Back in the 1990s — when the U.S. was about 20 years past the horrors of Vietnam, and still a few years off from the horrors of post-9/11 combat — officials in the Clinton administration were contemplating a military intervention of their own to help bring an end to the war and suffering in Bosnia. Some of the president’s advisers were ready to attack; others, like Gen. Colin Powell, were reluctant.
Then-U.N. Secretary Madeline Albright would have none of it. “What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about,” she snapped, “if we can't use it?”
Well, we’re a little closer to war with Syria than we were 24 hours ago.
Why? Because the United States has determined that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels in that country’s awful, grinding, ongoing civil war. And because President Obama once promised that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would demand greater U.S. involvement in that war, on the side of the rebels. Maybe we'll just furnish them with more lethal weapons; perhaps we'll start enforcing a no-fly zone.
A little embarrassingly now, the last time I remember putting on a tie was on Inauguration Day 2009. I didn’t go anywhere special—just the office—but after eight years of George W. Bush, the inauguration of Barack Obama seemed portentous. After years of war (and a year of increasingly terrifying economic news) the ascendance of our first African-American president seemed to hold out the promise of good things, at last, to come.
I watched President Obama on a computer in my office. I saw him take the oath, and then I saw him spend much of his inauguration basically spitting in his predecessor’s eye—all while that predecessor sat there on the dais, forced by tradition and protocol to just take it.
I kind of loved it.
So wait a minute: What if this massive NSA spying project is necessary? What if it’s really keeping us safe?
That’s what a friend of mine—a lawyer, smart, somebody pretty well acquainted with Democratic Party politics—asked me to consider last week while I was busy declaring that President Obama had completely betrayed the cause of civil liberties. Maybe, he said, President Obama came into office intending to follow the ACLU line on domestic spying—but after hearing a few briefings about the nature of terrorist threats facing America, perhaps, decided that wiretapping, well, everybody was the only way to keep us safe.
“I'm against all the things you're against,” my friend said. “I'm also against Philadelphia being blown up. Someone has to balance those things.”
Believe it or not, Antonin Scalia doesn’t always suck.
Yes, the conservative Supreme Court justice has plenty of retrograde ideas, and yeah, he’d like to read the Constitution as if time stopped somewhere around 1789. But his prickly, eccentric readings of the law of the land sometimes—more often than you’d think, in fact—bring him down on the civil libertarian side of a case.
It happened again this week. Scalia sided with the minority in Maryland v. King, in which the court ruled that police can take DNA samples from anyone they arrest for a “serious” crime—then check to see if that genetic material matches evidence from unsolved “cold cases” awaiting resolution around the country.