Safer Than We Think

The worst nightmare scenario anyone’s come up with in the War on Terror is the possibility of losing an American city to a loose Russian “suitcase nuke.”  Those of us who work within the blast radius of any such attack on the White House have even more reason for concern than most.  (For a morbidly fascinating diversion, go here and punch the zipcode of a target near you.  20500 for 1600 Pennsylvania.)

So I was happy to learn about this piece by Richard Miniter, shredding “the myth of the ‘suitcase nuke.‘ “  It’s a very convincing combination of analysis and original reporting showing that this particular nightmare is one that shouldn’t disturb our sleep.  Miniter’s bottom line:

For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable–and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed’s claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers–hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable–inside the heads of believers–while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.

Miniter is a dedicated hawk, and thus not someone likely to downplay terror threats unless he’s been convinced on the merits that particular threats, like this one, have been overblown. 

How else might Al Qaeda acquire nuclear weapons, the quintessential “Weapons of Mass Destruction”?  Transfer by rogue states is extremely unlikely.  Both Iraq (pre-Gulf War) and Iran have had chemical and biological weapons and longstanding ties to anti-Israel terror groups, yet neither proved willing to risk transferring those weapons to their terrorist proxies, for fear of an overwhelming response by Israel.  The same logic of deterrence applies in spades to nuclear transfers. 

What about Al Qaeda developing a nuclear weapon on its own?  Even less likely.  Even if their homegrown WMD efforts have progressed much past the dog-poisoning stage, making a nuclear bomb still seems to require a dedicated effort by a modern state.  Does Al Qaeda have the resources and the brainpower to make that happen?  I have my doubts.  According to one account, terrorist mastermind Jose Padilla “believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.”

Dueling Censorships

ANKARA: The Turkish court system acquitted a Turkish author (who lives and teaches in America) of the crime of  “denigrating Turkish national identity,” a charge supported by some remarks about mass murder of Armenians.  The remarks were made by a fictional character in one of her novels.  The acquittal was hailed in Europe as a victory for free speech.

PARIS: The French parliament has passed a bill imposing criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and 45,000 euros on anyone who denies that genocide against the Armenians took place.

The most intelligent thing anyone had to say was uttered by Turkey’s chief negotiator in EU membership talks, Ali Babacan, who suggested, “Leave history to historians.”

In one country it is a crime to affirm a statement.  In another it is a crime to deny it.  In both it is a crime to discuss it, because to discuss it one has to entertain the possibility that either the affirmation or the denial might be true.

Legislators need regularly to be reminded of John Milton’s dictum from his defense of a free press, Areopagitica; a Speech for the liberty of unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England, published in 1664:

[H]ere the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.

“An expensive, time-consuming indignity”

Jefferds Huyck is not a “highly qualified” teacher according to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Sure, he’s got a doctorate in classics from Harvard, and his students bring home boatloads of awards for Latin proficiency, but being highly qualified in reality is not at all the same thing as being “highly qualified” under the NCLB. Under that law, “highly qualified” is almost universally interpreted to mean “possessing a four year degree from a state-approved teachers’ college.”

Mr. Huyck views this requirement, quite correctly, as “an expensive, time-consuming indignity.” The ubiquitous teachers’ college degree requirement means that Lance Armstrong cannot teach phys. ed., Bill Gates cannot teach business or computer science, and Johnny Depp can’t teach drama. That’s not to say that they would all make excellent teachers, but simply that they would never be given the chance.

As Cato Adjunct Scholar Marie Gryphon so ably explains in her recent Policy Analysis (and in the current issue of Business Week), public schooling’s hiring and personnel system is broken. There is, furthermore, no way to fix it within the confines of existing state school monopolies.

The way to ensure that the Huyckses of the world are not only allowed but encouraged to teach is to introduce market forces to the field of education. Anyone with Huycks’ abilities and results would be much sought after in a free education marketplace. Conversely, untalented, poor-performing teachers would be forced to improve or leave the profession, no matter how many ed. school degrees they had accumulated.

Fukuyama on Secrecy: Read the Whole Thing

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Francis Fukuyama called “The American Way of Secrecy” [registration required] in which he deftly interweaves the twin scourges of threat exaggeration and secrecy.  He also recites the damage they have done to U.S. foreign policy, national security, and domestic tranquility.  No one quote captures this rich, brief essay, so I will indulge in a blogger cop-out and encourage you to read the whole thing.

(HT: Bruce Schneier)

The Ohio “Values Voters” Myth, Again

The 2004 initiative to ban same-sex marriage in Ohio “helped cause a surge in turnout of ‘values voters,’ who helped deliver this pivotal state to President Bush’s successful reelection effort,” the Washington Post proclaims on the front page today. That’s been the story line since 2004: 11 state votes on banning gay marriage turned out religious and conservative voters, and that helped Bush win his narrow reelection, especially in Ohio, where a Kerry win would have given Kerry an electoral vote majority.

But is it right? There’s good evidence that it isn’t.

It’s true that states with such initiatives voted for Bush at higher rates than other states, but that’s mostly because the bans were proposed in conservative states. In fact, Bush’s share of the vote rose just slightly less in the marriage-ban states than in the other states: up 2.6 percent in the states with marriage bans on the ballot, up 2.9 percent in the other states.

Did Gay Marriage Boost Bush?

Political scientist Simon Jackman of Stanford has more here (pdf). He concludes that the marriage referenda tended to increase turnout but not to increase Bush’s share of the vote. And in a county-by-county analysis of Ohio, he found no clear relationship between increased turnout, support for the marriage ban, and increased support for Bush.

A broader claim grew out of the 2004 exit polls showing that more voters chose “moral values” than anything else as their most important issue. “Ethics and moral values were ascendant last night—on voters’ minds, in Americans’ hearts,” William J. Bennett wrote the next morning on National Review Online. But that claim also fails careful analysis. In the exit poll 22 percent of voters said that “moral values” were most important to them, larger than any other single choice. But if you combined Iraq and terrorism, and economy/jobs and taxes, then both foreign policy and economic policy were most important to more voters.

In addition, of course, it’s not clear what “moral values” means. The Los Angeles Times exit poll, which asks the question a different way, found that 40 percent of voters surveyed selected “moral/ethical values” as one of their two most important issues in 2004–the same percentage as in 1996, when they reelected Bill Clinton. Some voters may think that poverty, the environment, war, individual freedom, or any number of other things are “moral issues.”

Some people say the Republicans got more votes from regular church-goers. But in Ohio, the share of the electorate represented by frequent churchgoers actually declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2004. I think the Republicans had already done a thorough job of getting regular churchgoers to the polls. Their great accomplishment in 2004 was combing the country to find un-organized voters who would vote Republican if you got them to the polls.

So then why did Bush win? It’s terrorism, stupid. The most important number in the exit polls was this: 58 percent of respondents said they trusted Bush to handle terrorism, while only 40 percent trusted Kerry. You can’t win a post-9/11 election if only 40 percent of voters trust you to protect them against terrorists; people may not be happy with the war in Iraq, but they thought terrorism was the bigger issue.

There were strong swings to Bush in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, stronger than in all but one of the 11 marriage-ban states. Those are states that felt the threat of terrorism most directly after 9/11.

And then, of course, there was the freedom issue.

Bush told voters, “My opponent is against personal retirement accounts, against giving patients more control over their medical decisions through health savings accounts, against providing parents more choices over education for their children, against tax relief for all Americans. He seems to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority and more choices and more control over their own lives.”

If it hadn’t been for the war in Iraq – which tended to cut in a different direction from the war on terror – and the loss of libertarian voters who no longer believed his rhetoric about freedom, Bush might have actually won the big victory that economic models of the election predicted.

But it’s time to lay to rest the idea that Bush won Ohio and the presidency on the strength of anti-gay-marriage votes.

The Global Warming Debate is Over? It’s NEVER Over!

When you hear scientists declaring “the debate is over” about industrial emissions and their relationship to global warming, you are essentially hearing a radically anti-science argument. That, at least, is the bracing contention of Prof. Michael Shaughnessy in an essay just posted this morning for WorldNet Daily. An excerpt:

For honest, truth-seeking scientists, vigorous debate over scientific ideas is never really over. Scientists are supposed to seek truth first, as indicated by the scientific data collected. The pursuit of truth and data is never supposed to end for the scientist. The declaration that the global warming debate is over says more about global warming proponents’ agenda than it does about the science of global warming.

This is Progress?

The news of the incredible shrinking deficit is sure to be added to the list of accomplishments that Republican candidates – eager for any good news they can use to their advantage – will tout on the campaign trail.

Although the deficit is certainly smaller, it’s not because the White House and Congress suddenly have a newfound respect for spending discipline. Federal spending grew in excess of 7 percent this fiscal year. That’s faster than the expected growth in GDP of 6.5 percent. Besides, the federal budget is chomping on 20 percent of GDP. It consumed 18.5 percent of GDP when George W. Bush was inaugurated. And unfunded liabilities of entitlement programs continue to grow. Remind me again how this is progress?

Prediction: For the next few weeks, Republican candidates will be engaged in an attempt to persuade fiscally conservative voters to forget everything that annoyed them about the GOP’s rush to expand government and instead welcome a much larger federal budget simply because it’s closer to being balanced.

It’s more than enough to make you wonder whether the Republicans are really a party of smaller government anymore.