Archive for March, 2016


In the early days of the American revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The Islamist attacks in Brussels last Tuesday reminded us that these are always the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.

Despite security efforts—additional arrests have been made since Tuesday—some terrorists slip through the net. U.S. security has been effective but hardly foolproof. European security lags, particularly regarding sharing information. But Europe is also challenged by large Muslim communities—most isolated from national cultures—which spawn and serve as havens for discontents.

How to prevent further attacks? The movie Eye in the Sky ponders moral limits on our use of force. Helen Mirren plays a British colonel commanding a multi-national force seeking to capture or kill members of the Islamist al Shabaab in East Africa. All Western military personnel work from home bases. A crew outside Las Vegas operates a drone—an eye in the sky. Hovering above a Kenyan house, it sends back images of wanted British and American Islamists. Small optical devices put in place by a local operative reveal the house to be the staging ground for imminent suicide bombings.

I give nothing away when I write that the “eye” carries two Hellfire missiles. But launching risks killing innocent people. The film offers a fairly even-handed debate about whether even a single “civilian” casualty is acceptable if a strike will eliminate the threat of attacks that may kill dozens of others.

As to Brussels, the attacks came only days after Belgian security forces captured Salah Abdeslam, wanted for participation in the November attacks in Paris. Belgian operations may have been flawed. “They’re way behind the ball and they’re paying a terrible price,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Better communication with Turkish security might have helped prevent the bombings. Regardless, Europe’s Schengen Area, 26 nations in which borders can be crossed without documents, may become the next casualty.

We in the U.S., particularly during election season, must face the reality that another attack can happen here. We must also decide how to use our security and military forces wisely. On Tuesday, Donald Trump again called for using torture in questioning Islamist suspects. Ted Cruz said that police should secure Muslim neighborhoods. He likened Islamist acts to gang crimes. But gangs commit crimes in their own neighborhoods. Jihadis don’t. What neighborhoods are police to secure? What does that even mean?

Fighting Islamism requires maintaining a level of humility and avoiding demagoguery while aggressively pursuing those who wish to harm us. Military action must be part of the mix. The Defense Department today announced the killing of ISIS’ finance minister. That’s good. But as defense secretary Ashton Carter advised, leaders can be replaced.

According to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, “There is a realization that this is not a war you can bomb or shoot your way out of, but you have to deal with individuals who are radicalized at home, to examine the reasons that they are exploring this other identity.”

So once again our souls confront a world in which violence or its threat remains a constant. Our greatest challenge may be protecting our values along with our security.

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A woman my age recently suffered sexual harassment. Her story says a lot about how we still treat women in our enlightened American society, the San Francisco Bay Area included. It also delivers a sad message about how money undermines decency.

“Evelyn” decided to move from her condo to an independent living facility. “It had all the amenities—swimming pool, gym, roof garden,” she says. “All the nice, pretty things I thought would make my life good.” The right unit became available. She passed her physical and mental exams—people with problems aren’t allowed; residents have to “graduate” to assisted living—put down a hefty deposit and moved in. A nightmare followed.

At first, Evelyn was happy. Then one of the building’s security personnel—a man—followed her into her room. The pretense was checking the functioning of her door. “He grabbed my shoulders and neck, and massaged them,” Evelyn recounts. “He told me how stressed I was. Then he pulled me towards him with a disgusting, full-body hug.” Evelyn pushed back. He left.

Shocked, Evelyn met with a woman from the facility’s human resources department and the facility’s executive director—also a woman. They told Evelyn that the employee had resigned. Then they asked if she still wanted to tell them about the incident. Evelyn said yes and related what happened. They never took notes and dropped the matter. Things got worse.

“The next day,” Evelyn says, “the support staff shunned me.” She contacted HR and the executive director. They responded that there was no shunning; they simply were short-staffed. “I said that obviously the employee who resigned had informed the other staff. They said they’d get back to me.” A week later, the executive director called. She had nothing else to say. The matter, according to Evelyn, was being swept under the rug. What would residents think if they found out?

Evidently, the residents did find out. Gossip flew. The environment grew hostile. Residents shunned Evelyn, although the staff came around after several weeks. “The word was I had tried to seduce the security man and was a woman scorned. Residents believed I’d come to live there to create an incident and sue.”

The administration became furious with Evelyn. Complaints, no matter how legitimate, were bad for business. The facility is a big money maker. What could be more important than maintaining the bottom line whatever conspiracy of silence was required?

Evelyn started looking for an apartment and wanted back her hefty deposit. Meanwhile, the executive director left none of Evelyn’s complaints or requests in her record. It was as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, a senior executive of the corporation that owned the facility helped work things out. Evelyn got her money back. She rented an apartment where she’s quite happy. Yet she’s afraid the facility might come after her—and she’s the victim.

You probably know one or more women who’ve been mistreated by men. Such unwanted attention doesn’t have to involve outright sexual assault. It could be the unwanted, “disgusting” all-body hug. Or the unwanted kiss on the lips—brief or, worse, lingering. Perhaps crude remarks supposedly humorous or well-intentioned. Too often, the woman who complains is the person who gets blamed for being a bad sport—or worse.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re a guy, give a second thought to that big hug.

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My January 15 post, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” explored the unwillingness of many people to disagree with a group to which they belonged—even when they knew something was wrong. Two more examples highlight the danger inherent in giving up independent thinking and submitting to mind control.

Fundamentalist religious sects long have abounded. Judaism has its share. Many ultra-orthodox sects are part of the Hasidic movement founded in the 18th century. Hasidism sought to replace a dry intellectual approach to Judaism with a direct, spiritual approach. The movement soon ossified. Hasidim removed themselves from the rest of the world—and much of the Jewish people.

The story of Shulem Deen proves instructive. The former Sqverer Hasid tells a sad, shocking yet inspiring tale in his memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press, 2015). Deen grew up in a Hasidic family in Brooklyn and wound up studying at a Yeshiva in New Square, a small town in New York’s Rockland County. Many ultra-orthodox Jews have retreated there.

Deen studied Torah and Talmud but precious little English—he was a native Yiddish speaker—and math. A secular education is a necessity for making a living. This was of little concern to the Sqverer Hasidim and their rebbe, an all-powerful leader. Yeshiva learning kept Sqverer boys apart from the “other.” Nonetheless, Deen attempted to know about the rest of the world. He also questioned Sqverer beliefs and the very existence of God.

But Deen was part of a rigidly organized community. Per tradition, a wife was chosen for him. He married at 19 having previously met his bride for no more than a few minutes. An older man gave him a cursory lesson about sex. It was little help. Over time, Deen and his equally ignorant wife figured out enough to have five children.

Deen learned more English, got jobs in Manhattan, and surreptitiously connected with the world through TV and the Internet. He wrote a blog and found many other Hasids and other ultra-orthodox Jews asking the same questions. Interestingly, they didn’t all want to leave their communities, which offered familiarity and warmth to those who followed their rebbes’ dictates. But inquiry was forbidden. Ultimately, Deen’s community excommunicated him. His wife sought a divorce. She and his children turned away from him.

Deen now lives in Brooklyn. He wears standard American clothes. He also shaved off his beard and payess (sidelocks). Life poses challenges, but he is continually learning. His writing career has blossomed.

This leads me to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The party hierarchy has basically disowned frontrunner Donald Trump. Competing candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have vilified Trump. (Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, called Trump unfit.) Yet all the other candidates said that they would support Trump if he won the nomination.

Does it make sense that many Republicans would so hate the “other”—Democrats and modest Republicans—that they would support a man they believe disastrous for America? Does it make sense that anyone would abandon his or her right to think and act independently, and tow the party line in Orwellian fashion? (Black is white, war is peace.) Yes, people want to belong. But at what price? It seems bizarre. Probably not to Shulem Deen

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Donald Trump’s big showing on Super Tuesday inspired me. A year ago, who would have thought him a serious presidential candidate? So in response to his triumph, I want to say this: Send me a dollar—now!

I’m gonna make America great again. It’s simple. There are 320 million Americans. Some are legal. All I’m asking is a buck a head. Old heads, young heads—doesn’t matter. I love any head. Especially with hair. Giving a buck is easy. Even homeless people have a dollar lying around somewhere. But they scrounge dumpsters. What do they need a dollar for?

So what’ll I do with $320 million dollars? I’m gonna make America great again. Did I say that? Anyway, don’t ask for details. Only a schmuck shows his hand. But you’re gonna love it. You’ll think it’s great. You’ll thank me. You will.

Okay, I’ll give you a peek behind the curtain. I’ll skip the facts, because there are people out there who, if they knew, they’d try to screw America. You know who they are. One look at those brown faces, and you know. But they can’t screw America. Not if you send me a dollar.

First, I’ll buy a home in Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Winners look like winners, right? All those bedrooms and bathrooms. Makes me want to have more kids. And rich-people views of the Pacific, the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m gonna buy a home worth $25 million. But I’m only gonna pay $10 million. Tops. Because the people who own that home, I’m gonna get them to practically give it away.

Then I’m gonna do renovations. That’ll put money in the hands of American workers. Unless I hire Mexicans. Maybe Poles. It’s all about the free market, okay? Anyway, I’ll do $10 million worth. But it’ll only cost me $3 million. Tops. Like what? Gold fixtures in the kitchen and the bathrooms. Winners look like winners, right? Did I say that already? Gold railings on the stairs. And gold toilet seats. There’s nothing like settling your tush onto gold. Those toilets are gonna be American, too. And the manufacturers are gonna give them to me.

What else? You’re gonna love this. Someone with $320 million can be a target for people with un-American ideas. Anyone who hates rich people. Although they’ll all be in jail soon. Meanwhile, I’m gonna hire the best private security force ever. Guys with the best training and the best weapons. So tough, they could kick the ayatollahs’ asses tomorrow. The Iranian people are gonna beg me to send them over there to Africa or wherever Iran is. The Iranians are gonna pay their expenses, too. And these guys are gonna work for minimum wage.

It’s terrific. I can’t get over it. I’m gonna make America great again. And remember, when you send money—$5 a head’s also good; so’s $100—you’ll also be sending a message: You’re mad as hell and you’re not gonna take it anymore. Was that in an old movie? I don’t know. I have people who write this blog. I only know three things. God bless America. Send me a dollar—now. And make it cash.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out It’s terrific. Really. They’re gonna love it.

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