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What America owes

Vie, 23/05/2014 - 01:10

"AN AMERICA that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane," writes the indispensable Ta-Nehisi Coates in this month's Atlantic cover story. "An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future." Mr Coates's piece is entitled "The Case for Reparations". In it he does not directly argue that America's government (and, presumably, various state governments) ought to give money to descendants of slaves. Instead, he tries to show the hollowness of believing (his words again) "that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp."

Mr Coates roots his piece in North Lawndale, a once-thriving, now-blighted neighbourhood on Chicago's west side. The central figure is Clyde Ross, who like many black Americans in the mid-20th century,...Continue reading

Deceptive numbers

Jue, 22/05/2014 - 22:06

AT THE start of this year the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, had good news on crime and violence. The murder rate was lower than it had been for decades. 2013 saw 415 murders, 88 fewer than in 2012, according to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Overall crime was down too.

The news was a relief. The previous year had been nasty and bloody, with a resurgence of gang warfare fuelled by a long, hot summer. Yet 2013’s figures are now coming under scrutiny. Last month Chicago Magazine reported that it knew of ten people who were “beaten, burned, suffocated or shot to death in 2013” who were not included in the official count for “at best, unclear reasons”. The article raised similar concerns over the numbers reported for other crimes. Moreover a recent audit of crime figures from Chicago's Office of the Inspector General, and a sudden rise in reports of murders this year, have driven speculation that...Continue reading

Cyberspies and mincing rascals

Mié, 21/05/2014 - 21:43

THE e-mails sent to workers at five companies and one trade union appeared to come from their superiors, and contained files and links that looked important. In one case a board member seemed to be circulating the agenda for a shareholders’ meeting. Once opened, the e-mails allowed their actual senders, who were sitting in a tower-block in Shanghai, to install software allowing them to peruse confidential information. Some of the e-mails contained links to domains with a curious ring, like or But the in-box of the office worker can be a chaotic place, and all that was required for success was for one person at each firm to be distracted or intrigued enough to click.

On May 19th the FBI charged five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with breaking 31 laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial in America. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots...Continue reading

Gnat-line scuffle

Mié, 21/05/2014 - 19:35

ESTABLISHMENT Republicans can breathe easy after last night's results in Georgia. The candidate who said that Todd Akin was "partly right" that a woman's body "has a way of shutting down so the pregnancy would not occur" from a "legitimate rape" did not finish in first or second place, and so will not compete in the July 22nd runoff. Nor will the candidate—the only black candidate in the Republican field, by the way—who defended Cliven Bundy's musings that perhaps black Americans were better off enslaved. Neither will the candidate who raffled off an AR-15 (the gun used in the Sandy Hook massacre) to one of his supporters, and called embryology, evolution and the Big Bang Theory "Continue reading

Good stories, strong campaigns

Mié, 21/05/2014 - 18:12

“I STARTED out driving a forklift,” said Tom Wolf, running as a Democrat for governor of Pennsyvania, in his first campaign ad. The ad went on to show his two daughters gently mocking him, while also bragging about his achievements: service in the Peace Corps, a doctorate from MIT, and a beat-up Jeep Cherokee in the driveway.

Mr Wolf launched this self-funded, multi-million-dollar advertising blitz back in January. Many said it was too early, but it worked. By February, the little-known businessman was leading in the polls, and on May 20th he won Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary with 58% of the vote.

He beat strong candidates who did not run good campaigns. Allyson Schwartz, an affable congresswoman, hoped to be the state’s first woman governor. But she and Rob McCord, the state treasurer, who had union backing, were unable to catch the white-bearded, bespectacled Mr Wolf.

Tom Corbett, the unpopular Republican incumbent, is now running scared. Mr Wolf is proving difficult to attack. He runs a successful kitchen-cabinet business and he shares 20-30% of the profits with his employees. When he served as state...Continue reading

You're not hearing me

Mar, 20/05/2014 - 18:47

APPELLATE courts are charged with correcting errors of legal interpretation in lower-court rulings; they are not supposed to meddle with the facts. Yet America’s final court of appeal, the Supreme Court, finds itself sorting through facts quite regularly, particularly in religion cases where "fact-sensitive" analyses are the norm. The justices do not always acquit themselves very well.

Over the past few decades, in sussing out violations of the constitution's ban on religious establishments, the court has found meaningful distinctions between a menorah and a nativity scene in a public holiday display (both are okay) and a stand-alone creche (verboten); it has said that the Ten Commandments violate the constitution when placed in a courthouse but are perfectly fine when installed outside a state capitol. In the ruling Continue reading

A fitting tribute

Vie, 16/05/2014 - 22:06

  • The National September 11 Memorial Museum opens on May 21st. Two tridents, steel supports from the original World Trade Centre, can be seen inside the museum Source: Jeff Goldblum
  • One World Trade Centre, formerly the Freedom Tower, rises above and behind the new museum and the memorial pools Source: Jeff Goldblum
  • Continue reading

Gowdy-amus igitur

Mié, 14/05/2014 - 20:52

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS had been ambassador to Libya for three months when he was killed on September 11th 2012 in Benghazi. His death, on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on America, was a reminder that the government cannot keep all of its people safe all of the time. 

For an ambassador to be killed while serving is rare, but attacks on embassies and consulates are not, and they have often resulted in deaths. Mr Stevens’s murder also coincided with the closing stages of a presidential campaign in which Barack Obama claimed to have al-Qaeda “on the run”. In the following days, White House officials said that Ambassador Stevens’s death was the result of a spontaneous protest, which is what the initial intelligence reports suggested, rather than a planned terrorist attack. They stuck to this line for longer than they should have. Security at the consulate was not as robust as it might have been.

Such are the facts of the case that is known in American politics simply as Benghazi. There have already been several investigations, as well as a bipartisan report issued by the Senate intelligence committee, which...Continue reading

Street Fight 2.0

Mié, 14/05/2014 - 19:37

ASKED last month to name his role model, Ras Baraka mentioned Marion Barry, a former mayor of Washington, DC best known for smoking crack and running a City Hall of staggering incompetence and corruption. Washingtonians remember Mr Barry as a terrible manager, but he sure gave a rousing speech. That is perhaps why Mr Baraka admires him. It is also why, on May 13th, Newark elected Mr Baraka as its new mayor with 54% of the vote.  

A charismatic speaker, he can quiet and excite a crowd like no one else in the city. “When I become mayor,” he often told voters, “we all become mayor.” How that would work in practice is unclear, but after his victory speech hundreds of his supporters marched down Broad Street to take City Hall. One exclaimed: “It’s ours again!”  

Mr Baraka (pictured), a school principal, is as close to African-American royalty as one can get in Newark. His late father was a poet who gave voice to the Black Power movement. In 2004, he helped broker peace between the Crips and the Bloods, two rival gangs. Spike Lee, a film-maker, and Lauryn Hill, a singer, supported him. So did Sharpe James, an...Continue reading

Playing favourites

Mar, 13/05/2014 - 18:25

JEROME FRANK, a mid-20th-century legal thinker, is said to have claimed that justice is a function of what the judge had for breakfast. Don’t let their black robes, serious miens and pledges of fealty to the law fool you, Mr Frank warned: judicial decisions are not cool applications of objective legal principles. Rather, they are manifestations of personal predilections and biases.

Mr Frank’s observation seems to apply all too well to today's Supreme Court. When ruling on big, controversial cases, the justices split fairly reliably along party lines dictated by their appointing presidents. It wasn’t always this way. Until 1937, as Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported last week, party simply wasn’t a factor in high-court decisions. Only in recent decades have party politics infiltrated the marble halls of the Supreme Court, and only in...Continue reading

Chronicling the abuse of authority

Mar, 13/05/2014 - 02:27

THE disclosures of Edward Snowden constitute perhaps the most notorious leak in history. America’s National Security Agency was so secretive that for decades even its existence was classified. Insiders joked that its initials stood for “no such agency”. That a 29-year-old contractor was able to steal tens of thousands of classified documents is not only astounding, but also unprecedented. Only recently had it become possible to fit so much material on an inexpensive digital chip.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story in the British newspaper the Guardian, has now published an account of how the story landed on his lap. “No Place to Hide”, out today, also outlines the disclosures and considers what they mean.

The tale of how a geeky high-school dropout infiltrated the NSA’s most secretive core makes fascinating reading. The extent of surveillance Mr Snowden unveiled is itself deeply troubling. And the back-story of how Mr Greenwald and others scrambled to make this information public is inspiring. 

Mr...Continue reading

Not so fast

Lun, 12/05/2014 - 17:28

LAST August police arrested Adam Bush, a construction worker, on charges that he broke into a bar in Hankinson, North Dakota, and stole some cash. Their theory was that he took a large safe from the bar, pulled it over to a kayak, floated the kayak to his car and drove away with the safe. There were no witnesses, and according to a local radio station, even the state's attorney admitted the case was "highly circumstantial". A jury acquitted Mr Bush in April. His car, however, was not so lucky. A judge ruled that despite the acquittal, county sheriffs were entitled to keep Mr Bush's car, which was seized when he was arrested.

That is because civil-asset...Continue reading