Morning Report, September 17th: The Conversion of the World's Most Notorious Atheist, Terrorism Comes to Denver, Harry Potter Fan Torches Church, Murder U., Missile Defenseless, and ACORN Falls Far

Morning Report, September 17th: The Conversion of the World's Most Notorious Atheist, Terrorism Comes to Denver, Harry Potter Fan Torches Church, Murder U., Missile Defenseless, and ACORN Falls Far September 17, 2009

One Christian’s perspective on the day’s news:

1.  PHILOSOPHIA THEISTI.  I have just discovered some of the great material that Philosophia Christi makes available online.  Philosophia Christi is, much as it sounds, a journal of philosophy that is informed and shaped by Christian conviction.  Much of the material within it could be classified as apologetic, but not all of it.  (Thus, for instance, there is a review of Bill Maher’s Religulous).  But I thought I would highlight one piece today, and that is an interview with Antony Flew.  Flew was once the world’s foremost philosophical expositor of atheism, and engaged in numerous debates against theists and Christians.  He developed a long and fruitful relationship with Gary Habermas, who dealt particularly with the resurrection of Christ.  Flew then became a theist (this would be like if Stephen Jay Gould had renounced Darwinism).  Here is an interview with Habermas and Flew after the latter’s conversion to theism.  If you have any taste for rigorous examination of these things, it’s well worth your time.

Relatedly, Gary Habermas writes a review of Flew’s book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.  Also worth your time.

2.  PATHEOS INVOLVEMENT?  The man whom FBI authorities claim was at the heart of an al-Qaeda plot to attack New York City has returned to his home in Denver.  He was questioned at length, and the FBI raided his home.  It will be very, very interesting to hear this story evolve.  First we will hear more specifically what they believe he had planned.  Then little bits and pieces of evidence will drip out.  Then we will have some lengthier account of what intelligence folks did to stop it.  One question, inevitably, will be: whose policies helped to apprehend him?  There will be plenty of spin over that issue.

But…you know what else is in Denver?  Patheos offices.  Just saying.  A frequent reader of this blog, who serves as the primary editor on most material, is an apparently mild-mannered Christian woman.  Does she have a double life?  It’s possible.

3.  MUST BE A HARRY POTTER FAN.  The headline says it all: Satan-Loving Teen Lights Church Fire.

4.  MURDER IN THE IVY LEAGUE, PART 2.  A Yale lab technician has been arrested for the murder of Annie Le, a 24-year-old pharmacology student at Yale University, whose remains were found on the day she was to be married.  The physical evidence, which suggests a violent struggle and also premeditation (surgical gloves), sounds pretty overwhelming.  The alleged murderer, who was not a student, and who apparently was not romantically involved with Annie, invited her to the lab to speak about the cleanliness of the mice cages.  May the family of Annie Le find some peace in knowing that the man responsibility is being brought to justice.

5.  BREAKING NEWS.  Breaking news that the Obama administration is reversing the plan set in place during the Bush administration to stage missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic.  (Reactions from Lieberman and Eric Cantor.)  This is not a surprise.  Since taking office, Obama had refused to commit to fulfilling the agreements that were made between President Bush and Polish and Czech leaders.  He would say only that the United States was committed to providing security, and that the specific form of that security was under review.

It’s difficult to discern what is actually going on here, for surely underneath the fog of rhetoric and spin there are cold calculations being made about our strategic interests and winning favor with Russia in exchange for its support on other matters.  President Obama does not portray this as a step back, of course.  He portrays it as a strategic realignment, and indeed the construction of a defense system that will ultimately be stronger.  Yet the dynamics of diplomacy cannot be overlooked.  On the one hand, this is a betrayal of those Polish and Czech leaders who stuck out their necks for us, and it will make it difficult to create strategic partnerships with former Soviet states that will not justly fear that any agreement made with one administration will be abandoned by the next.  On the other hand, how does this look to Iran and to Russia?  If it were a more minor matter, it could be seen as a strategic concession, a show of good faith to the Kremlin.  Yet this had been a major point of contention for years–not because Russia was worried about their own defense being compromised (that is their claim, but surely they know that we have no intention of taking military action against them.  It’s been a point of contention because it draws former Soviet states away from their sphere of domination and more into the sphere of the West.  Russia was so brazen in Georgia partly in order to send messages to other former Soviet republics, that you should not dare to grow too close to the United States and should certainly not think that they will come to your rescue.

The Soviet bear wants to be free to bully and intimidate, for the sake of political control but also for the sake of oil and other natural resources that these states possess.  In this context, however it is spun, this is a major victory for Russia, and in particular for Putin.  Unless this is part of a secret agreement (which it may be), this is not likely to lead to more cooperation from Russia; it is likely to lead them to believe that they can get whatever they want from a wobbly new administration.  This administration does seem wont to reward those who thumb their nose at us; the more they refuse to do what we ask, the more we give them (see the argument made more strongly here).  I confess I don’t understand it.

As for Iran, the administration explains that this adjustment is partly due to a reassessment of the threats it actually poses.  They say that Iran is further away from developing long-range missile capability than we had thought.  To me, this does not inspire confidence.  We have been surprised before to discover how far along a country has come in its development of the requisite technology to deliver large payloads over long distances.  Given a threat of this nature, should we not take proactive measures even a few years in advance, and are we not also concerned about nuclear weaponry falling into the wrong hands in Russia or Pakistan?  If we think we should protect more against short-range attacks, can we not still protect against long-range attacks at the same time?

However, I’m not ready or willing to go along with those who say this is an epic moment of weakness, a dereliction of duty.  From a Christian point of view, the primary responsibility is this: if you can construct a ‘shield’ that will keep hundreds of millions of people safe from the threat of nuclear weapons, then you darn well should do that.  We’re no longer in a bipolar world where the deterrence of mutually assured destruction is sufficient.  We’re in a world where nuclear weapons are in the hands of deranged dictators (North Korea) may soon be in the hands of apocalyptic zealots (Ahmadinejad), and could well fall into the hands of non-state actors.  We have the capacity to do so, so we should absolutely

It’s hard to justify a decision that betrays our friends, rewards the bullies, and breaks momentous agreements that were made by prior administrations.  But there are two ways in which the decision might be justified: if they have made a sub rosa agreement with Russia that extracted major concessions from them (Joe Klein explains one possibility), especially their help with Iran and North Korea, or if they have truly determined that we can better provide for security in another way.  Conservatives have always assumed that Obama would be weak on defense issues, and they believe their assumption has been shown true by his failure to respond to Iranian and North Korean provocations.  Such people will assume that Obama’s blowing smoke and he’s simply lost his spine.  I’m more willing to wait and see.  If he explains a different plan, and that plan does indeed make better sense, then bully for him.  As long as Obama is listening to his top military advisers, and not making his own decisions according to political expediency and then telling the brass what to say, then fine.  However…

6.  BREAKING BREAKING NEWS.  Whether this was leaked in order to turn the tide against Obama’s movement, or whether is a part of the underlying calculation (perhaps that it is more urgent to develop short-range defenses, so we should focus our attention there presently (but why not both?)) that led Obama to withdraw from the “third site” pieces in Poland and the Czech Republic, it’s hard to say at this point:

Experts at the world’s top atomic watchdog are in agreement that Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and is on the way to developing a missile system able to carry an atomic warhead, according to a secret report seen by The Associated Press.The document drafted by senior officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency is the clearest indication yet that the agency’s leaders share Washington’s views on Iran’s weapon-making capabilities.

It appears to be the so-called “secret annex” on Iran’s nuclear program that Washington says is being withheld by the IAEA’s chief.

The document says Iran has “sufficient information” to build a bomb. It says Iran is likely to “overcome problems” on developing a delivery system.

As noted, some had complained that the IAEA (long seen by conservatives to be soft on Iran) was withholding this document.  Sounds like it’s about to come out.  If the IAEA has concluded that Iran has developed the know-how, that’s a huge development.  What’s Israel thinking right now?

7.  SHOOTING (AT) BULLETS.  As the final thought on this same theme, Joe Klein, talking about the capacity of downing a long-range ballistic missile, uses the silly old analogy of trying to shoot down a bullet with a bullet.  Those on the Left continue to insist, in spite of the many successful tests we have already done, that it’s just fantasy that we have, or could have, the technological capacity to bring down such a missile.  But it’s not fantasy at all.  Imagine that the bullet is flying through vast amounts of open space.  Imagine that it keeps a steady rate, because it propels itself.  Imagine is emits enormous heat.  Imagine that it takes a long time traveling through an open space at the same rate of time.  And now imagine that it’s the size of a bus, and the most technologically advanced nation in the world, the world that sends people to the moon and satellites all throughout our solar system and beyond, decided that it was worth figuring out how to bring that ‘bullet’ down…and then you’ve got a roughly similar analogy.  Actually, what we have to worry about are more advanced missiles that are able to employ their own evasive or deflective maneuvers.  But those are not the kind of missiles that Iranians could have.

The fact is: yes, we can shoot down missiles even now.  Remember downing Iraqi SCUDs?  Getting an ICBM is more difficult, but our missile technology has vastly improved since then.  And if we can create a shield that would protect us from rogue nuclear actors, would we not be horribly irresponsible and ethically culpable if we failed to do so?  This is not a “destabilizing” factor.  It is a stabilizing one.  And we will only grow more proficient at shooting down missiles in the years to come.

8.  PRO-LIFE, BUT ANTI-PRO-LIFERS.  Notre Dame continues to press a legal case against the pro-life activists who protested the President’s speech there.  Odd.

9.  MR PARANOIA.  Piece on Glenn Beck, as a reflection of the historical-cultural moment, in Time.  It does seem true that we seem more prone to think the worst of one another than at any time in recent memory.

10.  ACORN FAR FALLEN.  The House too has now cut funding for ACORN, as the White House tries to distance itself (and specifically Barack Obama, formerly ACORN’s lawyer) from the organization.

Democrats are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Max Baucus’ proposal to fund the health care reform by imposing a 35% excise tax on insurance companies for high-value insurance plans (above $8k/individual, $21K/family).  The reason?  On the one hand, they need to find new streams of income (Baucus’ plan includes a long, long, long list of new fees and taxes), especially given the President’s rhetoric about developing a deficit-neutral plan.  (It won’t be deficit neutral, but he has to be able to make a semi-plausible claim that it is.)  But taxes on the ‘rich’ will not suffice, so they have to tax the middle class and yet do so in a way that does not sound like they’re taxing the middle class.  Baucus’ solution is to tax the insurance companies that provide these high-value plans.  The basic idea is to tax those with nice insurance plans in order to subsidize insurance plans for the poor.

The problem with this solution is that a vast swath of those who hold these high-value plans are…union workers, the backbone of the Democratic party.  Unions use their power to get costly insurance programs for their workers, and everyone knows that if you tax the insurance companies, the insurance companies will have to raise rates.  Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (good union country, mining country) says:

“He [Baucus] should understand that (his proposal) means that virtually every single coal miner is going to have a big, big tax put on them because the tax will be put on the company and the company will immediately pass it down and lower benefits because they are self insured, most of them, because they are larger. They will pass it down, lower benefits, and probably this will mean higher premiums for coal miners who are getting very good health care benefits for a very good reason. That is, like steelworkers and others, they are doing about the most dangerous job that can be done in America.”

As “The Notes” notes, it’s not often that a Democrat admits that a major Democratic proposal will amount to “a big, big tax” on the middle class.  But he’s basically right, isn’t he?  That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  But I think Rockefeller’s calling a spade a spade, and I think we need to be frank about the costs and where the money will come from.

11.  Obama’s approval numbers have fallen below 50% on most of the important issues dominating our social discourse today.  We worry too much about poll numbers, of course.  The only polls that matter are the ones who determine who represents us in Washington.  Obama has plenty of time to recover.  But this is surely not the first year they had hoped for.

12.  TODAY’S TWO-SIDES: missile defense.  Barack Obama explains the reasons for the shift.  He does not portray this as a severe reversal.  He emphasizes that Bush was right to see a threat here, and says that he is merely updating and finding better, more proven, more cost-effective ways of reaching the same goals.  It’s smart rhetoric.  I’m not sure whether I believe him that these were the unanimous recommendations of his military counselors, but perhaps he’s telling the truth.  From his speech, it’s hard to tell that anything’s changed:

To put it simply, our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies. It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective; and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats; and it ensures and enhances the protection of all our NATO allies.

This approach is also consistent with NATO missile — NATO’s missile defense efforts and provides opportunities for enhanced international collaboration going forward. We will continue to work cooperatively with our close friends and allies, the Czech Republic and Poland, who had agreed to host elements of the previous program. I’ve spoken to the Prime Ministers of both the Czech Republic and Poland about this decision and reaffirmed our deep and close ties. Together we are committed to a broad range of cooperative efforts to strengthen our collective defense, and we are bound by the solemn commitment of NATO’s Article V that an attack on one is an attack on all.

Max Boot at one of my favorite conservative blogs, Contentions.  As I said above, I don’t necessarily agree.  But it’s worth hearing the conservative response to Obama’s decision today:

The Obama administration’s decision to scrap the missile-defense sites planned for Poland and the Czech Republic is bad news. Not so much because the sites are vital to the defense of America or our allies. The administration is undoubtedly right when it says that the immediate threat posed by Iranian missiles is more short-range and that it will be a while before Iran has longer-range missiles capable of hitting Europe. Thus it makes sense to concentrate for the moment on building shorter-range missile defenses. And even longer-range sites don’t necessarily have to be located in Eastern Europe for maximum effectiveness.

All that is true. It is also irrelevant. For the issue of the missile-defense sites had long ago taken on a life of its own. They had occasioned endless bluster and threats from Putin and his gang in the Kremlin who believed, or pretended to believe, that this small number of interceptors was somehow a threat to Russia. How a purely defensive system could threaten another country remains to be understood. The Russians apparently think they have a divine right to threaten Europe with nuclear annihilation and anything that interferes with this is “destabilizing.” Actually the missile-defense sites posed no threat to Russia’s vast missile arsenal, and Putin undoubtedly knew this.

His constant harping on the issue was, I believe, nothing more than cynical opportunism—a convenient way for him to brainwash his own people into thinking that they were being “encircled” by NATO and that only a strongman in the Kremlin could defend them from this (nonexistent) threat. That Obama has now bowed to Putin’s demands sends a dangerous signal of irresoluteness and weakness—similar to the signal another young president sent when he met with a Russian leader in Vienna in 1961. Nikita Khrushchev emerged from his summit with John F. Kennedy convinced that the president was “very inexperienced, even immature” and that he could be rolled. We all know the result: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is a danger that Obama is now sending a similar signal of weakness—one that will discourage our allies in Eastern Europe, who went out on a limb to stand with the United States, and one that will encourage our enemies, who will conclude that the U.S. will back down under duress. We can only hope that Obama received some secret concessions from the Russians on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program or some other pressing issue. If he yanked the missile-defense sites without getting anything in return, simply in the hope of engendering “goodwill” among the criminal clique in the Kremlin, that would be the height of naiveté.

13.  COTD: David Frum on Obama’s foreign policy.  David Frum has distinguished himself from other Republicans with the evenness of his thought, and his ability to criticize conservatives.  He seeks to stake out a “new majority” through a center-right politics.  But he does not like what he’s seeing with Obama’s foreign policy.  He provides a thorough review that’s well worth reading, whether or not you agree.

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