The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

Advertisements

Carnage In Paris

Reports are still coming in, but the world has been shocked by another deadly terrorist attack.  This time it happened in Paris, where more than 100 people were killed in a coordinated series of shootings that targeted a sporting event, concert, and restaurant.

We’ll have to see what the investigation shows as to who planned the attacks — ISIS already is claiming responsibility — and what their motivation was, but the attacks show, once again, that the citizens of the western world must always be on guard.  Those of us who have enjoyed a trip to Paris can easily imagine that we might have been at the restaurant, or the concert, where the masked men armed with machine guns started indiscriminately shooting innocent people.  We think such horrors can’t happen again . . . and then they do.  We shake our heads at what seems to be senseless violence, but to the perpetrators such attacks obviously are not senseless.  They are carefully planned and designed to sow panic and give the terrorists the advantage.

At this point, with the identity of the assailants still not released and details sketchy, we don’t know the backgrounds of the shooters.  If they do, in fact, turn out to be Islamic extremists affiliated with ISIS, that fact will only feed into the anti-immigrant backlash that seems to be building in Europe in the wake of the decision by the EU to have member states accept large numbers of Syrian refugees.

The repercussions of such a finding are likely to be felt in America, too, and probably will mean that immigration will remain a huge political issue and that security will once again become a focus of discussion.  I think part of the mystifying, apparently enduring appeal of Donald Trump is that he talked about immigration when other candidates really weren’t — and although many people want to dismiss all of the voters concerned about immigration issues as racist xenophobes, I think that many are simply worried about the potential risks of an apparently porous southern border.  If we can’t stop the flood of people crossing into the country, what’s to prevent ISIS or al Qaeda militants from joining the tide?

In the meantime, our hearts will ache for the people of France and the awful loss and horror they have experienced.

Let Us All Be Heroes

The story about the three Americans who stopped a terrorist on a European train is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal news period.  It reminds us that, in a world of big governments and big corporations, individuals who seize the initiative can still make a crucial difference.

The three Americans — one from the Air Force, one from the National Guard, and one a civilian — were middle school chums who were traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Paris when they saw an Islamic terrorist begin shooting.  The airman, Spencer Stone, rushed at the shooter, tackled him, and was slashed by a boxcutter before his friends Alec Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler joined him in subduing the shooter.  The authorities believe their courageous, selfless actions prevented another deadly terrorist incident, and the three Americans were decorated by a grateful French government.

I cannot help but wonder how I would react if I were put in such a situation and whether my instinct would be to duck and cover, or to act.  I’d like to think it would be the latter — with luck, we’ll never be put to that test — but it’s nice to know that there are still people out there who have that impulse.  We would like to think that, in the right circumstances, we could all be heroes.

Euro Zone Danger Zone

With all the bad news around the world lately — from ISIS savagery to North Korean nuttery, from Russian power plays in Ukraine to Chinese saber-rattling in the Pacific, from the Ebola outbreak in west Africa to Boko Haram mass kidnappings — nobody’s paying too much attention to Europe.  That’s unfortunate, because Europe is a mess right now.

Economically, Europe is a basket case.  In the second quarter of this year, Germany’s economy — the largest on the continent — shrank by 0.2 percent.  The most recent data indicates that business growth continued to slow in August.  In France, the economy is completely stagnant, producing no growth for several quarters while unemployment is above 10 percent.  The French economy minister resigned yesterday in a public disagreement with the country’s very unpopular President about whether France should follow austerity policies or policies that funnel government money directly to households; the economy minister said he felt compelled to speak out to try to avoid the European Union’s “descent into hell.” 

IMG_5596The unemployment situation in Europe is terrible.  Statistics presented by the European Central Bank president at an international conference last week are daunting — they show European unemployment growing while American unemployment is declining and indicate that the recession that hit the world in 2008 really hasn’t ended in the Eurozone.  The statistics also show that people who aren’t highly educated are losing their jobs by the truckload and that jobs are vanishing in the business sectors that traditionally employed less educated people — like construction and heavy industry.  The service sector is holding steady, which means that if you’re looking for a job in the Eurozone and you don’t have advanced degrees, you’re lucky to get a position as a waiter.

When economies fail and bitter people can’t find jobs to fill their time and feed their families, political and social unrest follows closely behind.  It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that we are seeing a deeply troubling increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, from public protests triggered by the Israeli-Hamas fighting in Gaza to attacks on synagogues and social media hate speech.  The fact that some Europeans are returning to virulent anti-Semitism of their forefathers indicates that the EU initiative really hasn’t materially changed a continent where prejudices run deep.

The economic, political, and social situation in Europe is a toxic mix.  Other crises have distracted attention from the various Eurozone woes, but we shouldn’t ignore what’s happening across the Atlantic.

Tipping A Glass To Our Unknown Irish Ancestors

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a day when everyone is Irish, or at least claims to be.

The Webners are no different. Richard recently took one of those mail-in DNA tests, and the results showed a significant percentage of Scotch-Irish DNA. I get the Scottish part; our extended family tree includes Neals, McCollums, and Fergusons. My grandmother, born a Brown, claimed Irish ancestry, and I’ve no doubt that there are other, now-unknown branches that undoubtedly touched the Emerald Isle. It’s enough, at least, to allow us to celebrate March 17 with a heartfelt Erin go Bragh.

I’m proud of whatever Irish ancestry we have. In my view, you have to give the Irish credit — of all of the countries that have contributed to our melting pot nation, the Irish have the best traditional holiday, by far. St. Patrick’s Day blows Columbus Day and Cinco de Mayo out of the water, and most other countries aren’t even in the running. There’s no Deutschland Day, or British Bash. And no other country has the branding of Ireland, either. Whether it’s leprechauns, shillelaghs, four-leaf clovers, or pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Irish stand alone at the top of the heap.

It’s also admirable that the Irish made drinking beer an essential part of St. Patrick’s Day. Sure, we know St. Patrick had something to do with chasing snakes off the island, but most people associate the holiday with beer. Beer drinking also is an essential part of the culture of the Germans, the Brits, the Belgians, and even the French, but the Irish have co-opted it completely. Years ago, some savvy Irishman obviously understood that focusing a holiday on beer-drinking is bound to increase the amount of participation.

St. Patrick’s Day is an easy day to celebrate: you wear something green and drink beer. You don’t have to go to church, and there’s no significant physical danger involved, such as you might find in running with the bulls in Pamplona. Instead, there’s just an opportunity to bend an elbow with your friends, quaff a few dozen ales, and pretend you like droning Celtic music. The only risk is being punched in the face by some drunken, red-faced IRA member, getting a wet kiss from a beefy red-headed woman wearing a “kiss me, I’m Irish” pin, or ending up face down in a vomit-filled gutter.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Through The Chunnel

019Today we took the Eurostar train from Paris to London, going through the Chunnel. Our rail journey lasted about two and a half hours, and it was a simple and pleasant trip. The Chunnel — the tunnel that runs underneath the English Channel — makes traveling between these two popular tourist destinations so much easier!

The train leaves from the Gare du Nord station in Paris, where you fill out your entry form, present your passport, and clear customs into Great Britain. You wait in a reasonably nice waiting lounge, where duty-free shops line one side and you can get ridiculously good and reasonably priced food — particularly for a place that is serving only captive customers who don’t have any other dining options.

018When boarding time comes you file down the station ramp to your rail car, board, find your assigned seat number, then place your luggage and coats on the shelves above and settle in for the ride. The seats are comfortable, the swaying of the train is soothing, the ride is virtually noiseless, and most of the passengers spend the trip sleeping as the train zips along. The rolling French countryside is pretty, and there are a number of quaint little towns and churches along the way, but the temptation to nod off for at least part of the trip is irresistible.

023Not surprisingly, the weather turned dark and rainy as we approached the English Channel, then we flashed by a “Euro Tunnel” sign and we were in the tunnel itself. It’s a dark tunnel like any other, except that it extends, amazingly, for more than 20 miles. The passage through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes, and when we emerged on the other side it was sunny and bright. Within a very short period we were pulling in to St. Pancras station on the outskirts of London and Scrambling to grab our bags, catch a cab, and head to our apartment in Great Britain’s capital city.

I can’t speak to the Chunnel as a technical engineering accomplishment, aside from recognizing that digging a tunnel that is more than 20 miles long, under a stormy body of water, is a monumental achievement. I also can’t adequately capture the Chunnel’s geopolitical significance, either, other than noting that it links two countries that were at war constantly during the centuries from 1300 to 1800 and ties that Sceptr’d Isle to the European mainland. But I can say that, as a traveler, I deeply appreciate the convenience of traveling from France to England by train, without taking a ferry and worrying about the notoriously bad Channel weather.002

French For A Dummy

I’m going to be spending some time in France in a few months, so I’ve decided to brush up on my French language skills.  Actually, calling them “skills” isn’t quite accurate — unless the meaning of “skills” can be stretched to include a capability that really doesn’t exist.  I can read a little French, and I remember that jambon means ham, but that’s really about as far as it goes.

IMG_4898I took French in junior high school, in high school, and at OSU until I met my language requirements.  Despite these years of patient instruction, I never moved past the most basic levels.  Not surprisingly, my French class memories don’t involve having rapid-fire conversations with proud and dazzled teachers.  Instead, I remember trying to get some “extra credit” by helping my high school French teacher decorate her classroom for Christmas.  To my befuddlement, she wanted me to hang up the letters of the alphabet.  After I did so, she asked me if I got the reference.  When  gave her a confused look in response, she gestured at the letters, barked out a short Gallic laugh, and said “No L!”  I shrugged at this weak example of French humor, then remembered that sophisticates in that country considered Jerry Lewis a genius.

In college, our pleasant if somewhat beefy French instructor wanted to give the class an example of the importance of precise pronunciation.  She explained that, during a recent visit to Paris, she was being pestered by a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking man.  She meant to dismiss him with a gruff cochon, which means pig, but instead she said couchons, which unfortunately suggested a desire to do the horizontal bop.  She then barked out a short Gallic laugh as the members of the class snickered at her embarrassing predicament.  The only other things I remember from my college French classes are that we students thought mangez mes sous-vetements, which means “eat my shorts,” was a hilarious insult even though the exasperated teacher pointed out that the French never use that phrase, and we also put n’est ce pas? at the end of every conceivable statement because it at least ended our halting sentences with a smooth closing.

So, trying to get up to speed on French in a few months is probably futile — especially since studies indicate that trying to acquire new language skills becomes more difficult with age.  I’m going to try anyway.  I’ve reserved some French language instruction CDs from the library and am going to listen to them on our morning walks.  I’m starting with French for Dummies.  The title is a bit insulting — but it’s probably accurate, n’est ce pas?