MoDo writes about the exit of 2 guys named Tony, Blair and Soprano. Thomas Friedman points out that Bin Laden and the jihad are reponsible for killing more Muslims than anyone else in the world today. A commenter named Speedbump asked if I would add Jim Dwyer’s column from time to time. Mr. Dwyer writes on New York, but often his columns have national interest. This one, from last Saturday, certainly does. Here’s MoDo:
They’re both going out, not with a bang, but with a bing.
As they go dark, the two Tonys are bitter, paranoid and worn down by their enemies and scheming erstwhile allies. They both live in a bleak universe of half-truths, compromises and betrayals, a world changed utterly by the violence they set in motion. They were both brought low by high-stakes mistakes.
Tony Blair fears the feral beast. Tony Soprano is the feral beast.
The two Tonys found that their skin was never thick enough. And they stumbled into trouble with their Juniors, Junior Bush and Junior Soprano. Before he steps down in two weeks, Tony Blair decided to let loose with one of those self-pitying Tony Soprano-style rants that drove Dr. Melfi to terminate him. Call it No. 10 Downer Street.
“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack,” Mr. Blair said in a speech at Reuters in London. “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.”
The British Tony actually begins his speech — “Reflections on the Future of Democracy and the Media, or Why Don’t You Love Me?” — with the word “whacking,” as in: “This is not my response to the latest whacking from bits of the media.”
Of course it is, at least partly. Talk about hoist on your own press. When Tony Blair announced last month that he would step down, the press that once doted on him devoured him. The commentary was a frenzy of complaints about the slick Blair spin machine that had manipulated the media and turned British discourse to “rot.”
The movie, “The Queen,” recounted the young prime minister’s triumph when he helped spin Diana’s posthumous image as “The People’s Princess” and cajoled the hidebound royals into listening and responding to the feral press beast that was tearing the monarchy’s reputation to bits.
But when the beast (as Evelyn Waugh slyly called his British newspaper in “Scoop”) turned on Mr. Blair over various scandals, most importantly his unholy alliance with W. on Iraq, he grew disillusioned, the lion tamer mauled by his own lion.
“The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media,” Mr. Blair said. “Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual gray is almost entirely absent. ‘Some good, some bad’; ‘some things going right, some going wrong’: these are concepts alien to today’s reporting.”
I worry more about the press when it’s reverent rather than irreverent, when it’s a tame lapdog, as it was in the buildup to Iraq, than when it’s a feral beast. And I worry about politicians like W. and Blair being black and white rather than gray, as they were in building their hysterical, phony case against Saddam. We would have been well-served back then if Mr. Blair had explained to the jejune Junior that there’s some good, some bad, and some gray in the world, and that sometimes it’s smarter to squeeze tyrants, rather than Shock-and-Awe them.
On his first visit to Baghdad Monday, Gordon Brown vowed never to repeat his partner’s mistake of politicizing intelligence to go to war. We’ll have to wait to see if David Chase, the Garbo of goombahs now pursued by a feral beast of disappointed “Sopranos” fans, is feeling as paranoid and thin-skinned as the two Tonys, and as deeply surprised by the consequences of his actions.
Mr. Chase, an apocalyptic tease, gave us a gimmicky and unsatisfying film-school-style blackout for an end to his mob saga, a stunt one notch above “It was all a dream.” It was the TV equivalent of one of those design-your-own-mug places.
Even though I loved the first few years of “The Sopranos,” Mr. Chase always struck me as passive-aggressive. The more fans obsessed on his show, the longer his hiatuses would grow and the slower his narrative velocity moved. His ending was equally perverse, throwing the ball contemptuously back at his fans after manipulating them and teasing them for an hour with red herrings — and a ginger cat.
After references in three shows to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” — the last allusion to the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem by A.J. at the diner table in the final scene — the least Mr. Chase could have dished up was some “mere anarchy.”
Surely, after eight years with this family, we deserved some revelation better than “Life goes on. … Or not.”
The only revelation was that Mr. Chase and James Gandolfini are keeping their options open for a Sopranos movie. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a Sopranos aficionado who liked the might-or-might-not ending, tells me I made too much of the foreshadowing of the Yeats poem.
“It’s overused to express unhappiness,” he said. “If you’re at a restaurant and you want linguine and they only have manicotti, we’re slouching toward Bethlehem.”
Here’s Mr. Friedman:
I’m sitting in Ramallah at The Yasir Arafat Foundation listening to Nasser al-Kidwa, the thoughtful former Palestinian foreign minister, talk about Palestinian society “disintegrating” around him. What pains him most, he explains, is that any of his neighbors today with money, skills or a foreign passport are fleeing for the West or the Gulf. As he speaks, an old saying pops into my mind — one that applies today to Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine: “Would the last one out please turn off the lights.”
The other day I wrote about how Israel was looking for a “Fourth Way” — after the collapse of the Israeli Left’s land-for-peace strategy, the Right’s permanent occupation strategy and the Israeli third way’s unilateral withdrawal strategy. Well, the Arab world also needs a Fourth Way.
The Arabs tried Nasserism, i.e. authoritarian-nationalism, and that didn’t work. It tried various brands of Arab socialism, and that didn’t work. It even took a flier with bin Ladenism. Bin Laden was the thumb that many Arabs stuck in the eye of the West and of their own hated regimes. But, I would argue, bin Ladenism, and its various jihadist offshoots, has died in Iraq. Yes, it will still have adherents, but it has lost its revolutionary shine, because it has turned out to be nothing more than a death cult.
In my book, the day it died was May 24, 2007, in Falluja, Iraq. Why? Because on that day, 27 people were killed when a suicide bomber in a car attacked a funeral procession for Allawi al-Isawi, a local contractor, who was killed earlier in the day. According to Reuters, “as mourners walked down a main street holding aloft al-Isawi’s coffin, the bomber drove into the crowd and blew himself up.”
Think about that. No — really think about it: A Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Muslim funeral. Is there anything lower? But that is what bin Laden and the jihadists have become: utter nihilists, responsible for killing more Muslims than anyone in the world today and totally uninterested in governing, only in making life ungovernable.
But who offers a way forward? Right now the best Arabs can hope for are the decent, modernizing monarchies, like Jordan, Qatar, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. I do not see any secular progressivism — a Fourth Way — emerging in the big Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq, that is, a progressivism that would effectively promote more rule of law, global integration, multiparty elections, women’s empowerment and modern education to lay the foundations of decent governance. Far from it, Egypt had an election in 2005, and Ayman Nour, the candidate who dared to run against President Mubarak, got thrown in jail on phony charges.
I also don’t see a religious Fourth Way emerging — a progressive Islam articulated by the big, popular Islamic parties like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hezbollah took seats in the Lebanese cabinet and then proceeded to launch its own war with Israel. What a great vision.
“Sadly,” observed Middle East analyst Fawaz A. Gerges, in a recent essay on YaleGlobal Online, “mainstream Islamists have provided neither vision nor initiative to build a broad alliance of social forces and transform the political space. They arm themselves with vacuous slogans like ‘Islam is the solution.’ ” No wonder, he adds, that the average Arab citizen is fed up today with both their rulers and the opposition, “who promised heaven and delivered dust.”
But since the Islamic parties have monopolized the mosques and the authoritarian regimes have monopolized the public square, anyone trying to articulate an Arab Fourth Way today “is competing against either God or the state — and between God and the state, what room is left for secular democrats?” asked Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.
Only weeds can grow there — small nihilist weeds, like Fatah al Islam in Lebanon or Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in Iraq or Islamic Jihad in Gaza. And they are growing.
“Now any five guys who want to work together and believe they can uphold God’s name and have guns can start an army,” said Mr. Kidwa. “Money is all over the place. There is no money for the needed things, but there is a lot of money to finance [armed] groups.”
That’s why decent people, particularly Arab college grads, are leaving the area. They have no one to cheer for. The only hope for getting them back or for getting us out of Iraq — without leaving the region to the most nihilistic or impoverished elements — is an Arab Fourth Way. But it has to come from them — and right now, it is not happening, not inside Iraq, not outside.
Now here’s Mr. Dwyer, from last Saturday.
Here is the life of a professional ghost:
At work, you belong to an invisible cadre of men and women whose names do not show up in company files or databases. Your training and promotions are done in private. All orders come from a contact, whose identity is also a secret. Your very means of communication — by phone or computer or in person — can never be discussed.
These are undercover police detectives, as described by David Cohen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for intelligence. This week, Mr. Cohen filed an affidavit with a federal magistrate, pleading for secrecy on the inner workings of a sweeping intelligence operation before the 2004 Republican National Convention.
On the one hand, Mr. Cohen described the absolute need for undercover detectives to head off terrorists who would bomb and maim innocent people.
But he also described how those same extraordinary detectives were needed to spy on people like the antiwar protesters from Syracuse who were talking about coming to the convention and possibly blocking traffic on Seventh Avenue one evening.
The police “faced a three part co-mingled threat — terrorism, anarchist violence and unlawful civil disobedience,” and so used undercover officers to collect information, Mr. Cohen wrote.
In this vision, one mousetrap fits all: bombers who would kill thousands, and peaceniks who would block traffic.
The wisdom of this approach now faces a very stiff test.
Hundreds of people have filed lawsuits against the city, saying they were wrongly arrested during the 2004 convention and held far too long in detention. The city says police officials learned that many people planned to disguise their identities, and so they could not simply issue them summonses for minor offenses. Everyone had to be fingerprinted, prolonging their time behind bars.
Hidden among the ordinary protesters, Mr. Cohen said, could be “any terrorist operators who might have been in play.”
Not surprisingly, the people suing the city are demanding to see this intelligence about the supposed plans to use fake ID. Inch by inch, the city’s own defense has dragged the secretive work of the undercover detectives into daylight. To expose any more details, Mr. Cohen argued, would ruin the undercover program. This is hardly a trivial argument; the federal government bungled threats it had before Sept. 11, and 2,750 people in New York died. Afterward, the city created its own intelligence operation, led by Mr. Cohen, a former senior official in the Central Intelligence Agency, to monitor events and threats from around the world.
Also on the other side of Mr. Cohen’s binoculars are people like Andy Mager, 46, who came to New York in August 2004 for the convention. Mr. Mager, a staff member of the Syracuse Peace Council, said his group held a retreat in April of that year to “gather people experienced in nonviolent actions, to plan and engage in actions that were nonviolent but that would be a powerful statement of our opposition to war.”
About 20 people came, including one man from New York City who was not familiar to others. A few days after, a report produced by Mr. Cohen’s intelligence operation said “sources” had revealed plans by the Peace Council to block traffic. “That was bogus,” Mr. Mager said. “It was four months before the event, far too early to be talking about something like that.”
When the city released some intelligence reports last month, Mr. Mager posted pages about the Peace Council on the Internet, annotating what he said were factual errors.
Among them: that the Peace Council had taken part in protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. “We weren’t there,” Mr. Mager said.
The records released so far indicate that the Syracuse Peace Council, which simply chartered two buses for the convention in New York, was similar to many groups under the watch of Mr. Cohen’s operation. The police have said only a handful of demonstrators planned to break the law.
To reveal details like when and where the undercover detectives were used, Mr. Cohen said, would cause damage that “would be severe and irreversible.”
Christopher Dunn, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents seven of the people suing the city, said there was no need to endanger the undercover workers: “We of course have no objection to the department withholding specific information that may reveal confidential sources or techniques,” Mr. Dunn said.
That would be futile, Mr. Cohen said, and result “in pages of meaningless snippets of text and punctuation.”