The Iraq War Books to Come

George Tenet, the head of the CIA from 1997-2004, has just published a book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA.  He was interviewed about it on 60 Minutes last night, and will be on Larry King tonight.  I’m sure we’ll see him soon on Charlie Rose, The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, Jon Stewart’s show, and, if it was still on the air, you might see Tenet in animated form on Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

You probably know what this book’s all about, what makes it newsworthy:  Tenet’s claim to have opposed the invasion of Iraq, and his denial that when he told President Bush that evidence of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was a “slam dunk” that he really meant it was true.  The NY Times’ Michiko Kakutani reviewed the book:

Alternately withholding and aggrieved, earnest and disingenuous, “At the Center of the Storm” is interesting less for any stunning new revelations than for fleshing out a portrait of the Bush White House already sketched by reporters and former administration members. Mr. Tenet depicts an administration riven by factional fighting between the State and Defense Departments, hard-liners and more pragmatic realists, an administration given to out-of-channels policymaking, and ad hoc, improvisatory decision-making.

“There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” he writes of a war that has already resulted in more than 3,300 American military deaths, at least 60,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and already cost more than $420 billion. Nor, he adds, was there “a significant discussion regarding enhanced containment or the costs and benefits of such an approach versus full-out planning for overt and covert regime change.”

Mr. Tenet’s book also ratifies the view articulated by former military, intelligence and Coalition Provisional Authority insiders that the White House repeatedly ignored or rebuffed early warnings about the deteriorating situation in post-invasion Iraq. Mr. Tenet writes that the C.I.A.’s senior officer in Iraq was dismissed as a “defeatist” for warning in 2003 of the dangers of a growing Iraqi insurgency, though it was already clear then that United States political and economic strategies were failing. Although the trends were clear, he adds, those in charge of policy “operated within a closed loop.” In that atmosphere, he says, bad news was ignored: the agency’s subsequent reporting, which would prove “spot-on,” was dismissed.

 Tenet’s book has not gone down well with either Bush supporters or Bush foes.  Arianna Huffington is one of many to ask the sensible question, “Why Didn’t George Tenet Just Resign?”

Poor George Tenet. Flogging his book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, on 60 Minutes, Tenet tells Scott Pelley about how his phrase “slam dunk” was misused by the Bush administration. Tenet, you see, didn’t mean it was a “slam dunk” that Hussein actually had WMD, he only meant it was a “slam dunk” that a public case could be made that Hussein had WMD.

I can’t really see that the distinction matters, but Tenet apparently does. “I became campaign talk,” Tenet tells Pelley, “I was a talking point. ‘Look at what the idiot told us, and we decided to go to war.’ Well, let’s not be so disingenuous. Let’s stand up. This is why we did it. This is why, this is how we did it. And let’s tell, let’s everybody tell the truth.”

Great — except he’s about four years too late. Tenet seems to believe there’s a major distinction between lying and standing by silently while others lie, and then proudly receiving a Medal of Freedom from the liars.

And Christopher Hitchens reminds us in his Slate review that Tenet was not just ineffectual and wrong about the invasion of Iraq; he was ineffectual and wrong about 9/11.  Hitchens recalls one of the creepiest things I remember reading about the immediate post 9/11 response. It was in Bush At War by Bob Woodward.  Hitchens uses that quote as a launching pad for an irate attack on Tenet’s credibility and character:

…(I)t was a very favorably disposed chronicler (Woodward) who wrote this, in describing Tenet’s reaction on the terrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001:

“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Notice the direct quotes that make it clear who is the author of this brilliant insight. And then pause for a second. The author is almost the only man who could have known of Zacarias Moussaoui and his co-conspirators—the very man who positively knew they were among us, in flight schools, and then decided to leave them alone. In his latest effusion, he writes: “I do know one thing in my gut. Al-Qaeda is here and waiting.” Well, we all know that much by now. But Tenet is one of the few who knew it then, and not just in his “gut” but in his small brain, and who left us all under open skies. His ridiculous agency, supposedly committed to “HUMINT” under his leadership, could not even do what John Walker Lindh had done—namely, infiltrate the Taliban and the Bin Laden circle. It’s for this reason that the CIA now has to rely on torturing the few suspects it can catch, a policy, incidentally, that Tenet’s book warmly defends.

So, the only really interesting question is why the president did not fire this vain and useless person on the very first day of the war. Instead, he awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom! Tenet is now so self-pitying that he expects us to believe that he was “not at all sure that [he] really wanted to accept” this honor. But it seems that he allowed or persuaded himself to do so, given that the citation didn’t mention Iraq. You could imagine that Tenet had never sat directly behind Colin Powell at the United Nations, beaming like an overfed cat, as the secretary of state went through his rather ill-starred presentation. And who cares whether his “slam dunk” vulgarity was misquoted or not? We have better evidence than that. Here is what Tenet told the relevant Senate committee in February 2002:

Iraq … has also had contacts with al-Qaida. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides’ mutual antipathy toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible, even though Saddam is well aware that such activity would carry serious consequences.

As even the notion of it certainly should have done. At around the same time, on another nontrivial matter, Tenet informed the Senate armed services committee that: “We believe that Saddam never abandoned his nuclear weapons program.” It is a little bit late for him to pose as if Iraq was a threat concocted in some crepuscular corner of the vice president’s office. And it’s pathetic for him to say, even in the feeble way that he chooses to phrase it, that “there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.” (Emphasis added.) There had been a very serious debate over the course of at least three preceding administrations, whether Tenet “knew” of it or not. (He was only an intelligence specialist, after all.)
Despite this assault, Tenet stands to profit handsomely from this book, a fact that will not go unnoticed by others currently still serving the Administration.  If a policy goes wrong or becomes unpopular, Tenet’s success shows that no mea culpas are necessary; anyone can distance themselves from unpopular decisions they helped make, even someone as high up as the Director of the CIA.

Still to come: 

The Army I Wanted Wasn’t the Army I Had: Unknown Unknowns Known, By Donald Rumsfeld

Paul Wolfowitz: It Ain’t All About the WMDs, by Paul Wolfowitz

More Years of Magical Thinking, by Laura Bush

The Audacity of Audacity, by Dick Cheney

and…

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy President, by George W. Bush

And it turns out none of them wanted to invade Iraq.  Who knew!?

Soprano Spoiler Futility*

What’s interesting about the constant search for Sopranos spoilers — a big source of traffic for this blog recently because I wrote a post a year ago that had the words “Sopranos spoilers” in the title — is how irrelevant they turn out to be, even if they’re true.

Go onto some of the forums I’ve linked to, and you read these almost operatic endings that “my cousin who works at HBO” or “a guy who worked at an ice cream shop they’re using for a location” convey with gleeful certainty.  Most of these spoiler scenarios are frauds, I suspect. They’re written by the same people who compose the e-mails we get from deposed Nigerian royals who want to give you a $3 million reward.

Even the ones that have a possible ring of truth always omit the ironic, dream-logic context that makes these events meaningful. What actually happens on the show is usually telegraphed far in advance, or easy to predict if you follow the story. But how it is presented — that’s where the surprises are, and no spoiler can convey that.

Like when Big Pussy’s betrayal was discovered and he was murdered. In most of these spoiler discussions, it would have been described just that way: Tony finds proof that Big Pussy has been wearing a wire for the FBI, and along with Silvio and Paulie, murders him on a boat. That was not a surprising outcome. We knew Pussy was wearing a wire for months. It was grimly inevitable.  What made it interesting was Tony finally gave in to his subconscious suspicions. Remember? Tony was suffering from food poisoning, had feverish dreams in between attacks of vomiting and diarrhea. In one of those dreams, he’s in a fish market on the boardwalk. A fish starts talking to him. It’s Pussy, who says that, deep down, Tony always knew he was working for the government.

I could just see how that would’ve gone over on one of these Sopranos spoilers sites. “My cousin delivers bagels to HBO, and the climax of the episode is Tony having this weird dream.”

In last night’s episode, what really happened?

  • Tony’s on a losing streak. He’s lost a lot of money gambling. His gambling debts cause conflict with his old friend Hesh and with his wife.
  • Tony feels responsible for the family of the slain gay mobster Vito. He tries to figure out how to help his widow deal with her son, who is acting out in extremely peculiar ways.
  • Phil (who had murdered Vito in rage over his homosexuality) refuses to assist Tony, even though Vito’s widow is his cousin, and it was in the name of “family honor” that he killed Vito.
  • Tony and Carmela resolve their argument with an admission that they’re both worrying about whether Tony’s going to die or get arrested.
  • Hesh’s girlfriend dies mysteriously. Tony consoles him by repaying a debt he incurred from gambling.
  • A.J. proposes to his girlfriend and she accepts, but soon afterward, she breaks it off.
  • A “tough-love” organization — paid for by Tony — comes to Vito’s widow’s house late at night and takes Vito Jr. to a camp somewhere out west. He’s terrified.

But if you saw the episode, was that really what you saw? Are any of those plot points so compelling? If anyone had told you in advance that these things were going to happen, would you have really “gotten” the episode without seeing it? For most TV series, like “24,” if someone tells you what’s going to happen, you don’t really need to see it. But “The Sopranos” is a violent mob story as reimagined by a hybrid of Edith Wharton and James Joyce. And, like those authors, the events they describe can be kind of ho-hum, routine, life creeping forward sorts of events where the significance is all in the subtext.

Yet last night’s episode seemed incredibly significant. Fear of death or imprisonment looms over Tony now like never before. The scene in which Vito, Jr. is taken away evokes one of Tony’s biggest fears — the late-night knock at the door.  Vito Jr.’s mother wanted to move her family to Maine to get her son away from the rumors about her dead husband’s sexual orientation — a clean getaway.  But Tony won’t let himself get away that easily, so he doesn’t let Vito’s family either.

In an earlier episode, Tony expressed knowledge that 80 percent of his peers are murdered or imprisoned — terrible odds that he’s beaten so far, but he keeps on betting, his money and his life.  In their argument, he tells Carmela that, having survived a gunshot wound that should have killed him, he’s still “up,” even though he’s lost a lot of money.  What’s he going to do with his winnings?  The awkward scene when he repays Hesh seemed like a concession — Tony clearing the ledger, resolving things while he’s still got a chance.  He had planned to pay him off with proceeds from a big gambling score; instead he uses working capital, taking chips off the table.

A.J.’s proposal scene was pathetic, and you know this sad kid’s humiliation will become Tony and Carmela’s heartbreak. Plus, there’s an ironic contrast:  Tony commands loyalty under pain of death and damnation; A.J.’s fiancee won’t even stay engaged to him for a week.

I’ve only watched this episode once. The second time is always more rewarding and revealing, which is more proof that spoilers for this particular show are meaningless. But, hey, keep looking for them — I like all the new visitors!

* Edited, 5/1/07

David Broder, Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’

If you read the left-wing blogs, you quickly learn there is no journalist or commentator more despised than David S. Broder, the “Dean” of Washington columnists.  In recent writings, Broder has been less than thrilled with the performance of the new Democratic Congress and its leadership.  To the netroots, it’s still the honeymoon phase; but here’s this old guy, an uncle you sort of have to listen to, standing at the back of the reception saying “You stink!”

What they despise about Broder is his reputation as a liberal, which derives in part from his position at the Washington Post.   The netroots disagree that the Post is actually all that liberal, or that Broder is “one of them,” and it really steams them that Broder’s critical comments about the Democratic party are seen as coming from a sympathetic corner.  

Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter leave no mark; they’re dismissed easily as right-wing crackpots.  But Broder disrupts what the netroots repeatedly call “the narrative.”  When a liberal says what conservatives say, the conservatives’ viewpoints are legitimized.  The netroots don’t really enjoy debating conservatives; they’d rather dismiss them from the debate entirely. It’s harder to do that when they can cite liberals like David Broder as agreeing with them. 

I’m beginning to think David Broder likes provoking the netroots.  What else would explain today’s column, in which he compares Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to…omigod!… Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez!  

The column was prompted by Reid’s much-criticized comment last week that “this war is lost.”

…Reid’s verbal wanderings on the war in Iraq are consequential — not just for his party and the Senate but for the more important question of what happens to U.S. policy in that violent country and to the men and women whose lives are at stake.

Given the way the Constitution divides warmaking power between the president, as commander in chief, and Congress, as sole source of funds to support the armed services, it is essential that at some point Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi be able to negotiate with the White House to determine the course America will follow until a new president takes office.

To say that Reid has sent conflicting signals about his readiness for such discussions is an understatement. It has been impossible for his own members, let alone the White House, to sort out for more than 24 hours at a time what ground Reid is prepared to defend.

Instead of reinforcing the important proposition — defined by the Iraq Study Group— that a military strategy for Iraq is necessary but not sufficient to solve the myriad political problems of that country, Reid has mistakenly argued that the military effort is lost but a diplomatic-political strategy can still succeed.

The Democrats deserve better, and the country needs more, than Harry Reid has offered as Senate majority leader.

Broder’s comparison with Gonzalez is, in fact, quite apt.  The problem with Sen. Reid is that he is an incompetent Senate Majority Leader.  As Michael Dukakis said, “It’s not about ideology. It’s about competence.”  The AG is manifestly unfit for his job, and so is Reid.  Reid can’t manage his own mouth; how can he be expected to manage the U.S. Senate? Vice President Cheney’s stinging retort to Reid drew blood because he mostly just quoted Reid’s own incredibly contradictory pattern of statements about the war over the past few months.

But to the netroots, even pointing out obvious incompetence screws up “the narrative.”  Here’s what diarist mcjoan says on Daily Kos regarding Broder’s column:

It’s just so sad, so disconnected from anything even remotely resembling reality. We had ample warning that it was coming, but maybe somehow didn’t think it could really, really be as bad as expected. It is. You can go read it, if you like. But there’s really hardly any point any more.

I do have to give this to the Dean. He is somehow adroit enough to hammer the final nail into the coffin that holds all that was left of his ability to reasonably comment on current events. What more is there to say?

And here is what Greg Sargent, a TPM Cafe blogger, says:

Boy, oh, boy. Will Broder really argue that Reid is as inept as Gonzales, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that Reid has refused to back down on Iraq while simultaneously maintaining public approval of his approach? He’s also maintained a respectable 46% approval rating — far higher than Bush, who Broder says is on the verge of a comeback. What is it that’s so profoundly threatening about Reid’s success to the Broders of the world?

In the respective comment threads, the “blogswarm” goes on a Broder-bashing spree.  Kos himself weighs in:

 What more is there left to say? (22+ / 0-)

That finally it’s clear as day that Broder is simply another run-of-the-mill beltway partisan hack. Once upon a time, he convinced everyone in DC that he was a non-partisan arbiter of conventional wisdom. That fiction is now blown apart. Broder is no better or different than Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly. An inglorious conclusion to a career in hackdom.

by kos on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 10:56:27 PM PDT

Here’s one from Sargent’s thread:

Its time for the blogshere to do some investigative reporting on Broder and the like.

It’s pretty clear that the Bushies/necons will do anything to advance their cause, protect themselves and manipulate public opinion.

Why has Broder nor Wapo disclosed Broder’s close relationship with Rove?

Broder is either being paid off financially or blackmailed. Cayman Island bank accounts, junkets, or compromising personal information. All of the above?

Posted by:erict
Date: April 25, 2007 08:26 PM

And how about this one from the Washington Post’s own comment thread:

Take the package, Mr. Broder. Retire now before you shred what reputation you have left any further. Old windbag. If the war is so great, why arent your kids and grandkids there? Harry Reid is right. The war is lost. Its time to come home and stop playing cowboy with American lives, which is just making everything in Iraq worse. Bush is the worst disaster in the history of the United States, and Broder was one of his sycophantic cheerleaders after nine one one. The emperor never had any clothes.

By snoopydc | Apr 26, 2007 12:32:42 AM |

Throughout the comments you find the view expressed that Reid’s “war is lost” comment is true, and that polls show the public agrees with it.  What they are overlooking is the American public doesn’t prefer to lose this war.   Reid seems to be egging on that result, especially when he says things like this:

“We’re going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war. Senator Schumer has shown me numbers that are compelling and astounding.”

Broder isn’t a hack, and he isn’t on the take.  He has a memory.  Memory curses dreams like the netroots’.  

Here’s an inconvenient analysis that draws on my own memories.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the Democrats facilitated the final defeat, denying President Ford’s request for funds to fulfil the promises the U.S. made after we pulled out. In 1975, the politics of that move looked pretty good; the public was sick of Vietnam.  In 1976, Carter beat Ford — but it should have been a landslide because of Watergate, and instead it was a squeaker.  Why?   In 1978, Republicans reversed most of the gains the Democrats had made in Congress in 1974.  In 1980, Reagan clobbered Carter, and the Republicans took the Senate. 

I believe the atrocities that followed the ignominious end to the Vietnam War, and the U.S.’ impotence to stop mass genocide and annihilation of our former supporters fueled those Democratic setbacks.  For the first time in decades, Republicans started talking about an aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union, and after the horrors of postwar Southeast Asia, the message resonated.

Losing Iraq would be another bloody business. It’s not hard to imagine.  Suicide bombings would increase. Civil war would widen. Any Iraqi individual or institution committed to democracy would be targeted for murder. Al Queda could well end up effectively in charge of parts of Iraq. 

And Harry Reid thinks this will help the Democrats win elections?  It’s absurd.  And he’s incompetent for thinking so, much less saying so.

David Halberstam, R.I.P.*

Two of David Halberstam’s books made a huge impact on me: The Best and the Brightest, and The Powers that Be. I don’t think a writer has captured the way bad governmental decisions can metastasize from good intentions into political manipulation better than Halberstam did in Best…. The Powers That Be, an intertwined narrative history of four big news organizations (CBS, Time, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), contains a superb introductory history of Los Angeles.

Then, Halberstam started to mix books about sports into his public affairs writing career, focusing on particular moments in sports that allowed him to talk about social change in America, without departing too far from the drama of the games and personalities. I particularly recommend October 1964, which happens to be about the first World Series I was really able to follow, pitting the “establishment” New York Yankees against a St. Louis Cardinal team that was dominated by three of the greatest black players of that era: Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock. The morality play isn’t always so neat and tidy, but it gives him a theme to ride as he tells stories about so many baseball legends and follows the Series’ intensely competitive course.

Sadly, David Halberstam was killed an automobile accident Monday morning in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco. He was being driven to an interview with another sports hero, former New York Giant quarterback Y.A. Tittle, a participant in the NFL’s “greatest game,” the Giants’ 1958 championship game against the Baltimore Colts. Halberstam was the only person who died from the accident — he was dead at the scene. A UC Berkeley graduate student in journalism was driving the car, which was broadsided while making a left turn.

Halberstam was a more traditional reporter than some of his 1960s-era counterparts like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, but he had just as big an impact on the era’s journalism. He was critical of the leaders whose misrule resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam, but he built his case not with invective, but with thorough reporting and engrossing storytelling. His passing should prompt interest in his entire catalogue, which will only make him more of an inspiration to non-fiction writers of any era.

*UPDATE, 4/24/07:  Sheesh. Shouldn’t Slate’s Jack Shafer wait til Halberstam’s grave is dug before throwing dirt on him? 

Yeah, okay, he wasn’t a great stylist.  But his sports books were good, less prey to his windy tendencies.  It was interesting to look at a list of Halberstam’s works.  I was under the misimpression that all his books after about 1985 were sports-related.  Just all his best books, I guess.  The sports books, his NY Times Vietnam war reporting and especially The Best and The Brightest will be his legacy.   

**UPDATE, 4/25/07:  This is better.  The Washington Post‘s Henry Allen writes affectionally about Halberstam’s unique style, notes that he had detractors, but shows how the style was a reflection of the man, his values and, yes, his ego:

He started working in the mid-’50s, before journalism was hip. He covered big stories: civil rights in the South, war in Africa, and Vietnam when John Kennedy was getting us into it with the help of “The Best and the Brightest,” as Halberstam called the elite and arrogant aides whose folly brought on our failure there.

He was not cool. He spewed sentences whose dependent clauses piled up into midden heaps of outrage or joy.

As part of an interview at lunch in 1979, he gave me this reaction to a bad review of his 1979 media book, “The Powers That Be.”

“Naturally, you want a book to live and be liked, it’s like children, but there’s a law of averages — you want the book to live. Some people aren’t going to like the book. Some people aren’t going to like you. Some are not going to like the success which — your anticipated success. And, after all, I’m not Tolstoy. It’s a very unusual book, unusual in its conception, unusual in its execution, unusual in its organization.”

All of this erupted from a fierce scrim of incantatory facial gestures, eyebrows divebombing his big nose, his lower lip jutting to show lower teeth but never upper ones while he oraculated to a reporter.

This was in The Summerhouse, a discreetly upscale restaurant just down the street from his townhouse on the Upper East Side. (“This is a wonderful neighborhood, I love living here, a truly remarkable place, one of the last strongholds of the middle class in Manhattan.” I wondered: Middle class? On 91st between Park and Madison?)

His schoolboy earnestness seemed preposterous in a man this famous, sophisticated and well connected, but it was the preposterousness that made him likable rather than insufferable. It even made him lovable unless you were on his enemies list, which was not short.

How he could roar on, gaining sincerity with every word. The New Republic satirized the same book: “David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said that what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods.”

He was only following the writing teacher’s advice by writing the way he talked. He talked that way enough that his friends called him Rolling Thunder, Jehovah and Ahab.

It’s hard to stop quoting.  Just read the whole thing.

The Best Posts About the Sopranos

Since so many of my readers have been coming here lately in search of Sopranos spoilers, and presumably clicking away disappointed in the lack of dish, I’ll do the next best thing:  Here are some of my favorite places to read about the Sopranos, especially the most recent episodes:

  • Slate’s TV Club dialogues on the Sopranos.  In the past, they’ve had organized crime experts and psychologists.  This half-season, they’re just using a couple of good writers, Timothy Noah and Jeffrey Goldberg.
  • The Television Without Pity forum on the latest episode.
  • A brief post by Ann Althouse, plus some good comments.
  • MSNBC’s “Sopranos Body Count.”
  • TV Squad has a contemplative take.

What everyone seems to be picking up is:  The overt references to The Godfather (Tony with his tomato plants, the christening scene in the previous episode, the brief reign of the New York boss ending with a bullet in the eye like Moe Green got),  the eerie resemblance of the young Asian man incarcerated with Uncle Junior to the Virginia Tech madman, and the prevailing sense that things might end “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

That line is originally from T.S. Eliot, by the way, and that’s what “The Sopranos” reminds me of:  Being an English major.   For all its violence, comedy and great characterizations, what’s most notable “The Sopranos” is the richness of its symbolism, the subconscious parallels between two things that seem unrelated, but connect in our minds and in the characters’ minds, especially Tony, Carmela and Christopher. 

We see the three of them try to make sense out of their world on this deeper level in a way that compares with how we follow another trio’s subconscious thoughts: Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the main characters in Ulysses.  Part of the joke, though, is that the poet in Tony is the same psychic realm from where his murderous thoughts seem to arise.  Tony vents his rage verbally, but he is most dangerous when he is listening and watching.  Tony is a great listener and watcher

Like last night: For some reason Tony wanted to know if it was Paulie who, years earlier, told Johnny Sack about an offensive joke made at the expense of Sack’s wife, leading to all kinds of headaches for Tony.  What made him think of it?  Listening to Paulie prattle on about his mob life with some prostitutes.  Then listening to one of the prostitutes repeat some of the information back to him in bed.   Somehow, these and other observations come together in his mind; and as a result, he almost murders Paulie on the boat, because sharing the joke with Johnny Sac was a sign of Paulie’s disloyalty.  With war looming with the New York family that Johnny Sac once headed, this is a detail that suddenly alarms Tony.

Water is everywhere in “The Sopranos,” always has been, but especially in these past three episodes.  Tony and Bobby and their wives on the lake.  The FBI interested in what Tony might be learning about Muslim terrorism at the Port of Newark.  Tony and Paulie on a fishing boat.  Tony and Beansie chatting by a swimming pool. Even Junior pissing his pants.  He has to take medicine to control his bladder, but the medicine leaves him too sleepy.

Tony can only control the flow of words from Paulie’s mouth by killing him, but he doesn’t do it.  Water is where bodies are dumped, where bad memories are forgotten, only to float back up again.  Keep an eye on the way water is used in the remaining episodes if you want clues (er, I mean “spoilers”) to how it’s all going to end.    

Road Rage in New Jersey

Crackberry addicts, even if this story is “dogpile,” it’s worth contemplating next time you pick up your PDA while driving to see if you’ve got a new message:

New Jersey State Police are investigating an allegation that the trooper who was driving Gov. Corzine’s SUV two weeks ago when it crashed going 91 m.p.h. may have been distracted by e-mails sent to his mobile phone or BlackBerry.

A Berkeley Heights police sergeant was quoted in the Star-Ledger of Newark yesterday saying he sent an e-mail shortly before the crash to Trooper Robert Rasinski, confronting him over having a two-year affair with his wife, Susan. He said he enclosed a family photo as an attachment.

Detective Sgt. Michael Mathis said he hoped the angry messages he sent to Rasinski did not cause the April 12 crash on the Garden State Parkway.

“We are confirming that there is this allegation and that it is under investigation,” State Police Lt. Gerald Lewis said yesterday. He declined to comment further.

Police are trying to determine whether Rasinski saw the messages just before the crash and whether they had an effect on his state of mind. The governor’s Chevrolet Suburban, speeding and with lights flashing, was struck by a pickup truck that had swerved to avoid another vehicle. The SUV then spun around and crashed into a guardrail.

Can you imagine the situation, if this is true?  Or, to be fair to Trooper Rasinski, let’s imagine it generically.  You’re driving a VIP to an important meeting (in Gov. Corzine’s case, it happened to be with Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team).  You notice the signal that a new e-mail has arrived.  You read it and the news is…existentially upsetting. Someone you care about has died.  They found a lump somewhere and they want to biopsy it.  Your pet has disappeared. You’re dumped. You’re fired.  Another 9/11 has occured. 

Okay, not too long ago, it would be considered uncool and uncouth to send such news on an e-mail.  But apparently not anymore, because there is no dispute that Sgt. Mathis did use e-mail to confront Trooper Rasinski with his allegation.  And certainly, Trooper Rasinski would not be the first driver on an American highway to read an e-mail while behind the wheel, traveling at high speed.

The problem of electronic communication devices and driving has been framed up til now as one of distracting the eye and diverting the hand.  But what about the soul?  Should you be driving at 80 or 90 miles per hour simultaneously with getting news that will change your life forever?

Obviously, no.  But how do we stop the news from coming in?

Trooper Rasinski’s union brothers are, of course, standing by him:

Davy Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, blasted Mathis’ allegations yesterday and called them “dogpile.”

“My people are out there doing the right thing,” he said yesterday.

Jones told the Star-Ledger the investigators asked Rasinski “all these questions in a taped interview. That’s part of the standard protocols. . . . There’s nothing here other than an understandably aggrieved, soon-to-be ex-husband putting something forward that is totally without merit, and it’s a sin.”

The new twist in the crash investigation came as doctors reported that Corzine is breathing on his own and began taking food yesterday.

Mathis, 40, had posted messages on the Star-Ledger’s Web forum, saying he had sent Rasinski the e-mail with the photo just minutes before the accident. “I hope it didn’t cause the crash,” Mathis wrote in the forum, “but no man in his right mind could have been thinking clearly with the affair exposed.”

Mathis confirmed to the newspaper that he had posted the comments.

Mathis also wrote in the forum that he first contacted Rasinski on April 10 in a phone call and, over the next two days, exchanged text messages with the trooper. He told the newspaper he learned a month ago his wife was having an affair.

So this wasn’t the first Trooper Rasinski would have learned that his affair had been discovered.  But still, he was being harassed by his lover’s husband, and it must have stirred his blood each time he was confronted with the fallout.  And then, over his shoulder, here’s the governor saying Get me through this traffic, Trooper.

Ever since the Clinton/Lewinsky scenario, it’s assumed that everyone can compartmentalize.  They can do anything and everything in their private lives; their jobs won’t be affected.  That’s the position the fraternal association takes on the case now before us.  The issues are completely separate, and only a half-mad jealous husband is capable of the “sin” of thinking Trooper Rasinski’s driving was affected.

So, then why do we want to ban cells phones in moving vehicles? Is it logical to say drivers can compartmentalize themselves from a life-altering event, but not from a trivial phone call?

Thoughts on Virginia Tech and the Rights of the Insane* UPDATED

The Virginia Tech tragedy is not a story about guns, it is a story about the rights of the insane. Cho Seung-Hui was clearly insane, as the tapes and writings now ubiquitous in the media show with painful clarity.  That he was both insane and potentially dangerous was known to university officials and law enforcement.  Despite his insanity, he continued to live in the dormitory and attend classes.

Anyone who lives in a big city like LA with a Skid Row knows there are thousands of crazy people sleeping in the streets and shelters who, if properly treated, could live productive, peaceful and perhaps even happy lives.   This has been going on for hundreds of years.

Unlike the Skid Row denizens, apparently Seung-Hui was functional. He hadn’t flunked out of school, for example. He managed to keep himself fed and clothed.  He knew how to operate a computer.  But the depths of his mental problems were at least glimpsed by officialdom — and then forgotten. Seung-Hui was given opportunities to receive treatment, but basically walked away without consequence.  The choice was his to make, completely, and he decided to go on being insane. 

In the past 40 years or so, we have decided as a society that to compel insane people to submit to involuntary treatment, to confine them, or even to keep track of them is both impossible and impractical.  

The good news is, of course, we don’t have insane people warehoused in bleak Dickensian asylums.  It’s also good news that people who are not insane are unlikely to fall into an institution like that through diagnostic or bureaucratic error.  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” couldn’t happen in America today.

The bad news is, we haven’t thought of anything better. We’ve just walked away from the problem. An insane person only gets help if he or she is sane enough to recognize they need it; or if they have an aggressive relative who will intervene on their behalf, despite their resistance.

I have an insane person in my family. She is about 80 now. The last time anyone saw her was about 20 years ago. Occasionally she sends a postcard. She is wandering the streets of a major metropolitan area.  She didn’t lose her mind until after she was married and had raised children. But since then…there was nothing anyone could do. Her husband, her brothers, her children, various ministers and doctors, nobody, because she didn’t want help.

To my knowledge, she has never hurt anyone. But neither had Seung-Hui, until yesterday.

Dealing with the insane is one of the most tragic dilemmas our society faces.

It blows my mind to think of those grieving parents and how they must be reacting to the news; about how many dealings this guy had with police and mental health officials, how many people knew there was something wrong with him, and that he might be dangerous. And yet, even after the first shootings, no police officer thought to go check his room. He wasn’t on anyone’s list. “Hey, doesn’t that insane student live here? Should we go up and talk to him?” That question was never posed.

He was in a room in a dorm adjacent to the crime scene, calmly reloading his weapons and packing his ammo belts, undisturbed by anyone who might have suspected a connection. He was in America. He had the right to be left alone, and was able to go about making his murderous plans behind the shield of his rights.

(P.S. This post is based on a comment I left here, on Althouse.)

*UPDATE: One consequence of this policy vacuum in terms of the mentally ill is that the problem is left on the doorstep of professionals who have no competence to deal with it, but no choice but to deal with it — at fearful risk of their lives.  This is well articulated in today’s New York Times’ op-ed by Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor and author:

It’s a simple fact that, for every deranged murderer like Mr. Cho there are thousands more oddballs just below the breaking point. I know one quasi-psychopathic incompetent, for example, who remained on the campus payroll for over a dozen years simply because his supervisor was afraid of being killed if he was fired.

It’s long been in fashion to believe that people are innately good, and that upbringing and environment are responsible for nasty personalities. But research is beginning to show that mean, sometimes outright evil behavior has a strong genetic component. Some of us, in other words, are truly born bad.

Researchers at King’s College London have recently determined that if one identical twin shows psychopathic traits, the other twin, who coincidentally shares precisely the same set of genes, has a very high probability of having the same psychopathic traits. But among fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, the chance that both twins will show psychopathic traits is far smaller. In other words, there is something suspiciously psychopath-inducing in some people’s genes.

What could it be? Medical images of the brain give tantalizing clues — the amygdala, the “fight or flight” decision-making center of the brain, may be smaller than usual, or some areas of the brain may glow only dimly because of low serotonin levels. We may not know precisely what set Mr. Cho off, but we are beginning to home in on the unusual differences in certain neurochemistries that can make people act in bizarre and dysfunctional ways.

Still, the Virginia Tech shootings have already led to calls for all sorts of changes: gun control, more mental health coverage, stricter behavior rules on campuses. Yes, in a perfect world, there would be no guns, no mental illness and no Cho Seung-Huis. But the world is very imperfect. Consider that Britain’s national experiment with gun-free living is proving to be a disaster, with violent and gun crime rates soaring.

In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?