May 9, 2011

1. Bin Laden

A. For several months before bin Laden was killed, the U.S. had his compound under surveillance, suspecting that he might be there. They noticed a man who often walked in the courtyard, a man who seemed to resemble bin Laden; they dubbed him “the pacer.”

It’s well known that people often feel when someone is watching them. Has a surveillance operation ever failed because the person being watched felt that he was being watched, and left the area? Are people who do surveillance aware of this possibility, and do they make a point of controlling their mind, so as not to alert the person they’re watching? If the person watching bin Laden had wanted him to feel that he was being watched, surely that would have been possible. It would be interesting to hear a conversation between an experienced spy and someone experienced in the occult, like Dean Radin.

B. Bin Laden must have known that it was risky to live in the same house for months, perhaps years. After 9/11, it was reported that he stayed on the move, never spending more than one night in a particular cave or house. Perhaps he grew tired of life on the run, perhaps he wanted to be comfortable in the short time that his shaky health allowed him.

He probably had an understanding with someone in Pakistani intelligence, and he probably thought that the U.S. wouldn’t launch a drone strike against a house filled with women and children, located in a suburban neighborhood.

It’s surprising that, when the Navy SEALs stormed his compound, they met little resistance, and emerged unscathed. One would have expected more soldiers, more firepower, around bin Laden. One would also have expected that he himself would do something in case of attack — commit suicide, explode a suicide bomb, throw a grenade, something.

Some reports say that, when his room was stormed by the SEALs, he reached for a rifle. But the gunfire had been going on around him for some time, perhaps for 30 minutes, so if he wanted to grab a rifle, he had plenty of time to do so, and to join the fight. But he seemed to have no plan, and to do nothing. Was he hoping to be taken prisoner? Had the SEALs already decided that it was preferable to kill him rather than capture him?

If you want to learn more about the SEALs, Dick Couch has written several books about them, both fiction and non-fiction. Couch was a SEAL himself during the Vietnam War. He was interviewed recently by Brian Lamb.

Update: The 8/8/11 issue of New Yorker has a good article about the killing of bin Laden — “Getting bin Laden” by Nicholas Schmidle. The article quotes a special-operations officer: “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him.... No one wanted detainees.”

Update 2: Brian Lamb recently interviewed another military expert, Ward Carroll. Carroll’s specialty is naval aviation; he flew F-14’s. Carroll has written several novels about naval aviation.

2. Dollars and Deficits

A. In the U.S., there has been talk recently about the high pay of federal government employees, and there is an effort by Republican governors to reduce the power of public-sector unions. Public employees are paid too generously. When their pay was raised, it made a few people very happy, and its costs were widely spread and weren’t immediately felt. So there was an incentive to raise pay.

When I taught at a private school in Atlanta, if you were absent, you paid for your sub yourself. This reduced the number of teacher absences, and shifted the cost of absences away from the school. In public schools, on the other hand, there are numerous teacher absences, and the cost is borne by the school. This is an example of the stinginess of the private sector, and the inefficiency of the public sector.

B. Since the 2008 economic crisis, there has been much talk in the U.S. about the growing budget deficit, and its effect on the national debt. The national debt is now about 96% of the gross domestic product (the debt is 14.2 trillion, the GDP 14.6 trillion). Interest payments on the national debt have become so high that it’s difficult to balance the budget. More budget deficits cause the national debt to grow even larger, hence interest payments become larger still. Investors become wary of government debt, hence the government may have to pay higher rates to attract investors.1 Higher rates, in turn, mean higher interest payments, a larger budget deficit, etc., etc. So we’re entering a dangerous area, a dangerous feedback loop.

Obama’s response to this crisis was to do nothing, and wait for Republicans to step forward and draw the political flak for spending cuts. While Obama “sank to the occasion,” Republicans rose to the occasion, proposing a bold plan to reduce the main cause of budget deficits: entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose costs will rise as the U.S. population ages.2 Instead of supporting the Republicans’ bold plan, Obama chose to turn the plan to his political advantage, chose to demagogue the issue, thus making a solution to the budget problem less likely.3 A leading Democrat, Senator Schumer of New York, said “The Republicans are slowly realizing their plan to privatize Medicare is a political disaster.”4 Politically disastrous, but economically necessary.

In my view, the budget debate is yet another example of how Republicans concern themselves with the well-being of the nation as a whole, while Democrats concern themselves with how the pie is divided among various sections of the population. Democrats act as if the well-being of the nation as a whole is someone else’s problem; their concern is “getting their fair share,” and seeing that the rich are “paying their fair share.”

3. Miscellaneous

A. On April 23, birthday of the false Shakespeare, Wikipedia chose as “Today’s featured article” the Shakespeare controversy. One might suppose that Oxfordians like myself would welcome this publicity, but the article was largely a defense of the Stratfordian position. It made frequent reference to the upcoming Oxfordian movie by Roland Emmerich. One might say that the purpose of the article was to counter the publicity that the movie is likely to stir up. It seems that our Stratfordian foes are girding for battle, and have managed to enlist Wikipedia in their cause.

B. In the last issue, I discussed Sufism, and said that it “often makes orthodox Muslims uneasy.” Perhaps I should have used a stronger term than “uneasy.” On April 3, 2011, Islamic extremists bombed a Sufi shrine in the Punjab region of Pakistan, killing more than 50 people. “Sufism and Sufi traditions are regarded as heretical by hard-line Islamists. In Sufi shrines devotees pray to saints while singing and dancing and this is considered un-Islamic by the Taliban. Several Sufi shrines in Pakistan have been targeted in the past by the Taliban.”5 Wikipedia says that Sufism has thrived in the Indian subcontinent, especially in the Punjab region.

Update 9/1/13: Sufis are targeted not only by Sunni hard-liners, but also by Shiite hard-liners, such as those who govern Iran. A recent article in the Weekly Standard discusses Iranian persecution of Sufis. The Iranian regime seems to be hostile toward spiritual movements that are mystical, inclusive, or New Age.

C. We associate tsunamis with earthquakes, but they can also be caused by volcanoes. A PBS documentary called Sinking Atlantis argues that a volcanic eruption at Santorini/Thera in 1600 BC caused a tsunami that swept over Crete, destroyed Minoan civilization, and spawned the myth of the lost city of Atlantis. (The documentary is part of a series called “Secrets of the Dead.”)

D. One might say that a young intellectual is twice born — the first time to his biological parents, the second time to his spiritual parent. Since he’s twice born, he must pass through childhood twice, hence his development is delayed.

4. Thumbs Down

A. Saw a famous French movie, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups), made in 1959 by François Truffaut. Though it looms large in film history, I found it somewhat dull, I don’t recommend it. It’s about a 14-year-old boy who gets in trouble at school, quarrels with his parents, and is finally sent to a reform school. In the last scene, the boy escapes from the reform school, runs to the sea, and touches the water with his foot. I found the movie neither entertaining nor insightful. Perhaps it made a deep impression in 1959 because it was different. It was Truffaut’s first feature film, and it was the first in a series of five films following the life of that boy, who is loosely based on Truffaut himself. The film is reviewed at Roger Ebert’s website. The film is dedicated to André Bazin, who influenced not only Truffaut, but many French filmmakers, including Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais.

The sequel to The 400 Blows is a short film called Antoine and Colette. It, too, is rather dull, though somewhat tasteful and intelligent.

B. Also saw The Fighter (2010). Somewhat disappointing, I don’t recommend it. It’s about a welterweight boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, Micky Ward, who is trained by his half-brother, Dicky Eklund, and managed by his mother. Since The Fighter is based on a true story, one might ask, “Why not make a documentary?” If it were a documentary, it could have real boxing, which is better than artificial, Hollywood boxing. The Fighter depicts the rough, crude world of working-class Lowell, but to what end? Crudeness for the sake of crudeness? Henry James said, “To be completely great, a work of art must lift up the heart.” The Fighter doesn’t lift the heart, it lowers it.

I find that I can’t rely on other people’s opinions of movies; watching movies is very subjective. I’m not even sure I can rely on my own opinions, based on watching movies years ago.

C. Also saw a movie that takes place during the Civil War, Cold Mountain. It was made in 2003, and stars Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Wikipedia calls it “one of an increasing number of Hollywood productions made in eastern Europe.... as a result of much lower costs in the region.” Much of the movie takes place in the Appalachian mountains (Cold Mountain is a real mountain in western North Carolina, about 25 miles southwest of Asheville). But much of the movie was filmed in the Transylvania region of western Romania, a region “less marked by modern life than the Appalachians (fewer power lines, electric poles, paved roads and so on).”

I wasn’t impressed by Cold Mountain. It focuses on the most sordid aspects of the Civil War; it’s preoccupied with the bestial. It does little to improve one’s understanding of the period.

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. PIMCO, the largest bond fund, recently decided to remove U.S. government debt from its portfolio, and even took a short position on U.S. government debt. back
2. Strictly speaking, Social Security isn’t part of the budget, hence it isn’t a cause of budget deficits. back
3. True, more revenue is needed. True, Republicans need to be more flexible on this issue. But as Martin Feldstein has argued, the best way to raise revenue is capping tax deductions, not raising tax rates. back
4. article back
5. Wikipedia back