Roving thoughts and provocations

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can’t Do

Steven H. Wright

Tim Boyles/Getty Images

On the evening of July 13, the day a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, my mother phoned me, distraught. She, like many mothers of black sons, couldn’t understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. She’d heard that the NAACP and other civil-rights groups were pleading for the United States Department of Justice to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime; she’d also heard that the family could pursue a wrongful death suit. Then she asked me, based upon my experience as a former Justice Department civil-rights attorney, whether I thought either would stand a chance of holding Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death. My answer didn’t give her much comfort.

Chasing Beirut’s Ghosts

Robyn Creswell

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

Rabee Jaber’s novel, The Mehlis Report, published in Arabic in 2005 and now expertly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, takes place in the summer and fall following Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. This was an especially anxious time in Beirut. The murder set off a movement demanding an end to Syria’s fifteen-year occupation, as well as a violent countermovement spearheaded by Hezbollah. Jaber’s novel begins on June 2, the day Samir Kassir, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist and historian of Beirut, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Achrafiya, in the eastern part of the city. Further car bombs were to follow, targeting other anti-Syrian intellectuals and politicians. The Mehlis Report evokes this unsettled period with frightening precision. It reads like a historical novel that happens to be about the very recent past.

Indonesia’s Happy Killers

Francine Prose

Drafthouse Films

When Joshua Oppenheimer proposed making a film about them, the former death-squad commandos who had killed thousands of Indonesians during the country’s anti-Communist purge had seen too many action thrillers to agree to appear onscreen as talking heads. They wanted to produce a feature about their crimes that would combine stylistic elements of the cowboy shoot-‘em-up, the musical, the gangster noir, the mafia film, the 1950s Hollywood Nazi picture—and the Bollywood extravaganza! What they had in mind, in other words, was a pastiche of their favorite genres, except that it would be about them—how they interrogated and tortured, how they used the garrote, how they carried out mass executions, and raped women and girls—and they would have creative control.

Faith and Works at Apple

Edward Mendelson

John G.Mabanglo/epa/Corbis

As everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

Afghanistan: What Pakistan Wants

Anatol Lieven

Akhter Gulfam/epa/Corbis

Many Pakistanis view the Taliban (and Afghans in general) as greedy, treacherous, primitive, and fanatical savages. For the Taliban, the Pakistani state and military (and non-Pashtun Pakistanis in general) are decadent, corrupt, treacherous, brutal, and greedy oppressors. Each side regards the other as inherently unreliable. This of course also means that for all the help that they have given to the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistanis cannot simply force them to accept a peace settlement that they see as contrary to their values and interests.

Afghanistan: The War After the War

Anatol Lieven

Corbis/Xinhua/Azorda

Seen from Kabul, there are good reasons to fear that the US will negotiate some sort of face saving deal with the Taliban and quit Afghanistan entirely. According to unofficial statements from the White House reported in The New York Times, the option of complete withdrawal is one that President Obama is now actively considering. This is what the insurgents always aim at, and what in Algeria and Vietnam they eventually achieved, after immense bloodshed: splitting the foreign power from its local allies or proxies. And this is precisely what Karzai and his supporters fear most, accounting for the sometimes hysterical nature of their protests against negotiations with the Taliban.

Summertime

Charles Simic

Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Are rocking chairs in this country, I’m asking myself, being rocked on summer evenings as much as they once were? Or do they stand abandoned and motionless on dark porches across the land, now that their elderly owners tend to relieve their boredom by sitting in front of their computers?

Censoring the News Before It Happens

Perry Link

Aly Song/Reuters

For China’s Internet police, message control has grown to include many layers of meaning. Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives. For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more.” For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping,” “publish but only under small headlines,” “put only on back pages,” “close the comment boxes,” and “downplay as time passes.”

Popes Making Popes Saints

Garry Wills

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Pope John XXIII was beatified to take the sting out of Pius IX’s promotion. He is now being canonized to make a joint heavenly pair with John Paul II. To rush John XXIII forward, Pope Francis is even waiving the normal requirement of a second miracle for canonization. John XXIII is the feel-good pope in a time of turmoil, even though he is being used to sanction the turmoil caused by John Paul II.

When the Ruins Were New

Colin Thubron

Royal Collection Trust

In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. Among the party was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. The torpor of the declining Ottoman empire is palpable in his rare group photographs—unreliable Ottoman mercenaries or ragged Albanian water-carriers—as it is in the empty-looking villages of Hebron or Bethany. Even the streets of Cairo appear deserted. And there are no Jews.