In the Face of Terror

In the Face of Terror

national_park_service_9-11_statue_of_liberty_and_wtc_fireIn the days immediately following 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. Standing before a lectern, sandwiched between a dark-skinned bearded man and a woman wrapped in headscarf, he addressed cameras directly.
“The American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks,” he began, “and so were Muslims all across the world. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.”
He quoted the Quran. He urged Americans to treat their Muslim neighbors with respect. “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” he said. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America,” he said. “They represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed.”
That was six days after the towers fell. What a difference a decade makes. Today, Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is advocating putting certain mosques under surveillance. He also told a reporter he would support a database to track American Muslims.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
But Trump is not alone. In the wake of Paris, where 130 were killed and 368 wounded, people are scared. We Americans are scared. Paris reminds us of our own loss, of our own brutal encounter with terrorism, and calls for enhanced security have understandably poured out as a result.
But in the scramble to protect ourselves, we are forgetting ourselves. We are forgetting the things that, as President Bush said, “represent the best of America.”
This isn’t just in international circles or in Washington, D.C. This is right here at home, in New Hampshire.
In the wake of a crumbling Syria, 4.3 million Syrians have fled their country. They left in hopes of evading Assad and ISIS, and escaping civil war. They now sit stranded in Turkey and Europe, unable to return home, with nowhere to go. To date, Germany has accepted more than 38,000 of these refugees; Canada, more than 36,000. America, meanwhile, has opened its doors to 2,200.
That number was poised to jump to 10,000 in 2016, but with Paris serving as a punctuation point, governors across the country are demanding the border closed to Syrian refugees. A terrorist could be in their midst, they argue; the risk is too great.
French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, said France will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
The American fear is real, palpable. And it is understandable: Terrorism, the extremists’ chosen tactic, is designed to foment, to amplify, the fear response. The true victim of terrorism is society: Those killed are simply murdered, but the fear generated by the act reverberates among the survivors. Terrorism reigns among the living, and in the wake of Paris we are the survivors.
America is 320 million scared. Terrorism is proving its effectiveness.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
The lens of fear has twisted us. We are in the throes of the greatest refugee wave since World War II, but instead of seeing 4.3 million victims of terror we see 4.3 million possible terrorists. We stand in the land of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” still emblazoned on its base, and shut the door. Why? Out of fear.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
Terrorism is real. The threat is real. But the threat is not the number of victims it claims by murder but the pressure it puts upon free societies to abandon their freedoms. We are fighting a war of ideas, and in the scramble to make our lives safe we are losing our principles. The roots of our strength are in our pluralism, our openness and our diversity. ISIS cannot change that. Only we can.
And we are. Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan joined that call to put a pause on the Syrian refugee resettlement. Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed close behind. And Rep. Frank Guinta and Rep. Annie Kuster both voted to add additional screening measures to the refugee resettlement process when Syrians are involved.
“Live Free or Die” be damned. New Hampshire marches to the chorus of fear.
Only Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has staked out an alternative position: “After the Vietnam War we took 750,000 Vietnamese,” she told WMUR. “We took over 500,000 Cubans when Castro took over Cuba. We’ve taken Somalis, we’ve taken people from all over the world.”
“We do need to vet them,” she said, “but we also need to look at how we can expedite that process so it’s as efficient as possible.”
An America that sees victims of terror and is unafraid to respond? One that rushes to wrap them in her cloak, to welcome them to her shores? That’s the America I know. That’s the America I value.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in November of 2015.

The Candidate Race

rubio-marcoThe pointman for Sen. Marco Rubio wore a sport coat and thick beard and talked with a southern accent. In his late 20s, he arrived an hour before the candidate was scheduled and sat in the front room of the Sun offices surfing the Internet on his phone. His name was Trip, and he was waiting for his boss to arrive. His job, he told me, was to get things ready. That means his phone battery dies every three hours.
The Sun, however, doesn’t require much prepping. When candidates arrive we pull a pair of armchairs side-by-side, one for the candidate and one for the publisher, and the rest of us form a semicircle. The chairs were still in place from the last interview, so there wasn’t anything to prep. With 15 minutes to Rubio-time the Sun staff was still working on other things. Trip’s trip was being wasted.
But after some strategic texting Trip jumped up to let everyone know the senator was four minutes out. The campaign was going into action. But again, this was met without fanfare — late afternoons are deadline time at a newspaper, no time for distractions, and people kept working.
When the senator finally arrived, however, everything shifted. Phones hung up, notebooks closed, computers went into sleep mode. Rubio made his way around smiling and shaking hands, and everyone stood to meet him. He took a comfy chair, thus beginning one more job interview for 2016’s toughest opening.
In New Hampshire we’re lucky. We guard the frontline of presidential politics. Every four years the candidates come, wave after wave, to sit and discuss the issues, to interview for the job. It’s a democratic utopia, a dreamland for reporters, where the action is.
But it’s a weird place too. It’s a place where you interact on a human level with people more prepared to address a television camera. It’s like they train to address crowds from podiums and lose the ability to engage a room of a dozen.
That was Rubio. We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
That might sound like harsh critique, but in essence that is the point of the New Hampshire primary, to test candidates in a retail politics setting. Rubio said it himself: “New Hampshire is very town hall based,” he told us, the politics “retail-oriented.” After the New Hampshire primary, he said, it transforms into a media race, not a human race.
But then he talked at us for 20 minutes. To him, we might as well have been television cameras.
Now maybe he was in a hurry. Or was tired after a long day of campaigning. Maybe our little paper wasn’t worth putting in the full retail effort. Whatever it was, if Rubio is charismatic, he wasn’t when he visited us.
But he was smart. It was easy to see he is brilliant, capable of winning political arguments. And maybe that’s what we should be looking for in a president — the smart guy. Maybe the transformation from human to politician is just part of the game today. In the modern media environment cell phone cameras run 24/7. There is always someone watching for any potential slip, looking to turn an offhand comment into a career-ending soundbyte.
Remember a dozen years ago when Howard Dean let out “the scream” that ended his campaign? Now multiply that risk by the number of smartphones introduced since 2004. Moments of idiocy, of poor word choice and brain farts are now captured and broadcast around the world. And it’s not uncommon for Fox News or NBC to broadcast to the world something recorded on a cellphone.
The result? An expectation of perfection, and candidates like Marco Rubio, a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off. Living in a political environment where only the script makes sense, where the race is about the television audience rather than the general electorate, why deviate? Those willing to risk off-message interaction also risk alienating. It’s too great a risk, and retail politics drops by the wayside as voters are courted only by the millions, not one-by-one.
New Hampshire sits as the bulwark against that world. We are here to meet and greet, to be the face of the country, to gauge individual interactions and then broadcast that gut feeling on to the nation. New Yorkers will never get to meet every candidate. Nor Californians, nor Texans, nor Floridians. Those states have sway in November. New Hampshire sways now.
In New Hampshire, the presidential contest is recast as a local race. And in local races — the New Hampshire House or Senate, for example — it’s nearly impossible to vote straight ticket. When you know the candidates it’s not just enough to agree with their ideas; we need to trust the individual as well, to believe they are the kind of person we should elevate to power. It’s no longer just party. Here it’s personal.
That ability to build connections is what kept Ray Burton in office for three decades despite shifting political tides. People knew him, liked him and, regardless of political affiliation, supported him. That is a rare thing today. It’s a New Hampshire thing.
And that’s what we offer the country: The chance to face presidential candidates like local politicians. The chance for them to prove they hear us. The chance to support the person, not just the politician.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.

Truth in Politics

It isn’t often that small papers have the time or the resources to really catch national politicians in lies, half-truths or misrepresentations. Last week, however, several things landed in my lap that were just too obvious to ignore. I was able to pull them together into a story that I hope gets across the problems with today’s political system. Either way, it was fun to take both parties to task for their indiscretions. It’s not every day a small paper gets to do it.

Diving In

Sometimes you get started on stories so big you just can’t get them rolling.

I started on one of those yesterday. I have been hearing for more than a year that some moderate Republicans are concerned the actions of more ideological members of their party could affect them come November. Then yesterday I got an email invitation to a movie that calls into question President Obama’s paternity. The email came because I am on the mailing list of the Mount Washington Valley Republicans. I got to wondering what local Republicans in positions of authority thought of this type of production, if it represented them and their party, so I started making calls.

From there things got interesting quick. The Republicans I talked to said they would rather argue policy than paternity, and they did not plan to see the film. They defended, however, people’s right to see the film.

That wasn’t really my question, but that seemed to get lost in the mix. I was more interested if any of them thought it was worth objecting to a film alleging the president is lying about who his father is. My question got a luke-warm reception.

I basically wanted to know if local Republicans consider their “big tent” approach to the party to include people making outlandish claims, such as those made by “birthers.” A Republican state house rep from Jackson championed that issue this year, and I wondered if it a.) concerned more mainstream Republicans or b.) provoked any rebuke from the party. The Republicans I talked to did not indicate they saw any real issue with it.

The thing that got me thinking about this episode from the 2008 campaign:

In this clip Sen. John McCain shows real character, standing up against inaccurate portrayals of then Sen. Obama despite possible political consequences. I wondered if any local Republicans showed similar character, whether in the face of the “birther” advocates or when it’s a discussion of the president’s paternity.

The responses I got indicated local politicians were not willing to stick their necks out particularly far to contest this rhetoric. The people I spoke to preferred policy discussions, but they weren’t about to push back on this sort of thing.

That made me wonder where they would draw the line. Was there any issue that deserved repudiation? I decided to press a little further, to ask about whether the Republican “big tent” was big enough to embrace racism. Everyone I asked that of told me no.

That begged the question, however, of how a local Republican in a leadership position was able to retain that leadership position after his use of racial epithets became public. (The Sun covered it, but the online archive of the story was eliminated when we changed computer systems.) One person told me they did not have an answer. Another told me the use of racial slurs in private did not rise to the level where the person should be rebuked. Another asked me if I thought the man was a racist just because he used the N-word. I was asked if that person be censored, to which I responded no, but shouldn’t at least some local Republicans have suggested such comments weren’t befitting someone in a leadership position? Again, my comments didn’t get much traction.

By the end of all this my head hurt. I was caught in a circular argument I couldn’t get straight. Local Republicans said they didn’t think racism fit in their “big tent,” but when examples of inappropriate use of racial slurs by a party official hit the newspaper no one made a sound. I shouldn’t connect the actions of one person to the whole of the Republican Party, I was told. But I have a hard time understanding why not one local Republican exhibited the character of Sen. McCain, not one Republican thought it was worth it to stand up and say, “I disagree with the president on policy, but there is no need to stoop to the language of racism to make our point.”

I had hoped to go see the movie about Obama’s paternity so I could tie this all into a story, but deadlines caught up with me this afternoon. My morning spent discussing ideological issues forced me to race the clock at deadline, so I didn’t make it. I didn’t realize I was getting into this morass when I made the first phone call. Now that I’m partway in I feel an obligation to keep working my way through it. Sometimes you dive in at the shallow end of the pool. Sometimes you don’t know how far down the deep end goes.

Update: I found this Economist article, which in some ways connects. I thought it was interesting considering the topic.

Missed Opportunities

A week or so ago we had two gubernatorial candidates in the office, Republican Kevin Smith and Democrat Jackie Cilley. I did my best to push both of them on their weaknesses. Smith says Concord needs reform from someone who understands business, but he’s spent most his life working closely with the legislature, not in the private sector. I couldn’t understand how someone with 15 years working in Concord who listed his understanding of how the system worked as one of his chief assets could be the architect of that system’s reform. Cilley, meanwhile, said she was “looking” at everything, but she refused to be specific about what taxes she would increase to pay for the services she wants government to provide.

It wasn’t until after Cilley left, however, that I stumbled on the big question I wish I’d asked her. Cilley has refused to take “the Pledge,” something just about every New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate has to take. It is a promise not to institute a broad-based income or sales tax. Cilley said she isn’t planning to institute such a tax, but she wants all options on the table. Further, she said, she doesn’t believe in pledge politics. It poisons the atmosphere. She resoundingly rejected the pledges Republicans took about taxes, singling out Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge.

I could understand her position, but then after she left I took a look at her website. I went to the issues page and scrolled to the bottom where she discusses her position on same-sex marriage. It reads:

I was proud to support marriage equality as a state Senator. I would never support taking away a citizen’s rights and believe that marriage is a private decision for couples to make rather than governments to decide.

I would never support taking away a citizen’s rights — that sounds to me like a line in the sand, a promise, an ultimatum, something Cilley swears she will never do. When put next to the heading Same Sex Marriage, I get the distinct impression she is making a pledge. She is promising, pledging, never to try to repeal same-sex marriage.

Why is it OK for Cilley to engage in pledge politics on the issue of same-sex marriage while rebuking pledge politics when it comes to taxes? I’m not sure. It seemed a big hole to me. I would imagine many politicians, like many people, have clear views on social issues that are not subject to changes. Stating them clearly for the record isn’t a bad thing. Promising your constituents you will stick by that position after they send you into office isn’t a bad thing either. That, essentially, is a pledge. It is a campaign promise. I would say it is one you make particularly forcefully, but that’s still what it is. So to hear Cilley decry them in one context yet make one in another (albiet without using the word pledge, but a rose by any other name is still a rose…) is strange. It makes me wonder if all this talk of pledges is just politics. It’s something I’d like to ask her. Hopefully I’ll get another shot.

Why It Sucks to Be a Democrat

Ever thought about running for political office? If so, do yourself a favor, throw in with the G.O.P.

Why? Because being a Democrat sucks.

We have had candidates streaming into our office, people running for everything from county attorney to sheriff to state representative to governor. Many of them sit down with our editorial staff to answer questions and discuss their views. I view it as my job to make that experience tough, something they hopefully remember. No matter their political affiliation I want to shoot holes in their platform. I look at it as testing them to see what they are made of, whether they have whatever it is voters deserve.

A recent visitor, Jackie Cilley, is running for the governor’s seat, and her visit got me thinking about how hard it is to be a democrat today. The Republican Party today has a strong bias towards one thing — cutting government. It has gotten to a point where longtime establishment Rockefeller Republicans have told me they feel ostracized in their  own party. Dept and spending need to be slashed, the argument goes, even if it threatens our nation’s credit rating (last year’s debt ceiling debate).

With that in mind, think about what it takes to run as a Republican. Think about how those candidates address editorial boards like ours. What would you like to do about taxes? “Cut them.” Should the government regulate (fill in the blank)?  “No, government is the problem. We need to get government out of the way.” What should we do about unemployment? (Or health care, or public transportation, or the banking sector, or…) “Again, we need to get government out of the way. Let the public sector work. Government is not the answer.”

It is an easy game. The unrestrained free market mantra in vogue with the G.O.P. right now has an obvious script, and anyone can play.

Democrats, however, have a harder task. They have to talk about services and taxes, and they have to get it right. It’s easy to point out education funding got cut and the roads are in disrepair, but how do you plan to generate the revenue to rectify that problem? How can we be sure your new environmental (labor, financial, etc.) regulations will be reasonable, not onerous? How do you plan to pay for increased unemployment benefits (social services, health care, etc.)?

These are no easy answers. There are lots of pitfalls, lots of opportunities to look like you’re just trying to grow the state machine. There is no mantra you can memorize to handle every question. The challenge is much greater than that Republicans face.

It used to be the two parties both agreed government provided a needed service, it was just the degrees that differed. It was a Republican, not a Democrat, (Nixon) who created the Environmental Protection Agency. It was President Eisenhower who created the interstate system. But today the boundaries have shifted. Democrats are the only ones arguing for services (mostly), while Republicans are itching to eliminate everything.

And it’s the Democrats who face the uphill battle.

Budget Time, and Public Office

Local government is an amazing thing. In New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state, the goal is to put control directly into the hands of the voters for the most part. That means elected officials sit before citizens and have to answer direct questions directly. Imagine if the same were true on the national level…

I’ve been caught up in the budget debates in recent weeks, from how much teachers make to grant applications for police officers. The only thing that seems to be missing, however, is the public.

Last night I was at the public hearing for the town of Conway budget, which just passed the 10,000 population milestone. There were roughly six members of the public in the audience. Everyone else was an elected official. Tonight it was the town of Bartlett budget public hearing. There were 10 people there, including the fire chief and the police chief. While proportionately better (Bartlett has about 3,000 residents, I think) it was still a dismal turnout.

The day before I was at a Conway selectmen’s meeting. A local neighborhood association had urged people to come out and voice their position on an issue, but there were less than five people that heeded that call. A couple other people who were there for unrelated reasons shared their opinions, but overall it was a flop (there may have been a few emails sent to town officials, however).

I wrote about this problem years ago in Berlin — Where is everybody? Local government gives people a lot of control over how decisions are made, but first people have to show up. And they don’t. When they do, like at last year’s school deliberative meeting, they can exert amazing force, but in day to day governance boards and commissions are left on their own. It’s sad to see.

And yet people complain. They write to the paper and post to Facebook about how much local government sucks. They may not realize the level of power they could wield, accustomed instead to federal elections where one vote is a drop in the bucket.

If there is one thing I’ve learned by covering hundreds of public meetings (literally) it’s show up. And run. Get involved. Try running things and you’ll probably criticize a lot less. Or at least you’ll be able to do something about it.

Primary Flop

This post’s title is not meant to reflect any of the candidates in yesterday’s G.O.P. primary. It is a commentary on how that primary wound up in the Mount Washington Valley. Since mid-December not one candidate came to the Mount Washington Valley. The national media made New Hampshire sound like a madhouse, where you couldn’t go two steps without running into a presidential hopeful. Well I’m here to say that wasn’t the case in Conway, Jackson, Bartlett, Madison or any of the towns I cover. The closest a candidate got was the Mount Washington Hotel, in Coös County,  on the other side of Crawford Notch.

It’s interesting to reflect on that wall to wall coverage with that in mind. I read several stories today about how there were more reporters at candidate events than New Hampshire voters. It certainly felt that way here. I spent the afternoon covering a death on Mount Washington instead of covering politics because, as far as I could tell, there were no politics to cover.

Oh well, the next race is only four years away.

2011

It’s the time of year everyone is doing their “Year In Review.” I’m no different — at work I started writing up 2011 today, and I hope to be finished by tomorrow. For the Sun my year was two things: Dittmeyer murder and Irene. For LPJ, however, it starts a few months earlier:

Iraq — It seems that would obviously be the seminal experience of any year, but in a year like 2011 three weeks in Iraq and Kuwait quickly falls into the background. Looking back, however, it still amazes me I got on that first flight out of Boston, made it to the Iran/Iraq border and made it home. It was one incredible trip.

Dittmeyer — She was killed on a Saturday night, and by Monday the Mount Washington Valley was seething with reporters. We were able to beat all of them, however; probably one of the coolest experiences of the year.

Drugs — I’ve said this before, but sometime in August I wrote what was probably the best story I’ve done so far about how drugs and crime are intertwined in the Mount Washington Valley, and how the problem is only getting bigger. It was a great narrative, something I read today and am still surprised I wrote.

Investigations — There were really two, both involving the police department. One was into how they spend their money, and the other was into money stolen from the evidence room. Both of them wound up being one-off stories in a sense, but they proved that the Sun knows what it means to be a watchdog newspaper.

Irene — This was a big one. When the storm hit we were out of town, and the Saco and Rocky Branch flooded, blocking us from getting home. We slept in Portland, Maine, and when I got dropped off at the paper in the morning I went right to it. That week was all about telling people’s stories, stories that most people didn’t realize had happened. It was a blur, much like the week of Dittmeyer, but it was one where the paper made a difference in how people saw their experience. Again, that’s why I got into this job.

Candidates — From Newt to Mitt, Santorum to Paul, nothing is more interesting than getting to sit down with the people vying to sit in the presidential seat. I’ve been able to argue with and push several of these perspective contenders, something few people get to do. It only happens once every four years, and I’m sure glad I was there for it.

Court — This is the latest in a string: arguing before a judge about the public’s right to know about the actions of elected officials. I still don’t know the outcome, but it was still an experience to be going to the courts to fight for transparency.

There have been dozens of other notables, from producing videos to my first NPR paycheck and being named employee of the year, but that’s the highest highs. Hopefully 2012 will burn even brighter, but I’m not sure how it can.

Happy New Year.

The Holiday Season

December has a way of ripping by. Between endorsements, court battles and employee parties it’s nearly January, and I have barely kept up with LPJ.

So it’s time to update.

Endorsements: The Conway Daily Sun endorsed Mitt Romney for the 2012 G.O.P. nomination, although without enthusiasm. He is essentially the best of a poor field, the endorsement said, and so he’s the one we’d go with. Huntsman was good, but he seemed to me to be working out the bugs for a 2016 presidential run. Everyone else was severely lacking in some way. So we went with Mitt. It was an uninspiring choice, but overall the experience was a painstaking one. Buddy Roemer, in fact, was an office favorite, but you can’t endorse someone no one has even heard of. As a protest vote it would fall flat because people wouldn’t even know what we were saying. So we went bland but reliable — Mitt 2012. I look forward to similar discussions around the general election.

Court: We had our day in court with the Conway School Board over whether they had the right to deny our request for documents under the Right To Know law. I got to argue the paper’s position in front of a Superior Court judge, while two attorneys, two school board members and the superintendent took the opposing position. It was a ton of fun. I laid out the paper’s points as well as I could, and then laid out arguments against each point the two lawyers made. I’m not sure how we/I did yet, but if we lose we have the right to appeal. And regardless it was a fantastic experience.

And lastly, I was named the Sun’s employee of the year. I got the award at the paper’s Christmas party. It’s all glass and weighs as much as a brick. I have a photo somewhere, I’ll have to put it up here…

A lot happens in a couple weeks, even in a slow news month like December…