Saturday's murder of two New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, was as brutal as it was heartbreaking. There wasn't even a violent confrontation -- the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, simply approached the officers' squad car in Brooklyn and opened fire, before fleeing to a nearby subway station and killing himself.
We also continue to learn more about the murderer, including his criminal background, the fact that he shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, on Saturday morning, and his brazen boasts before he targeted two NYPD officers.
And while many were still trying to come to terms with such a senseless tragedy, the effort to inject partisan politics into the calamity was almost immediate. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) helped lead the way, appearing on Fox News early yesterday, connecting "four months of propaganda starting with the president" to the slaying.
Giuliani went out of his way to be clear that he's not blaming a handful of bad apples. He thinks the culprits are everyone protesting police misconduct everywhere.
"The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don't lead to violence -- a lot of them lead to violence -- all of them lead to a conclusion: The police are bad. The police are racist," said Giuliani. "That is completely wrong. Actually, the people who do the most for the black community in America are the police."
He was hardly alone. Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), who last week talked up a possible presidential campaign, lashed out at NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Holder. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) pointed fingers at Obama, among others.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blamed the shooter, but only after saying Holder and de Blasio use a "tone" that "incites crazy people." Even former Sen. Scott Brown (R), fresh off his latest failed campaign, was quick to point fingers at the Oval Office. "I'm not sure what this country will look like with two more years of divisive rhetoric from the White House," the Republican said, just hours after the slaying.
Assorted far-right voices and media outlets spent much of yesterday condemning their perceived foes; many urged the New York mayor to resign as if de Blasio were directly responsible for the violence of a madman.
I can appreciate how difficult it is to understand such mindless, cold-blooded violence. It's tempting to find someone else to blame, especially when the gunman himself cannot face justice. But there is no moral justification for using a tragedy like this to score points in a partisan game.
NASA's Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite has been orbiting Earth since October, 2011 collecting remote-sensing and atmospheric data for global climate studies and sending back fascinating images. The satellite is tracking data that includes atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, land and ocean biological productivity, and cloud and aerosol properties.
Suomi NPP (and other Earth-observing satellites with similar missions) are in sun-synchronous orbits, which allows them to remain in a somewhat fixed position over Earth as seen from the Sun. These orbits are ideal for imaging Earth's surface because they allow for the fraction of Earth in sunlight to be held constant (i.e., full illumination, half illumination, crescent illumination, no illumination). Different angles of sunlight are required depending on what we want to study. An example you are probably already familiar with is the composite image of the Earth at night. In December 2012, Suomi NPP released an updated version of this famous view of our planet at night made with data taken over 22 days. Suomi NPP also released an updated version of the "Blue Marble".
First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at public opinion as it relates to Americans, religion, and acceptance of torture.
Back in May 2009, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted surveys and found that the more religious an American is, the more likely he or she is to support torture. More than five years later, not much has changed. Sarah Posner reported this week:
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that Americans, by a 59-31% margin, believe that CIA "treatment of suspected terrorists" in detention was justified. A plurality deemed that "treatment" to be "torture," by a 49-38% margin.
Remarkably, the gap between torture supporters and opponents widens between voters who are Christian and those who are not religious.
Right. While many might assume that the faithful would be morally repulsed by torture, the reality is the opposite. When poll respondents were asked, "Do you personally think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture, or not?" most Americans said the abuses did not constitute torture. But it was non-religious Americans who were easily the most convinced that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were, in fact, torture.
The results in response to this question were even more striking: "All in all, do you think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified or unjustified?" For most Americans, the answer, even after recent revelations, was yes. For most Christians, it's also yes. But for the non-religious, as the above chart makes clear, the torture was not justified.
In fact, looking through the poll's crosstabs, non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques -- and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines. The non-religious are effectively **alone in their opposition to torture.
This is, as Posner noted, only one poll, and we'd need more data before drawing sweeping conclusions, but the Post/ABC results are generally consistent with the Pew Research Center data from 2009.
And they serve as a pretty interesting starting point for a discussion about faith, morality, the law, and the limits of human decency.
April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, talks with Rachel Maddow about President Obama calling only on women reporters at his press conference today, and how reporters are chosen to ask questions. watch
Rachel Maddow compares the threats and intimidation made against booksellers over Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" and the hacker threats that drove Sony Pictures to cancel the release of a movie about assassinating North Korea's leader. watch
* Retaliatory strikes: "Pakistani jets and ground forces killed 77 militants in a northwestern tribal region near the Afghan border, the army said Friday, days after Taliban fighters killed 148 people -- most of them children -- in a school massacre."
* It's come to this: "Officials in Moscow confirmed Friday that North Korean despot Kim Jong Un may attend ceremonies next year commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It would be Kim's first public foreign visit since coming to power in December 2011."
* ISIS: "Kurdish forces, backed by a surge of American airstrikes in recent days, recaptured a large swath of territory from Islamic State militants on Thursday, opening a path from the autonomous Kurdish region to Mount Sinjar in the west, near the Syrian border."
* An important (and familiar) debate in Kenya: "Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta has signed into law a controversial security bill which saw MPs trade blows in parliament. It was passed on Thursday during a chaotic parliamentary session, with opposition MPs warning that Kenya was becoming a 'police state." The government has said it needs more powers to fight militant Islamists threatening Kenya's security."
* Bergdahl: "The Army has concluded its lengthy investigation into the disappearance of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in eastern Afghanistan and must now decide whether Bergdahl should face criminal charges.... Based on the investigation, the Army must now decide whether Bergdahl should be charged with desertion or a lesser charge of being 'absent without leave,' AWOL."
* I know a few folks on the right who won't be pleased: "House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) today sent a letter to President Obama formally inviting him to fulfill his duty under the Constitution to report to Congress on the state of the union. A Joint Session of Congress will be held to receive the president's address on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 9:00 pm ET."
* According to Gallup, the U.S. Economic Confidence Index has now reached its second-highest point since the start of the recession in 2007.
Given the White House's policy ambitions since the midterm elections, there's been ample talk lately about President Obama's newly liberated style. The Beltway expectations may have been that the president would have no choice but to accept a lesser, conciliatory status, but in the wake of Democratic defeats, Obama has adopted an unbowed posture.
As it turns out, that's reflected in his rhetorical posture, too. At his year-end press conference, the president seemed about as relaxed and upbeat as I can remember seeing him. Some of the highlights from his unguarded presser:
Asked about Sony Entertainment's decision to pull distribution of "The Interview," the president was willing to acknowledge his opinion on the studio's move.
"Sony's a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.
"In this interconnected digital world, there are going to be opportunities for attackers to engage in cyber assaults, both in the private sector and the public sector.... We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like or news reports that they don't like.
"Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended."
The president added that he's sympathetic to a private company worried about liabilities, but he wishes "they had spoken to me first. I would've told them, 'Do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.'"
As for North Korea's responsibility to the cyber-crime, Obama went on to say the United States "will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It's not something that I will announce here today at a press conference."
Incidentally, the first question came from Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown, who's soon leaving for Europe. The president acknowledged her looming departure, adding, "I think there's no doubt that what Belgium needs is a version of Politico."
Republicans eyeing the 2016 presidential race were quick to condemn President Obama's new foreign policy towards Cuba, but there was one notable exception.
"The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said yesterday. He added, "In the end, I think opening up Cuba is probably a good idea."
Last night on Fox News, Rubio responded to Paul's comments, saying, "Like many people who have been opining, he has no idea what he's talking about."
As of this morning, it was on. Benjy Sarlin explained, "The Cuba debate exploded into the nascent Republican presidential race on Friday -- and this time it's personal."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the lone Republican 2016 prospect to back the White House's plans to restore relations with its neighbor 90 miles to the south, picked a high-profile fight with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the move's leading national critic, in a series of tweets. The exchange marked a new level of combativeness among the potential presidential field as GOP primary season approaches. [...]
Paul has made clear in recent speeches that if he runs he will press Republican voters to rethink their most basic assumptions about foreign policy and give his more noninterventionist philosophy a serious look. The new spat with Rubio, who hails from the party's traditional hawkish wing, shows just how eager he is for the debate to start.
Ordinarily, the fact that the Treasury Department this morning sold its stake in something called "Ally" would hardly generate headlines, but Ally Financial is probably better known by its former name: General Motors Acceptance Corp (GMAC).
Yes, today's news means something rather important: the Troubled Asset Relief Program is now officially over, as is the rescue of the American auto industry.
The Obama administration declared a profitable end to the Wall Street and auto bailouts on Friday, saying a final sale of stock from what was once General Motors' finance arm had closed a turbulent six-year chapter of the financial crisis.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said that while profit was not the motive to bail out Detroit and Wall Street, "it is important to note we recovered more than we disbursed."
According to Lew, the total profit for American taxpayers on TARP investments stands at $15.35 billion.
The NYT report added, "Less than $1 billion in taxpayer funds remain scattered in about 35 community banks around the country, but with the sale on Thursday of the government's last 54.9 million shares of Ally Financial ... the Treasury declared the bailouts done."
To be sure, as a matter of politics and public opinion, TARP probably is about as popular as it was when George W. Bush signed the program into law in late 2008 -- which is to say, not popular at all. The word "bailout" has taken on a sinister and menacing meaning in our discourse, to the point that it's effectively supposed to shut down debate on any idea that earns the label.
But there's still room for a credible debate about whether the program worked.
In early January 1999, as President Clinton's penultimate year in office was getting underway, columnist George Will could hardly contain his "disgust" for the Democrat in the White House. He published a piece condemning Clinton -- one of many similar columns for the Washington Post conservative -- but he did so in a very specific way.
Clinton is "defined by littleness," Will said, adding, "He is the least consequential president" since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.
It's arguably the harshest of all possible criticisms. All presidents quickly grow accustomed to a wide variety of rebukes, but no one ever wants to be dismissed as inconsequential. It's another way of saying your presidency is forgettable. It doesn't matter. History won't judge you unkindly because judgments require significance, and you're just ... irrelevant.
More than a decade later, President Obama has also received his share of criticisms, but it's probably fair to say "inconsequential" is an adjective that no one will use to describe his tenure.
We talked the other day about the remarkable stretch of successes the president has had just since the midterm elections, and it led Matt Yglesias to note the "incredible amount" Obama has accomplished over the last six years.
It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama's party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats' overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a "realigning" election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won't be.
I agree, though I'd go a bit further than just his two more recent predecessors and argue that Obama's record makes him a major historical figure in ways most presidents are not.