For three decades Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, has gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. Now he has been killed in a US commando raid on his safe house thirty miles from Islamabad, ten years after he carried out the worst attack ever suffered by the United States and the worst terrorist atrocity in human history. His ideology of global jihad and his acts of terrorism changed the way we all live, our security concerns, and how we conduct politics and business while deeply scarring relations between the Muslim world and the West; his death will have similarly large-scale effects. Many of the security challenges we now face will be more subtle and intricate than the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the past.
Of all the ceremonies staged for the beatification of John Paul II on May 1—the Vatican’s official admission of him into the ranks of the blessed and a crucial step on the path toward sainthood—there may have been none more moving than a Lord’s Prayer sung in Syro-Armenian chant by a Syrian countertenor (Razek François Bitar) in the cavernous Baroque church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. He sang in Aramaic, raising the most ancient of all Christian prayers in the same language that Jesus spoke. His ancestors could have been singing the same prayer nearly two thousand years ago, as could the first Christians in Rome, transplanted from Judaea. There were other sublime moments Sunday afternoon: Palestrina’s searing Stabat Mater, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus, as opulent as its gilded setting in Saint Peter’s. But nothing could surpass the beauty of a single reverent voice.
Across Syria, checkpoints in protest areas have been set up to search people for mobile phone pictures and footage of the violence. Telephone and Internet networks have been cut, and few people have been able to leave or contact the outside world. There are reports of government snipers firing on pedestrians, and residents no longer dare leave their homes. Foreign journalists, who in recent weeks have been harassed and dissuaded from pursuing their stories (and in a few cases arrested and beaten), have now been expelled. The dearth of information has raised questions about who is involved in the protests and what prospects they might have—in the face of such repression—to bring about a broader change. While it has been increasingly difficult to get a full picture of the towns and cities where the government has responded with force, some insights can be gained from the situation in Douma, a Damascus suburb and flash point in the protests, where I was able to visit shortly before the most recent violence.
If William and Kate have three girls and one boy, in that order, it will be the boy, the youngest, who becomes king. There are very few places where there is still egregious and blatant gender discrimination like that, and not only is it not against the law, which it would be in any workplace, it is actually enshrined in the law. In that sense, the royal family is fascinating, because it enshrines a view of men and women and how they relate to each other, and the order of things, that in all other aspects of British life has been reviewed, reformed, revised, or just plain thrown out.
Consider the Supreme Court’s newest electoral reform case. In their earlier Citizens United decision the five justices in the majority—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito—guaranteed corporations a constitutional right to use their own capital for political advertising. They said that the point of the First Amendment is to provide the electorate with as much political speech as possible. They did not deny that the political process would be fairer if candidates and political organizations were more equal in their campaign resources. But the First Amendment forbids infringing free speech for the sake of equality, they said, and so “leveling the playing field” is no justification for stopping corporations or anyone else from spending as much on political advertising as they wish. Some commentators said that the Citizens United decision would make little practical difference: though it was wrong in principle, they thought, it would not actually do much harm. They were mistaken: the decision’s impact has already proved dramatic.
Statues of the illustrious (or at least famous) dead used to be added to the American cityscape with predictable regularity, especially after wars, assassinations, and the demise of beloved (or at least respected) public figures. But by the second half of the twentieth century, the ascendancy of abstract art, coupled with the unprecedented horrors of recent combat and genocide, made representational memorials seem increasingly inadequate.
Now, twenty-four years after Andy Warhol’s death, the long-obsolete memorial statue has been given new life with The Andy Monument, a dazzling, lifelike, ten-foot-tall effigy by Rob Pruitt, lately unveiled in front of 860 Broadway, the building on New York’s Union Square that housed the subject’s studio (which, like his original space on 47th Street, he called the Factory) from 1974 to 1984.
Five conservative justices now dominate our Supreme Court—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. They continue to revise our historical constitution and two new cases show that the arguments they offer continue to be embarrassingly bad. One concerns contributions to religious schools; the other, public financing of elections. I will describe those cases and defend that criticism, but it might be well to notice, first, why the justices have had to resort to arguments of such poor quality.
Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into a digital recorder. In a country obsessed with walls, he is a living challenge to the political system.
When I was a boy I read, in a biography of Daniel Boone, or of Daniel Beard, that young Dan (whichever of the two it may have been—or maybe it was young George Washington) had so loved some book, had felt his heart and mind inscribed so deeply in its every line, that he had pricked his fingertip with a knife and, using a pen nib and his blood for ink, penned his name on the flyleaf. At once, reading that, I knew two things: 1) I must at once undertake the same procedure and 2) only one, among all the books I adored and treasured, was worthy of such tribute: The Phantom Tollbooth. At that point I had read it at least five or six times.
Richard Goldstone’s much-discussed retraction of key findings in his committee’s report on the 2009 Gaza war has produced in Israel a predictable burst of self-congratulation. From the prime minister on down, the message from the Israeli government is a defiant “We told you so!” spoken from the always-privileged vantage point of an innocent victim wrongly accused. Along with this, we have an updated Israeli version of the Prodigal Son; Goldstone, a South African former judge and liberal Zionist of the old school, has supposedly come (rather shamefacedly) back home.