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Echo Chambers
19 December 2014 Last updated at 12:48 ET

'Stephen Colbert' now belongs to the ages

Comedian Stephen Colbert.

"Folks, if this is your first time tuning in to the Colbert Report, I have some terrible news," Stephen Colbert announced on episode 1,447 of his Comedy Central cable show last night. "This, in fact, is your last time tuning in to the Colbert Report."

And so began Mr Colbert's soliloquy on the historical import of his Comedy Central show, whose last episode aired Thursday night. He's moving on to replace David Letterman on CBS's Late Show next year, and he's retiring the character of "Stephen Colbert" - a right-wing blowhard pundit used to skewer right-wing blowhard pundits - that he has essentially lived in for the past decade.

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What we were seeing was the perfect indictment of the world of political punditry”

End Quote Hank Stuever The Washington Post

"In the annals of history, or whatever orifice they stuff it in, let no one say what we did together was not important or influential or importulential," he said. "You see from the beginning of my show, it was my goal to live up to the name of this network, Influence Central. And if all we achieved over the last nine years was to come into your home each night and help you make a difficult day a little better … man, what a waste."

While Mr Colbert joked about the show's influence, other writers have noted that the programme has had a significant impact on US culture.

"What we were seeing was the perfect indictment of the world of political punditry, yes, but also a send-up of our inflexibility when it came to opinions, reason and the truth," writes the Washington Post's Hank Stuever.

The Daily Beast's Noel Murray observes that Mr Colbert's show was about more than spoofing right-wing talk show hosts like Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, which explains why it was able to stay fresh and engaging for so many years.

Stephen Colbert shakes late night host David Letterman's hand. Stephen Colbert will take over for retiring late-night talk show host David Letterman on CBS in September 2015

"Colbert kept building out his character's backstory, turning a single-panel cartoon into something more like a long-running comic strip, with a myriad of subplots."

He continues: "All the looks back at this Colbert character have been a clever way of pointing out that some of the most trusted names in politics today are little more than escapees from some local radio station's Morning Zoo."

The "Colbert Nation", Mr Colbert's millions-strong band of viewers, is perhaps the best demonstration of the show's reach. At Mr Colbert's urging, they raised millions for charity, altered Wikipedia entries and swamped countless internet polls around the world. (At one point the Hungarian ambassador to the US appeared on the programme to apologise that that his country would not name a bridge after the host, despite "Stephen Colbert" having received the most votes.)

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The all-star sendoff is a staple of talk-show finales, but this one seemed to say something here about the vast world that Colbert created with the Report”

End Quote James Poniewozik Time magazine

The show's decade long-run was a remarkable bit of performance theatre unlike anything on US television - one so convincing that some polls showed some conservative viewers didn't understand that the show was satire.

"It's hard to wake up every day and try to change the world," writes Salon's Sonia Saraiya. "Stephen Colbert has a set of talents that he could deploy with devastating effect, and he decided to use them for making the world funnier and saner."

As Mr Colbert's final show wound to a close, he accidentally became immortal by killing death and engaged in a rousing rendition of We'll Meet Again with George Lucas, Henry Kissinger, Willie Nelson, Tom Brokaw and dozens of other celebrities, journalists and politicians.

"The all-star send-off is a staple of talk-show finales, but this one seemed to say something here about the vast world that Colbert created with the Report," says Time magazine's James Poniewozik. "The show itself was not the sum total of the production that Colbert has put since 2005. It was just the flagship product of a larger performance that extended to the internet, to public rallies, to political campaigns and even to space."

In the final scene, Mr Colbert stood atop his studio's building holding a Captain America shield, where he was met by Santa Claus, an e-cigarette smoking Abraham Lincoln unicorn and game-show host Alex Trebec. He climbed aboard Santa's sleigh, and they flew off into the night.

"From eternity," he said as he signed off, "I'm Stephen Colbert."

Like Lincoln, it seems, "Stephen Colbert" now belongs to the ages.


US-Cuba deal has vocal critics

Anti-Castro activists demonstrate in Little Havana. Anti-Castro activists take to the streets in Miami to protest the US-Cuba deal

The news that the US plans to normalise relations with long-time Caribbean thorn-in-the-side Cuba caught much of Washington off-guard.

For supporters the announcement was greeted with excitement and a certain amount of "it's about time" exasperation.

The Cuban embargo, writes Vox's Matthew Yglesias, is the "longest-running joke in American foreign policy, and something that can't come to an end a moment too soon".

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Mr Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life”

End Quote Editorial The Washington Post

"Designed over 50 years ago to somehow try to starve the Cuban population into overthrowing the Castro regime, it has failed, disastrously, and somehow allowed Cuban communism to outlive its Soviet sponsor by a generation," he writes.

Many pundits argued that US Cuban policy had long been dictated by a small, yet vocal community of Cuban expatriots in Florida. President Barack Obama's announcement, they contend, is a signal that the broader but more diffuse interests of the US as a whole may finally be recognised.

"Why does Obama think he can beat the Cuba lobby now?" asks Bloomberg View's Noah Feldman. "The accidental political configuration of the moment provides the best explanation."

He says Mr Obama no longer has to worry about re-election, it's two years before congressional Democrats face voters and if former Florida Governor Jeb Bush ends up as the Republican 2016 presidential candidate, Florida won't be a battleground presidential state.

The view that improved relations with Cuba was a needlessly delayed, yet welcome development was challenged on a number of different fronts, however.

In official Washington, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been one of the most active voices decrying the deal. On Thursday he took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue that Mr Obama has offered a financial lifeline to the island without achieving any significant concessions in return.

Senator Marco Rubio. Senator Marco Rubio says the US "unilaterally granted concessions" to Cuba

"Reasonable people can disagree about the efficacy of American foreign policy toward Cuba and even the embargo, but no serious person can argue that the manner in which President Obama unilaterally granted concessions to the regime in Havana was well advised," he writes.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank calls Mr Rubio's statements an "emotional - and at times inaccurate" response to abandoning a "vestigial policy that has stopped serving a useful purpose".

He might also want to have a few words with his paper's editorial board, which says Mr Obama's action is an "undeserved bailout" for Cuba's communists.

Things were looking grim for the Castros, they write, with the economies of their Russian and Venezuelan supporters tanking due to low oil prices and a population making growing demands for human rights.

The influx of hard currency from US investment, they say, will allow the communist leaders to weather the storm.

The sanctions, they write, had marginalised Cuba in the Western Hemisphere. Lifting them, they continue, will likely help Cuba become another Vietnam - where "a flood of US tourists and business investment" has allowed a totalitarian system to make no improvement in human rights.

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Who is next to find that America is today more interested in propitiating its enemies than in protecting its allies?”

End Quote Elliot Abrams The Weekly Standard

"Mr Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life," they conclude.

Other critics fear that improved relations with Cuba may not lead to improved conditions for Cubans - and may weaken perceptions of the US in other areas of the globe.

The Federalist's Sean Davis says he wants to believe the claims that free and open trade will liberalise Cuba, but he's not optimistic.

The reason, he says, is there are currently two currency systems in the island nation - one based around the US dollar for tourists and the elite and a peso system for ordinary Cubans.

"The result of the Cuban two-currency economy - one of which is forbidden to its people - is that every dollar will eventually find its way into the hands of the Cuban government," he writes.

Increased US investment doesn't mean things will get better for the average Cuban, he concludes, it just means the government will get wealthier. Until the Cuban peso can be freely traded, the Cuban people won't be free.

Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy posts in multiple Republican administrations, writes in the Weekly Standard that the Cuban move should concern US allies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, who will wonder if the US will someday announce a "major policy shift" toward other regional provocateurs, such as Iran, China and Russia.

"What are American guarantees and promises worth if a 50-year-old policy followed by Democrats like Johnson, Carter and Clinton can be discarded overnight?" he asks. "In more than a few chanceries the question that will be asked as this year ends is 'who is next to find that America is today more interested in propitiating its enemies than in protecting its allies?'"

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Mr Rubio says that he will do "everything in my power" to block Mr Obama's Cuban policies in Congress. And given that Congress must approve any easing of the US embargo, his threat has teeth.

In public statements, he's also threatened to block the confirmation of a US ambassador to Cuba and prevent funding for construction of a US embassy in Havana.

While Mr Obama's move has both symbolic and diplomatic importance, Congress can exercise considerable power over just how long-lasting and broad the rapprochement becomes.

Even those who support Wednesday's news have expressed some concern that any liberalisation in Cuba must be done in a careful, controlled manner, lest oligarchs and corruption replace dictatorship.

"Many past attempts at rapprochement between the United States and Cuba have failed miserably, as have efforts to transform the relationship," writes the Atlantic's Adam Chandler.

While the end of the US-Cuba "Cold War-legacy stalemate" would be a historic achievement for the president, he says, "let's not start celebrating yet."

Given the range of opponents who have come forward to criticise the president's announcement, his words may ring true.


CIA interrogations: 'No place' for psychologists?

Taliban prisoners in orange jumpsuits kneel outside at the Guantanamo detention facility.

In the wake of last week's US Senate Intelligence Committee's report detailing the ways the CIA interrogated detainees, one group in particular has come under fire - psychologists.

The report documented that two former Air Force psychologists were paid about $80m (£51m) to create and monitor the agency's "enhanced interrogation" techniques. The 6,700-page report was the result of a five-year investigation and brought to light some of the agency's most brutal interrogation methods, including ice baths, rectal "rehydration", mock burials and threats to detainees' families.

Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two psychologists, are referred to in the report by the pseudonyms "Grayson Swigert" and "Hammond Dunbar". They had no experience in real interrogation and no expertise with al-Qaeda, qualifying for the job based on their work preparing members of the military against torture through mock interrogations.

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There is no place in the field of psychology for people who are not respectful of human dignity and committed to human rights”

End Quote Nadine J Kaslow American Psychological Association

The pair reverse-engineered the now-famous waterboarding technique, as well as certain stress positions and sleep deprivation. Informing this type of interrogation was a decades-old theory of "learned helplessness", or the loss of a person's control over their life. In its truest form, learned helplessness posits that exposing subjects to such distressing conditions that they become completely compliant.

In a written statement after the Senate report's release, the CIA defended hiring the two psychologists, citing the need for their "unique expertise".

The Associated Press' Ken Dilanian spoke to Mr Mitchell, who because of a secrecy agreement could not confirm his involvement with the CIA. The psychologist did say that that enhanced interrogation is much more ethical than what he sees as the current alternative.

"It's a lot more humane, even if you are going to subject them to harsh techniques, to question them while they are still alive, than it is to kill them and their children and their neighbours with a drone," he said.

For many, the extent of these psychologists' involvement in the program has been shocking.

In a letter to the New York Times, president of the American Psychological Association Nadine J Kaslow said she was outraged with Mr Mitchell and Mr Jessen's actions and hoped to see them held accountable.

"There is no place in the field of psychology for people who are not respectful of human dignity and committed to human rights," she said.

A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at its Virginia headquarters. The CIA says it relied on two psychologists to develop its interrogation programme because of their "expertise"

The Times editorial board weighed in on Wednesday, calling the revelations about the psychologists's involvement "ghastly" and the science behind the interrogation techniques "ludicrous".

"Healthcare professionals who engaged in or abetted torture should have their professional licenses revoked and, depending on the degree of culpability, be prosecuted criminally," the editors write.

The Verge's Arielle Duhaime-Ross says it seems highly unlikely that the pair will be punished. Plus, she said, even if they were, it wouldn't fix the source of the problem.

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It is time that the practice of interrogation be ... informed by scientific scrutiny”

End Quote Christian Meissner The Week

She talks to New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who says there needs to be clear guidelines about what is and isn't acceptable when health professionals work with military or intelligence organisations.

"It's time to give clarity to people who are trying to be patriotic," she quotes Caplan. "Healthcare workers need to know their limits. And if they don't, we need to do something about that."

Stephen Soldz, a professor of ethics at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, spoke with Vice's Jules Suzdaltsev about the Senate report and was similarly disturbed by the way Mr Mitchell and Mr Jessen used psychology in their work.

He said that beyond the basic ethical problems that go along with these types of interrogation tactics, they are a violation of the "do no harm" code to which all health professionals are held. But, he added, that doesn't mean that there aren't good ways to use psychology in interrogations.

"I mean, good police do it all the time," he said. "You know, people try to get information from people who don't want to give it all the time, and that's ethical. But torture involves the deliberate infliction of harm in the process of trying to get that information."

And for some, that's exactly the problem. It's not that psychology was used in the first place; it was that it was used poorly.

Throughout the 1990s, the CIA's codes of conduct read: "Inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not product intelligence and will probably result in false answers."

Christian Meissner, a professor of Psychology at Iowa State University, writes for the Week that his research seems to show that science definitely has a place in making interrogation more effective.

He says the types of techniques detailed in the report are "ethically indefensible" and not backed up by scientific proof. Instead, he writes, all evidence says that methods that build rapport and understand a suspect's motivation are much more effective.

"Medicine and education have turned to researchers for the development of evidence-based approaches," he writes. "It is time that the practice of interrogation be similarly informed by scientific scrutiny."

(By Kierran Petersen)


Can Jeb Bush avoid Mitt Romney's fate?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

On Tuesday morning, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced via Facebook that he is forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid.

In case there was any doubt, the 2016 presidential season has officially begun.

With his credentials, deep pockets and familiar name, Mr Bush is well positioned to become the establishment candidate for a party that traditionally embraces the establishment pick.

As the old saying about the US presidential nomination process goes: "Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line."

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Absent Obama's actions, Bush could dance around the issue of immigration without betraying his pro-reform leanings”

End Quote Brian Beutler The New Republic

Recent opinion surveys appear to bear this out, as Mr Bush ranks at the head of the Republican pack. A Real Clear Politics poll average puts him at 14.5%, with a four-point lead over his nearest possible opponent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

"If Bush decides to advance from actively exploring a run to actively campaigning, he could have a real shot at the nomination," says the National Journal's Rebecca Nelson.

The National Review's Rich Lowry writes that Mr Bush's move immediately hurts other possible establishment candidates, like Mr Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

It could also, he says, prove a boost for a hard-core conservative candidate like Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney sit together on a campaign plane in 2012. Like Mitt Romney in 2011, Jeb Bush faces a conservative base that has its doubts

"The Texas senator wants a pure establishment-Tea Party fight, and a Jeb candidacy does the most to tee that up by potentially squeezing out the candidates who have some appeal to both wings," he says.

This Cruz scenario, and the Tea Party doubts they represent, raises the spectre of the single biggest obstacle Mr Bush faces - similar to the one establishment-backed Mitt Romney grappled with four years before him.

For Mr Romney the challenge was explaining why he supported state-level healthcare reform that, after being implemented nationally by Democrats, had became anathema to the conservative base. For Mr Bush, his views on immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and his support for the federal Common Core education programme put him at odds with many grass-roots conservatives.

Mr Romney's strategy was to make a sharp turn to the right, abandoning some previously held positions. That worked in a drawn-out primary battle, but was widely viewed as burdening him with unpopular stances when he faced off against Barack Obama in the presidential campaign.

Early indications are that Mr Bush will chart a different course, attempting to defend his positions - to "lose the primary to win the general (election)", as he has described it.

Start Quote

In 2016, top issue is immigration, so we run Jeb?”

End Quote Ben Shapiro Breitbart.com

"In essence, he may run the risk of doing things that are usually considered destructive in the GOP primary, but that he envisions will be so effective that he not only wins the primary but also emerges stronger for the general election," Noah Dickerson writes in Slate.

The reality, says the Washington Post's Paul Waldman, is that Mr Bush doesn't have much choice. He's considered the "single most prominent advocate" for Common Core. And on immigration, his feelings are even more deeply held.

"He wrote a book on immigration reform (which his opponents' aides are no doubt scouring for quotes that can be used against him)," Waldman writes. "His wife is an immigrant from Mexico. He speaks Spanish. His kids look Hispanic. He's not going to suddenly change his position on immigration."

And immigration is going to be a key issue during the Republican primaries. As the New Republics Brian Beutler explains, Mr Obama's unilateral executive order deferring deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants has all but assured that.

Unlike many political issues, which can be discussed in the abstract, presidential aspirants will be faced with a clear question. Will they rescind Mr Obama's order or not?

"Absent Obama's actions," writes Beutler, "Bush could dance around the issue of immigration without betraying his pro-reform leanings - play up the need for border security, play down the urgency of the issue more generally."

Now, however, he can't do that. Mr Bush has said the order was "extraconstitutional" - but he hasn't yet spelled out what he would replace it with. And if he makes any move toward creating a legal status for the affected immigrants, Beutler says, "the right will abandon him".

"Faced with such a threat, Bush could just as easily retreat from his compassionate position on the issue," Beutler continues. "Other Republicans have executed a similar volte-face. But then he'll just become another Romney-like figure who by his own lights can't win the presidency."

Ben Shapiro of the conservative Breitbart.com, summed up exactly how difficult Mr Bush's challenge will be.

"GOP geniuses," he tweeted. "In 2012, top issue was Obamacare, so we ran the Republican who invented it. In 2016, top issue is immigration, so we run Jeb?"

Of course there's still the chance that Mr Bush decides not to run. But as columnist Mark Shields regularly points out, exploratory committees "are invariably stocked with incurable optimists who, wherever they explore, come back with the same sunny conclusion: voters overwhelmingly want The Unannounced Candidate to run!"

Are Americans - and, of more immediate concern, Republicans - ready to consider another President Bush? Mr Bush's strategy to risk losing the primary to win the presidency sounds good - unless, of course, he actually loses in the primaries.


Sony hacks: Sorkin says media are 'morally treasonous'

Actress Jennifer Lawrence. A Daily Beast article reveals Jennifer Lawrence wasn't paid as much as her male co-stars in a recent film

The messages read like something from a bad Hollywood film about Hollywood. The misbehaviour of egotistical studio executives, petulant stars and dictatorial directors seem almost too cliched to be true.

But, apparently, they are.

Major media outlets have been sifting through the voluminous trove of Sony Pictures emails made public by an anonymous group of hackers known as the Guardians of Peace for more than a week, picking out the particularly salacious details.

The resulting stories have provided a candid look at the sometimes ugly, sometimes acrimonious and often darkly amusing interactions that take place between many of the major players in the motion picture industry.

But do these articles constitute legitimate journalism or a gross invasion of privacy?

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Every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonourable”

End Quote Aaron Sorkin The New York Times

Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin thinks it's the latter, accusing the media of "giving material aid to criminals".

Mr Sorkin, writing in the New York Times, notes that some of the emails that generated the most attention involved one of his writing projects, a planned biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

He says the "minor insults" revealed don't anger him as much as the fact that the rest of the film industry is standing silently by as sensitive information about Sony employees is exposed.

"Wouldn't it be a movie moment if the other studios invoked the Nato rule and denounced the attack on Sony as an attack on all of us, and our bedrock belief in free expression?" he asks.

He reserves the bulk of his scorn for the media, however. What they are writing about isn't newsworthy, he says, they're motivated purely by greed. Their actions, he says, make any future arguments against privacy invasions - by, for instance, the National Security Agency - empty.

"Let's just say that every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonourable," he says.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin says Hollywood shouldn't stand by as Sony's privacy is violated

Not everyone agrees with Mr Sorkin and Sony, which has called on media outlets to destroy any hacker-produced documents they may have downloaded.

Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg View says the journalistic ethics in this instance are "more complicated" than Mr Sorkin admits.

Start Quote

Truth is the rudder that steers ethical decisions in journalism”

End Quote Kelly McBride Poynter Institute

By publishing stories about the emails, he says, the media are performing a "socially useful act" by revealing exactly how unsafe digital information really is.

"The embarrassing media reports about Sony may bring the outlets that publish them a few thousand extra clicks, but it would be wrong to begrudge them that minor reward for telling the public an uncomfortable truth: You have been too cavalier and too trusting with your data," he says.

People need to learn to be more cautious, Bershidksy writes. If Mr Sorkin wants to discuss sensitive information with studio executives, he'd be advised to do it face-to-face.

According to the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, a number of important public-interest stories have been written about the email hacks. Buzzfeed's article on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's back-channel communications with a Sony executive is one. Bloomberg's investigation into Sony's interest in its employee medical records is another.

(A Daily Beast article on pay disparities among male and female stars and studio executives could also fall into this category.)

The main priority for journalists, McBride says, is to ensure that what is reported is accurate.

"Truth is the rudder that steers ethical decisions in journalism," she writes. "Is this information true? That's the first, but not the only question journalists ask. Does it enhance our understanding of a situation?"

Of course journalistic ethics are not a binding obligation. While they may be the concern of publications like the New York Times, the farther down the media totem pole one goes, the less interest there is in making sure the story is right from the start.

And then, of course, there's social media, where ethics are the sum total of millions of individual decisions - and the end result is usually a race to the bottom.

Even if trade publications like Variety hadn't pored over the leaked emails, users on websites like Reddit would have crowd-sourced the task, and the Hollywood's dirty laundry would have been aired all the same.


Cheney: 'No problem' with detaining innocents

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney made no apologies on Sunday for the US interrogation programme that he helped devise after the 9/11 attacks and expressed no regrets for any innocents who may have been harmed in the process.

Mr Cheney had said in an interview last week on Fox News that he considers the now-released summary of the Senate report on interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda militants to be "full of crap" and that the programme was "fundamentally justified".

Critics who hoped the former vice-president would receive more pointed questions in a Sunday appearance on NBC's Meet the Press weren't disappointed, but Mr Cheney didn't back down from his defence of his actions. He said Bush administration policies have kept the US safe for 13 years, repeatedly referencing the horrors of the 9/11 attacks to justify his actions.

Start Quote

I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent”

End Quote Dick Cheney Former US Vice-President

How does he define torture?

"Torture to me … is an American citizen on his cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York," he replied.

Did he have a problem with the "involuntary rectal feeding" of some detainees, as detailed in the Senate report?

"What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved," he said. "I believe it was done for medical reasons." (That contention is disputed by the report and medical experts.)

Was he concerned by the report's findings that up to 25% of detainees were innocents captured as a result of mistaken identity and that one such man, Gul Rahman, froze to death after being doused with water and chained to a wall?

"The problem I have was with all of the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield," he said. "I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent."

A police officer salutes near the September 11 Memorial in New York City. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney repeatedly references the horror of the 9/11 attacks when defending the US interrogation programme

And in case that wasn't clear enough, he added:

"I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States."

Mr Cheney's remarks were greeted with equal parts outrage and bitter resignation on the part of many liberal commentators.

"An innocent man died," writes MSNBC's Steven Benen. "For Cheney, there is no remorse, no reflection, no acknowledgement of an obvious tragedy. Rather, there is an immediate shift to others he wishes he could have imprisoned longer."

Mr Cheney is fine with the ends justifying the means, he says, "just so long as Cheney is the one dictating both the means and the ends".

Benen also warns that it's too easy to write Mr Cheney off as a retired politician who no longer has influence in the Washington corridors of power.

"Most of the contemporary Republican Party not only agrees with Cheney, but GOP policymakers literally welcome Cheney to Capitol Hill to help offer guidance to Republican lawmakers on matters of national security," he writes.

Mr Cheney's views shouldn't be surprising, writes Salon's Heather Digby Parton, since it's all part of the "1% doctrine" the vice-president laid out more than a decade ago.

Start Quote

It was a programme that has no place in a civilised society”

End Quote Andrew Sullivan The Daily Dish

"If even a 1% chance existed that we might suffer an attack," she says, "we had to do whatever was in our capability, including torture, to stop it."

According to blogger Andrew Sullivan, Mr Cheney's answer reveal that his interrogation programme was motivated less by the desire to prevent another attack as it was by rage and revenge.

"It was torture designed to be as brutal to terror suspects as 19 men on 9/11 were to Americans," he writes. "Tit-for-tat. Our torture in return for their torture; their innocent victims in return for ours. It was a programme that has no place in a civilised society."

The former vice-president is a "sociopath", Sullivan says, who "needs to be brought to justice".

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, on the other hand, lauds Mr Cheney as "one of the few men publicly pushing back against the Democrats". His views may be unpopular, he writes for RedState, but his cause is just.

"Because of Dick Cheney, George W Bush and many nameless men and women, the Democrats and their friends in the media get to morally preen because they are alive and might not be had Dick Cheney, George W Bush and these nameless men and women not done what needed doing," he says.

Others on the right weren't as enthusiastic as Erickson, however.

"Whatever you think of Cheney's general approach to torture, the indifference to the innocents caught in the machine seemed callous to me," tweeted the National Review's Charles CW Cooke.

In his 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, jurist William Blackstone wrote: "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

This ratio, commonly called Blackstone's Formulation, drew from the Old Testament and has been a bedrock principle of Western jurisprudence, having been cited repeatedly by US Supreme Court justices.

Mr Cheney may or may not believe this formulation applies to US citizens, but when it comes to foreign detainees, it appears he takes a decidedly different view.


US spending bill boon for Wall Street?

Wall Street sign in New York on 16 September 2008

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted 219-206 in favour of funding most government operations for the next fiscal year.

But the bill - which includes rollbacks of regulations meant to protect the economy from dangerous banking practices - is flawed with provisions that have serious consequences, Forbes reports.

"The measure that relaxes some regulations on derivative trading for corporations - including big banks - brings to mind how we ended up in financial collapse in 2008," writes author Doug Schoen.

"And the provision that expands the amount of money individuals can give to national parties will certainly make worse a campaign finance environment that is already wildly out of control."

The New York Times agrees, saying the spending bill has some of the most devious and damaging provisions imaginable for good government.

The newspaper's editorial board argues the bill is tailored for Wall Street, and would effectively put taxpayers back on the hook to cushion the banks' losses in risky derivative deals.

"The dirty secret is that many Democrats want this harmful repeal as much as Republicans do in the shabby, big-money symbiosis between Wall Street and Capitol Hill."

Senator Elizabeth Warren (right) appeared in Washington DC on 10 December 2014 Senator Elizabeth Warren (right) called for House Democrats to challenge the spending bill
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Analysis - Kim Gittleson, BBC News, New York

At the behest of Wall Street's biggest banks, Republican lawmakers had inserted a line that repealed one of the signature provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

This provision, Section 716, required banks to put portions of their riskier derivatives businesses into holding companies. The idea was to separate some of the bank's riskier trading in things like credit default swaps and commodities into a separate entity not insured by US taxpayers. But banks have balked at the rule since it was passed in 2010.

Citigroup, one of the country's largest banks, wrote a measure repealing the provision, and with help from JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon, managed to get Republicans to include it in the final $1.1bn budget bill.

Unsurprisingly, this angered many liberal Democrats - and even conservative Tea Party members - who saw it as a dirty play by Wall Street to force a Congress desperately in need of passing a spending bill into doing the banks' bidding.

But with a US public tired of fiscal brinksmanship - and a newly empowered Republican majority - it seems that the bill will pass. Once more, US taxpayers will be tied inextricably to obscure, and risky, Wall Street activities.

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Outspoken opponent, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, called the spending bill "the worst of government for the rich and powerful", urging House Democrats to withhold their support prior to Thursday's vote.

Fear of a looming government shutdown propelled the legislation to victory in the lower chamber of Congress though.

Jamie Dimon appeared in Washington DC on 13 June 2012. JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon pushed for favourable provisions

And Wall Street's success in using the year-end spending bill to weaken a provision of the 2010 financial reform law shows how it plans to wield its clout in the months ahead - slowly and methodically, argues Politico.

"Wall Street's strategy toward weakening the pushout restrictions has involved slowly building bipartisan support. Wall Street lobbyists worked with lawmakers on a standalone House bill, touting its vote tallies as evidence the change has ample support."

Politico reports that last year 70 Democrats voted in favour of a bill that would weaken the provision.

Bloomberg disagrees that the bill is the wrong decision for America, however.

"It's a product of horse trades, half measures and compromises, some unseemly. But in the recent history of confidence-killing brinkmanship in Congress, it amounts to a positive development," writes the editorial board.

As a whole, Bloomberg argues, the bill reflects the merged interests of Democrats and Republicans.

"That's appropriate in a capital where government is divided and power is shared. While it's too soon to suggest that Congress is functional, passing the spending agreement would help raise what has been a dangerously low bar."

Reporting by Micah Luxen


Does Mark Wahlberg want a 'white privilege' pardon?

Actor Mark Wahlberg.

Last month actor Mark Wahlberg filed a petition asking the US state of Massachusetts for an official pardon for a pair of decades-old criminal convictions. His timing could be worse, but not by much.

According to court records, in 1988 a 16-year-old Mr Wahlberg brutally attacked a Vietnamese man named Thanh Lam with a stick while spewing racial epithets and knocking him unconscious. Seeing police, Mr Wahlberg fled and found Hoa Trinh, another Vietnamese man. He put his hand around Mr Trinh's shoulder and asked the man to help him hide.

After the police cars had passed, Mr Wahlberg punched Mr Trinh in the face. According to the police report, during his arrest the future actor used several anti-Asian slurs. He served 45 days of a three-month sentence, all while maintaining that the crimes were not racially motivated.

Today, however, Mr Wahlberg says he's a changed man - who wants a liquor licence for his restaurant.

Start Quote

This ability - to write history the way we choose, regardless of the facts - is a frightening example of white privilege”

End Quote Ben Railton Talking Points Memo

"I am deeply sorry for the actions that I took on the night of 8 April, 1988, as well as for any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims," he writes in the petition. "Since that time, I have dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others."

A pardon would legally free Mr Wahlberg up for more than just a liquor licence for his family's Boston-based restaurant, Wahlburgers. It would also allow him to do work as a parole or probation officer in the US state of California - the other reason he cited in his petition.

Reaction to the timing and substance of Mr Wahlberg's pardon has been harsh, given the racial nature of his crimes. Put into context with the race-based unrest that's persisted since a grand jury's decision not to charge a policeman over the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, some say the petition is white privilege in action.

"If a black, Hispanic or Asian youth under the influence of drugs and alcohol had put out a white man's eye while trying to rob his store, it's inconceivable that he would have been let off with such a light sentence; implausible that he'd have gone on to the kind of marquee stardom that Wahlberg has obtained; unlikely that he would have the sense of unvarnished privilege that is driving Wahlberg's desire for a whitewashing of his record, if you'll pardon the pun," writes CNN's Jeff Yang.

A pardon for Mr Wahlberg's two 1988 crimes would not, however, completely wash his record clean. Two years earlier he was embroiled in a civil rights action lawsuit because he, along with two friends, allegedly yelled racial slurs and threw rocks at black schoolchildren. He settled that suit without admitting guilt.

Actor Mark Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg says he is now a better person and is "deeply sorry" for his actions

In 1992 he managed to dodge criminal charges by settling out of court after a 20-year-old security guard said the actor, unprovoked, had repeatedly kicked him in the face.

Yang writes that it is "gut-wrenching" that in the reactions to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner - all young black men killed despite being unarmed - the victims are often characterised as "harder, bestial and irredeemably corrupted by casual drug use or records of petty crime". But Mr Wahlberg, he says, who has a much more extensive criminal record, is seen simply as a troubled kid.

Ben Railton, writing for Talking Points Memo, says that he also sees a larger historical and cultural narrative at play.

"Many Americans might prefer to erase the histories of white crime and violence from our collective memories, just as Wahlberg now requests that his own history of violence toward people of colour be legally erased," he writes. "This ability - to write history the way we choose, regardless of the facts - is a frightening example of white privilege."

Start Quote

We can't keep demanding that individuals stay tarnished forever, because otherwise, what's the point?”

End Quote Danielle C Belton The Root

But other reactions are less focused on the wider racial conflict and more in the human one.

Writing for the Boston Globe, Adrian Walker suggests that Mr Wahlberg should personally reach out to his victims and apologise before taking the legal route. He says that he believes Mr Wahlberg's regret is genuine because the potential gains of the pardon are so small.

"But pardons are a serious process, to the point that many argue that recent governors have granted too few of them," he writes. "Wahlberg shouldn't get an E-ZPass because he's a movie star and people like his restaurants. Cleansing his record and his conscience should be hard, not as easy as writing a few checks."

Time's Daniel D'Addario says the pardon request comes across as entitled and proves that he hasn't really changed - and why should he? D'Addario writes that the actor's audience has clearly already forgiven him. His film's box office numbers are proof enough. But asking for a pardon exposes Mr Wahlberg as the same 16-year-old, for whom consequences don't matter.

"That Wahlberg has served his time and moved forward with life sends a message that anything is possible for people in dire circumstances," he says. "For the state to say he never committed a crime at all would send a message that anything is possible for a celebrity."

While neither box office numbers nor "Marky Mark and Funky Bunch" album sales are likely to influence Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's decision about Mr Wahlberg, the results will no doubt be scrutinised.

As Danielle C Belton writes for the Root, however, stifling Mr Wahlberg via a criminal record doesn't make the US justice system any better. People don't have to be perfect to get second chances.

"This shouldn't be about, 'But what if Mark Wahlberg is still a racist jerk?'" she writes. "Being a racist jerk isn't illegal. Just as wearing sagging pants isn't illegal, or listening to really loud rap music in public places. We can't keep demanding that individuals stay tarnished forever, because otherwise, what's the point?"

(By Kierran Petersen)


Democrat blasts Senate interrogation report

Former US Senator Bob Kerrey.

A review of the best commentary on and around the world...

Today's must-read

Former Senator Bob Kerrey hopes the Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are still friendly after his harsh critique of the Senate report US interrogation practices in USA Today.

Mr Kerrey says the report, which he suspects was written by Democrats alone after Republicans "checked out", provides no recommendations to improve the Central Intelligence Agency system.

The Democrats, he said, "started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it".

"This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the programme was perfect or without its problems," writes Mr Kerrey, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War. "But equally, no one with real experience would claim it was the completely ineffective and superfluous effort this report alleges."

Mr Kerrey, stressing for the second time in the column that he has not read the report, argues that the CIA did what was necessary to keep the country from being attacked again.

"There was no operating manual to guide the choices and decisions made by the men and women in charge of protecting us," said Kerrey. "I do not need to read the report in full to know this: We have not been attacked since (9/11), and for that I am very grateful."

One of Mr Kerrey's former Senate colleagues, Republican John McCain, offers a differing view.

In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, the prisoner of war survivor said torture practices "not only failed their purpose - to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the US and our allies - but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world".

He also argued that "the truth is a hard pill to swallow ... the American people are entitled to it."

Mr Kerrey calls on Congress to take responsibility for the oversight of intelligence. He mentions an earlier report, the 9/11 Commission, which did recommend a number of changes in the authorities of congressional committees, but Congress did not offer support to those recommendations.

The column was quickly embraced by the CIA's defenders, who cited it as an example of a veteran liberal voice - a two-time Democratic presidential candidate - speaking out against his party's interests.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations calls Mr Kerry's piece a "blistering critique".

Mr Kerrey is a "serious Democrat", tweets the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, and his writing "devastates the reckless Feinstein report".

Meanwhile his comments were met with derision on the left.

"When did he become the worst?" asks Blue Nation Review's Jesse Berney,

India

A pollution crisis - The consequences of environmental sins are far more serious in overpopulated India than in other parts of the world, argues Anne Backhaus and Simone Salden in Der Spiegel.

"Polluted air and contaminated water can quickly affect millions of people in India," write the authors, who say the guidelines that exist - that toxic chemical factories be constructed at least 25km from residential areas, for example - are not followed.

The results are tragedies like the 1984 Bhopal disaster, where US-based Union Carbide leaked 350 tons of highly toxic gas, killing thousands in days and up to 30,000 in total.

"Union Carbide denies any responsibility for the long-term damage to human beings and the environment," write the authors, and "what is happening in Bhopal is an endless catastrophe - and the world simply looks away."

Russia

A dark numerical convergence - Moscow's most popular joke today is not funny, reports Masha Gessen in New York Times. "Next year [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, the ruble and a barrel of oil will converge at just over 63."

She explains that the ruble will soon be trading at 63 to the dollar, or nearly double what the dollar was worth in Russia a year ago (meaning most Russians will be roughly 50% poorer); a barrel of oil will fall to $63, roughly 2005-level prices, devastating the Russian economy; and Mr Putin will turn 63.

"All three predictions are depressingly realistic," writes Gessen. "The Russian economy appears headed for disaster just as certainly as Mr Putin will most likely celebrate his next birthday in October 2015. And more likely than not, he will still be president of Russia then."

Canada

Energy money takes flight - In the Globe and Mail, investor Jeff Rubin writes that he's taking his investments out of the Canadian oil sands and putting the money elsewhere.

Canada's oil sands producers, he says, are churning out some of the highest cost oil in the world, while at the same time they're fetching one of the lowest prices for every barrel sold. Light sweet crude from a shallow well in Texas fetches a much better price from refiners than the heavy sludge that's being delivered from Canada's sands.

"If oil prices stay at their current levels, North American producers will have to start making choices about whether or not to shut in production," he writes. "If they don't, they run the risk of exacerbating the current glut in world oil markets, which would cause oil prices to fall even further. It's a situation that's reminiscent of the one faced by the global coal industry, which has had to contend with an equally challenging collapse in commodity prices."

Mexico

Across the border and out of sight - Seasonal farm workers live and work in shocking conditions in Mexico, write the editors of the Los Angeles Times. Barracked in squalid shacks far from their homes, underfed, trapped by debt or even held captive by their employers - it's time to improve conditions for those who make products for US consumption, argues the author.

"It might be possible to write this off as another sad story about a foreign people in a foreign country except that much of the food these contract workers pick is ultimately imported into the United States, where it is sold to American consumers by retailers as disparate as discounter Wal-Mart and pricey health-food chain Whole Foods," they write.

For their part, consumers can look for the "Fair Trade" label on foods, which at least ensures that the farm is regularly audited and meets certain requirements for treatment of workers, they conclude.

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Commentators react to plans by Hong Kong authorities to start dismantling barricades put up by protesters on major roads in two districts of the city.

"The 'Occupy Central' movement will leave behind a very complicated legacy… from now on nothing will be 'scary'… It has broken through the restraints as imposed by Hong Kong's laws." - Editorial in Beijing's Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times).

"The 'Occupy' protests have lost all support among the public and a minority's violent resistance will not help turn things around. The Hong Kong police force has been professional and restrained in executing the law." - Editorial in Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po.

"Tactically, the government's approach of waiting it out has worked. Student organisers, seeing the writing on the wall, have resorted to increasingly desperate moves to keep the movement alive… But the government cannot afford to gloat. The ugly factors that have fuelled the movement are still festering." - Philip Yeung in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Have you found an interesting opinion piece about global issues that we missed? Share it with us via email at echochambers (at) bbc.co.uk.


CIA report: A tale of competing truths

Protestors demonstrate against US torture policy.

With the Senate report on US interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects now in the public record, debate has shifted from hypothetical to the concrete.

In the hours after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee document was posted on the internet, journalists and interested parties began poring over the 500-page executive summary, highlighting its most controversial findings and drawing conclusions about its relevance.

"The core narrative that describes a barbarous, calculated, and sustained corruption of both our national values and our most fundamental moral principles is simple," writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. "We tortured prisoners, and then we lied about it. That's it."

The report is brutal, write the Daily Beast's Shane Harris and Tim Mak: "Interrogations that lasted for days on end. Detainees forced to stand on broken legs, or go 180 hours in a row without sleep. A prison so cold, one suspect essentially froze to death."

Start Quote

The CIA could not borrow methods from a torture programme that was successful at eliciting factual information because no such programme exists”

End Quote Max Fisher Vox

Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson says the "rectal rehydration, without evidence of medical necessity" that some detainees underwent was "sexual assault, plus water".

Beyond the moral repugnancy of the specific examples cited, writes Vox's Max Fisher, the report shows that there was a "disastrous flaw" in the CIA's interrogation programme.

Many observers have noted with shock that the US government paid $81m (£52m) to two Air Force survival school psychologists who knew little about interrogation techniques or al-Qaeda. It's what they did know, Fisher writes, that's the most disturbing, however.

The two trained pilots on how to survive interrogation at the hands of brutal captors - which meant their interrogation programme was, in effect, a recreation of these cruel tactics.

"It was based on copying Chinese torture methods designed not to elicit truth but to force false confessions," he writes.

"The CIA could not borrow methods from a torture programme that was successful at eliciting factual information because no such programme exists, nor will it ever," he continues.

A janitor sweeps over the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency. Does the Senate report on interrogations tarnish the CIA's image?

Other journalists took particular exception to the portion of the report that detailed how the CIA's public affairs department attempted to shape media coverage of the agency's practices.

"The government hates leaks of classified information. Except when it doesn't," writes the New York Times's Matt Apuzzo.

"The Senate report describes a CIA effort to reveal favourable classified information as a way to bolster support for its interrogation and detention programme," he continues. "Unlike other, unfavourable, stories that prompted leak investigations, reporter subpoenas and prison sentences, these disclosures led everyone to look the other way."

The Intercept's Dan Froomkin says the report shows that many of the reporters covering the CIA story weren't misled, they were willing participants in a deception.

"Many of the same news organisations you are trusting today to accurately inform you about the torture report were either naive or knowing dupes in a CIA misinformation campaign orchestrated by top CIA officials, that included leaks of information that was amazingly enough both classified and inaccurate at the same time," he writes.

Conservatives and former George W Bush Administration officials have countered the flood of criticism in part by noting that the report is the product of Senate Democrats who did not interview the CIA officials responsible for designing and implementing the interrogation programme (why those interviews didn't happen is an open question).

"There are two sides to every story, including this one," tweets former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer.

"Would a congressional report written almost exclusively by GOP staff ever be treated as 'the Senate report' on anything?" asks the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes.

Start Quote

The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation”

End Quote Former CIA officials The Wall Street Journal

A little over an hour after the report's release, the Wall Street Journal's website published an opinion piece in which former CIA Directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden and Deputy Directors John E McLaughlin, Albert Calland and Stephen R. Kappe defend their agency's record.

They call the report "a missed opportunity to deliver a serious and balanced study of an important public policy question".

"The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation - essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks," they write.

They contend, contrary to the report's findings, that the interrogation programme "helped us disrupt, capture or kill terrorists". Its legality was clearly established by the US Justice Department, they continue, and the allegation that CIA representatives misled Congress and administration officials is "flat-out wrong".

The authors of the Senate report forget the sense of urgency that existed in the days after the 9/11 attacks, they write.

"In this atmosphere, time was of the essence and the CIA felt a deep responsibility to ensure that an attack like 9/11 would never happen again," they say. "CIA officers knew that many would later question their decisions - as we now see - but they also believed that they would be morally culpable for the deaths of fellow citizens if they failed to gain information that could stop the next attacks."

For further information, the article directs readers to CIA Saved Lives. The website, run by "a group of former CIA officials with hundreds of years of combined service", further builds on the criticisms of the Senate Committee laid out in the Wall Street Journal.

"The committee selectively used documents to try to substantiate a point of view where ample and contrary evidence existed," they write. "Over five years and at a cost of $40m [£25m], the staff "cherry picked" through 6 million pages of documents to produce an answer they knew the majority wanted. In the intelligence profession, that is called politicisation."

In addition both the Senate committee's Republican minority and the CIA itself have now released competing reports.

As has become typical of Washington political debates, there's a "truth" out there for every opinion.


CIA interrogation report: Battle lines being drawn

US Senator Diane Feinstein Senator Diane Feinstein says the US torture report will be released this week

The public has yet to see the Senate Intelligence committee report on the rendition, detention and interrogation practices of the George W Bush administration, so its actual contents are currently the province of rumours and leaks.

With the release of its 480-page executive summary said to come on Tuesday, however, the arguments over its implications are already in full swing.

In an article in Monday's New York Times, Peter Baker says that the two-year-old report details the "brutal techniques" - considered torture by critics - the government employed on suspected al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants, and questions their effectiveness. It also reportedly contends that Central Intelligence Agency field operatives misled Congress and Bush Administration senior officials as to the extent of the programme.

The sharpness of the criticism, Baker says, has Bush Administration officials who devised and implemented the policies banding together to justify their actions.

The report, former CIA Deputy Head John E McLaughlin tells the Times, "uses information selectively, often distorts to make its points, and as I recall contains no recommendations".

Former CIA Director Michael V Hayden Former CIA Director Michael V Hayden tells the New York Times that "we're here to defend history", not torture

"We're not here to defend torture," former CIA Director Michael Hayden says. "We're here to defend history."

On Saturday the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Jose A Rodriguez Jr, the CIA operative in charge of the interrogation programme. He says the policies were "authorised by the highest levels of the US government, judged legal by the Justice Department and proved effective by any reasonable standard".

Start Quote

When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read”

End Quote Mark Udall US Senator

Not only that, he adds, some of today's biggest critics were once the loudest voices calling for the CIA to "do everything possible to prevent another attack on our soil".

He says in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein - who has become a driving force in recent efforts to release the report - and other Democratic senators were privately urging the CIA to take charge.

"Our reward, a decade later, is to hear some of these same politicians expressing outrage for what was done and, even worse, mischaracterising the actions taken and understating the successes achieved," he writes.

The report's critics also contend that its release could provide a propaganda win for US enemies and threaten US allies - said to be part of the reason why US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Ms Feinstein on Friday to delay the report's release.

"This will be used by our enemies to motivate people to attack Americans and American facilities overseas," Mr Hayden said in a CBS interview on Sunday.

Appearing on Fox News, House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rodgers said: "Our foreign partners are telling us this will cause violence and deaths."

The US Capitol in Washington DC on 11 November 2014 Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plan to release a separate report of their own

Such arguments are bunk, writes Tufts University Prof Daniel W Drezner for the Washington Post.

"There is no shortage of US foreign policy actions and inactions in the region to inflame enemies," he writes. "The Senate report is small potatoes compared to that."

Blogger Andrew Sullivan disagrees, but says he wants the report released anyway.

"Of course this complicates relationships with foreign countries; of course it guts any remaining credibility on human rights the US has; of course the staggering brutality endorsed by the highest echelons in American government will inflame American enemies and provoke disbelief across the civilised world," he writes.

"But that's not the fault of the report; it's the fault of the torture regime and its architects, many of whom have continued to operate with total impunity under President Obama."

Democratic Senator Mark Udall, who has read the report and is an outspoken advocate for its release, says people will be "disgusted" by its contents.

"When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read," Mr Udall told Esquire magazine. He says that if its release is blocked, he will "use every power" to get it into the public record, perhaps even reading it on the Senate floor.

Senator Mark Udall appeared in Denver, Colorado, on 4 November 2014 Senator Mark Udall claims people will be "disgusted" by the report's findings

"It's too historic," he says. "And we can't afford to repeat the mistakes to let this slide."

Once the report is out, expect the argument to only grow fiercer. According to the Times, the document's authors will respond to critics once Americans have had an opportunity to review the facts "and make up their own minds".

The Daily Beast's Shane Harris and Tim Mak write that a group of former government officials have already penned on opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, to be published after the report is released, that will present a "fierce rebuttal of the committee's findings" and "blast what they see as a biased, five-year process that culminated in a flawed history" of the programme.

In addition, Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign off on the report, plan to release one of their own.

History is written by the victors, as the saying goes. It explains why former administration officials and their critics see the upcoming battle over the Senate report - a perhaps not-so-small piece of history in the US "war on terror" - as too important to lose.


Last Senate Democrat loses in Deep South

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Senator Mary Landrieu's defeat marks the end of an era for Democrats in the Deep South

A review of the best commentary on and around the world...

Today's must-read

With Mary Landrieu's defeat on Saturday in her bid to be re-elected to a US Senate seat in Louisiana, there will soon be no Democratic senators in office from the Deep South.

In fact, Virginia and Florida are the only two states that were part of the 11-state Civil War Confederacy that have Democratic senators come January.

This year's mid-term elections, in which three Southern Democratic incumbents lost, complete a long, slow decline of the once-dominant party to near irrelevancy in Dixie.

Although it's a development that has led to a great deal of concern among party elders, the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky says Democrats would be well served to write the region off, as it's not worth fighting over.

"Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that's good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialised, resentment," he says.

Nationally, Democrats can win the presidency without carrying any Southern states, he says. Barack Obama only carried Florida and Virginia in 2012, and their votes just padded an already assured victory.

In Congress Democrats shouldn't waste money on trying to field competitive Southern candidates, he continues. Their efforts would be much better spent in Western states like Colorado, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana, which have proven they are still competitive for the party.

Tomasky says this is more than just a matter of political expediency, however. Democrats campaigning in the South have to make too much of an ideological sacrifice on the social issues, like gay rights and gun control, that are important to the party's non-Southern voters.

The column has been greeted with a fair amount of criticism, particularly from the right.

Robert Draper, a freelance writer for the New York Times and GQ, calls it "condescending … elitist and divisive". John Podhoretz of the conservative Commentary magazine wryly tweets: "Yes, it's always a good idea to shrink your party."

William Upton of the Americans for Tax Reform says the Democratic Party is "becoming absurd" - and "Tomasky is a chronicler and cheerleader of this absurdity".

Whenever a political party suffers the kind of sweeping defeat the Democrats endured in 2014, there's always considerable hand-wringing. After John Kerry was beaten by President George W Bush in 2004, Democrats - led by newly elected party chair Howard Dean - adopted a "50-state strategy" in which they pledged to recruit competitive candidates across the country, including in the South.

Mr Dean famously said that he still wanted Democrats to field candidates "for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks".

It seems Tomasky thinks those voters, and their entire region, are now a lost cause. Are Democrats ready for an every-state-but-the-South strategy?

Egypt

Human rights the victim of misplaced priorities - Although many Egyptians think it's a practical necessity to forgo human rights protections to achieve domestic security, Dina Iskander for Mada Masa writes that cracking down on free speech and assembly will have a destabilising effect.

"The more you enable groups to work in the light, the less likely they will work underground," she writes (translated by WorldCrunch). "It is no coincidence, therefore, that oppressive states are fertile lands for the rise of terrorism and terrorist movements."

Moreover, she warns, if nothing is done to ensure access to education, healthcare, shelter and economic opportunity for the 40% of the Egyptian people living in poverty, the next popular revolution could prove to be the longest and the bloodiest.

Russia

Severing ties to the internet - In order to keep control of the Russian people, writes Vedomosti opinion editor Maxim Trudolyubov in the New York Times, President Vladimir Putin is increasingly having to isolate them from the outside world.

One of the ways the Russian government is trying to achieve this is by curtailing the internet, he says, through harsh controls like requiring popular bloggers to register with government regulators.

"Backed by a considerable segment of Russian society, Moscow's leaders are slamming the door on the world," he writes. "A new, vengeful isolationism has prevailed in Moscow."

Mexico

US public can't ignore an unstable neighbour - President Barack Obama must move quickly to condemn the human rights violations in Mexico following the killing of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, writes the Kansas City Star's Mary Sanchez.

While the US public appears to be uninterested in the story, she says, human rights abuses could adversely affect the Mexican economy and lead to a spike in undocumented immigration into the US.

The US must use its "economic and diplomatic leverage" to urge Mexico to clean up its act, she concludes. "A prosperous, democratic and tranquil Mexico is in our country's best interest.

Burma

Free press crackdown could be the beginning of trouble - Although the current media environment represents one of the "most open in Burmese history", writes Brent Crane for the American Interest, there have been recent instances of free-speech oppression that have some observers worried.

Although restrictions have been eased, the rules governing the press are vague and could be changed at any time, he writes, which has led to considerable self-censorship. Sceptics worry that the Burmese government relaxed enforcement to attract Western investment and "now that Burma has Western money flowing in, the government will revert to its old ways".

If the US government wants to see democracy in Burma truly take hold, he says, it should exert its influence to ensure that the press is protected.

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Israeli commentators react to accusations that their nation launched air strikes in Syrian territory around Damascus on Sunday and the political implications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recently declared upcoming parliamentary elections.

"Finally, we passed the decision on the agenda of the upcoming election to the hands of a 'serious person': Bashar al-Assad. The way in which the Syrians will respond to what they define as Israeli Air Force attacks on two targets in the Damascus region will dictate the headlines and public preoccupation in the coming weeks and months." - Alex Fishman in Yedioth Aharonot.

"The pictures from the Damascus region as well as the timing of the bombardment close to Mr Netanyahu's elections announcement immediately stirred speculations as to whether political considerations stood behind the attack... The charge does not seem reasonable; it is difficult to see how Mr Netanyahu could initiate such an offensive move - and drag behind him the security arms - without something of the debate leaking to the media." - Amos Harel in Ha'aretz.

"The Al-Assad regime remains Hezbollah's main weapons depot, from where both Syrian-made and Iranian-produced arms often pass through en route to Hezbollah storage facilities in Lebanon. When this happens, Israel's choice is to either intervene, or watch closely and map out the location of the arms once they are stored in Lebanese apartment buildings and bunkers." - Editorial in the Jerusalem Post.

Have you found an interesting opinion piece about global issues that we missed? Share it with us via email at echochambers (at) bbc.co.uk.


Rolling Stone apologises for Virginia rape story

Protestors gather outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia.

Rolling Stone magazine is now backing away from a central part of its blockbuster story about sexual assault on the campus of the University of Virginia.

The article begins with a shocking, graphic account of a woman named Jackie who says she was gang raped as part of a hazing ritual at a storied university fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. It then traces Jackie's struggle with the incident and what author Sabrina Rubin Erdely portrays as the school's ham-fisted sexual assault bureaucracy.

Publication of the piece led to demonstrations on Virginia's campus, widespread criticism of the schools administration, and the decision by university president Teresa Sullivan to suspend all fraternity and sorority activities until mid-January. Phi Kappa Psi members received death threats, and its house was vandalised.

Start Quote

We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault”

End Quote Will Dana Managing Editor, Rolling Stone

On Friday the magazine said that its trust in Jackie "was misplaced" and apologised to "anyone who was affected by the story".

"In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility," Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana writes. He says that "new information", however, has exposed "discrepancies in Jackie's account".

"We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account," he writes.

The apology comes hours after the Washington Post published an extensive investigation into the story, which included multiple interviews with Jackie.

Among reporter T Rees Shapiro's findings were that there is no record of the fraternity having a party on the night Jackie says she was raped and there is no individual at the fraternity who matches the description of the man she says led her attack.

The University of Virginia Board of Rectors meets to discuss the Rolling Stone rape story. The University of Virginia responds to the Rolling Stone article by suspending all fraternity and sorority activities until mid-January

When Jackie told the paper the name of her alleged attacker, it was similar to that of a Virginia graduate who belonged to a different fraternity and who worked at the aquatic centre where Jackie said they first met. The Post contacted the man, and he denied ever having met her.

Even Jackie's friends, Shapiro writes, have begun to question her version of the events and said that her story had changed over time.

Friday's events are the crescendo of what has been a growing chorus of questions about the reporting and fact-checking in the Rolling Stone article.

On 24 November, author and magazine editor Richard Bradley said the facts presented in the story were difficult to believe and that Erdley broke a "cardinal rule" of journalism in not trying to contact the alleged attackers.

"If Rubin Erdley knew their names and didn't call them, that is horrible journalism and undermines confidence in her reporting," he wrote.

Start Quote

Rolling Stone accused the members of that fraternity of being members of an evil, ongoing, criminal enterprise”

End Quote Jonah Goldberg The National Review

Reason and the New Republic cited Bradley's blog in stories of their own, Slate published a podcast interview with Erdley that raised more questions than it answered, and soon doubts were being echoed throughout mainstream media.

Then the Washington Post broke the dam.

Jackie told the Post that she had asked Erdely to remove her from the article but that the writer had refused. Jackie then agreed to participate, but only if she were allowed to fact-check her own portions of the story - to which Erdely agreed.

According to the Post, Jackie said she "felt manipulated" by Erdely, and that she "felt completely out of control over my own story". She stands by her account, but she now says some of the details in the magazine may not be accurate.

In the Rolling Stone article Erdley portrays the school as being "less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal".

Now, however, it is Erdely's reputation, along with that of her magazine, that is in doubt.

Vox's Sarah Kliff says it was "dangerous and arguably unethical" for the magazine to move forward with publishing the story after Jackie asked that her name be withdrawn.

Start Quote

We've just begun to talk about campus sexual assault - which is, to be clear, still a very real problem at UVA and across the country”

End Quote Anna Merlan Jezebel

While it is "impossible to say" what happened to Jackie, Reason's Robbie Soave writes, the Rolling Stone article is clearly false.

"Not slightly false, or partly false, but false," he says. "And if Rolling Stone had done its job, the magazine might well have determined that before such a journalistic catastrophe unfolded."

Jonah Goldberg of the National Review says he's sure that Phi Kappa Psi will sue Rolling Stone, and the results will be "fun to watch".

"Rolling Stone accused the members of that fraternity of being members of an evil, ongoing, criminal enterprise," he writes.

The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch adds that the magazine's apology is unacceptable, as well.

"Shorter Rolling Stone note: We misreported Jackie's story. We published it without checking it. We blame her for telling it to us," he tweets.

The larger question, however, is what the collapse of the piece means for efforts to address sexual assault on campus.

Although Jackie's story was only a part of the Rolling Stone piece - and many other victims came forward in the story and afterward with their own experiences with sexual assault - it was the narrative hook on which the whole article rested.

"The doubt cast on Jackie's story has been feeding the myth that we have been combating for 40 years that women lie about rape, and I feel that will put women at a disadvantage in coming forward," Emily Renda, a rape counsellor at Virginia and one of Jackie's friends, told the Post.

"This feels like a betrayal of good advocacy if this is not true," she said. "We teach people to believe the victims."

She cites statistics that show that only 2-8% of rape reports are "fabricated or unfounded".

"This is bad in ways that have far-reaching social consequences. We've just begun, as a society, to not immediately and harshly question a woman who says she was raped," writes Jezebel's Anna Merlan. "We've just begun to talk about campus sexual assault - which is, to be clear, still a very real problem at UVa and across the country.

As doubts about the story grew midweek, the Washington Examiner's Asche Schow worried that if the allegations were proven false, "rape victims and advocates trying to fix the system will be set back years perhaps even decades".

Caitlan Flannigan, who wrote a much-publicised piece about fraternity culture for the Atlantic - told Slate that fraternity members were starting to change their views about the seriousness of the rape problem on campus.

"But if this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years," she said.

As key portions of Rolling Stone's reporting crumble, these worst-case scenarios appear increasingly realistic.


Are cigarette taxes behind Eric Garner's death?

Cigarettes on display at a New York city store.

According to a coroner's report, Eric Garner died due to "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint" as he was wrestled to the ground by Daniel Pantaleo and fellow New York City police officers.

On Wednesday a grand jury, presented with the report and a video of the entire incident, declined to indict Mr Pantaleo on charges related to Garner's death. The move, coming on the heels of a similar grand jury decision in a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has prompted two nights of massive protests in New York and widespread outrage in the media over alleged police brutality.

For some, however, another party bears some responsibility in Garner's death - an out-of-control nanny-state government attempting to enforce a prohibition on the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

"For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it," Kentucky Senator Paul said on MSNBC Wednesday night. "But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws."

Start Quote

This is what big government looks like”

End Quote Scott McKay The Hayride

Reason magazine's A Barton Hinkle explains how New York's high state and city cigarette taxes - totalling $5.95 a pack - have created a thriving black market on the city's streets.

"A pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more," he writes. "That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. Fill a Ford Econoline van with a few hundred cartons, and you can make a nice five-figure profit in a weekend. Some people do."

It was participation in this underground economy that brought Garner to police attention and, according to Mr Paul's logic, ultimately led to his death.

Politicians passed the taxes, he said, and politicians told police: "Hey, we want you arresting people for selling loose cigarettes."

Mr Paul isn't alone in these views, either.

"We have a poor guy who died because of a tax collection issue," conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show.

Governments condemn cigarette use on one hand while relying on cigarette taxes to fund their operations, Mr Limbaugh and others contend.

"Garner died because he dared interfere with government reach and government muscle that didn't want to lose tax revenue to independent operators," Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass writes.

Senator Rand Paul Senator Rand Paul says bad laws, like New York City's high cigarette tax, put police in difficult situations

"You want an all-encompassing state with the power to stop you from smoking? Well, don't complain about the Eric Garner case," writes the Hayride's Scott McKay. "This is what big government looks like."

The Daily Caller's W James Antle says that while public outrage is focusing on the level of force employed by the New York police, "let's not let the people who write the laws off the hook".

"A man who is killed by government overreach, fueled by anti-tobacco fanaticism, is just as dead as one who smokes a carton of unfiltered Pall Malls every week for 30 years," he writes.

Start Quote

What kind of callousness is required to say the 'bigger' issue in Garner's death isn't excessive police use of force”

End Quote Joan Walsh Salon

"You want an all-encompassing state with the power to stop you from smoking?" writes the Hayride's Scott McKay. "Well, don't complain about the Eric Garner case. This is what big government looks like."

It's Mr Paul's comments, however, that have attracted the lion's share of reaction - and condemnation - thanks to his position in the upper tier of Republican 2016 presidential prospects.

"Well I guess now we know what it takes to get a senator from Kentucky to admit cigarettes can kill," comedian Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show. "I appreciate the purity of your anti-tax dogma, but the cigarette tax is truly the least salient aspect of this case."

"Eric Garner could've been out there with mix tapes or a squeegee or a snow cone, and the same kind of s--t could have happened," he continued.

Salon's Joan Walsh says Mr Paul's comments are "a huge part of why he will never be president".

"What kind of callousness is required to say the 'bigger' issue in Garner's death isn't excessive police use of force, or police practice toward African-Americans generally, but … taxes?" she asks.

"I'm not sure I can think of a case of a cop shooting anyone over selling something without charging/paying taxes, ever, in my lifetime," she continues. "On the other hand, there is a very real issue of police using excessive force against African-Americans."

There's an "element of truth" in the conservative statements about the cigarette tax, writes Danny Vinik in the New Republic. "More laws inherently create more potentially violent confrontations between police and civilians."

The solution isn't to do away with cigarette taxes - or, by the same logic, any and all taxes.

"You can't have a society with no taxes unless you want a society with no government services - including the most basic public duties, such as police, that even conservatives support," he says.

Liberals act shocked and surprised by the cigarette tax argument, although it was being advanced months before this week's grand jury decision gave it extra prominence and bite.

When you view government as incompetent at best and evil at worst, any expansion of it will inevitably lead to bad results. As Ronald Reagan famously said: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help'."

The difference now, however, seems to be a growing view on the right that the police, rather than protectors of civil society, are the jackbooted heel of an oppressive government.

That's something Ronald Reagan never would have said.


Police leap to defence of chokehold officer

New York City police watch protestors following the announcement that Daniel Pantaleo will not be indicted.

After a New York City grand jury did not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for causing the death of Eric Garner, protesters headed to the streets, city officials went before the cameras and at least some police officers took to the internet.

On websites catering to the law enforcement community, the mood was largely angry and defensive - reflecting a community that sees itself as under siege by an unappreciative public.

On Thee Rant, a message board for New York Police Department officers, many posters expressed relief at the grand jury's decision and concern for backlash against fellow cops.

Although the users are anonymous, the site attempts to limit its membership to verified law enforcement personnel.

Start Quote

This is our jury system, and it's not a lynch mob, it's a democratic process”

End Quote "Officer Joe Bolton" Thee Rant

"I was afraid this was going to be payback for Ferguson," writes one. "Thankfully that wasn't the case."

"To all the active cops working, be alert," says another. "Put your cellphones away, and watch each other's backs."

The grand jury's decision proved that the system works, writes "Officer Joe Bolton".

"You can hook up every cop in the nation with body cams, but the system, which is comprised of everyday citizens, ultimately decide the fate of all," he says. "This is our jury system, and it's not a lynch mob, it's a democratic process."

Posters on PoliceOne, a national law enforcement website with restricted membership, echoed these sentiments.

"Every now and then we win one," writes a poster. "Horrible situation, man lost his life, but like in the Ferguson case he controlled his own destiny."

One particular point of contention in many of the messages was media descriptions of the restraining move used by Mr Pantaleo as a "chokehold".

"He was not choked to death," writes officerloney. "He was taken down by the neck after refusing to comply with the lawful arrest of officers of the NYPD."

A New York Police officer stands near a man protesting the Eric Garner grand jury's decision. Some posters on law enforcement message boards wonder if they should sacrifice themselves "for a community who routinely sides with the criminals"

Another says Mr Pantaleo was using a "lateral neck restraint" that, if done correctly, renders the "individual unconscious for a short time, enabling the officer to place handcuffs on the suspect". Garner, some asserted, died as a result of complications from pre-existing medical conditions such as his weight and asthma.

Discussion also broadened to larger issues of effective policing. Many asked whether the public wants police officers to just stand by if they see a crime being committed or back down if challenged by a suspect.

"I'm sorry for past issues involving race that I DIDN'T have anything to do with; but if you don't listen to what I'm telling you - like you are under arrest - then any problems from that point on are your fault!" writes Aviano25.

Start Quote

Yes, white cops are racist right-wing culture warriors THAT'S WHY THEY BECAME COPS”

End Quote Jeff Deeney Columnist

The frustration boiled over for a number of members, who wondered why they should risk their lives for an ungrateful public.

"Answer calls, take reports, TAKE YOUR PAYCHECK, and go home," one writes. "Don't be proactive; let the neighbourhood destroy itself."

"Honour dictates we give eight hours of work for eight hours of pay, but it does not require we sacrifice ourselves for a community who routinely sides with the criminals," says another.

"Maybe someday, the majority of the public will look up from the TV and wonder what the hell happened to the country," Aviano25 says. "Maybe they will actually want to see the laws that they passed enforced. Maybe they will want to feel safe in their communities. And if they're very lucky, there might still be a cop around that gives a damn."

A number of the messages contained angry attacks on New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, US Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama - some with overtly racist epithets. On Thursday social media erupted with anger over the tenor of these posts, with links to or images captured from the websites.

Huffington Post justice reporter Ryan J Reilly, among others, tweeted the more offensive messages. New York magazine's Joe Coscarelli also covered the subject and presented choice quotes.

"By no means a comprehensive view of law-enforcement feelings about the incident, the postings do provide a different - if beyond upsetting - perspective," he writes.

Others were less sanguine.

"I love when people periodically rediscover PoliceOne," tweets the Fix columnist and Atlantic magazine contributor Jeff Deeney. "Yes, white cops are racist right-wing culture warriors. THAT'S WHY THEY BECAME COPS."

If many law enforcement officers feel embattled it's likely because the grand jury's decision in the Garner case has been almost universally condemned, on the right and the left. Even conservative Fox News panelists, many noted, were openly critical.

"Let's be real about all this," NYCTPF writes on Thee Rant,. "A NYC cop's life, whether it be his physical life, his financial life, his family life or the lives of his family, mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to any of the characters in all this crap."

A popular term used to describe police is that they are a "thin blue line" protecting the general public from dangerous criminals. Given the outrage in Ferguson and New York, combined with the apparent frustration on the part of some in law enforcement, that line may be growing increasingly frayed.


Are Democrats cooling on Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton speaks at Georgetown University.

It seems impossible for anyone to talk about the 2016 US presidential election without bringing up Hillary Clinton. With more than 700 days to go, there are no official contenders, but many see her candidacy as a foregone conclusion.

And almost everyone appears to have an opinion on how the non-candidate candidate is doing so far.

In just the past week, commentators have been quick to analyse the political ramifications of the University of California Los Angeles' disclosure of the former secretary of state's $300,000 speaking fee and curious backstage rider requests, which include lemon wedges, hummus and chairs with rectangular pillows. They have dug into her chances of winning back white working-class voters. They have made predictions about her campaigning abilities based on turnout at her book-tour events.

"Anyone who thinks she can come close to inspiring the same amount of enthusiasm among people as Barack Obama is kidding themselves," Andrew Stiles of the conservative Washington Free Beacon writes with barely concealed glee.

Start Quote

I just think that people read inevitability as entitlement”

End Quote Deval Patrick Governor of Massachusetts

One thing that most can agree on is that Clinton is distancing herself from President Barack Obama, just as any other Democratic contender in 2016 will have to do.

Even the president understands the political efficacy of the strategy.

The American people want "that new car smell," he said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week. "They want to drive something off the lot that doesn't have as much mileage as me."

But it seems that Democrats may be distancing themselves from Ms Clinton as well.

In a television interview with Meet the Press's Chuck Todd, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said that Ms Clinton is acting like she's already the party's sure-fire nominee - an attitude that is off-putting to voters.

"I don't mean that as a criticism of her, I just think that people read inevitability as entitlement," he said. "And the American people want, and ought to want, their candidates to sweat for the job, to actually make a case for why they're the right person at the right time."

A man in a Darth Vader costume walks down a hallway. Darth Vader has a higher net favourability rating than every prospective 2016 presidential candidate, including Hillary Clinton

Ms Clinton likely will not run unopposed, if she chooses to run at all. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb already announced last month that he has launched an exploratory committee for a possible 2016 run.

While Mr Webb would be a long-shot given his lack of resources and name recognition, he could provide a contrasting point of view - and that's just what the editors of the Nation want to see.

They argue that today's political landscape is steered by deep-pocketed donors and powerful media outlets, rather than by a genuine clash of ideas. Today the best-case scenario is a watered-down candidate who is acceptable to the rich and the loud, they say. The only way to break away from the norm is to challenge the front-runners and question the basic assumptions about what politics can accomplish.

"Even the most ardent Hillary supporters should acknowledge that the Democratic Party, and the country, will be better served if she has real competition in the primaries," they write. "This is not an anti-Hillary message; it's a pro-democracy one."

Start Quote

Not only are her numbers dropping, but she is running on par with a Democratic brand in its weakest shape in a decade”

End Quote Harry Enten FiveThirtyEight

Mr Webb could be just the type of competition they're looking for. Unburdened by ties to Washington or Wall Street and with a powerful military background, he could turn into "Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare", as Al Hunt, writing for Bloomberg View, describes him.

Ms Clinton's standing is such that some are wondering if she's even going to run at all. Political forecaster Charlie Cook puts those odds at 60-70%.

FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten takes note and writes that Ms Clinton may be dissuaded from joining the race because she isn't perceived to be invincible anymore, and it looks more and more like the 2016 electorate will be Republican-leaning. He points to Ms Clinton's recent favourability ratings, which have been faltering since she left her Obama administration post. Still, he says, a lot of things could happen between now and Election Day.

"Clinton, however, no longer looks like such a juggernaut," he writes. "Not only are her numbers dropping, but she is running on par with a Democratic brand in its weakest shape in a decade."

More than that, an online survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight finds numerous Star Wars characters - including villains Darth Vader - have higher approval ratings than the former first lady.

Of course they - and Ms Clinton - poll better than any of the prospective Republican candidates, including Republicans Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

The shine may be coming off Ms Clinton's star, but she doesn't have to be universally loved. She just has to be the preferred option to whoever else is on the ballot with her.

As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza observes, every Democratic front-runner for the past five decades has had a moment where they've faltered. The party's primary voters are a notoriously fickle bunch, who often latch onto the unknown dark horse - at least for a while.

"Democratic voters often like to flirt with other candidates in the primary, before the arranged marriage is made," he writes.

Despite her apparent struggles, Ms Clinton is still decidedly the front-runner - at least until Darth Vader's 2016 intentions are revealed,

(By Kierran Petersen)


Are the media ignoring another St Louis killing?

Bosnian protestors march through St Louis following the murder of Zemir Begic. Bosnian residents in St Louis are demanding take a more active presence in their neighbourhood

On early Sunday morning in St Louis, Zemir Begic was beaten to death by hammer-wielding assailants.

According to St Louis police, the 32-year-old Bosnian immigrant was driving his car with two passengers, including his fiance, when something hit his vehicle. Begic got out and was confronted and murdered by multiple attackers.

Begic was unconscious when emergency personnel arrived on the scene, and he later died at a local hospital.

Police have arrested three teenage suspects and charged them with murder. They are still looking for a fourth.

Start Quote

In Ferguson, they want to make a protest about nothing and yet that attracted attention across the nation”

End Quote Adam Esmerovic St Louis resident

Although the suspects are black or Hispanic, and Begic was white, St Louis police say that they have no indication that race was a factor in the attack.

"We think it was wrong place, wrong time," police representative Schron Jackson told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

The murder has stunned the city's Bosnian community, one of the largest in the US. On Sunday more than 150 residents took to the street to protest what they see as increasing incidents of violence in their neighbourhood.

Given that the attack occurred less than 14 miles from the town of Ferguson, which has been under a bright media spotlight since the August shooting of a black teen by a white police officer, local residents have been quick to draw comparisons.

"In Ferguson, they want to make a protest about nothing and yet that attracted attention across the nation," Adam Esmerovic told the Washington Post's Todd C Frankel. "We're just trying to keep more police down here because of these little thugs."

Zemir Begic and his fiance, Arjana Mujkanovic. A GoFundMe online campaign has raised more than $31,000 (£20,000) for Zemir Begic's funeral expenses

Frankel observes that it's police inaction, not action, that has demonstrators angered. He describes the scene at the protests, drawing an implied comparison to the occasionally violent demonstrations that took place after officer Darren Wilson was cleared by a grand jury last week in the shooting death of Michael Brown:

"The protesters did not chant. The protesters didn't hurl insults at police. Some huddled around a bonfire on a garage's parking lot. A memorial for Begic with stuffed animals began to take shape in a corner. The protesters only edged into the street whenever police showed signs of losing interest and departing."

Beyond the local reaction, the story has gained traction among conservative commentators and bloggers, who view it as an example of media and liberal activist hypocrisy for expressing outrage over Brown's death but ignoring the Begic attack.

If the episode can somehow be linked to the Ferguson demonstrations, that fact could be used to discredit the protest as a whole, characterising it as the work of lawless and violent malcontents (a theme also raised during recent episodes of looting and vandalism).

Start Quote

The same media that descended on Ferguson en masse, in all their fact-free, hysteria-inducing, narrative-perpetrating glory, will be nowhere to be found”

End Quote Arnold Ahlert The Patriot Post

"Where is the national media?" asks the conservative social-media-gazing website Twitchy.

Another conservative blog collected blank search results for "Begic" on news sites like Buzzfeed, Mother Jones and MSNBC.

Twitter posters widely circulated a screen capture showing that the only "Begic" hit on a New York Times search was for an article on dry-cured hams.

The media, writes Arnold Ahlert of the Patriot Post, refuse "to consider the possibility that Begic was killed because of his race, or as a spill-over reaction to the jury verdict and subsequent rioting in Ferguson".

"The same media that descended on Ferguson en masse, in all their fact-free, hysteria-inducing, narrative-perpetrating glory, will be nowhere to be found," he writes. "The thugs who roamed the streets with hammers, 'just for the fun of it', will never have a bounty placed on their heads, or be forced to go into hiding in fear of their lives. Attorney General Eric Holder will not descend upon the scene to determine the motives of those thugs, or conduct a follow-up investigation to see if Begic's civil rights were violated."

He says the Begic story will be buried in the backs of newspapers and then "completely forgotten".

This hasn't exactly proven to be the case, however. Possibly due to the growing conservative outrage - which has more influence on mainstream journalists than right-wing advocates usually acknowledge - numerous media outlets have begun taking notice of the story, such as the aforementioned Washington Post, several New York City papers, CNN and NBC.

Bosnian protestors pray during a during demonstrations following the murder of Zemir Begic Conservative commentators note that the Bosnian protests have been peaceful

But is it fair to draw connections between Ferguson and this attack - beyond their close proximity? Like Ferguson, there are conflicting eyewitness accounts being reported. Although police assert that ethnicity was not a factor, some aren't so sure - and point to locals who say the attackers yelled racial epithets.

It's impossible to ignore, however, that Brown died at the hands of a police officer. In Ferguson, police were part of the story - and the focus of the black community's anger. Black-on-white crime, which appears to be the primary concern of some conservatives in the Begic case, is relatively infrequent. According to recent statistics, 83% of whites are killed by other whites, while 93% of blacks are killed by other blacks (although that last figure is also a subject of concern for Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani).

Given the long, troubled relations between law enforcement and blacks in the US - and the challenge of race relations in the US as a whole - the Ferguson incident was a match struck in the proverbial tinderbox.

The subsequent demonstrations, and a police response that was criticised as disproportionate and overly militarised, added fuel to the fire with visuals that captured the attention of the media - and the nation.

There can be no doubt that Begic's murder has failed to generate the same level of attention as the Brown shooting. And Begic's death, like the death of all victims of violent crime, is unquestionably tragic.

But what if the problem isn't that Brown's death received too much attention compared to Begic's murder? More than 15,000 homicides have been committed in the US so far in 2014 - black and white, police and civilian, immigrant and native-born.

Shouldn't every one of these deaths be a national outrage?


Is North Korea behind Sony cyber-attacks?

The Interview film trailer, courtesy Columbia Pictures

A review of the best commentary on and around the world...

Today's must-read

A motion picture studio crosses a dictator, and the ruthless despot responds by launching an attack that brings the Hollywood moguls to their knees.

It's the kind of story that would make a great film.

But is North Korea really behind last week's cyber-attack on Sony pictures? An anonymous group, the Guardians of Peace, aka #GOP, claimed responsibility for hacking the company's servers and posted a menacing warning that if their (unnamed) demands aren't met, secret data will be "shown to the world".

Over the weekend five recent Sony films - including the Brad Pitt World War Two epic Fury - began appearing on popular file-sharing sites. Is that film and a remake of the classic musical Annie part of the now-revealed secret data?

There's no conclusive proof of a connection, but it makes for a gripping plot development. The entertainment magazine Variety reports that the five films - four of which have yet to be released in theatres - have been downloaded more than a million times. The financial damage to the studio could be measured in the tens of millions.

And where do the North Koreans come in? Flash back to this June, as Sony announced that it would be distributing The Interview, a comedy starring Seth Rogan and James Franco in which they play journalists hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (The film's producers probably pitched it as a modern-day Argo with an Asian twist.)

North Korea responded to the news with over-the-top anger, pledging "merciless counter-measure" for a "blatant act of terrorism and war".

Now Sony finds itself the victim of a cyber-attack that effectively disabled the company's computer network, including email, for almost a week.

Again, there is no conclusive proof of a link - but the website re/code reports that "Sony and outside security consultants are actively exploring the theory that the hack may have been carried out by third parties operating out of China on North Korea's behalf".

"The sources stress that a link to North Korea hasn't been confirmed, but has not been ruled out, either," they continue.

It's not exactly an ironclad finding of guilt, but that's more than enough for the Washington Post's Anna Fifield to take the delicious story and run with it.

"Say you're the dictator of the most closed state on earth, used to being revered as a god, and a bunch of Americans make a movie in which they attempt to assassinate you," she writes."How do you get revenge? Well, the usual old fireworks - missiles and maybe a nuke test - won't be much noticed by those Hollywood types. You've got to hit them where it hurts."

If the North Koreans are indeed behind this high-profile hacking incident, it wouldn't be the first time. In 2012 their digital army - reported by the South Korean think tank Police Policy Institute to be 3,000 strong - are believed to have flexed their muscle with a co-ordinated attack on South Korean business and government websites.

"Although no one but the most elite of the elite has access to the Internet in North Korea, the Kim regime has been building quite a cyber-army and it has a record when it comes to devastating cyber-attacks," Fifield writes.

So could North Korea really be behind the cyber-attack on Sony? There's no way of knowing yet. But with more than three weeks until The Interview is set to hit theatres, more plot twists may be in store.

Colombia

Latin America embraces US immigration action - In the wake of US President Barack Obama's immigration legislation, El Espectador's Eduardo Barajas Sandoval writes that the American dream is still alive. Whether the US likes it or not, he says, people are moving in waves up and down the vast American continent, leading to racial and cultural blending.

"In the long term, the US is likely to look more and more like Latin America," he writes (translated by WorldCrunch). "While the essential components of its political and economic model will remain the same - assuming capitalism can be humanized from what it is now - its social, cultural and ethnic traits will undergo a significant makeover due to the arrival of millions of the continent's native inhabitants, the original Americans, who are invading the US with their music, food, work and values, and ready to mix in to survive and advance."

All of this, says Barajas, is in keeping with the American tradition.

UK

US shopping holiday goes global - Outside the Beltway author Doug Mataconis is puzzled why the traditional "Black Friday" shopping spree suddenly turned into a big deal in the United Kingdom. He expects it to stick around and become more prevalent in the coming years, however.

"I suppose that this proves that people can be driven to a near frenzy on a seemingly random day of the week over the idea that they might be getting a deal of some kind even though it's likely that they'd end up getting a better deal on the same items as we get closer to Christmas," he writes.

After all, he says, to some extent consumerism is something that appeals to, for lack of a better term, base human desires about the acquisition of things and the desire to believe that you're getting a deal on some highly desired item.

Egypt

Mubarak's release speaks louder than words - Despite the judge's insistence all charges dropped against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has nothing to do with politics, writes Vox's Max Fisher, this is all about politics.

In the last four years, Fisher explains, Egypt veered from the secular authoritarianism of Mr Mubarak, to the secular liberalism of the 2011 revolution, to the Islamism of the 2012 democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and back to secular authoritarianism with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's July 2013 coup.

"The public response has been mostly muted and shows no sign of picking up, which says a great deal about how much has changed since hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested to demand Mubarak step down less than four years ago."

Indonesia

Working yourself to death - The Jakarta Post's Nury Vittachi notes that God surrounds naturally wicked people with excessively nice people, which is why sweet-natured employees pay the price when big, slick organisations act wickedly.

He cites the example of Beijing banker Li Jianhua, who worked himself to death pulling an all-nighter. His employers, the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission, held him up as an example other staff should follow: "We can all learn from Comrade Li Jianhua … who gave an unremitting struggle to perform his best and to sacrifice everything."

"Middle managers must have been delighted," writes Vittachi, putting words into their mouths: "'New rules, lads, working yourself to death is now the minimum requirement for promotion.'"

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Taiwan's Premier Jiang Yi-huah has resigned after the ruling Kuomintang Party suffered heavy defeats in local elections on Saturday. The election is widely seen as a referendum on the ruling party's policy on relations with China.

"Taiwan's politics may take its own course, but regardless of its course of development, it is after all a planet that orbits the rise of the mainland and the revival of the Chinese nation. The heavier mainland China becomes, the less likely that Taiwan can escape from its gravitational pull." - Editorial in Beijing's Global Times.

"The DPP's victory does not mean that its policy of resisting [mainland China] has won the support of the majority of the people without being questioned, or that some moderate voters have attempted to give their confidence to the DPP to change [Taiwan's] cross-strait relations policies." - Ni Yongjie in Taipei's China Times.

"The more Taiwanese people see the chaotic protests in Hong Kong, the more they reject [being governed under the notion of] 'One Country, Two Systems'. The more Hong Kong people see Taiwan's election results, the more they want the people to be in charge. As the two affect each other, a common sign is that Beijing's tactics to win hearts and minds using economic sweeteners are no longer silver bullets." - Editorial in Hong Kong's Economic Journal.‎

Have you found an interesting opinion piece about global issues that we missed? Share it with us via email at echochambers (at) bbc.co.uk.


NFL players stir controversy with Ferguson tribute

Five NFL players take the field in St Louis with a Ferguson protest gesture.

Five American football players in St Louis took the field on Sunday with the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture that has become a symbol of protest for those angered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's killing of black teenager Michael Brown.

Start Quote

We wanted to let the community know that we support the community”

End Quote Kenny Britt St Louis Rams player

According to some witness testimony - contradicted by others and apparently dismissed by the grand jury that declined to indict Mr Wilson - Brown's hands were raised in surrender when he was fatally shot in St Louis suburb of Ferguson.

The action by the players now threatens to engulf the NFL in the growing debate over the police shooting and, more largely, racial justice in the US.

"We kind of came collectively together and decided we wanted to do something," said Jared Cook, one of the participants. "So we wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world."

"We wanted to let the community know that we support the community," another player, Kenny Britt, said.

A tweet from Donlyn Turnbull.

Later on Sunday the St Louis Police Officers Association issued a statement condemning the display. Jeff Roorda, the association's business manager and a representative in the Missouri legislature, said:

"Now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson's account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eyewitness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again."

A protestor argues with a Rams fan outside the St Louis stadium on Sunday. Protestors and fans scuffle outside the St Louis Rams stadium on Sunday

The association called for the players to be disciplined by the Rams and for the NFL to issue a "very public apology".

Start Quote

It's about time that people speak up so we can have open dialogue on a matter of critical importance”

End Quote

"I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights," Mr Roorda said. "Well I've got news for people who think that way. Cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St Louis and other NFL towns that do."

It probably shouldn't be a surprise that the Ferguson controversy has spilled over into US sport - as controversial social issues often do. In 1968 US Olympians raised a black-gloved fist in a black power salute while on the medal podium.

In 2012 players on the Miami Heat basketball team posed in hooded sweatshirts to express solidarity with Trayvon Martin, a black teen who had been shot and killed by an armed civilian in Florida. Players from the Washington Redskins had engaged in a similar show of support for Michael Brown in August.

A tweet from Meagan Hatcher-Mays

Moreover, the NFL is more than just a Sunday afternoon pastime, it's a major cultural phenomenon. The Rams and the NFL had reportedly been consulting with local authorities about the possibilities of demonstrations affecting the game.

Coming on the heels of the violent clashes between protestors and police when the grand jury's decision was announced last week, a protest by St Louis players likely would capture the nation's attention - and it did. Social media exploded with reaction, and commentators were quick to weigh in.

Tommie Smith raises his right arm in protest during the 1968 Olympics. US Tommie Smith would be suspended from the US track team following his "black power" salute during the 1968 Olympics

"Even if we didn't have miles of grand jury testimony and forensic evidence showing that Mike Brown initiated the confrontation which ended his life, and no matter how you feel about the state of community relations with law enforcement, the football stadium is not the place for this," writes Hot Air blog's Jazz Shaw.

He says that NFL should be about football and entertainment, not political statements of any stripe. "The Rams need to pull these guys aside and put an end to this," he concludes.

The demonstrations are an "indicator of how deeply Ferguson has touched America," writes the Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield.

"The fact that five Rams took the one moment they could be sure that the stadium was watching to show their solidarity with Ferguson, then, is significant," he writes. "Clearly, it was coordinated. Clearly, it was something that felt that they could not not do."

The NFL players have a right to express their views, says St Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz.

Start Quote

These five men may not be hardened criminals, but they are obviously not choir boys either”

End Quote Dean Garrison DC Clothesline

"Please don't tell me that players should keep their mouths shut on a volatile issue that's confronting St Louis in a profound way," he writes. "And it's about time that people speak up so we can have open dialogue on a matter of critical importance. This isn't North Korea."

Given the stakes, and the acrimony surrounding the Ferguson issue, it wasn't long before supporters on both sides began digging into the backgrounds of Sunday's key participants.

DC Clothesline blogger Dean Garrison says that all five of the Rams players have what he views as questionable backgrounds, ranging from arrests to disciplinary action by the NFL.

"These five men may not be hardened criminals, but they are obviously not choir boys either," he writes.

Labelling them "thugs", he adds: "They disrespected their teammates. They disrespected the fans. They disrespected their city. They disrespected all of America."

Deadspin's Timothy Burke writes that Mr Roorda is a former police officer who was fired after "repeatedly lying and falsifying reports".

During his work in the legislature, writes Think Progress's Travis Waldron, Mr Roorda "has pushed back against reform ideas that have become popular in the wake of Brown's death, including the idea that police should wear body cameras" and helped raise money for officer Wilson.

A tweet from Nick Baumann

Although the NFL has been quick to punish displays of "unsportsmanlike behaviour" on the field, including a controversial, open-ended penalty for offensive language, it has generally given players more freedom for political expression. On Monday the league announced it will not discipline the players.

Last week New Orleans player Benjamin Watson wrote a viral Facebook post about his mixed emotions following the grand jury action.

"I'm angry," he wrote, "because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes."

Yahoo's Frank Schwab writes that a player was fined for "negative comments" about openly gay player Michael Sam, "but that was a violation of the league's anti-discrimination policies".

A tweet from Philip Schuyler

"Given how much controversy the NFL has unwittingly found itself in this year, it will be very careful about anything it says about the Rams' statement, if it says anything at all," he writes.

The NFL has found itself in yet another delicate situation. It could risk angering those who support the grand jury's decision not to indict Mr Wilson and who view the protests as a misguided, lawless action. Or take sides against the demonstrators on a issue that is exposing sharp racial divides in the US when 68% of its players are black.

For now it seems the NFL has opted for the former.


Hunger Games: Fact and fiction collide

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Next to each kneeling, hooded captive stands an emotionless soldier with their finger on the trigger of their gun. On a hidden command they fire, and the line of bodies falls to the floor.

This scene, which has become depressingly familiar in recent months, is not another grisly video released by the Islamic State militant group. It's from the biggest film of the year so far, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.

Eerily, it was shot nearly a year before the first IS beheading video was released.

The third instalment of the series made £12.6m in the UK and $123m (£78m) in the US in its opening weekend.

Start Quote

When Katniss stands in the rubble of her district razed to the ground, it could be parts of Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan”

End Quote Suzanne Moore The Guardian

While the movie version of The Hunger Games, based on the young adult series by Suzanne Collins, is packed with big name stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, some are more interested in the politics of the film and how it seems to parallel reality.

Another scene shows an emaciated and brainwashed Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson, flatly repeating lines fed to him by his captors. In the movie the tyrannical President Snow imprisons Peeta and turns him into a propaganda tool in order to quell an uprising.

On the other side, Ms Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen is also being used as a tool, but for the rebel army. For many this "war of the airwaves" served as an interesting look at the state of modern warfare.

"I think there are parallels with ISIS," director Francis Lawrence said in an interview with the Daily Best. "We made this film before the videos were released, so it's a chilling reminder of what can happen in the real world."

Mr Lawrence said one of the themes he explored was the manipulation of imagery and people in propaganda. The practice has been around for a long time, he said, but technology has made it easier to deliver and much more immediate.

The jihadist IS wasn't the only real-world similarity in the film. At one point a covert volunteer team sets out to rescue Peeta from the US Capitol in the middle of the night. Watching the small group fly a helicopter and burst into a secure compound, it's difficult not to see parallels with the US raid on Osama bin Laden.

A protestor displays a Hunger Games-inspired salute. The Hunger Games-inspired three-finger salute has become a symbol of protest in Thailand

One shot even shows the leaders of the rebellion sitting in a room watching camera footage of the mission - an image that strongly resembles the iconic photo of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden viewing footage of the Seal commando team.

The Guardian's Suzanne Moore says this children's movie was far from childish, but instead was "violent and despairing".

"These are the kinds of images our children see, whether we want them to or no," Moore writes. "When Katniss stands in the rubble of her district razed to the ground, it could be parts of Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan."

She says the fact that Mockingjay is so popular is a grim reflection on the teenagers of today, who grew up on increasingly graphic imagery.

Rebecca Cusey, writing for the Federalist, contends that the film is dark, but the complex way it explores the idea of propaganda makes sense compared to the books, which were written in the mid-2000s.

Start Quote

The Hunger Games is first and foremost a fine piece of rollicking fiction”

End Quote Tim Stanley The Telegraph

"The world seems darker," she writes. "We can no longer attribute these problems to pro-war propaganda. Increasingly, we know evil exists and is not going away. Maybe we need symbols to inspire us."

But the Telegraph's Tim Stanley argues that people may just be reading too much into the work. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Sigmund Freud quipped.

He says the film's ideology does not belong just to liberals who see the story as inspiration to organise against the conservatives.

But neither does it belong solely to conservatives who have latched on to the propaganda narrative, he continues, and linked it to the Obama administration's supposed manipulation of the press. Some have even found a survivalist theme in the film, he writes - a call for people to grab their guns and run before Mr Obama comes for them.

"In reality, The Hunger Games is first and foremost a fine piece of rollicking fiction," he writes. "The right and left's attempts to read the books and movies to suit their agendas proves the point of postmodern thinkers who argue that readers/viewers interpret art according to their own ends - and we should be highly sceptical of their efforts."

Images from the film have spilled over into real life, however. One symbol - a three-fingered salute - cropped up in Thailand, where five students were arrested last week for flashing the gesture. The salute took hold in May after the country's military coup. Since then, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the junta, has made the gesture illegal.

One cinema chain in Thailand recently pulled their screenings of Mockingjay, saying that they wanted to avoid getting involved in a political movement.

While The Hunger Games may borrow from reality, it seems reality may start borrowing in return.

(By Kierran Petersen)


Did prosecutors focus unduly on marijuana?

A picture of Michael Brown displayed during his memorial service.

Could marijuana really have contributed to the deadly confrontation between Michael Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson?

With the record in the grand jury investigation now open to the public, commentators and analysts are poring over the details for explanations as to why the grand jury decided not to indict Mr Wilson for shooting Brown. The drug angle has garnered particular attention and, from some corners, criticism.

According to a toxicology report conducted by the government, Brown had 12 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - an active ingredient of marijuana - in his blood when he died.

The evidence was presented to the grand jury, and assistant county prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh interviewed the county's toxicologist as to the potential implications.

Start Quote

Ninety-nine out of 100 people taking marijuana aren't going to get in a fight with a police officer”

End Quote Michael A Baden Forensic pathologist

He told the grand jury that tests indicated Brown had smoked marijuana "within a couple of hours" of his death and it could have had hallucinogenic effects if taken in a high enough dose.

"Technically speaking, I mean, you are not looking at pretty birds and flying snakes and so forth, but you are altering your perception of senses," he said.

Ms Alizadeh later asked if the evidence showed that Brown had a "high dose", to which the toxicologist answered:

"This was a very large individual. I think he was about 300 pounds. So for a concentration of 12 nanograms in a large person, that shows it was a large dose. In a small person, say like 100 pounds, to get to 12 nanograms wouldn't take a lot. A single joint could easily do that. But when you talk about a larger body mass, just like drinking alcohol, larger persons can drink more alcohol because they have the receptacle to hold it."

This exchange has Jacob Sullum, an editor at the libertarian Reason magazine, crying foul.

"By conflating dose with blood concentration, this exchange implies that 12 nanograms of THC per milliliter will make a large person crazier than a small person, which makes no sense," he writes. "If smoking a single joint can raise a 100-pound person's THC concentration that high, and if 100-pound people who smoke a joint do not commonly behave the way Wilson claims Brown did, why should we believe marijuana helps explain why Brown is dead?"

Sullum says that the prosecutors did everything they could to push a "pharmacological explanation" for the aggressive behaviour Wilson claims Brown exhibited in their confrontation.

While prosecutors in the case noted that 5 nanograms is the legal limit for operating motor vehicles in the two US states where pot is now legal, Sullum contends that other studies have shown that higher levels are required for impairment.

A jar full of marijuana. Marijuana may soon be legal in four US states, but the amount required for impairment is still in dispute

"The fact that Brown's THC level was 'over twice' this arbitrary number, as Alizadeh emphasized, does not necessarily indicate he was too stoned to drive, let alone that he had consumed enough marijuana to precipitate a psychotic break."

Vox's German Lopez also questions whether marijuana could have played a role in the Ferguson incident. He points to later grand jury testimony by Michael A Baden, a forensic pathologist hired by the Brown family.

Could marijuana have affected Brown's reactions and behaviour once he was shot, assistant prosecutor Sheila Whirley asked.

"The amount of marijuana he has could cause abnormal behaviour, but usually doesn't," Mr Baden replied.

"Ninety-nine out of 100 people taking marijuana aren't going to get in a fight with a police officer," he said.

Lopez notes that Ms Whirley then questioned Mr Baden's credentials and one of the grand jurors expressed doubt that the expert could know that marijuana wasn't the reason why Brown fought with Wilson.

"There's actually no reason to believe, based on the available research and the scientific understanding of pot, that marijuana would actually make someone more violent," Lopez writes.

"This makes sense to anyone with even a vague notion of marijuana's effects. Pot is most popularly known as a sedative that relaxes users. One of the prominent arguments against its use, in fact, is that it makes users so sedated that they're lazy and, as a result, unproductive."

Start Quote

Brown's death … should serve as a tragic reminder that marijuana is not harmless”

End Quote Christian Thurstone Addictions psychologist

When word of the positive blood test first was leaked in October, however, some marijuana critics were quick to call attention to the drug.

"Brown's death … should serve as a tragic reminder that marijuana is not harmless, that it is not just like alcohol," Christian Thurstone, an addictions psychologist, wrote in his blog (in a post that has since been deleted), "that its consumption often leads to impairment that is very difficult for the public to measure - also making it tough for the public to hold users accountable for the harm they've caused others. Marijuana users also could be vulnerable to aggression and attacks while under the drug's influence."

Others have pointed to Brown's apparent marijuana use as indicative of his character - and the culture that he was raised in - regardless of the amount in his bloodstream.

"Did Brown's parents know who his friends were?" asks PJ Media's Bryan Preston. "Did they know about his drug use?" Do they, he goes on, know he pretended on social media to be a gang member. "Was he one of those kids born into a 'good family' that taught him well, only to reject those values? Was he taught any values at all?"

The subject of marijuana even came up during the protests and subsequent violent clashes with police following announcement of the grand jury's decision.

"Obviously there's the smell of marijuana in the air," CNN anchor Don Lemon said as he walked through the crowd of demonstrators.

His comment drew a quick and angry response from many on social media.

In the 1930s and 1940s in the US there was a common perception that marijuana could cause individuals to behave dangerously - "reefer madness", as it was referred to in a 1936 propaganda film that predicted a dark fate for those who used the drug.

Mr Baden, during his testimony, made reference to this cultural episode.

"There was this terror that it made everybody go crazy," he said. "It doesn't make people go crazy."

Now with a marijuana legalisation movement in the US taking hold, the public is once again addressing the implications of making pot use more acceptable. For advocates who have long sought to decriminalise the drug, it is a triumphant moment. For others, it is more concerning.

For now the drug resides in a legal grey area - a controlled substance on the federal level, soon to be legal in four states and illegal in the rest.

Is marijuana a contributing element in criminal activity? Is it a recreational drug on its way to societal normalisation?

The marijuana testimony in the Wilson case - and the reaction to it - indicate that these questions are nowhere near being resolved.


The trouble with the timing of Ferguson decision

A protestor is silhouetted against a fire in Ferguson, Missouri.

The announcement that a St Louis County grand jury would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown came a little after 20:00 local time, under the cover of darkness.

What followed next was something protestors and law enforcement officials had assured the public they were dedicated to avoiding. Riot-gear-clad police officers and armoured vehicles cleared the streets with tear gas and smoke canisters, as looters smashed store windows and cars burned - a night of chaos and violence.

The outcome was tragic - but did the timing of the announcement contribute to the conflagration? The grand jury reportedly had reached their decision by early afternoon.

No official explanation has been given - Governor Jay Nixon threw up his hands when asked in a press conference, as if to say it was out of his control. One official in St Louis mentioned to reporters that rush hour played a part in the delay, the implication being that it would give people time to get home safely from work or school.

But on the streets of Ferguson, some residents were concerned that the verdict was coming after nightfall - they would have preferred a morning announcement.

Start Quote

Protesters were going to protest, day or night”

End Quote Wesley Lowery The Washington Post

According to the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, when the announcement was made wouldn't make a difference.

"Protesters were going to protest, day or night," he tweeted.

As dawn broke on a shattered town the morning after, many didn't see it that way.

Activist Al Sharpton called the timing of the decision irresponsible and "unnecessarily provocative".

Legal analyst Jeffery Toobin said it was "foolish and dangerous".

"Here's the thing about that time of night: it's dark," he writes for CNN.com. "Anyone - anyone! - should have known that the decision in the Brown case would have been controversial. A decision not to indict, which was always possible, even likely, would have been sure to attract protests, even violence. Crowd control is always more difficult in the dark."

Start Quote

Everything about the announcement - the timing, the condescending tone, the weeks of militarised vehicles patrolling the roads - seemed designed to inflame and incite the region”

End Quote Sarah Kendzior Politico Magazine

The decision on when to reveal the non-indictment was "inscrutable" and only likely to increase the possibility of violence, says New Yorker's Jelani Cobb.

But, he adds, that it was all part of a larger lack of preparation on the part of law enforcement.

"Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of W Florissant Road where Brown was killed," he writes. "The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown's neighbourhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson's authorities."

St Louis-based freelancer Sarah Kendzior agrees.

"Everything about the announcement - the timing, the condescending tone, the weeks of militarised vehicles patrolling the roads - seemed designed to inflame and incite the region," she writes for Politico Magazine. "And it did."

On MSNBC's Morning Joe show, host Joe Scarborough said it was "mind-boggling" that authorities continued to mishandle public relations in the case.

A daylight announcement would have encouraged peaceful protests, he said.

A tweet from @DruMoorhouse

"You would have been doing the police officers a favour, and you would have been doing the black-owned small businesses that were torched last night a favour, you would be doing the family a favour," he continued.

Fellow panellist Eugene Robinson added that the outcome was totally foreseeable based on how the announcement was made.

"I hate conspiracy theories," he said, "but if you knew you were going to announce that there was no indictment and you wanted to shift attention to the reaction away from the decision itself, well I guess this would be a way to do it - an awful way to do it."

And there certainly was no shortage of theories, expressed on Twitter, as the violence in Ferguson spread - whether it was craven officials instigating a fight or police authorities seeking a boost in overtime pay.

A tweet about Ferguson by @JoeGoodmanJr

Hot Air's Noah Rothman counters that all the wild speculation and criticisms of the district attorney's presentation are just further examples of liberals looking to blame the unrest on anyone other than the unruly participants.

"Point A to Point B, all due to the fact that the prosecutor spent nearly an hour laying out the facts of a criminal case and delayed that announcement long enough to allow those in Ferguson and around the country time to bunker down before the inevitable violence erupted," he writes. "What a scoundrel."

Prior to the Ferguson revelation, there was speculation on whether the fallout from a non-indictment would equal the violent riots that erupted in Los Angeles 22 years ago after the acquittal of the white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.

"The memory of that incident also hangs like a shroud over Ferguson, Missouri," writes the Grio's Javier E David.

That announcement came in mid-afternoon, and some of the most violent attacks occurred in broad daylight.


'Rape culture' investigation shocks Virginia university

Protestors gather outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia Protestors hold up signs outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia

The allegations made in the latest issue of Rolling Stone are shocking. An 18-year-old University of Virginia freshman attends a party at one of the school's oldest fraternities in the fall of 2012. "Jackie", as she is called in the article, is invited upstairs by her date, where she says she is gang raped by seven fraternity brothers.

Jackie didn't go to a hospital after the alleged incident, as her friends decided it would adversely affect her- and their - reputations at the school. In 2013, the story continues, Jackie reported her rape to the head of the school's misconduct board, Nicole Eramo.

Jackie was presented with the choice of going to the police, beginning a formal complaint or having a mediated session where she could confront her alleged attackers.

"Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime - something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do - the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing," the article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, writes.

Jackie decided she couldn't go forward.

Start Quote

At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students - who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture - and by an administration”

End Quote Sabrina Rubin Erdely Rolling Stone

"She badly wants to muster the courage to file criminal charges or even a civil case," Erdley says. "But she's paralysed."

The Rolling Stone story expands beyond the one allegation and its subsequent fallout and looks at how the university has handled suspected rape cases over the past decades - including multiple allegations of gang rapes at the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi.

Last year, the school discloses, there were 38 reports of sexual assault. Nine became formal complaints, and four resulted in misconduct board hearings. "The other 29 students evaporated," Erdely writes.

She adds that 14 students have been found guilty of "sexual misconduct" in the school's history, but none has been expelled. According to Erdely, the most recent student, found to have been responsible for multiple assaults, was suspended for one year.

When Erdely asked university president Teresa Sullivan why the university keeps its rape disciplinary proceedings private, she said it would discourage women from coming forward. Jackie tells Rolling Stone she was told by the dean that it's "because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school".

"At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students - who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture - and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal," Erdely writes.

The University of Virginia is one of 86 schools currently under investigation by the Obama administration's Department of Education for their handling of sexual-assault-related complaints. It's also one of 12 schools undergoing a more thorough "compliance review" of its policies for dealing with sexual assault on campus.

Fallout from the Rolling Stone article has been swift. Initially, the school placed Phi Kappa Psi "under investigation". The federal judge originally named to head the inquest was later withdrawn after word spread that he was a member of the fraternity in question.

As outrage mounted, the fraternity voluntarily suspended itself during the proceedings.

In a letter to the Virginia student paper, the fraternity said it had "no specific knowledge" of the magazine's claims, but it would co-operate with authorities.

"Make no mistake, the acts depicted in the article are beyond unacceptable - they are vile and intolerable in our brotherhood, our university community and our society," the letter states.

On Saturday Sullivan announced that she was suspending all fraternity and sorority activities - involving about 3,500 students - until 9 January and calling on the Charlottesville, Virginia, police to investigate Jackie's allegations.

"The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to re-examine our responsibility to this community," Ms Sullivan writes in a letter to students. "Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation's colleges and universities."

Protestors gather outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia on Saturday night An anonymous letter says vandalism of Psi Kappa Psi fraternity house will 'escalate' unless university takes action

Hundreds marched in protest on Thursday. On Friday morning, the Z Society - one of the university's six secret societies - left a letter and flowers for students at the university's amphitheatre, where students would later gather.

"We share in our anger and in our concern, but - what's more - we share in the belief that our community can and must evolve," the letter says.

Over the weekend, the Phi Kappa Psi house was vandalised, with windows broken and "UVa Center for Rape Studies" and "Suspend Us" written on the building's wall.

An anonymous letter from individuals claiming responsibility for the attack said the incidents will escalate until the university takes more decisive action - including mandatory expulsion for students found guilty of sexual assault and Eramo's resignation.

Start Quote

The University of Virginia's administration has been absolutely and disgustingly derelict for decades, protecting the reputation of the institution at all costs”

End Quote Rod Dreher The American Conservative

"Rape is not a political issue to be negotiated and discussed with an eye towards gradual improvement," they write. "It is a criminal act of violence that cannot be tolerated."

Rolling Stone published a follow-up article on Friday containing excerpts from reader letters to the magazine, including many women who agreed with the assessment that the school fosters a "culture of sexual assault, along with a disdain for those who attempt to report it".

The articles - and the ensuing controversy - has led many to once again question the way US universities deal with sexual assault, and the role the Greek system of fraternities and sororities play on campus and college culture in general.

"The Rolling Stone story reveals a campus culture in which fraternity houses are widely known as places where girls, especially freshman girls (who are too young to get into bars) are invited inside, gotten drunk, and bedded," writes Rod Dreher for the American Conservative.

He compares the university's reaction to that of the Catholic Church after allegations of sexual molestation by priests first began to surface.

"The deeper you read into the story, the more clear it is that the University of Virginia's administration has been absolutely and disgustingly derelict for decades, protecting the reputation of the institution at all costs," he writes.

He concludes that he would never want his children, male or female, from getting involved in the Greek system:

"I do not want my kids, as college students, to be subject to rape, to participate in rape, or to be in a position in which they are pressured to prove their loyalty to their fraternity, their friends, and their university by staying silent about rape."

The university isn't the only one at blame, write the editors of the Roanoke, Virginia, News Leader.

"The seven fraternity brothers who allegedly perpetrated the 2012 rape were almost certainly raised in educated families of economic means," they write. "Their sense of entitlement was likely high. Did any parent or teacher ever spell out to them the immorality and unacceptability of rape?"

The editors of the Roanoke, Virginia, Times call for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to order a state police investigation, rather than relying on a local investigation.

"Cynics could just say the local police have an interest in preserving the reputation of the city's biggest economic driver," they write. "But people would be more inclined to believe state police. Err on the side of trust."

Ms Sullivan's initial reaction to the Rolling Stone article was not nearly strong enough, write the editors of the Charlottesville, VA, Daily Progress.

"For 48 hours, when the community first needed heartfelt reassurance from the university, that engagement was lacking," they write. "In fact, the word that comes to mind throughout this nightmare is 'disconnect.'"

Virginia student Dani Bernstein, writing in the university's student newspaper, says that while Erdely's article exposes the school's deference to fraternities, it paints all Virginia students too broadly.

"We cannot deny there is some pervasive culture here that allows abuses to occur," she writes. "But we have undeniably excellent student groups aimed at addressing this very issue."

The University of Virginia, founded by President Thomas Jefferson, is often called a "public Ivy" - one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, with a tuition price that's considered a bargain compared to similarly respected private institutions.

Now, however, Virginia's reputation - always on the minds of the college's administrators, according to Rolling Stone's report - may be permanently stained.

"This UVa campus rape story is just sickening & should make people question going there," tweets Yahoo News editor Garance Franke-Ruta.


A Twitter war on Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert on the set of his show, the Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert makes a living walking the line between humour and offence

Satire can be a dangerous game. Making jokes about racists is safe. Making a joke about racism by pretending to be a racist is the kind of subversive humour that can get you in a lot of trouble.

Just ask Stephen Colbert, who is both a master of the art and its latest victim.

The first thing to understand is that the Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report is not really Stephen Colbert.

Start Quote

I'm sick of liberals hiding behind assumed 'progressiveness.'”

End Quote Suey Park Social media activist

The show's "Stephen Colbert" is a caricature, a cardboard version of a right-wing pundit used to poke satirical fun at right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

On Wednesday night, Colbert mocked the attempt by the owner of the Washington Redskins US football franchise to defuse allegations that the team's name is a racist slur on Native Americans.

Earlier this week, Dan Snyder said he was starting an "Original Americans Foundation" to provide support to impoverished Native American communities.

On his show, Colbert announced that he was going to "show the Asian-American community I care by starting the 'Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever'".

It was a reference to previous instances on the show where Colbert pretended to be a stereotypical Asian and then didn't understand why his behaviour might be offensive.

The following day, the network-run @ColbertReport Twitter account - over which Colbert and his show have no editorial control - sent out a tweet to its one million followers with that quote, devoid of any context or reference to the Redskins.

The message caught the attention of 23-year-old social media activist Suey Park, who gained fame in 2013 by creating the #NotYourAsianSidekick Twitter trend.

On Thursday night, she tweeted to her 18,000 followers: "The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it."

She followed it up with a concerted campaign to rally support for her cause.

When supporters of the show pushed back, pointing out that Colbert's routine was satire, Ms Park pressed on:

"Dear white people, we're not stupid. We know what satire is and what it isn't."

"I shouldn't have to interrupt my work/social life to respond to every act of racism. The left is just as complicit."

"I'm sick of liberals hiding behind assumed 'progressiveness.'"

Start Quote

The weaponised hashtag also takes power from the people who are trying to mock it”

End Quote David Weigel Slate

That last tweet was picked up by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who called on her 700,000 followers to "co-sign", giving the trend additional momentum.

The Twitter war quickly caught the attention of the mainstream media, as columnists and commentators weighed in on the matter.

Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams admits that she is "a full-time, professional offended feminist", but adds:

I've got to say that we all undercut the serious points we may be trying to make about changing the conversation when the response to something that we deem inappropriate is a full-on demand for somebody's head.

Colbert's humour succeeds by "cranking offensiveness up so far as to be inherently unbelievable", writes the Wire's Brian Feldman. "React however you choose, but this sort of thing is Colbert's bread and butter."

Slate's David Weigel wonders if Ms Park's "hashtag activism" will have an effect:

Any time a public figure or group of people is blitzed and told not to say something offensive, no matter how prideful they are, the instinct is to never say that again.

He says that just because Colbert has tried to mock someone else's racism, that's not enough for people like Ms Park:

As they explained in 140-character bursts, when a white comedian like Colbert joked about racism by playing a racist, he was still telling his audience to laugh at a racist joke. Anyone who disputed this was trying to "whitesplain" satire - an argument that can never be debunked.

He also notes that the entire episode exposes how difficult it is to win Twitter outrage wars:

The weaponised hashtag also takes power from the people who are trying to mock it - Twitter doesn't discriminate between earnestness and parody. People making fun of the humorlessness and bad faith of the hashtag end up keeping it in the "trending" column.

Start Quote

Sadly, Mr Colbert, for some weird reason, still doesn't understand that his own ideology breeds intellectual cannibals”

End Quote Douglas Ernst The Washington Times

The Daily Banter's Chez Pazienza calls Ms Park a "human umbrage machine", saying he hopes the episode will "serve as the breaking point for progressive pop culture, when it finally decides that the constant ridiculous outrage has become nothing more than self-parody".

Meanwhile, those on the right revelled in a liberal icon like Colbert taking fire from the left.

Twitchy, a social media watchdog site founded by Malkin, took particular delight, collecting tweets from outraged liberals and liberals outraged at the outrage.

Douglas Ernst of the Washington Times blogs that Colbert's situation "highlighted quite nicely where you end up when you follow that worldview to its logical conclusion: the land of livid thought police".

"Sadly, Mr Colbert, for some weird reason, still doesn't understand that his own ideology breeds intellectual cannibals," he adds.

Comedy Central has since deleted the offending message, and Colbert tweeted from his personal account that he had nothing to do with it: "#CancelColbert - I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage. Who is that, though?"

As regular viewers of The Colbert Report will attest, the show's guests and interview subjects often act as though they're oblivious to being the target of subtle derision. It's part of the show's insidious charm.

Ms Park, on the other hand, professes to be well aware of Colbert's style of humour and contends that pretending to be racist is just as bad as being racist.

If Colbert had used a racial epithet - say, the "n" word, for instance - to make fun of a Klan member, would that have been acceptable? Is "ching-chong ding-dong" any less inflammatory?

At what point does humour cross over into offensiveness?

As I wrote, satire is dangerous business. That danger, walking the line between laugher and shock, is part of what makes it so compelling - and Colbert so popular.


Bundy, Sterling and racism in America

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling stands courtside at an NBA game. Basketball franchise owner Donald Sterling's alleged comments have made him the latest face of racism in the US

What do the stories of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling tell us about the state of race relations in the US today?

With two high-profile instances of recorded racist comments making headlines in the space of a week, the kind of people who get paid to speculate on such matters are searching for an answer.

First Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was protesting against government attempts to round up cattle he was illegally grazing on federal land, wondered whether blacks were "better off" under slavery.

Then Donald Sterling, the owner of the professional basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers, was allegedly recorded instructing his girlfriend not to share pictures of herself with blacks on social media or bring them to his team's games.

Salon's Joan Walsh writes that Mr Bundy and Mr Sterling share "an ignorant, self-serving paternalism".

Start Quote

Racism 2.0 is busily working in the shadows”

End Quote LZ Granderson CNN

She notes that Mr Sterling said he gives his black players "food, and clothes, and cars, and houses". This is only "a few bad leaps of logic" away from Mr Bundy's theorising that slavery provided blacks "homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them, and their man having something to do".

Politics entered the discussion very early on. As writers on the left noted, Mr Bundy had been embraced by many conservatives as a right-wing folk hero, standing up against an overreaching federal government.

Conservatives initially thought they had found an ideological counterpoint in the Sterling story, as he had made political donations to Democrats in the past. It turns out, however, that Mr Sterling is a registered Republican.

But beyond the shallow debate over political affiliation is the question of whether the views of the two men are still representative of any significant segment of the US public.

Both Mr Bundy and Mr Sterling are "old men who live in a form of isolation", writes HotAir.com's Jazz Shaw.

"Bundy lives in a geographically isolated, rural region," he says. "Sterling lives in the rather insular world of the very wealthy. They also come from a different generation, growing up among attitudes which were common beyond notice in their day but which would probably shock many people today."

Shaw writes that he is optimistic, however, that younger generations are leaving this kind of bigotry behind.

Start Quote

It feels like the divide is getting deeper”

End Quote Joe Concha Mediaite

"We seem to be raising a generation of young adults who simply don't fall into these old pigeonholes and are more interested in the joint challenges they all face in today's society," he concludes.

CNN's LZ Granderson isn't so sure. He writes that while Mr Bundy and Mr Sterling may be racists, they are just "lightning rods of the moment". Today's racism has a different face.

"Racism 2.0 is busily working in the shadows, gerrymandering away voting rights and creating legislation that makes pre-emptively shooting dead a young black man who makes you nervous synonymous with standing one's ground," he says.

Does this mean racism is getting worse in the US? Mediaite's Joe Concha says that it's hard to know for sure:

On one hand, Cliven Bundy's and Donald Sterling's deplorable comments have been universally condemned from left and right, blacks and whites alike. On the other hand, it feels like the divide is getting deeper - especially since the media-fueled polarization of the George Zimmerman trial and verdict.

He wonders whether it may just be a reflection of our modern media culture, where "too many people on the extremes have been given a microphone".

Cliven Bundy speaks at a rally in Nevada. Cliven Bundy made headlines with comments about blacks and slavery

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes that despite the insistence by "Republicans, Fox News and a majority of the US Supreme Court" that government programs and legislation to combat racism are no longer necessary, "naked prejudice" hasn't gone away:

Some big-city school systems are as segregated as they were in the 1960s. Leading public universities are admitting fewer black students than a decade ago. The black-white wealth gap has grown in recent years. Blacks are no more likely than whites to use illegal drugs, yet four times more likely to be arrested and jailed for it.

Three weeks ago - before Mr Bundy, before Mr Sterling - Jonathan Chait wrote a long piece in New York magazine about how the issue of race in the US has "saturated" the Obama presidency. Despite early hopes that Barack Obama would be a "post-racial" president, race has played a major role in the extreme polarisation of modern US politics and culture.

It has been a hidden - and at times not-so-hidden - subtext to much of our political debate over issues like debt, health care and unemployment.

He ends up siding with those who take hope in future generations overcoming the prejudice of the past:

In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away. The rising cohort of Americans holds far more liberal views than their parents and grandparents on race, and everything else (though of course what you think about "race" and what you think about "everything else" are now interchangeable). We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born.

A comforting thought, perhaps. For now, however, those "angry pangs" are proving difficult to ignore.


Boxer suspended for racist diatribe

Boxers Adrien Broner and Carlos Molina face each other during their pre-match weigh-in on 2 May, 2014. Adrien Broner (left) has received an indefinite suspension for racist comments directed at Carlos Molina

Boxing has long been a sport of spirited taunting.

Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was a master of the practice, calling one opponent "so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife" and saying he'd beat an opponent so badly "he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on".

Welterweight boxer Adrien Broner's attempts at such braggadocio after defeating Carlos Molina - an American of Mexican heritage - veered into racist slurs, however.

During a televised post-match interview with Showtime's Jim Gray, Broner - who is black - referred to himself as the "can man" and said: "Anybody can get it. Afri-cans, I just beat the f--k out of a Mexi-can."

Even for boxing this was a line crossed, and on Thursday the World Boxing Council announced Broner had received an indefinite suspension from the sport until he "makes a public apology satisfactory to the public of the world":

Adrien Broner, former WBC lightweight champion, has offended many persons of the world with his words during the interview after the fight v Molina. The World Boxing Council holds human equality as its banner and will not accept a former WBC champion to make racially offensive statements.Since words have different meanings and can be interpreted in different ways, the WBC is issuing this open letter to Adrien Broner to either clarify what he meant with his words or to issue a public apology if those words were intended to be disrespectful and offensive... Boxing is a great sport, it is a world sport, and boxers are honourable and exemplary members of the community. Fair play and human equality must always be upheld.

Start Quote

The fact that Broner employed the word 'Mexican' was presumably too much for the WBC”

End Quote Sean Crose Boxing Insider

Given that professional basketball team owner Donald Sterling was recently suspended for life for making racist statements in a secretly recorded private conversation, the sporting world has become particularly sensitised to offensive language.

"Broner, who has always been a showboat, a kind of Apollo Creed for the Twitter generation, has crossed a line with this recent tirade," writes Classicalite's Drew Jacobs. "Amidst all the news breaking about classless rednecks making stupid comments, a time has come for civility to make a comeback."

Boxing Insider's Sean Crose, disagrees, saying it's ironic that an organisation that governs a sport "where athletes regularly punch each other in the face" is so concerned about a participant's "good manners".

"The fact that Broner employed the word 'Mexican' was presumably too much for the WBC - which itself has a history of raising eyebrows - to stomach," he writes.

He notes that the WBC did not suspend Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 for calling Manny Pacquiao "a little yellow chump".

He continues:

We live in an age, of course, where offending certain people - though definitely not all people - is considered taboo. At least in some cases. It depends, actually, on who does the offending. And if the offended party is deemed worth caring about. It's all very advanced and complex, you see. Best to just let the most honourable and brightest among us sort it all out.

Shortly after the Sterling suspension was announced, ESPN's Jason Whitlock warned that the precedent for handing down suspensions for objectionable language means "it won't be long before a parade of athletes joins Sterling on Ignorance Island".

Broner, it seems, has booked his reservations.


'Rape culture' investigation shocks Virginia university

Protestors gather outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia Protestors hold up signs outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia

The allegations made in the latest issue of Rolling Stone are shocking. An 18-year-old University of Virginia freshman attends a party at one of the school's oldest fraternities in the fall of 2012. "Jackie", as she is called in the article, is invited upstairs by her date, where she says she is gang raped by seven fraternity brothers.

Jackie didn't go to a hospital after the alleged incident, as her friends decided it would adversely affect her- and their - reputations at the school. In 2013, the story continues, Jackie reported her rape to the head of the school's misconduct board, Nicole Eramo.

Jackie was presented with the choice of going to the police, beginning a formal complaint or having a mediated session where she could confront her alleged attackers.

"Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime - something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do - the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing," the article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, writes.

Jackie decided she couldn't go forward.

Start Quote

At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students - who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture - and by an administration”

End Quote Sabrina Rubin Erdely Rolling Stone

"She badly wants to muster the courage to file criminal charges or even a civil case," Erdley says. "But she's paralysed."

The Rolling Stone story expands beyond the one allegation and its subsequent fallout and looks at how the university has handled suspected rape cases over the past decades - including multiple allegations of gang rapes at the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi.

Last year, the school discloses, there were 38 reports of sexual assault. Nine became formal complaints, and four resulted in misconduct board hearings. "The other 29 students evaporated," Erdely writes.

She adds that 14 students have been found guilty of "sexual misconduct" in the school's history, but none has been expelled. According to Erdely, the most recent student, found to have been responsible for multiple assaults, was suspended for one year.

When Erdely asked university president Teresa Sullivan why the university keeps its rape disciplinary proceedings private, she said it would discourage women from coming forward. Jackie tells Rolling Stone she was told by the dean that it's "because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school".

"At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students - who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture - and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal," Erdely writes.

The University of Virginia is one of 86 schools currently under investigation by the Obama administration's Department of Education for their handling of sexual-assault-related complaints. It's also one of 12 schools undergoing a more thorough "compliance review" of its policies for dealing with sexual assault on campus.

Fallout from the Rolling Stone article has been swift. Initially, the school placed Phi Kappa Psi "under investigation". The federal judge originally named to head the inquest was later withdrawn after word spread that he was a member of the fraternity in question.

As outrage mounted, the fraternity voluntarily suspended itself during the proceedings.

In a letter to the Virginia student paper, the fraternity said it had "no specific knowledge" of the magazine's claims, but it would co-operate with authorities.

"Make no mistake, the acts depicted in the article are beyond unacceptable - they are vile and intolerable in our brotherhood, our university community and our society," the letter states.

On Saturday Sullivan announced that she was suspending all fraternity and sorority activities - involving about 3,500 students - until 9 January and calling on the Charlottesville, Virginia, police to investigate Jackie's allegations.

"The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to re-examine our responsibility to this community," Ms Sullivan writes in a letter to students. "Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation's colleges and universities."

Protestors gather outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia on Saturday night An anonymous letter says vandalism of Psi Kappa Psi fraternity house will 'escalate' unless university takes action

Hundreds marched in protest on Thursday. On Friday morning, the Z Society - one of the university's six secret societies - left a letter and flowers for students at the university's amphitheatre, where students would later gather.

"We share in our anger and in our concern, but - what's more - we share in the belief that our community can and must evolve," the letter says.

Over the weekend, the Phi Kappa Psi house was vandalised, with windows broken and "UVa Center for Rape Studies" and "Suspend Us" written on the building's wall.

An anonymous letter from individuals claiming responsibility for the attack said the incidents will escalate until the university takes more decisive action - including mandatory expulsion for students found guilty of sexual assault and Eramo's resignation.

Start Quote

The University of Virginia's administration has been absolutely and disgustingly derelict for decades, protecting the reputation of the institution at all costs”

End Quote Rod Dreher The American Conservative

"Rape is not a political issue to be negotiated and discussed with an eye towards gradual improvement," they write. "It is a criminal act of violence that cannot be tolerated."

Rolling Stone published a follow-up article on Friday containing excerpts from reader letters to the magazine, including many women who agreed with the assessment that the school fosters a "culture of sexual assault, along with a disdain for those who attempt to report it".

The articles - and the ensuing controversy - has led many to once again question the way US universities deal with sexual assault, and the role the Greek system of fraternities and sororities play on campus and college culture in general.

"The Rolling Stone story reveals a campus culture in which fraternity houses are widely known as places where girls, especially freshman girls (who are too young to get into bars) are invited inside, gotten drunk, and bedded," writes Rod Dreher for the American Conservative.

He compares the university's reaction to that of the Catholic Church after allegations of sexual molestation by priests first began to surface.

"The deeper you read into the story, the more clear it is that the University of Virginia's administration has been absolutely and disgustingly derelict for decades, protecting the reputation of the institution at all costs," he writes.

He concludes that he would never want his children, male or female, from getting involved in the Greek system:

"I do not want my kids, as college students, to be subject to rape, to participate in rape, or to be in a position in which they are pressured to prove their loyalty to their fraternity, their friends, and their university by staying silent about rape."

The university isn't the only one at blame, write the editors of the Roanoke, Virginia, News Leader.

"The seven fraternity brothers who allegedly perpetrated the 2012 rape were almost certainly raised in educated families of economic means," they write. "Their sense of entitlement was likely high. Did any parent or teacher ever spell out to them the immorality and unacceptability of rape?"

The editors of the Roanoke, Virginia, Times call for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to order a state police investigation, rather than relying on a local investigation.

"Cynics could just say the local police have an interest in preserving the reputation of the city's biggest economic driver," they write. "But people would be more inclined to believe state police. Err on the side of trust."

Ms Sullivan's initial reaction to the Rolling Stone article was not nearly strong enough, write the editors of the Charlottesville, VA, Daily Progress.

"For 48 hours, when the community first needed heartfelt reassurance from the university, that engagement was lacking," they write. "In fact, the word that comes to mind throughout this nightmare is 'disconnect.'"

Virginia student Dani Bernstein, writing in the university's student newspaper, says that while Erdely's article exposes the school's deference to fraternities, it paints all Virginia students too broadly.

"We cannot deny there is some pervasive culture here that allows abuses to occur," she writes. "But we have undeniably excellent student groups aimed at addressing this very issue."

The University of Virginia, founded by President Thomas Jefferson, is often called a "public Ivy" - one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, with a tuition price that's considered a bargain compared to similarly respected private institutions.

Now, however, Virginia's reputation - always on the minds of the college's administrators, according to Rolling Stone's report - may be permanently stained.

"This UVa campus rape story is just sickening & should make people question going there," tweets Yahoo News editor Garance Franke-Ruta.


The day her family wasn't there

Actress Diane Guerrero.

Months before President Barack Obama's decisive immigration reform move, actress Diane Guerrero was writing early drafts of an essay on how US deportation policy had changed her life.

Now her emotional story, published in the Los Angeles Times shortly before Thursday's White House announcement, has made her a recognisable face late in the game.

In an interview with the BBC, Guerrero, best known for her roles as Maritza Ramos in Orange is the New Black and Lina in Jane the Virgin, said early versions of her piece had almost no personal details.

Start Quote

No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own”

End Quote Diane Guerrero Actress

"For the longest time, I know I avoided it," she said. "I think my whole life I've been avoiding the issue because it's so difficult to revisit."

The pain comes from the day a 14-year-old Guerrero came home from school to an empty house.

Neighbours later told her that both her parents and her older brother had been taken by immigration officers who eventually sent her family back to Colombia. The lights in her house were on and dinner had already been started, but from that day on Guerrero had only herself to rely on.

"Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me," she writes in the Times. "No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own."

She says that she was lucky because she was able to rely on the kindness of friends and has found so much success. But, she adds, there are many children separated from their families whose stories look nothing like hers - even within her own family.

When her brother was deported, he was forced to leave his daughter, a toddler, behind. Growing up in a single-parent family, she says, her niece made bad choices in the face of many challenges.

Three men protest President Obama's immigration action in New York City President Barack Obama has been accused of giving undocumented immigrants priority over those legally working in the US

"Today she is serving time in jail, living the reality that I act out on screen," Guerrero writes.

Guerrero says she's seen a flood of responses, both negative and positive, in the wake of her article. Much of the praise has come from people in similar situations who have adapted to life without family members - and even from those who simply lost a parent at a young age.

Guerrero says one woman told her the article was the inspiration behind a decision to volunteer with the pro-immigration reform cause.

Not all of the responses have been positive, however. Guerrero says it's understandable - but still sometimes hurts to hear.

"I for one think that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some of the comments are very one-sided and not very well balanced," she said. "But I feel like I'm doing this for that very reason, to try and change people's minds."

HotAir's Jazz Shaw writes that Guerrero's story is sad and she was definitely let down - but her parents, not government, is to blame.

Start Quote

If you come here illegally you are breaking the law and you run the risk of being caught and dealt with by the legal system”

End Quote Jazz Shaw HotAir blog

Shaw tells the story of a high school friend whose mother died when he was very young and whose father was arrested for embezzling money. He writes that his friend, Eddie, lived with relatives until he graduated.

One of the things Guerrero and Eddie have in common is that their parents were both criminals, Shaw writes.

"If you come here illegally you are breaking the law and you run the risk of being caught and dealt with by the legal system," he writes. "Blaming it on some shysters who acted in bad faith is really no excuse."

A follow-up piece to Guerrero's op-ed in the Los Angeles Times says that there were many similar responses among their readership.

One letter to the editor written by Stephanie Caldera says that Guerrero could have been successful if she had followed her parents back to Colombia rather than staying in the US.

Another, by PJ Gendall, argues that allowing Guerrero's family to stay would be unfair to those working to enter the US legally.

Outside of acting, Guerrero works as an ambassador for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an organisation that provides legal training and education, as well as works with advocacy organisations.

She says she first got involved after meeting Grisel Ruiz, a law fellow at the organisation, at a Cosmopolitan for Latinas award event earlier this year.

"When I first met Diane, the second I heard her story I felt instantly like it exemplified the community that we work with and the rights we're trying to see advanced," Ruiz told the BBC.

Ruiz said that the president's announcement is a good first step, but she is looking for a more permanent and expansive solution.

"Ultimately there needs to be a permanent fix," Ruiz says.

(By Kierran Petersen)


Conservatives respond to Obama speech with anger - and uncertainty

Senator Ted Cruz. Senator Ted Cruz says Republicans should refuse to confirm any new presidential appointees

As details of President Barack Obama's plan for unilateral action on immigration reform spread, conservatives flocked to Twitter to engage in a bit of a thought experiment.

What if President George W Bush, after his attempts to partially privatise the Social Security retirement savings programme were rebuffed by Congress, had decided to implement his plan by executive fiat?

Or what if the next Republican president instructed the Internal Revenue Service to leave some capital gains or estate taxes uncollected?

By issuing an executive order to defer deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the US, they argued, Mr Obama is setting a precedent for moves that Democrats now supporting their president would find highly offensive.

Start Quote

Authoritarians, great and minor, always claim more powers to fix some unprecedented emergency”

End Quote David Harsanyi The Federalist

"Obama isn't the first president to abuse executive power - not by a longshot," writes the Federalist's David Harsanyi. "But he has to be the first president in American history to overtly and consistently argue that he's empowered to legislate if Congress doesn't pass the laws he favours."

Mr Obama argues that the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US constitute a crisis that Republicans have refused to address. According to Harsanyi, however, the urgency of the matter is in the eye of the beholder.

"Authoritarians, great and minor, always claim more powers to fix some unprecedented emergency," he writes.

Creators Syndicate columnist Mona Charen says that Mr Obama, and his supporters, have been corrupted by power.

"This is not constitutional government," she writes. "This is not separation of powers. This is strong-arming."

Behind the conservative howls of outrage over the president's move is a growing realisation that their party has no good options for how to respond.

Some, like CNS News's Terry Jeffrey, argue that Congress should not allocate funds for the federal agency responsible for processing newly legal immigrants.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on immigration. President Barack Obama's immigration action could be politically difficult for Republicans to undo

Conservative Senator Ted Cruz is calling for Congress to refuse to approve any Obama non-national-security-related executive or judicial appointments. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker endorses a lawsuit to challenge the legality of the president's move. Still others are urging a government shutdown or that Congress begin the process of removing Mr Obama from office and even jailing him.

Then there's another strategy some conservatives are advancing. Do nothing.

The president's move doesn't need to be countered, this line of thought goes - it will backfire on its own, as an unconvinced public rejects his proposal.

"After a decade of stalled growth and flat wages, large numbers of Democrats tell pollsters they'd be 'much more' likely to support GOP candidates who prioritize Americans workers over companies that want to employ migrants," writes the Daily Caller's Neil Munro. "Obama's dollops of sentiment and guilt-speak likely won't make any difference."

Start Quote

If the amnestied illegals contribute to the drug trade and violent crime, that will be Obama's legacy to his country”

End Quote Pat Buchanan Syndicated columnist

Bloomberg View's Meghan McArdle agrees. "Announcing that it's absurd to expect you to enforce the law, so you're not going to bother to try, might sort of rub voters the wrong way," she writes.

More than that, writes Pat Buchanan, Mr Obama's unilateral efforts will mean he is responsible for any future immigration crises.

"If the amnestied illegals contribute to the drug trade and violent crime, that will be Obama's legacy to his country," he writes. "If they turn up disproportionately on the welfare rolls, exploding state and federal deficits, that will be Obama's legacy. If this amnesty is followed by a new invasion across the border America cannot control, that, too, will be Obama's gift to his countrymen."

Even if the president's plan is not a popular success, however, it's going to be a daunting task for any Republican - currently in Congress or a future president - to undo.

"The politics of telling people who have been pardoned, en masse, that they are criminals once more is not the same as the politics of opposing their pardon in the first place," writes the National Review's Daniel Foster.

According to columnist Linda Chavez, the way out for conservatives is to embrace efforts to reform immigration and advance a plan of their own.

"Is there no one among them brave enough to stand up and say let's draft meaningful reform and make our borders more secure by providing legal ways for workers to come here?" she asks. "The American people want that kind of leadership. They want action, not angry talk and threats."

Republicans were labelled the "party of no" for much of Mr Obama's presidency, as they rallied to block the liberal initiatives while in the minority. They will soon control both chambers of Congress, however, and Mr Obama's move - overreach or not - puts the focus on how they will respond.


Home is where the edge is

New York Mets home stadium.

The New York Mets are hoping that less outfield green leads to more wins.

On Tuesday Sandy Alderson, general manager for one of New York's two major league baseball teams, announced that his franchise had studied balls hit in their stadium over the past season and concluded that their team would benefit from moving the right field wall in by up to 11 feet (3.35m) in places.

According to a team analysis, the Mets - who feature several left-handed power hitters - would have tallied an additional 17 home runs, while their opponents would have only put 10 more over a closer wall.

New York's move is a conscious - and public - effort to give the home team an extra edge against their opponents. Such tactics show up all across sport - whether it's encouraging, or even possibly amplifying, crowd noise in basketball arenas or opening stadium doors to make the conditions windier during key moments of an American football game.

Many of the moves, like fence-fiddling by the Mets, are perfectly above board. Others are a bit questionable, the subject of rumours and denied accusations. Here is a selection of some more memorable instances and allegations.

Could Miami take the heat?

June in Texas can be hot, as the Miami Heat found out in game one of this year's National Basketball Association seven-game championship series. When the air conditioning in the San Antonio Spurs's arena gave out, the temperature soared to over 90F (32C).

Miami's star player, Lebron James, succumbed to heat-related cramps, and San Antonio would win the game - and, eventually, the championship.

Miami Heat player Lebron James. Lebron James is sidelined at a key moment in this year's NBA finals due to heat-related cramping

Although the arena's operators pledged that the outage was an accident, many Heat fans believe to this day that it was a planned move to gain an advantage.

"They're trying to smoke us out of here," James said at one point during the game.

High anxiety

Sometimes home-field advantage involves more than just adjusting a stadium to suit the local team. During World Cup qualifications it can involve choosing the town in which a match is played.

Mountainous South American countries would often pick high-altitude locations to hobble opponents from lowland nations not used to the thinner air. It became such a regular practice that in 2007 Fifa decided to prohibit international matches above an altitude of 2,500m.

"Between 1973 and 2005," writes Rodrigo Orihuela for the Guardian, "Argentina was winless in Bolivia, even though it won two World Cups and two Copa Americas in the period, and coaches and players regularly blamed the shortage of oxygen for their bad performances."

The move caused an uproar, and Fifa was forced to revise and then suspend its altitude rules.

A US football player kicks a ball in the snow against Costa Rica in 2013. The US enjoy a snowy advantage against Costa Rica in 2013

In one of the most memorable recent high-altitude games, it wasn't the thin air that was the problem. In March 2013 the US played Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier in Denver during a snowstorm - a match that the US side won 1-0.

The US often schedules games against their Latin American foes in cold-weather locations like Ohio, Utah and Colorado, but the surprise blizzard took home field advantage to another level against the ill-prepared Ticos.

"By the last 15 minutes of the game, any semblance of soccer was only accidental," writes Time magazine's Bill Saporito. "It is very difficult to pass a ball through 3 or 4 inches of snow. You just kick it long and hope for a crazy result."

After the match the Costa Rican players were furious. Their manager called the game "an embarrassment to football".

Start Quote

It wasn't like the guy forgot to mow the lawn that day”

End Quote Steve Sarkisian USC assistant coach

The grass is sometimes taller on the home side

Although artificial turf is the standard playing surface in many stadiums today, old-school grass can present some advantages.

In the Barclays Premier League last season, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger repeatedly complained that his team's opponents were letting the grass on their home pitches grow long to slow down his faster players.

"I will soon have a pitch at home with long grass to practise for when we play away from home," he said.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says opponents are trying anything they can to slow his team down

American football teams have been accused of similar tactics, perhaps most notably in 2005, when Notre Dame's field looked unusually unkempt against top-ranked USC.

"You knew it was long, and you knew it was long intentionally," then-USC assistant coach Steve Sarkisian would later say. "It wasn't like the guy forgot to mow the lawn that day."

Notre Dame play against USC in 2005. The Notre Dame grass looked a bit shaggy when USC visited in 2005

Notre Dame, which lost in the final seconds of the game to the heavily favoured USC squad, continues to deny that it doctored the field.

Baseball's ground rules

Last month Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost accused the grounds crews of the opposing San Francisco Giants of watering down the infield dirt prior to game three of the baseball World Series.

Kansas City Royals celebrating after a World Series win. The Kansas City Royals win game three of the World Series despite rumours of a too-wet infield

Earlier in the postseason his team had stolen seven bases against an opponent, and he speculated that San Francisco wanted a muddy surface that would bog down the team's speedsters.

Start Quote

One of the best relationships you need to have is with your home groundskeeper”

End Quote Buck Showalter ESPN

"When I took off, I left a big divot in the ground," said Kansas City player Jarrod Dyson. "They're just trying to slow our running game down. Typical move."

San Francisco officials have denied the allegations - but strategic field-grooming has a long history in baseball and is generally tolerated as long as it's not too egregious.

"One of the best relationships you need to have is with your home groundskeeper," long-time baseball manager Buck Showalter told ESPN columnist Jerry Crasnick. "Whether it's length of grass or the texture of the dirt, there are a lot of things teams try to do to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses."

Start Quote

It felt like somebody had just reached out and slapped me across the face”

End Quote Jill Gaulding former University of Iowa professor
Think pink

Occasionally the home team's tactics go from sneaky to ridiculous. Such is the case at the University of Iowa, whose visiting team's football stadium locker room has been painted pink from floor to ceiling for more than three decades.

The move has been called sexist and homophobic by some critics.

"It sends the message that anything associated with female is lesser-than," former Iowa Prof Jill Gaulding told Inside Higher Ed. "The minute I read about the pink locker room and how the university had built it even pinker, it felt like somebody had just reached out and slapped me across the face. It was that insulting."

There's no question that the colour annoys some of the visiting players. Former University of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler reportedly ordered his staff to cover the walls with paper when his team played there.

It's all in your head

There's no guaranteed that any of these tactics, schemes and manoeuvres actually worked - if they were really undertaken at all. But as the Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond says, sometimes it doesn't matter if the facts bear out the advantage. If the players think they've got an edge, it could improve their confidence.

"Ultimately, the Mets hope that moving in the fences again will help their hitters from a mental standpoint," he writes. "They have worried in the past that watching long fly balls die harmlessly on the warning track has affected confidence... While visitors leave after a short series at Citi Field, the Mets play half their games there, exacerbating the psychological torment."

A good home field advantage puts all the torment on the visiting side.


FBI threats to MLK prompt snooping warnings

Martin Luther King Jr speaks in London in 1963.

A disturbing, decades-old letter sent to Martin Luther King Jr by the FBI is serving, for many, as a reminder of the scope and history of US governmental surveillance programmes - and their potential for abuse.

Heavily redacted versions of the 1964 letter have been available for years, but an uncensored copy was recently discovered by Yale historian Beverly Gage. Now revealed are brazen threats to smear King by making details of his numerous extramarital affairs public and hints at an audiotape that may have accompanied the letter.

While the letter is unsigned, a Senate Committee confirmed a decade after it was sent that it had come from the FBI during then-Director J. Edgar Hoover's five-decade-long leadership of the bureau.

In a piece for the New York Times, Gage writes that the FBI had originally started monitoring King because of suspected ties to the US Communist Party. But after King began criticising the government for failing to enforce civil rights in the American South and his participation in the 1963 March on Washington, Gage says the range of the FBI's surveillance spread.

Start Quote

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the FBI attempted, but what it failed to do”

End Quote Beverly Gage The New York Times

While they failed to link King to communism, the wiretaps and bugs in his home, office and hotel rooms did discover a number of extramarital affairs, which many civil rights leaders already knew about.

When FBI officials brought information about King's personal life to journalists, though, the story was largely ignored. In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That year, Hoover condemned King, calling him "the most notorious liar in the country". A few days later, William Sullivan, a deputy to Hoover at the FBI, sent the letter.

"King, like all frauds your end is approaching," the letter, crafted as a message from a disillusioned supporter, reads. "You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age, have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile."

The correspondence ends with a vague threat.

"King, there is only one thing left for you to do," it reads. "You know what it is."

Many, including King at the time he received it, see this as a suggestion that King should kill himself.

Gage writes in her piece that the odd thing about this time period is that the FBI's campaign against King was a spectacular flop. While today King is looked at as a moral ideal, Hoover is wildly unpopular.

"In this context, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the FBI attempted, but what it failed to do," she writes.

Although the FBI's attempts to discredit King were unsuccessful, that doesn't mean modern intelligence agencies have given up on similar tactics.

FBI Director J Edgar Hoover speaks with President John F Kennedy in 1961. Hoover, seen here with President Kennedy, called King "the most notorious liar in the country"

Nadia Kayyali, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation's blog, Deeplinks, says the King letter could be a page out of the handbook of the British online intelligence unit dubbed the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group - a group whose mission is to "destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt enemies by discrediting them".

Today, she writes, that translates into rummaging through Facebook chats, embarrassing internet browsing history and emails in order to discredit any leader who threatens the status quo or to blackmail someone into becoming an informant.

Start Quote

We should still be vigilant in insisting that the tactics used with King have no place in this day and age”

End Quote Marcy Wheeler Salon

"These are not far-fetched ideas," she says. "They are the reality of what happens when the surveillance state is allowed to grow out of control, and the full King letter, as well as current intelligence community practices, illustrate that reality richly."

Salon's Marcy Wheeler writes that there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the intelligence community - including who today's targets are, if they are at the same level of importance as King or how exactly the National Security Agency or the FBI is getting information about them.

But, she writes, we do know that today's spies are more powerful than ever because of technology, and they have more access because so much of our lives are spent online.

"It may take a half-century, as it has with King, to see the fruits of the surveillance the NSA and FBI direct at leaders of groups perceived to be a threat, whether it be Muslims fighting to defend their legal rights or overseas preachers criticising American expansion," she writes. "But we should still be vigilant in insisting that the tactics used with King have no place in this day and age."

And when it comes to what Americans do and don't know, Nick Gillespie says that it's important to consider a wider scope.

"The more we learn about the government these days, the less we can trust it," he writes for the Daily Beast.

He adds that it's fitting that the full details of the government's surveillance of King are coming to light in the age of Wikileaks, NSA leaker Edward Snowden and a White House that promised to be the most transparent administration in US history.

"There's a real opportunity for the politicians, the parties and the causes that dare to embrace real transparency - about how legislation is being crafted, about our surveillance programs at home and abroad - as a core value and something other than a throwaway slogan," Gillespie writes. "But as an unbroken thread of mendacity and mischief binds the present to the past, a future in which the government can be trusted seems farther off than ever."

Gage closes her piece by noting that James Comey, the current director of the FBI, keeps a copy of the agency's King wiretap request on his desk "as a reminder of the bureau's capacity to do wrong".

On Tuesday night, the US Senate narrowly voted down a measure that would have curtailed the government's ability to search through private phone records. The King request may be a potent symbol of government intrusion, but campaigners today would say it is dwarfed by the thousands of similar orders and warrants being issued by the FBI each year.

(By Kierran Petersen)


About this Blog:

Echo Chambers unscrambles the noise of the global debate, from social media to scholarly journals, Kansas City to Kathmandu.

About the Editor:

Anthony Zurcher is a senior writer with the BBC and editor of Echo Chambers, where he gathers and analyses the best in US and world opinion. He previously edited political columnists of all stripes – left and right, right and wrong.

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