A Side of Fries

The news folks had the day lined up, another Tuesday in late March. They had their production crews and reporters in Havana – President Obama was there – the third day of his grand experiment to see if we could normalize relations with those folks, so at least we could talk about things. Obama was going to a baseball game with Raul Castro. The Cubans are still mad for baseball. That might help, even if American conservatives were seething about anyone talking to these folks, ever. The news folks deployed the rest of their resources to Arizona and Utah and Idaho – another Tuesday of primaries and caucuses. Maybe someone would stop Donald Trump, or at least slow him down. Maybe Bernie Sanders would have a good day, opening up the possibility no one would have to endure the grating Hillary Clinton much longer, even if, on paper, she’s the only one in both parties who is fully qualified for the job. The reporters who didn’t get to go to Cuba got to head out west to see how that would work out.

That didn’t work out. Everyone was out of place, because this happened:

Just days after a suspect in last year’s Paris attacks was taken into custody, another set of coordinated assaults was launched on a city that serves as the de facto capital of Europe.

Explosions at Brussels’ two main transit hubs Tuesday left at least 30 people dead and scores injured, and police launched a massive manhunt for one suspect seen wheeling a luggage cart at the airport shortly before the first of the blasts.

Bloodied travelers found themselves stranded in the Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, as it was forced into virtual lockdown. Residents and visitors were ordered to remain indoors as armed police and emergency services swept through the streets.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the explosions, attributing them to a “security group from the soldiers of the caliphate.” It warned ominously of more attacks: “What is coming is worse and more bitter, God permitting.”

French President Francois Hollande summed up what was on the minds of many. “Last year it was Paris. Today it is Brussels. It’s the same attacks.”

Yes, it happened again. The anchors back in New York and Washington and Atlanta had to handle things, calling on their foreign bureaus and their stringers over there, and the rest of this account – from the Los Angeles Times but much like all the others – provides all the now-familiar details, but a secondary Los Angeles Times item notes something new here:

With sirens wailing, heavily armed soldiers patrolling street corners, rail stations closed and tight controls in place at border crossings, this country felt gripped in a state of war.

Yet at an impromptu candlelight vigil in Brussel’s city center, there was a surreal state of serenity as thousands of mourners gathered to remember the 34 people killed in the country’s worst terror attack. And some arrived with a spirited message of hope: “Make French fries, not war!”

“Faites des frites, pas la guerre” was one of the hundreds of the messages in a variety of languages that mourners from around the world scrawled in chalk onto the square in front of the Brussels stock exchange, where everyone from ordinary people and the prime minister paid tribute in the hours after the twin attacks that shocked the country and Europe.

The light-hearted call for more French fries – a delicacy that Belgium says it proudly gave to the world – instead of war epitomized the improbably upbeat sentiment at the square on Ansbach Boulevard in front of La Bourse, where there was also sorrow, some tears, lots of embraces but also some smiles, some laughter and a palpable sense of resilience rather than resignation.

Yes, people were laughing – not what the ISIS folks wanted, as terrorism is supposed to terrorize – but there you have it:

Eric Thomas Anderson, a 40-year-old aeronautics student from Orange, felt a need to join the tribute. On Monday he arrived in Brussels for the first time in his life for a seminar Tuesday and was planning but leave Thursday but will now stay indefinitely – and not only because the Brussels Airport has been closed until Wednesday.

“I just wanna be here,” said Anderson, who, like the others, seemed oblivious to the chilly early spring temperatures. “I’m going to stay through the weekend. It’s a somber mood here but a good one too. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about ‘solidarité’. I think all of our leaders need to use that word more often. We need more solidarity, and less of the ‘us versus them’ conflict.”

This isn’t us versus them? Eric hasn’t been listening to what has been said over here on this side of the Atlantic, nor has this young American woman:

Felicia Lynch, a 22-year-old from Texas who was on an Easter break from teaching English in Spain, went to the gathering after getting stranded in Brussels when her 8 p.m. flight to Venice was canceled.

“I think it’s so beautiful that everyone’s coming together and showing their support for each other,” she said. “The people don’t seem too worried. They seem really strong here. They have this view: ‘You can do this to us but we’re not going to fear you’. It’s really powerful.”

Some of the slogans written in chalk on the square included: “Hate is a tool of power,” “I cry for my city but I know we are strong”, and “Chocolate, beer and love are better for humanity than hatred” – a reference to Belgium’s popular exports.

And they don’t seem too worried. Should they be? Faites des frites, pas la guerre – that seems a bit naïve, or actually quite sensible, depending on how much fear gets you all excited and self-righteous and belligerent. Maybe that’s an American thing, but the New Yorker’s John Cassidy suggests the real problem here:

With Paris and Brussels having been struck within a few months of each other, and with the refugee crisis still ongoing, some of the EU’s central values – openness, pluralism, freedom of movement -are starting to unravel. Unless the union can somehow get a grip on the terrorist threat (or, at least, be seen to be making progress in that direction), this destructive process is likely to accelerate. French President François Hollande tweeted on Tuesday morning that the attackers had struck not just Brussels but all of Europe; in this, he was only stating the truth.

Already, elements of the Schengen Agreement, which guarantees freedom of movement inside the EU, have been suspended to allow those countries dealing with a major refugee influx, such as Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia, to set up border checkpoints. Now there will be calls for the treaty to be scrapped entirely and for the introduction of additional measures to keep out Middle Eastern refugees. Although [Brussels’] Wainwright and other European police chiefs have said that there is no evidence of jihadis systematically slipping into Europe while posing as refugees, the fact that at least two of the Paris attackers are believed to have entered the EU through refugee camps in Greece has fueled a popular backlash against the refugees – and against Angela Merkel, the de-facto leader of Europe, who last summer appeared to endorse an “open door” policy.

But now she’s backing off:

Last week, EU officials, backed by Germany, reached a provisional deal with Turkey, under which the Turkish government, in return for billions of dollars in financial aid, will accept thousands of refugees whose claims of asylum have been rejected at refugee camps in Greece and elsewhere. Whether this will stem the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea remains to be seen.

Even if it does, there remains the bigger question of how European countries with large Muslim populations, such as Belgium and France, can accommodate those communities – some of which, like the one in Molenbeek, contain ISIS sympathizers and activists – without losing the confidence of the rest of the population. In a commentary for the Guardian, Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Times of London, made a point that always bears repeating at times like this: beware the danger of overreaction. What the jihadis want, more than anything, is for the West to confirm their narrative that the Islamic faithful are engaged against infidels in a war to the death.

Many have said that, but Cassidy is not hopeful:

With people all over the continent looking in horror at the scenes from Brussels, and with right-wing populists seeking to outflank moderate politicians by offering authoritarian solutions – something we also see in the United States – will the centrists have the courage and the political support they need to fashion an effective response that unites Europe, and that stays true to the inclusive values that it claims to embody?

Slate’s Anne Applebaum wonders about the same thing:

I was in London on Sept. 11, 2001. It was impossible to call home because the lines were down; in that pre-smartphone era, it was also impossible to know what was going on, unless there was a television screen in the vicinity. Cut off though I was, I felt surrounded by friends. Upon hearing my accent, shop assistants and taxi drivers asked after my parents: Had I spoken to them yet? Could they help? That night, the Tory party called off its leadership election; the German chancellor spoke of a “war against the entire civilized world.” The NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels, unanimously invoked the NATO treaty: An attack on one member state is an attack on all.

On March 22, 2016, I was in London once again, watching another generation of Islamic terrorists carry out another series of coordinated attacks in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union as well as the headquarters of NATO.

Everyone still said all the right things, but something had changed:

Among those first responses there was also a new tone, one that was definitely missing in 2001, and one that wasn’t even noticeable after the Paris attacks a few months ago. Instead of calling for solidarity against a common threat, a spokesman for the anti-European U.K. Independence Party declared that the open borders of Europe “are a threat to our security,” even though the U.K. is not part of Europe’s Schengen border treaty.  A columnist for the Daily Telegraph declared Brussels the “jihadist capital of Europe,” and mocked those who call for staying in the EU on the grounds of safety. Meanwhile, American news organizations fell over themselves to get instant reactions from Donald Trump, who had just told the Washington Post that he didn’t see the point of NATO, which “is costing us a fortune.” He didn’t disappoint: “We have to be very careful and very vigilant as to who we allow in this country.”

Yes, no one was ordering a side of fries:

On both sides of the Atlantic, isolationism is now a fact of political life. Although it is presented differently in different places, the illogical idea that “my country will be safer” if it pulls out of its international alliances is growing. Never mind that Britain constantly shares intelligence and information on terrorism with the rest of Europe via European Union institutions. Never mind that the U.S. works with NATO allies to track terrorist operations and deter attacks, or that we gain enormous security as well as economic benefits for doing so. Never mind that, nowadays, very few security threats can be stopped by border guards anyway. Every terrorist attack on U.K. soil in recent memory was carried out by British (or Irish) citizens and not foreigners; nuclear deterrence requires allies and coordinated responses; barbed wire cannot stop a cyberattack. The small-minded, short-sighted isolationists ignore reason and logic, instead substituting panic and fear.

Of course there are reasons for this change: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s disastrous decision to apparently “invite” Syrian immigrants into Europe last summer has left many Europeans feeling queasy and out of control. Photographs from the war in Syria and the refugee camps in Greece have upset even people living in countries such as the United States that have not accepted large numbers of refugees. But those are explanations, not an excuse, for the stupidity of isolationism. We don’t have a choice: The only way to fight jihadism is through our existing military, economic, and political alliances. And the only way to ensure that we have international support in the future, when a tragedy takes place on our soil – and it will – is to offer our support for a tragedy unfolding on allied soil right now.

Applebaum is not happy, but Slate’s Jamelle Bouie suggests that Donald Trump is:

Americans who read outlets like the New York Times woke up to detailed and largely accurate information about Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, which killed and wounded dozens. Americans who watched cable news, on the other hand, woke up to Donald Trump, who presented these attacks – like the ones in Paris – as a boon for his campaign. “This is a subject that is very dear and near to my heart, because I’ve been talking about it much more than anybody else,” he said. “And it’s probably why I’m No. 1 in the polls. Because of the fact that I say we have to have strong borders. We have to be very vigilant and careful who we allow into our country.”

Meanwhile, some journalists were frustrated with the networks’ choice to give attention to Trump and essentially let him campaign on the destruction in Brussels before the bodies had even been counted. “‘Terrorist attacks help Trump’ isn’t a thing that just happens. It happens because after attacks, voters see his face on every TV network,” wrote Jill Filipovic, a columnist for the Guardian. “America may be one major terrorist attack from Donald Trump as president,” said Blake Hounshell, editorial director at Politico.

Both Trump and his critics are operating from the belief that terrorism, even abroad, helps the most reactionary and illiberal candidates in an election. Trump was the chief GOP beneficiary of the Paris attacks, which helped him build a larger lead over his rivals. In an apparently anti-establishment year, with many Americans driven variously by economic anxiety, racism, and deep fears of external threat, it’s easy to believe that Trump could ride the Brussels attack to more votes and a shorter path to the White House.

Bouie, however, isn’t so sure of that: 

Americans do become more conservative in the face of physical threat. Fears over terrorism, for example, helped George W. Bush win a second term. But Bush was a sitting president who led the national response after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For millions of Americans, he was a credible voice on the subject.

The same is not true of Donald Trump. As evidenced by his almost absurdist dialogue with the editorial board of the Washington Post, Trump doesn’t know anything about terrorism or national security. When asked about his proposed ban on Muslims, for example, Trump gave the Post’s Fred Hiatt a stream of words that carried no actual meaning: “Well look, there’s many exceptions. There’s many – everything, you’re going to go through a process. But we have to be very careful. And I was really referring in particular, you know, to migrations – Syrians, the whole migration, where we’re going to take in thousands. And I heard in the Democrat debate, I heard 55,000, okay. 55,000.”

He spoke this way throughout the interview, and in fact one thing we’ve learned from the constant coverage of the candidate is that he always speaks this way.

And people do notice:

The ignorance, demonstrated daily, even hourly, has had an effect among Americans writ large. According to the most recent Washington Post national poll, just 40 percent of Americans trust that Trump can handle terrorism better than Hillary Clinton. Just 37 percent say the same for immigration issues, and just 32 percent say the same for an international crisis. Indeed, as Nate Silver shows for FiveThirtyEight, not even GOP voters are thrilled with Trump’s ability to handle crisis, or even terrorism. And in a YouGov survey from earlier this month, 60 percent of Americans say that Trump is not ready to serve as “commander-in-chief.”

Something else is going on here:

Republican voters didn’t flock to Trump after the Paris attacks because they trusted his leadership; they flocked to him because he leveraged the attacks into a larger anti-Muslim message that attracted the substantial portion of Republican primary voters with strong anti-Muslim views and deep concern over immigration.

It’s possible that this could carry over to a general election, as a foreign or domestic terror attack activates anti-Muslim attitudes among the general public. And it’s true that in the aftermath of the attacks in San Bernardino, California, Obama’s approval rating dipped, suggesting just that kind of response. But it’s also true that Obama’s approval quickly resumed its upward climb, as Americans moved on to other issues and concerns.

The broad picture, however, is easy to see and understand. Americans as a whole don’t see Trump as ready to defend the country. There, thanks to a long (and accurate) reputation for hawkishness, Hillary Clinton has the advantage.

But that might not matter:

After Paris, the real estate mogul called for a ban on Muslim entry to the United States, staking out and in the process normalizing an extreme position. In turn, other candidates have tried to outbid him. “We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence,” said Ted Cruz in a statement from his campaign. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

One Republican presidential candidate wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. His immediate rival wants to put Muslim Americans under constant surveillance. Trump may not ride fear to the White House, but he can use it to continue to erode our basic norms and ideals.

Josh Voorhees addresses that issue:

In response to November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Donald Trump called for an indefinite ban on Muslims entering the United States. It was a disgusting, if not surprising, response, one that went over terrifyingly well with many conservative voters. But following Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels – which caused Trump to again tout his closed-borders worldview – Ted Cruz carved out an even more aggressively Islamophobic position, at least in terms of targeting Muslims here at home.

In a statement that began by lamenting Western “political correctness,” Cruz offered up an anti-Muslim checklist of sorts for how he believes the United States could avoid a similar terrorist attack:

“We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized. We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration.”

Voorhees asks the obvious questions:

We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized. That one sentence could mean so much in practice – or so little. How do you define a “Muslim neighborhood”? How would Cruz “empower” police? What exactly does “patrol and secure” entail? Is Cruz calling for widespread domestic surveillance? A stop-and-frisk policy? A police state where Muslims have to go through checkpoints? All of the above? None of the above? Cruz, of course, doesn’t say.

Voorhees asked about that, as did other reporters, so a Cruz spokesman clarified:

“We know what is happening with these isolated Muslim neighborhoods in Europe. If we want to prevent it from happening here, it is going to require an empowered, visible law enforcement presence that will both identify problem spots and partner with non-radical Americans who want to protect their homes. … The police should have every tool available to follow leads and take action against those who would do us harm. That is what Cruz is calling for and it is the basic responsibility of our elected leaders – to prioritize the safety of our citizens.”

Voorhees:

He wants to target “Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” With that phrasing, the GOP hopeful is telling voters that as far as he’s concerned, it’s not a question of if a neighborhood with Muslims in it turns to terror; it’s a question of when. That bigoted and dangerous paranoia, sadly, is all too common among a wide swath of the American electorate.

Voorhees is unhappy too, but this might cheer him up:

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on Tuesday cautioned against monitoring Muslim-Americans after the attacks in Brussels, saying that such a step would create division and harm the country’s ability to gather intelligence. … Mr. Kasich told reporters in Minneapolis, “We are not at war with Islam; we’re at war with radical Islam.”

“In our country,” he said, “we don’t want to create divisions where we say, ‘Okay, well, your religion, you’re a Muslim, so therefore we’re going to keep an eye on you.'” He added that “the last thing we need is more polarization.”

“Frankly, for those who want to preserve Islam as a religion that is not at war with the West, we alienate them, how are we supposed to ever get the information we need?” he asked.

Mr. Kasich hopes that his foreign policy experience, gained from his 18 years in Congress, will help him stand out compared with Mr. Cruz and Donald J. Trump.

Setting up a contrast with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kasich also said that he would “make every effort I could to strengthen the NATO alliance.”

He’d keep NATO and then there’s this:

Hillary Clinton portrayed herself on Tuesday as the only presidential candidate who has presented a detailed plan to defeat the Islamic State, which took responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Brussels earlier in the day.

“I’ve laid out a very specific agenda for defeating ISIS, not just on the battlefield,” Mrs. Clinton said at an event with union members here. She went on to explain her plan to use Kurdish and Arab forces and American airstrikes to weaken the group in Syria and Iraq, stem the flow of foreign funds used to arm the group, and increase efforts to stop recruitment online.

“We’ve got to defeat them online,” Mrs. Clinton said. “That is where they radicalize and that’s where they propagandize.”

Campaigning in Washington ahead of the state’s caucuses on Saturday, Mrs. Clinton used the events in Europe to question the readiness of her Republican rivals and, in particular, the leading Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump. “I see the challenge ahead as one where we’re bringing the world together, where we are leading the world against these terrorist networks,” she said. “Where some of my opponents want to build walls and shut the world off.”

“Well, you tell me,” Mrs. Clinton said in an obvious reference to Mr. Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. “How high does the wall have to be to keep the Internet out?”

Sure, go ahead and mock him, but it won’t do any good:

“Look, I think we have to change our law on the waterboarding thing, where they can chop off heads and drown people in cages, in heavy steel cages and we can’t water board,” Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “We have to change our laws and we have to be able to fight at least on almost equal basis. We have laws that we have to obey in terms of torture. They have no laws whatsoever that they have to obey.”

Blitzer brought up Salah Abdeslam – a chief suspect in the Paris attack who was detained last week and who it has been speculated might have connections to the Brussels attackers – and asked Trump whether he would begin “torturing him right away,” since Belgian authorities have said Abdeslam was already talking to investigators.

“He may be talking, but he’ll talk faster with the torture,” Trump said, suggesting torture could have prevented Tuesday attacks which have left at least 30 people dead.

And that wasn’t all:

Trump said he would “go further” than waterboarding and would listen to the “military people” about how to do it. Blitzer brought up that military leaders don’t support torture and that it is not a part of the U.S. military code of conduct.

“I think they believe in it 100 percent. You talk to General Patton from years ago. You talk to General Douglas MacArthur,” Trump said. “I will guarantee, these were real generals, and I guarantee you, they would be laughing. Right now they’re crying and right now they’re spinning in their graves as they watch the stupidity go on.”

He is saying he knows our military. They WANT to torture people. They hate the Geneva Conventions. Everyone does:

“I would say that the eggheads that came up with this international law should turn on their television and watch CNN right now, because I’m look at scenes on CNN right now as I’m speaking to you that are absolutely atrocious,” Trump said. “And I would be willing to bet, when I am seeing all of the bodies laying [sic] all over the floor, including young, beautiful children laying [sic] dead on the floor, I would say if they watched that, maybe, just maybe they’ll approve of waterboarding and other things.”

Additionally Trump endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) idea that law enforcement should patrol more heavily Muslim communities, calling it “a good idea.”

He won’t back down, and there’s this:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Tuesday said Islam is the main source of global terrorism, in the aftermath of attacks in Brussels that left at least 34 dead and more than 100 wounded.

“Frankly, we’re having problems with the Muslims,” he told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo.

“These attacks are not done by Swedish people. That I can tell you. We have to be smart. We have to look at the mosques and study what’s going on. There is a sick problem going on.”

The problem, then, is the religion itself, and that’s that:

Trump indicated that he was weighing in on the Brussels attack without having consulted any advisers from his newly named list of foreign policy consultants.

“I have not spoken to them this morning. I will be speaking to them later on,” Trump said. “And I will tell you right now, what are they going to advise me? If they don’t advise me to be very strong and very tough at the borders, then I’m probably not a big fan of that particular person,” Trump said.

“I understand foreign policy, I understand security as well as anybody,” he added.

Advisors? He don’t need no stinking advisors, and then the day ended with him winning many more delegates out west, so he will be the Republican nominee, unless the Republican Party collapses and suddenly there is no longer any such thing – which is, of course, possible. Oh, and the baseball game in Cuba went well – fifty years of pointless nonsense may be ending. And in Brussels, the word is make fries, not war, and the locals are laughing in defiance.

That’s going to drive ISIS crazy – and Donald Trump too. Maybe someone should order him a side of fries, and a nice Belgian beer, followed by a bit of their chocolate. He does need to calm down. We all do.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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