December 2015

The Narrator and the Text; the Witness and his Testimony


In 1978 a scandalous short novel titled 9 1/2 Weeks was published. The author, Elizabeth McNeill, worked for a magazine in New York. Little else was known about her. After the book's success, McNeill was given an advance to write a second work, to be titled Twelve Dozen Irises. The manuscript was never submitted to the publisher.
The book was made into a  successful film starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, the latter a graduate of (Miami) Beach High. After the movie, interest in McNeill revived for a while but there was to be no Irises.

But there was to be another book, though Elizabeth McNeill never existed. She was the pen name of Ingeborg Day (née Seiler), who indeed had worked for Ms. Magazine in the 1970's. A recent biography of Mickey Rourke identified Day as a “half-Swedish, half-French” author. In fact, she was neither. Day was born in Austria, which was then part of Germany, in 1940. Her father was in the SS. She came to the United States at the age of 17. She lived in Indiana but left her husband and by the early 1970's was living in New York. In 1980 she published a memoir, Ghost Waltz. She married a man fourteen years her senior and committed suicide when she was 70.

In the case of McNeill, her past would have informed a very different 9 1/2 Weeks. Yet this past was essential for Ghost Waltz. In 9 1/2 Weeks an irrelevant past would have gotten in the way.

It is a staple of some schools of literary criticism that the life of the author has nothing to do with the interpretation of his work. At the other end of spectrum is Borges' Pierre Menard: Author of Don Quixote in which the identity of the author has everything to do with the interpretation of the text. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

In the law, the identity of the declarant sometimes seems even to eclipse proffered testimony. Lawyers and investigators now routinely review social media postings made by potential witnesses in an effort to uncover bias, whether real or imagined.

Who a witness is supposed to be often seems as important as what he says. In the Internet age, how is it possible to draw a balance so that the past doesn't get in the way when it has no role to play?

The photograph is of the Dade County courthouse in Miami, Florida. The top floors of the building were once a jail. During the winter, buzzards migrate to the  roof of the building. 

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How to Spot the Informant at your Local Mosque


Manufactured Crime Depletes
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In the 4th century in the Roman province of Britannia, Flavius Valerius was proclaimed emperor after his father died during a military campaign. Following insurrection and civil war, he eventually made the city of Constantinople his capital. Keeping order in the far-flung empire was difficult. He found that informants had run amok:

{the informers} were...the scourge of the people...Their careless or criminal violation of truth and justice was covered by the consecrated mask of zeal; and they might securely aim their poisoned arrows at the breast either of the guilty or the innocent...A faithful subject...was exposed to the danger of being dragged in chains to the court to defend his life and fortune against the malicious charge of these privileged informers. 

I Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 548, 49 {Modern Library ed.}

In the War on Terror, history repeats itself. Today, informants continue to run amok. No one doubts the legitimate need for law enforcement to prevent crime. But when crime is created, no one is protected and the real criminals are left to run free. Three recent cases have resulted in the call for greater supervision of informants "at the pre-investigative stage." This is when crimes against the justice system are committed. 

It took three federal trials to convict most of the defendants in the Liberty City 7 case. You would think that if two juries could not reach a verdict that there must be reasonable doubt as a matter of law, but that is not how the legal system works. A Lebanese informant who was trying to get political asylum in the United States was paid $80,000 to entrap a group of poor black men into committing a crime.

One of the defendants used to walk around Miami wearing religious robes and preaching his version of the Word. This type of thing tends to recur in Miami every ten years or so. In the 1970's a group claimed that it was exempt from drug laws because smoking marijuana was a sacrament.

In the 1980's, Yahweh ben Yahweh (not his birth name) started his own church after strongly suggesting that he was the Messiah. The Yahwehs, as they came to be known, didn't really get in trouble until they got involved in shady real estate ventures and used violence to forcibly remove tenants. 

This time around, the would-be terrorists were a motley crew indeed: told that if they were to pledge bayat to Osama bin Laden the "sheikh" would grant each of them one wish. One of the men asked for a pair of shoes.  

The real Osama, of course, would have been appalled to learn that at this supposed "al-Qaeda" sit-down the Christian bible and the Star of David played prominent roles. Bible study is not normally required of radical jihadis, is it? Apparently it is when you need to cash a government informant check.

The real bad guys had nothing to do with this charade. Qu'rans and guns were supplied along with a target for the motley crew to blow up--the Willis Tower in Chicago. How these poor men were to get to Chicago and back was no problem--the informant had friendly no-cost financing.

Indeed, he had unlimited funds. Anything that was needed for the scheme--undoubtedly along with the selection of a spectacular target--was made available by the friendly mastermind. The government was even paying the monthly rent on the group's storefront church.

There was no real threat, of course. Left to their own devices, these men would have continued their strolls throughout Miami and undoubtedly would have found other methods to finance their footwear. 

The second case involves a Chicago teenager named Adel Daoud who wrote a high school term paper on Osama bin Laden. Daoud's teachers generously classified him as a "D" student--critics of his arrest claim that he is "borderline retarded." But no matter--his online term paper research was noticed by the NSA; he was targeted by informants while still a teenager. Three years later his case still hasn’t gone to trial, though it continues to provide full-time work for prosecutors and agents, who could have been investigating real terrorists in the meantime.

An informant made friends with the "D" student and convinced him to wage jihad. Daoud had no experience in such things.  No problem, his new friend the informant was happy to provide a ready-made (and harmless) bomb for their crusade. The target, also selected by the informant, was a Chicago saloon.

Perhaps the informant had a bar tab he hadn't taken care of; he figured this was one way to get publicity for the joint in an effort to get them to forget the unpaid tab. In any event, the bomb wasn't real but Daoud's arrest was. He didn't need to know how to make a bomb because the informant was happy to provide what no one else could obtain.

Last August there was a biker riot in Waco, Texas, a brawl between the Cossacks and the Bandidos over turf. Almost two hundred people were arrested, but almost as quickly, one hundred were let go. Have no doubt that both of these gangs were infiltrated. Usually the ones screaming the loudest for violence are the informers. No violence, no crime, no paycheck.

Were the infiltrators the ones that precipitated the riot?

While we're chasing these fake bad guys, the real ones are doing real damage. 

So how do you know if the new fellow at the mosque is an informant? Simple. He is the one who can get any weapon. He is the one who has the grandiose scheme. He is the one who has the unobtanium and he has it by the warehouse-load.

If someone makes a comment that there might be freedom of religion issues implicated in surveilling mosques and another immediately pipes up with a North Korean nuclear weapons connection, well--you know who it is.

The danger is that these informants are not federal agents. They operate outside controls. And just like in the 4th century, they run amok. 

The views represented herein are those of the author. Mike Royko isn't around anymore, so someone has to point these things out, especially given the Chicago connection.  

Dresden, Tokyo, Hanoi, Raqqa?


Kurt Vonnegut was barely out of his teens when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. In 1945 he was captured by the German Army during the Battle of the Ardennes and taken to Dresden.

Another soldier in that battle, J.D. Salinger, wrote little afterwards that was informed by those excruciating days under fire. It is rumored that in addition to his
Catcher in the Rye Salinger wrote a war novella, but no such novella has yet to be published. 

Vonnegut, on the other hand, was haunted by his wartime experiences and wrote about them in Slaughterhouse-5. The book's title was taken from the abattoir where Vonnegut and a small group huddled one night while interned in Dresden. That night, Allied forces firebombed the city; in the morning there was little left.

Dresden could hardly be considered a military target; there were no munitions factories there. Vonnegut makes the case that the killing of so many innocent German citizens was an unnecessary war crime long before the use of the term "collateral damage" became commonplace.

American military planners continue to maintain that the bombing was "necessary," as was the firebombing of Tokyo. Tokyo, at least, was the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army, so at least some kind of a case could be made that the entire city along with all of its innocent civilian inhabitants was a legitimate military target.

Does this analysis still hold? Was it a moral act for the U.S. to firebomb Dresden? Was it morally right and proper to bomb Tokyo using B-29's? This is not merely an academic question of historical interest.

In 1972 the "Christmas Bombing" of Hanoi saw the United States drop 20,000 tons of explosives on the North Vietnamese capital from B-52 bombers. Presumably, the same analysis which permitted the bombing of Tokyo was used to authorize the bombing of Hanoi. 

After the recent ISIS-sponsored attacks in Paris, President François Hollande stated, "France is at war." The French military response? Ten fighter jets flew sorties to attack Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Ten. That's it. After downing a civilian Russian jetliner, ISIS faced only a slightly more vigorous response.

Why has Raqqa not been subjected to the same treatment as Dresden? As Tokyo? As Hanoi? Would the defenders of the morality of those previous air raids cry out, "Raqqa delenda est"?

Is the reluctance to use such methods an admission that they were morally wrong? 

The United States knows how to wage war. So does Russia and France. Is the United States at war with ISIS? I guess not. Is Russia? Is France?

The opinions stated here are of the author and no other person.