No Comment — October 2, 2007, 8:29 am

Doubting Thomas

Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir (Oct. 1, 2007) $26.95

Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appeared on the Rush Limbaugh Show for 90 minutes. Thomas was pushing his new book, My Grandfather’s Son, an autobiographical work. Thomas’s choice of venue was extremely revealing. Limbaugh is a demigod to the rightwing fringe, a master of the outlandish retort, a man known not for being balanced and rational, but rather for being outrageous and over-the-top. And yesterday Rush was back in the public spotlight as controversy swirled around his charges suggesting that any soldiers, serving or retired, who questioned President Bush’s handling of the war were “phony soldiers.” Limbaugh himself, of course—like his judicial guest–never served in the military. He secured a 4-F deferment. But the host and his guest are close, fast friends. Thomas officiated at Limbaugh’s latest marriage, his third, which has already ended in a divorce.

Unlike Limbaugh, Thomas is characterized by public silence. He uttered more words in his appearance on Limbaugh’s show yesterday than he has intoned from the bench in the last fifteen years.


But behind that quiet façade apparently lies a smoldering, angry, revenge-seeking man. NPR’s Nina Totenberg describes My Grandfather’s Son as “a very personal work, indeed so personal that it is at times uncomfortable to read.” She’s being polite–this book is a wild vendetta against Thomas’s perceived enemies. And it’s impossible to read it and not come away with the sense that this is an angry, bitter man. A man convinced of his own rectitude and who believes he was wronged. The class of wrongdoers is pretty expansive—it seems to be everyone who questioned his candidacy for the High Court. And that was a majority of the American public.

To get a sense of it, charge ahead to chapter nine, “Invitation to a Lynching.” It’s the story of Thomas’s nomination contest, probably the most electrifying in American history. I was struck by some of the images that Thomas uses, starting with the lynching, which is drawn from his searing rejoinder during the hearings, which he labeled

a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.

But Thomas also takes a literary approach. He sees himself as a character in the work which I believe may be the most important American novel of the twentieth century, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And he cites it to support his characterization of his confirmation hearings as a “lynching.” Here’s the key passage:

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have been thinking of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus Finch, a small-town southern lawyer, defends Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman. He was lucky to have had a trial at all — Atticus had already helped him escape a lynch mob’s rope. The evidence presented at the trial shows that Tom’s accuser had lured him into her house, then kissed him, after which he fled. The case against him is laughably flimsy, but in the Deep South you didn’t need a strong case to send a black man to the gallows, and it is already clear that Tom will be convicted when Atticus goes before the jury to make his closing argument.

Thomas quotes the wonderful speech that Atticus gives to the jury. He coaxes them to overcome their prejudices and do justice. In particular he wants them to set aside their prejudices about the moral character of Blacks, in his words,

the evil assumption — that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.

After setting this out, Thomas applies the story to his own life:

I knew exactly what Atticus Finch was talking about. I, too, took it for granted that nothing I could say, however eloquent or sincere, was capable of overcoming the evil assumptions in which my accusers had put their trust. I had lived my whole life knowing that Tom’s fate might be mine. As a child I had been warned by Daddy [grandfather Myers Anderson] that I could be picked up off the streets of Savannah and hauled off to jail or the chain gang for no other reason than that I was black.

So, in Thomas’s retelling of the confirmation struggle, he is the innocent, falsely-accused black man, and his accusers are racist whites who disbelieve him because they are blinded to the truth by their own prejudice. They went out of their way to humiliate and disgrace him with their questioning, he says.

There are some problems with this vision. In fact, just about every element of it is false. Clarence Thomas’s accuser was, of course, not a white woman, but African-American: Anita Hill, now a distinguished professor at Brandeis University. Hill was hired by and worked for Thomas, and she alleged that she was subjected to serial sexual harassment by Thomas at the workplace. Thomas vehemently denied her account, and he and his supporters lashed out at Hill—calling her “nutty and a bit slutty,” suggesting she had been fired by earlier employers and that she was not, as made out, a religious person. Prof. Hill offers an eloquent reply to Clarence Thomas in the pages of today’s New York Times. She writes:

In the portion of his book that addresses my role in the Senate hearings into his nomination, Justice Thomas offers a litany of unsubstantiated representations and outright smears that Republican senators made about me when I testified before the Judiciary Committee — that I was a “combative left-winger” who was “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights.” A number of independent authors have shown those attacks to be baseless. What’s more, their reports draw on the experiences of others who were familiar with Mr. Thomas’s behavior, and who came forward after the hearings. It’s no longer my word against his.

Justice Thomas’s characterization of me is also hobbled by blatant inconsistencies. He claims, for instance, that I was a mediocre employee who had a job in the federal government only because he had “given it” to me. He ignores the reality: I was fully qualified to work in the government, having graduated from Yale Law School (his alma mater, which he calls one of the finest in the country), and passed the District of Columbia Bar exam, one of the toughest in the nation.

In 1981, when Mr. Thomas approached me about working for him, I was an associate in good standing at a Washington law firm. In 1991, the partner in charge of associate development informed Mr. Thomas’s mentor, Senator John Danforth of Missouri, that any assertions to the contrary were untrue. Yet, Mr. Thomas insists that I was “asked to leave” the firm.
It’s worth noting, too, that Mr. Thomas hired me not once, but twice while he was in the Reagan administration — first at the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After two years of working directly for him, I left Washington and returned home to Oklahoma to begin my teaching career.

In a particularly nasty blow, Justice Thomas attacked my religious conviction, telling “60 Minutes” this weekend, “She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed.” Perhaps he conveniently forgot that he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to work at the law school at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa. I remained at that evangelical Christian university for three years, until the law school was sold to Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., another Christian college. Along with other faculty members, I was asked to consider a position there, but I decided to remain near my family in Oklahoma.

One really has to wonder: why is Clarence Thomas drudging all of this out now? Anita Hill’s claims and Thomas’s answers have been exhaustively studied and researched. And the consensus that has emerged is pretty clear: Clarence Thomas perjured himself in the confirmation hearings. Anita Hill was telling the truth. Two major books establish this. One is the award-winning work of Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, then two Wall Street Journal reporters, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. That book turned meticulously through the available evidence, and found that it was very consistent—establishing Hill’s veracity and undermining Thomas’s. But far more damning still is the major book which was published to defend Thomas. It was David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, a work that layed out all the attacks that Thomas and his supporters (most prominently Ted Olson) put forth to protect his nomination. Brock later admitted that his book had been commissioned as a hit job to make Thomas’s position seem more plausible. As he later admitted to the New York Times, “I lied in print to protect the reputation of Justice Clarence Thomas.”

Beyond this, Thomas’s charges about the vicious treatment to which he was subjected don’t stand up. He wants us to think that a group of liberal Democrats destroyed his reputation by rehashing the lurid details of the Anita Hill allegations, eliciting his perjured responses. But go back and examine the transcript. The man who did that was Orrin Hatch, Thomas’s most aggressive supporter on the Judiciary Committee, and the questions were clearly orchestrated and rehearsed to make Thomas fit the role of a martyr or victim.

Aside from these minor details, I approve of the use of To Kill a Mockingbird as a mirror with which to understand Clarence Thomas and his odyssey. Harper Lee’s novel is more than just a retelling of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys with a happy ending. It is more than a story of bigotry in the Deep South. It is a story about the quest for justice, and Atticus Finch is the key character in that struggle.

Atticus is not coincidentally named. His name is derived from an important figure in classical antiquity: Titus Pomponius Atticus, the dearest friend of Cicero, the man to whom De amicitia is dedicated. For Atticus, partisan politics was an abomination: it was the corruptor of society, the subverter of justice. Rather than become involved in the fratricidal squabbles that marked the last days of the Roman Republic, Atticus withdrew from public life. He believed in a reserved judgment, always carefully detached from any bonds of personal friendship, family or partisan alignment. His character has been taken through history, thanks to the glowing portrait of Cicero, as the essence of what is judicious.

And Atticus’s message to the jury was a timeless one. It’s uttered by the small town lawyer Atticus Finch, but it might just as well have been said by the Atticus of antiquity. “Step outside of yourself, and your prejudices. Forget your family, your friends, your politics. When you come to judge, you must lay all of this to one side.”

And that, also, is the essence of the message of the great philosophical work on the art of judgment—Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft. Kant tells us that detachment is essential to the exercise of fair judgment. We must have a sense of the ethical, he says, and that will inevitably include the sensus communis, a reflection of the values of our society. But the particular personal attachments of family, friends and party are poison to the judicious spirit.

So Atticus Finch is imparting an ancient and very great wisdom; he is giving essential guidance on how to judge.

Now you might think that a person who has taken as his vocation the art of judgment would understand this, and would be moved by it. You would think that such a person would value a reputation for being disinterested and above the petty, highly partisan attachments that are fundamentally disqualifying for a judge. All the sorts of things that Rush Limbaugh and his gutter politics represent, for instance. But then you apparently wouldn’t understand Clarence Thomas.

One message emerges very quickly from a reading of My Grandfather’s Son. It’s that Clarence Thomas has no respect for the values of Atticus Finch. He’s a partisan into the innermost crevice of his soul. And far from being dispassionate and detached, he is filled with burning rage against the Democrats who—in his mind—did him wrong, and determined to use any opportunity that comes his way to strike against them without mercy. As a memoir, this work is very strikingly at odds with the established facts. Readers who want to get the real low-down on what happened in that confirmation battle back in 1991 would be well advised to buy not My Grandfather’s Son, but the Mayer and Abramson book Strange Justice. But Thomas’s book does give us a very clear view of the inner mechanics of his own brain. And what it reveals is the very antithesis of the word “judicious.”

And that leaves us with a question: how can such a person as the author of this book serve as a judge of any kind, much less a judge on the Supreme Court?

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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There Will Always Be Fires

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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