Tower of Babel is the myth in the Book of Genesis that deals with the world's confusing hodgepodge of languages visited upon humanity by god as punishment for their wicked ways. Language differences have certainly caused many trials and problems for the peoples of this earth. Now Google, Inc. has produced a nifty solution that takes a big step toward bridging language divides with technology.

Google Translate has been around for several years for use in translating text online. The results that it produces have improved over time, but its usefulness was somewhat limited. They have now produced a new and improved version for Android smart phones. I just installed it and it is indeed nifty.

Google's New Language Translation App Is Astonishing

It's not often you download an app on your phone and — without understatement — it just blows you away.

But Google Translate is the most astonishing piece of mobile software I've seen in months.

It's one step away from Douglas Adams' "Babel Fish," the little creature from "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" that you stick into your ear to understand what aliens are saying.

I can speak into my phone and it will translate it into another language of my choice both verbally and in writing instantly. It would be quite practical for having a basic functional conversation while traveling to accomplish necessary task like checking into a hotel or ordering lunch.

I can take pictures of text on a sign or notice and get that translated.

There is also an offline option for when you don't have internet access. It looks like you have to select a specific language pack in advance. I haven't tried that one.

At any rate for people who would like a new toy it is free here.

Android

For those strange people who use Apple phones there's a version here.

IOS

Have fun!

Discuss

Thu Jan 15, 2015 at 01:30 PM PST

Humans Are Destroying The Planet

by Richard Lyon

In the last few years the debate about climate change has consumed most of the focus of environmental attention to the exclusion of other issues. Major new studies place that in perspective. Climate change is not the only threat to the environment and not the most serious one.

Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists Humans are ‘eating away at our own life support systems’ at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years, two new research papers say

Humans are “eating away at our own life support systems” at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years by degrading land and freshwater systems, emitting greenhouse gases and releasing vast amounts of agricultural chemicals into the environment, new research has found.

Two major new studies by an international team of researchers have pinpointed the key factors that ensure a livable planet for humans, with stark results.

Of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels – human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use.

Researchers spent five years identifying these core components of a planet suitable for human life, using the long-term average state of each measure to provide a baseline for the analysis.

The loss of genetic diversity and the pollution of water resources are rated as the most serious threats. This is a function of both technological change and population increase. The expanding human populations have encroached on natural habitats and the drive to feed the expanding populations is depleting land and water resources.

It is a basic premise of ecological science that life forms must remain in some range of balance with each other. When a given species begins to exceed its food supply the natural consequence is for its population to decline. Homo sapiens have been clever enough to develop technology that extends the boundaries of these limits. They have moved from being hunter-gatherers to being agriculturalists to being industrialists. That has made possible a steady increase in population. However, this expansion has come at the expense of other life forms and the limits of that process may be in sight.

Nothing like this process has ever happened before in terms of the combination of impacts. There has been climate change in the distant past resulting from natural changes. Study of those effects provides some indication of what is happening with human induced climate change. Something like a general reduction is biodiversity is probably a new event. It is possible to anticipate various risks resulting from that, but there is no road map to follow.

The linked article provides a very good description of the processes that are underway. This is not just a matter of a loss of aesthetic quality of human life. It really may be about the capacity of the planet to continue to sustain life.

Discuss

We often see people on Daily Kos and elsewhere describing their position as being a free speech absolutist. They assert that they oppose any and all restrictions on the freedom of expression as a matter of civil right. I would like to pose two test questions for the absolutists.

Do you support the right of people to freely publish and view materials displaying child pornography?

Do you support the right of people to freely publish and view instructions for the construction of a nuclear device?

If you answered no to either of those questions, you are not really a free speech absolutist. You recognize the necessity of some restrictions on the freedom of expression. There are perhaps a few radical libertarians that would oppose these two restrictions, but they are few in number. What is an ongoing matter of policy discussion is what are reasonable and useful restrictions that promote a necessary public purpose.

This is the text of the first amendment to the US Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It definitely has an absolutist tone to it. Congress shall make NO law. Not congress shall make no unreasonable or unjust law. We find similar issues with the interpretation of constitutional language. Statements that might seems fairly clear on their face require interpretation in their application to practical public affairs and in many cases the specifics of that interpretation have varied drastically over the course of the nation's history. The equal protection clause of the 14th amendment offers one of the most dramatic examples. In 1896 the Supreme Court held in Plessy vs Ferguson that the requirements of this provision could be adequately met in racially segregated facilities. In 1954 a later court in Brown vs Board of Education took the opposite position. In the intervening 58 years the language of the constitution had not changed. What had changed was the culture and political consensus of the society. The court found it necessary to reinterpret the constitutional language to accommodate that change. In practice the constitution is not clear and unchanging in its meaning and application.

This Wiki article offers a fairly detailed review of the first amendment and how its interpretation has changed over time and in different situations. Up until the middle of the 20th century what would be described today as a fairly conservative view of social relationships and fundamental public morality occupied a clearly dominate and seldom questioned sway. This is particularly true for the free speech clause.

The Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of any federal law regarding the Free Speech Clause until the 20th century.  
 

Justices Holmes and Brandeis began to issue dissenting opinions to the majority conservative positions. The court began to shift toward the left with appointments made by FDR. That trend continued through to the days of the Warren court and it broad liberality. In the 1950s and 60s it was common to think of the first amendment as a legal vehicle for liberals attempting to advance the right to the expression of diverse and dissenting speech. One of the most recurring issues has revolved around the publication of sexually explicit content and images.  

The federal government and the states have long been permitted to limit obscenity or pornography. While the Supreme Court has generally refused to give obscenity any protection under the First Amendment, pornography is subject to little regulation. However, the definitions of obscenity and pornography have changed over time.
It isn't a matter that the government is prohibited from controlling the publication of obscenity. We have just become less restrictive in how we define it than we were 100 years ago. There is nothing in the constitution that prohibits or controls future changes in that definition and understanding.

The Wike article covers case law in several other types of speech issues.

Political speech

Campaign finance

Flag desecration

Falsifying military awards

Commercial speech

School speech

Memoirs of convicted criminals

Defamation

Private action

If you walk through this history you will see that there has never been a point at which there has been unrestrained freedom of expression. There are certainly conservative and liberal traditions in judicial interpretations. The conservative tradition has enjoyed something of  a reassurance as a result of Republican appointments. However, we can always find cases where liberal judges take positions that support restrictions on speech.      

The prevailing judicial standard is that in order for a law or government action to pass constitutional muster it must be able to demonstrate a compelling public purpose. Prohibiting people from saying shit in public because it's not nice is not recognized by the courts as a compelling public purpose though some would disagree. Protecting material that could pose a threat to the nation's security interests is in principle recognized as such. There is a range of opinion as to where to draw the line in practice.

Publishing a job announcement for an accounts payable clerk that states only white people need apply is clearly an act of speech. There are people who still think that this is a speech right that should be protected from government interference. However, it is illegal speech under federal employment law and that of most states. Combating employment discrimination according to specified characteristics has been defined as a compelling interest. It is not protected as a matter of right.

The most recent debate about free speech on Daily Kos can be seen in this diary. It is specifically about the issue of defining a category of hate speech and subjecting it to some form of legal restrictions. The position of the diarist and many of his supporters is not simply that it would be difficult to do in practice and could cause more problems than it solves. The claim seems to be that any effort to discuss the matter poses a potential threat to the constitutional liberties of free expression. It is my view that such absolutist claims are just rhetorical hot air. Speech always has been restricted in various matters. The views of society and its legal institutions about such restrictions change over time, but there is not now and never has been a right to absolute free expression. In practice most of the people trying to claim such a right don't actually believe in it. They are simply throwing it up as a smokescreen to block discussion of specific policies that they don't like.

Discuss

In 2010 Arizona adopted a law that attempts to ban ethnic studies programs in public schools using the conservative spin of reverse racism. Up until now it hasn't stood out on the national radar from all of the other nastiness coming out of that state. Now an effort to overturn the law is before the 9th circuit court of appeals.

Arizona's Mexican-American Studies Ban Questioned By Appeals Judges

The 2010 law, designed to target a Tucson Mexican-American studies program that conservative lawmakers said politicized students and bred resentment against whites, prohibits courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, kindle ethnic resentment, foster ethnic solidarity or treat students as members of a group rather than as individuals.

Under pressure from state officials, Tucson shut down the program in January 2012.

John Huppenthal, the outgoing head of the Arizona Education Department, also found Tucson’s “culturally relevant” curriculum out of compliance with the law earlier this month, citing the teaching of Mexican history, Rage Against the Machine lyrics and a KRS-One essay.

This is the stated aim and purpose of the law:
THE LEGISLATURE FINDS AND DECLARES THAT PUBLIC SCHOOL PUPILS SHOULD BE TAUGHT TO TREAT AND VALUE EACH OTHER AS INDIVIDUALS AND NOT BE TAUGHT TO RESENT OR HATE OTHER RACES OR CLASSES OF PEOPLE.
The legal arguments in the appellate hearing got a bit convoluted in dealing with intertwining legal issues. However, the core issue is whether this law constitutes racial discrimination by prohibiting any effort to provide an ethnic studies program on the grounds that it makes majority white people uncomfortable.

This strikes me as part of a larger trend of conservatives attempting to take the constitutional provisions such as the first and fourteenth amendments that have been used to promote diversity and minority civil rights and turn them upside down in an effort to restore the control of traditional conservative culture. Their contention is that allowing things like ethnic studies, same sex marriage and access to contraception somehow restricts the constitutional freedoms of conservative white Americans. It is not just an academic argument. The recent Hobby Lobby case gives some indication that such arguments are finding a sympathetic ear with conservative jurists. As the demographics of the US population continue to shift, we can certainly expect to see more of such efforts to hold onto privilege.  

Discuss

The term misogynist gets over worked at times, but an interview just given by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke would provide a text book illustration of the term.

Former highest-ranking U.S. cardinal blames ‘feminization’ for the Catholic Church’s problems

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke is a man with a lot of enemies. The former archbishop of St. Louis, who once said supporters of abortion rights shouldn’t receive communion, became the highest-ranking American in the Vatican during the tenure of former Pope Benedict on the strength of unabashed conservatism. But as soon as Pope Francis arrived on the scene, that same conservatism turned divisive when Burke criticized Francis’s progressive policies.

For example, Burke, who headed the Vatican’s highest court of canon law, lampooned Francis in a Buzzfeed interview late last year. He said Francis had “done a lot of harm. … The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts.” Weeks later, the pope booted the rampaging cardinal, who had come to symbolize the so-called “Culture Wars” roiling the Vatican, demoting him to a ceremonial post with the charity group Knights of Malta.

Pope Francis may now be wishing that he had made him the primate of all Antarctica. He has now become the mouthpiece for a group that calls itself The New Emangelization Project. Its purpose is to draw men to Jesus and his Catholic Church.

Burke wants to blame all of the problems faced by the Roman Catholic Church on women in general and feminist in particular. He seems to have formulated a doctrine that might be described as spiritual castration.

Unfortunately, the radical feminist movement strongly influenced the Church, leading the Church to constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men; the importance of the father, whether in the union of marriage or not; the importance of a father to children; the importance of fatherhood for priests; the critical impact of a manly character; the emphasis on the particular gifts that God gives to men for the good of the whole society.

The goodness and importance of men became very obscured, and for all practical purposes, were not emphasized at all. This is despite the fact that it was a long tradition in the Church, especially through the devotion of St. Joseph, to stress the manly character of the man who sacrifices his life for the sake of the home, who prepares with chivalry to defend his wife and his children and who works to provide the livelihood for the family. So much of this tradition of heralding the heroic nature of manhood has been lost in the Church today.

All of those virtuous characteristics of the male sex are very important for a child to observe as they grow up and mature. The healthy relationship with the father helps the child to prepare to move from the intimate love of the mother, building a discipline so that the child can avoid excessive self‑love. This ensures that the child is able to identify himself or herself properly as a person in relationship with others; this is critical for both boys and girls.

He goes on to blame the epidemic of child sexual abuse inflicted by male priest on the feminist influences that somehow warped their sexuality. The efforts of women to become more active participants in the life and liturgy of the church has frightened men away from their rightful place of dominant authority. The women should have stuck to rattling their rosaries and doing the flowers on the altar.

While I haven't been as optimistic about Pope Francis bringing radical change to the church as some, I definitely think that a pope that had the courage to put a guy like this out to pasture has done something right. Of course the problemn is that there are a lot more men both inside and outside of the Catholic Church who think like this. This group that he is speaking on behalf of sounds like an ecclesiastical version of the men's rights movement.    

Discuss
The remaining staff of the French satirical magazine is putting out a special edition in reaction to the murder of 12 of its staff and the worldwide reaction to that tragedy.

Charlie Hebdo: first cover since terror attack depicts prophet Muhammad French satirical magazine’s surviving columnist says cover is a call to forgive the terrorists who murdered her colleagues last week

The front cover of Wednesday’s edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the first since last week’s attack on its Paris offices that left 12 people dead, is a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

The cover shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” in sympathy with the dead journalists. The headline says “All is forgiven”.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine who worked on the new issue, said the cover was a call to forgive the terrorists who murdered her colleagues last week, saying she did not feel hate towards Chérif and Saïd Kouachi despite their deadly attack on the magazine, and urged Muslims to accept humour.

“We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today

A record 3m copies are to be printed, in 16 languages, after the massacre triggered a worldwide debate on free speech and brought more than 4 million people on to the streets of France in a unity march on Sunday.
This is in contrast to their normal press run of 60 thousand copies. It will be distributed in other languages in addition to French and be available online.

While the management of the magazine is making a specific statement about their intent in producing this edition, other people have different reactions to it.

Omer el-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said: “My reaction to the cartoon is disgust, but tending more to annoyance as well because I feel that what’s happening here is not that different from what we witnessed back in 2005 with the Danish cartoons when media outlets went into a cycle of just publishing the cartoons just to show defiance. And what that caused is more offence.”

Speaking on Today, he said causing offence “just for the purpose of offending” was not freedom of speech.  

Any material dealing with the highly sensitive topics of religion and race almost inevitably gets caught up in some controversy. When the producers of the material use the devices and traditions of political satire, the level of reaction and debate is very likely to increase. Sarcasm, irony and satire are concepts that are more easily communicated with the nuances of speech and body language. The intent is more easily misinterpreted on text and the whole enterprise is usually fairly specific to the culture in which it is produced.

There is a large amount of support in western nations for the right of publications to print material that is considered offensive by some portion of the population. When some of the offended individuals react with violence the whole becomes a cause celebre as it certainly has in this situation. The conflict between Muslims communities in Europe and other communities with which the coexist is likely to continue.

 

Discuss

Saudi Arabia comes pretty close to being one of the most authoritarian and oppressive countries on the planet. Their enforced fundamentalist version of Islam has produced a long list of actions that much of the rest of the world finds unreasonable. Some of them such as prohibiting women from driving and giving a blogger 50 lashes for criticizing the government conflict with prevailing standards of human rights. Others just seem so irrational as to be laughable. Here's one that falls in the latter category.

Saudi cleric issues fatwa on snowmen  

A prominent Saudi Arabian cleric has whipped up controversy by issuing a religious edictforbidding the building of snowmen, described them as anti-Islamic.

Asked on a religious website if it was permissible for fathers to build snowmen for their children after a snowstorm in the country’s north, Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Munajjid replied: “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play and fun.”

Quoting from Muslim scholars, Munajjid argued that to build a snowman was to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.

I am by no means an expert on Islamic theology, but my impression is that there is by no means a consensus among the various branches of Islam that would support this position.
Discuss

There will be people who think that any discussion of political leverage and advantage arising out of the recent violence in France is in bad taste. Politics everywhere is seldom know for a high level of taste and decorum. French politics has a long standing reputation for being confrontational and continuous.

Unlike the US where the entire political spectrum is shoe horned into two parties, most European countries have multiple parties. This allows for separate political parties to form around more specific political interests. In the US people we would think of as being far right are accommodated under the Republican umbrella and people considered far left find a place under the Democratic one. In Europe they are much more likely to have their separate parties. In France the major right wing party is the Front National (French Resistance). It's present leader is Marine Le Pen who is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen the party's founder. It is not some small fringe group. It is presently considered to be the third most powerful political party in the country. While they have polled enough votes in first round elections to make the political establishment nervous, the workings of the French electoral system are such that this has translated into little in the way of electoral victory. They currently hold two seats in the National Assembly and four in the European Parliament.  Their political platform has always been one of strong nationalism which translates into being anti immigrant in general and anti Muslim in particular. It should come as no surprise that Marine Le Pen is attempting to get maximum political mileage out of the mass reaction to the recent violence.

In Cold Political Terms, Far Right and French President Both Gain

“Hollande has been extremely good in this crisis, showing calm and self-control, and using all the right words,” said Alain Frachon, an editorial writer for Le Monde. “If we do a cold, cynical political analysis, he did rather well. Afterwards, of course, all these questions will be raised about security failures and the future.”

If Mr. Hollande has gotten a small boost from these terrible few days, however, so have Ms. Le Pen and the far-right National Front, which has made the challenge of radical Islam to France the center of their politics. Even before the attacks, her brand of nationalistic French populism had helped make her a credible contender to succeed Mr. Hollande in the 2017 election.

The homegrown terrorism here, with its apparent links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, will also be used by other far-right, nationalist and anti-immigration movements in Europe, from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Sweden Democrats and Germany’s Pegida — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. That is another reason so many European leaders from the mainstream parties of the center right and center left, from Angela Merkel of Germany to David Cameron of Britain and Mariano Rajoy of Spain, came to show their own solidarity with France and Mr. Hollande.

Political issues don't get dealt with one at the time in isolation from each other. Hollande and the government are taking the heat for the generally dismal economic picture in France and most of the rest of Europe. It is usually in climates such as this that populist movements like Front National find fertile soil. Hollande took the rather aggressive step of excluding Le Pen and her party from official participation in yesterday's mass rally and observance. She is predictably raising strong objections to that move. Prior to the present upheaval various opinion polls showed her has having support in the 2017 presidential election in the neighborhood of 30%.

Regardless of what one thinks about the content of the cartoons that appeared in Charlie Hebdo, the murder of 12 of its staff members is rightly seen as an attack on some of the fundamental values which we associate with open democratic societies. A fundamental issue that is going to be faced by France and other European nations is whether they are going to respond to attacks such as this by turning to political movements which themselves pose a retreat from some of those same values.

 

Discuss

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 US and European governments have used the threat of terrorism to justify a continually expanding intelligence network and security state. Not only have significant financial resources been allocated to the task but the citizens of democratic societies have been told that their rights and expectations of personal privacy must be subordinated to the demands of national security. The revelations of Edward Snowden made it apparent that the activities of the security state are not focused exclusively on combating terrorism. However, it is very clear that the threat of terrorism in various forms is real and present. The efforts initiated after 9/11 haven't made it go away. It seems that the recent terror attacks in France did not come entirely as a surprise to international intelligence officials, yet they happened.

Why Reams of Intelligence Did Not Thwart the Paris Attacks

On its own, the Wednesday morning slaughter that left 12 people dead at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo represented a major breakdown for French security and intelligence forces, especially after the authorities confirmed that the two suspects, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had known links to the militant group Al Qaeda in Yemen.
An American official speaking about the failure to identify the plot said that French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later reduced that monitoring or dropped it altogether to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats.

“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating a delicate intelligence matter. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”

One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadists inside France has continued to expand sharply. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 of its citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.

The questions facing French intelligence services will begin with the attack at Charlie Hebdo.

So there is this vast technologically sophisticated intelligence apparatus that really can find some needles in hay stacks. What are they going to do about the needles that might eventually cause harm to other people. In this case they are human needles that are accorded certain legal protections under existing law. A similar situation occurred with the bombing of the Boston marathon. The FBI had identified and interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev on his return from Russia but let the mater drop.

People who commit acts of terror come in many forms. The focus in on those who are connected to some organized ideological network such as radical Islamist groups. It is easier to track people through their associations with other like minded individuals. However the act of killing 12 people at Charlie Hebdo has some definite similarities to Adam Lanza's attack on Sandy Hook school in which he killed 26 people. He had been identified as a potentially dangerous person in psychiatric evaluations.

So what can be done when people appear likely to do something harmful to other people? In the case of mental health issues, the ability of mental health professionals to accurately predict future behavior is not particularly reliable. Where people are part of an organized network that is actively planning some sort of attack then there is a legal basis for intervening to thwart their plans. The problem comes in being able to stick closely to a significant number of suspicious individuals over an extended period in order to tap into specific plans. The law generally requires evidence of specific intent and conspiracy rather than just general hostile attitudes.

The NSA has claimed that they have been able to thwart terrorist attacks, but when those claims have been tracked down, only a fairly small number turn out to be very plausible. Yet they continue to use the threat of terrorism as justification for their entire operation. Now it is one thing when an attack comes out of the blue with no warning to the people doing surveillance. It is a different matter when the surveillance had identified the attackers as a definite threat and then let it drop.

Obviously when there are organized networks like Al Queda and ISIS they can't just be ignored. But the people who claim to be doing things to prevent their attacks do have some questions to answer about just what they are actually accomplishing.        

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