There's a high-speed flyby taking place today, but not here on Earth -- on Mars. At 2:27 P.M. Eastern, a comet going over 125,000 mph will buzz by Mars at less than a third the distance between the Earth and the Moon, just under 90,000 miles. The comet is named Comet Siding Spring, a first-time visitor to the inner Solar System from the Oort Cloud (like Comet ISON was last year).
As I've mentioned before, comets from the Oort Cloud are thought to be remnants of the formation of the Solar System. Any opportunity to study them up close and personal gives us more insight into how our planet formed and how other planets around other stars might be forming. Not only will many Earth-based telescopes be observing the comet's close approach today, but so will several of the instruments we've sent to the Red Planet. The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers will be watching from the surface, while the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN satellites will observe it from orbit.
First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Houston, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is convinced pastors may be literally imprisoned for opposing marriage equality.
Indeed, that's exactly what the far-right senator said this week to David Brody, a political reporter for TV preacher Pat Robertson's cable network.
In an exclusive interview with The Brody File, Senator Ted Cruz says pastors being hauled off to jail by the government for preaching against homosexuality is a "real risk" in the future.
"I think that is a real risk," Cruz tells me. "Some in the media ridicule that threat saying there is no danger of the government coming after pastors. That is the usual response." But he adds: "The specter of government trying to determine if what pastors preach from the pulpit meets with the policy views or political correctness of the governing authorities, that prospect is real and happening now."
In the same interview, Cruz was asked if we may "soon go through a period where pastors are hauled off to jail for a hate crime because they are speaking for traditional marriage." The Texas Republican replied, "I think that is a real risk."
In reality, that's not even close to what's "happening now" and there is no such "risk." In fact, under the First Amendment, the scenario Cruz is warning against simply cannot happen.
As Right Wing Watch explained this week, at issue is a case out of Houston, where social conservatives are trying to repeal the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. Pro-bono lawyers defending the existing policy have arguably been overzealous, subpoenaing materials from local pastors, but city officials have criticized the move, which is unlikely to fare well in the courts. [Update: Carlos Maza has more on the Houston controversy today.]
But for the religious right, the controversy itself has become a rallying cry -- proof, they say, that supporters of gay rights will try to exploit the law to silence, and perhaps even imprison, conservative ministers.
The fact remains, however, that pastors have always been free to speak out on moral issues of the day, and this constitutionally protected speech will always be protected. The notion of the government "coming after pastors" based on sermons about marriage sounds like a dystopian novel that might appeal to Pat Robertson's viewers, but it's certainly not "happening now," and under the American system, it never will.
Michael Beschloss, NBC News Presidential historian, talks with Rachel Maddow about the history of presidents appointing administrative czars to oversee special projects, contrary to the anti-Obama right's ranting nonsense about czars as kings. watch
Rachel Maddow points out the schemes and scammers that are exploiting Ebola fear in the U.S., and directs particular disdain at Senator Rand Paul who abuses his authority to spread misinformation and fear for political gain. watch
Are you a real and actual fan of The Rachel Maddow Show?
Do you shout, "WAIT FOR IT" ten minutes into the opening segment because you know it's about to take that revelatory turn?
Do you sing, "What's your function?" when you see the Debunktion Junction animation (even though that song isn't even in there).
Do you roll your Rs when you pronounce the name Reince Priebus?
Do members of your extended family know not to call you between 9 and 10 at night?
Or perhaps you're part of the hockey stick legion that gives our web traffic a sudden spike at the end of the day when the video clips are published?
Was your dog startled when you found out that TRMS is playing a new game on Fridays called The Friday Night News Dump, and you jumped up on the couch with a loud hoot and boasted that you'd be the most dominant player that game would ever see?
* Kobani: "Increased airstrikes over the besieged Syrian city of Kobani have allowed the American-led coalition to take out large numbers of Islamic State fighters, the top American commander for the Middle East said on Friday."
* Dallas: "No restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters or other places where members of the public congregate. No travel by airplane, ship, long-distance bus, train or other modes of commercial transportation. Such are the restrictions that dozens of health care workers who treated the Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan are being asked to follow for the 21-day maximum incubation period of the virus."
* Senegal: "The World Health Organization said on Friday that the Ebola outbreak in Senegal is officially over. Senegal's first and only confirmed Ebola patient traveled to the country by road from Guinea in August, bringing the virus with him."
* Marriage equality is now legal in every Southwestern state except Texas: "Arizona same-sex couples can begin marrying immediately, after Attorney General Tom Horne announced this morning he will not appeal the court ruling striking down Arizona's marriage restriction."
* And don't forget Wyoming: "A federal judge has ordered Wyoming to allow same-sex marriage but has stayed his decision so that the state can appeal if it wants. U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled Friday that the state must comply with a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that permits same-sex marriage."
* Ukraine: "A high-stakes meeting between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia ended Friday with little progress in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, highlighting the increasingly intractable struggle there between government forces and Russian-backed rebels."
* Should the United States impose a travel ban on West Africa? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave two very different answers to that question over the course of just 24 hours, suggesting he's making stuff up as he goes along.
* Some folks sure are predictable: "Conservative media figures lashed out at President Obama's appointment of Ron Klain as the Ebola response coordinator or 'czar,' criticizing the selection as 'insane' and 'dumb.' Klain has been praised for his work in government and has been called 'a great choice' to deal with the Ebola crisis by other media outlets."
* On a related note, congressional Republicans, who've demanded a "czar," are now outraged that Obama's appointed a "czar."
After nearly 14 years in Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) seems to have generated national attention just once: he shouted "You lie!" during one President Obama's speeches to a joint session of Congress.
But the far-right South Carolinian is still out there, and regrettably, he's still saying odd things.
A Republican congressman says terrorists from Hamas could purposely infect themselves with the Ebola virus and then travel to America.
Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina was asked Thursday, during a question-and-answer after a speech, about the threat of Ebola entering the country through the U.S.-Mexico border. Referring to the "hypothetical," Wilson said, "I'm very concerned. We had people who, I'll repeat it, the creed of Hamas: We value death more than you value life. What? That's their creed."
The South Carolina congressman suggested that to promote their ideology, Hamas militants could send themselves to the United States, a situation he said could be avoided by sealing the southern border.
Apparently, Republicans are increasingly invested in the notion of disease-ridden Islamic State militants somehow contracting Ebola on purpose and somehow entering the United States. This is a deeply foolish argument that's taken root in the far-right fever swamp.
But to throw Hamas into the mix is very strange, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Hamas and ISIS aren't allies. For that matter, Hamas has no apparent interest in attacking the United States -- with Ebola or anything else.
Does Wilson, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, understand this?
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) announced this week that he intends to introduce new legislation when Congress returns to work on an issue getting lots of attention: Ross bill would "ban travel between the U.S. and West African countries" in order to, in his words, prevent Ebola "from further infiltrating our homeland."
There's reason to believe, however, that the Florida Republican announced his proposal before doing his homework. As Igor Bobic noted, Ross appeared on msnbc this morning and ran into a little trouble.
A member of Congress who wants to ban travel from countries afflicted by the Ebola outbreak appeared to be unaware of a key fact -- that there are no direct flights between the U.S. and Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone. [...]
Since there are no direct flights between the hardest-hit nations and the United States, the Florida Republican was pressed to specifically identify which flights he wanted to impose restrictions on.
"I believe there are some flights," Ross responded.
There are not. As the New York Times' Jeremy Peters was quick to remind the congressman, "There are no flights. There are no direct flights that come to the United States from West Africa. That is incorrect."
As a factual matter, Peters is right. The question is why the congressman doesn't know that and why he didn't bother to check before unveiling his legislation.
The exchange coincide with remarks from Mike Leavitt, the former Bush/Cheney HHS Secretary and Mitt Romney aide, who agrees that there are "lots of problems" with proposed travel bans. It's worth appreciating why.
After Islamic State terrorists murdered journalist James Foley, his family pleaded with the public to avoid ISIS's propaganda video that showed the murder of the innocent American. It's amazing to see just how many Republican campaigns have chosen to ignore the family's wishes.
It started over the summer with a U.S. Senate candidate in New Mexico, followed soon after by a U.S. House candidate in Arizona. And this week, a right-wing group called Secure America Now joined the club.
James Foley, the American journalist murdered by ISIS militants, makes a cameo in a series of web ads from the Secure America Now, a right-wing nonprofit national security organization that lists on its advisory board people like former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ambassador John Bolton.
The advertisements target Democrats running in competitive midterm elections.... It isn't clear if the advertisements are running on TV or are Internet-only.
The group specifically targeted Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who appears likely to join the Senate soon.
I continue to believe there's a problem with those who see ISIS's propaganda video and think to themselves, "Excerpts from this would look great in a campaign commercial." Perhaps they should reevaluate their priorities.
Not surprisingly, James Foley's parents called the conservative group's attack ads "deplorable" and asked for an apology.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* In Georgia's U.S. Senate race, a new poll from a local CBS affiliate shows Michelle Nunn (D) leading David Perdue (R) by about a percentage point, 45.69% to 44.72%. If neither candidate gets 50%, a runoff will be held in December.
* The same poll showed Georgia's gubernatorial race all tied up between incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Jason Carter (D).
* In Massachusetts' gubernatorial race, Boston Globe polls have been pretty volatile, with its newest survey showing a tied race between Martha Coakley (D) and Charlie Baker (R), each of whom has 41% support.
* In Louisiana's U.S. Senate race, Tea Parier Rob Maness (R) is getting some help from Mississippi's Chris McDaniel, whose GOP primary against Sen. Thad Cochran came up short over the summer. Maness eagerly accepted McDaniel's endorsement, calling him "the top vote getter in the Mississippi U.S. Senate primary race" (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).
* The National Republican Senatorial Committee new TV ad in South Dakota accuses Democrat Rick Weiland and independent Larry Pressler of having some liberal ideas "in common."
* In Kansas' U.S. Senate race, the NRA is running a new attack ad against Greg Orman (I), accusing him of supporting "the Obama/Bloomberg gun control agenda."
* In Nebraska, Republicans are apparently worried enough about Brad Ashford's (D) congressional campaign that the NRCC put together arguably the most Willie Horton-esque ad in a long time.
Congressional Republicans, eager to make Ebola a campaign issue, have been clamoring for two things: a travel ban to West Africa and an Ebola "czar." The former would likely make the public-health problem worse, while the latter is ironic given how much energy these same GOP lawmakers invested in decrying the existence of czars.
President Barack Obama will appoint Ron Klain to head up efforts to address the Ebola threat, a senior administration official tells NBC News.
Klain is a former chief of staff to both Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Al Gore. He left the vice president's office in 2011. He is now the president of Case Holdings and serves as the general counsel for Revolution, an investment organization.
Obama signaled his openness to appointing an Ebola "czar" Thursday night, telling reporters that it "may be appropriate" to elevate an additional person to coordinate the U.S. response.
Klain, who was among top contenders to replace Jack Lew as the White House chief of staff last year, certainly knows his way around the bureaucracy of the executive branch. As best as I can tell, he has no background in public health, but that's not really the point -- this appears to be a job intended to oversee government agencies, which Klain understands well.
Will Republican respond positively? Probably not. Tommy Thompson, a HHS Secretary under Bush/Cheney, is already using this as evidence to bash Obama all over again -- if the president wants a new policy coordinator on Ebola now, Thompson's argument goes, it must mean the president put the wrong officials in place before.
I can only assume the GOP lawmakers who hated czars, only to demand more czars, will go back to hating czars again by the end of the day.
The Weekly Standard, a prominent conservative magazine, has a piece in its new issue with a headline no doubt intended to get readers' attention: "Six Reasons to Panic." Take a wild guess what the article is about.
Reason #3, in particular, is quite a scenario: "What's to stop a jihadist from going to Liberia, getting himself infected [with Ebola], and then flying to New York and riding the subway until he keels over? This is just the biological warfare version of a suicide bomb. Can you imagine the consequences if someone with Ebola vomited in a New York City subway car?" It leads the Weekly Standard to suggest "drastic precautions," though the piece wasn't specific as to what those might be.
It's tempting, of course, to just laugh off the conservative magazine, but the more significant problem is that this same line of thought is being espoused by public officials who have a responsibility to be more responsible. Andrew Kaczynski had this report yesterday:
A Republican senator says he sees the threat of ISIS militants intentionally infecting themselves with the Ebola virus and then traveling to America as a "real and present danger."
"Well, it's certainly something I've been thinking about ever since this Ebola outbreak started," Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said Wednesday of ISIS using Ebola on America's Forum on NewsmaxTV.
Specifically, the Republican senator told the far-right outlet, "You really don't even want to think about. You really don't even want to talk about, but we should do everything possible to defend ourselves against that possibility because I think that is a real and present danger."
Did I mention that Ron Johnson is a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee? Because he is.
In case anyone's wondering whether the senator's fears are rooted in fact, let's set the record straight. Or in this case, let's have the director of the FBI explain the situation clearly.