Monday, September 8, 2014

I'm not afraid of the Islamic State

 Last month, the news program 'Frontline' broadcast a 2-hour show titled "Losing Iraq." It traced America's recent history in that country in an attempt to explain how the U.S. military enterprise there ended so badly. Perhaps most striking, however, was the way the producers chose to end the program, giving a few key interview subjects extended time to discuss the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known better then as ISIS, and now simply as the Islamic State or IS). Most prominently featured was former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who had this to say:

This is analogous to Afghanistan, say, in August 2001. And this time, it is Al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts. They are far stronger; they are far more numerous. They have thousands who hold foreign passports and require no visas to get into the United States or other Western countries. They are well funded, they are battle-hardened, and they are well armed. And they now control far more territory exclusively than bin Laden ever did. They have the security; they have the safety to plan their next set of operations; and they are a messianic movement. Believe me, they are planning those operations. That’s why the Saudis moved 30,000 troops up to their border. They know that ISIS wants Mecca and Medina. They also want to come after us. And I can tell you, as we sit here today in Washington, they’re sitting in Mosul figuring out how they’re going to get at us next.

A few weeks after Crocker issued that ominous prediction, the United States began dropping advisers, special operations forces, and high explosives on the ground in Iraq again. All of which intended to stop IS from pouring out of Syria and annexing northwestern Iraq and threatening Baghdad. The American media remains fixated on IS with a mixture of anger and panic. Crocker's "AQ 6.0," which has proclaimed itself the new caliphate, has torn a painful scab off the arm of American national security and foreign policy watchers. It represents the enduring and worsening failure of our intervention in the country as well as a new threat emerging to challenge us at a time when our military is trying to recover. President Obama's recent response to the beheading of American journalists and the assurance that the U.S. will strike back make for a good analogy of America's reaction to IS at large. We don't know whether we're more indignant or afraid, but whichever way we feel, the most healthy way to deal with our emotion is with a military response.

The problem is that Americans really aren't into the whole proposition of military responses these days. Truth be told, they're sick and tired of them. So to keep the people at least unsure enough of the necessity of military intervention in Iraq, those pushing the issue are trying to sell it by employing the same ominous language as Crocker. General Martin Dempsey referred to the IS plan beyond a renewed caliphate as an "apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as "beyond a terrorist group." Representative Peter King of New York had a great soundbyte on "Meet the Press."

"They are more powerful now than Al Qaeda was on 9/11. [Sen.] Dick Durbin [(D) of Illinois] says we’re not going to do this, not going to do that. I want to hear what he says when they attack us in the United States. I lost hundreds of constituents on 9/11. I never want to do that again.”
From Sandy Hook to the Tsarnaev brothers, it seems any time the specter of a nationwide threat rears its head, the probability that someone will pre-blame another person for "the next 9/11" increases at a rate that follows Godwin's Law. It's the ultimate weapon of the foreign policy hawk. You're essentially calling someone a dirty traitor to the red white and blue for things that haven't happened yet. It's a powerful rhetorical device because its underlying foundation is, once again, fear.

But if our fear is genuinely that IS is the new Al Qaeda and of the next 9/11, then being fearful of the organization itself and trying to attack it in the Middle East would mean that we've learned nothing from history. If IS is organized on the Al Qaeda model and is planning an asymmetric attack to cause massive damage and loss of life to the United States, then I'm not afraid of IS.

I'm afraid of Washington, D.C.

Some people might remember that the U.S. government formed a commission to investigate the events of 9/11, and that it wrote a detailed report on the subject. It doesn't seem like many people today do remember it, though. Or, if they do, they forget what the report said. To quickly summarize, 9/11 happened because:

- Multiple intelligence gathering agencies failed to share information in an adequate way such that analysts could access it.

- Federal law enforcement agencies were limited in their ability to collaborate with intelligence agencies on the matter of terrorism and espionage.

- Airport security administrators failed to uphold standards at the targeted airports, and multiple safeguards that should have caught the hijackers failed.

- The FBI was unable to collate information gathered by its own field agents around the country and assign data from reports to cases of national scale.

In other words, 9/11 didn't happen because Osama Bin Laden was some kind of terrorist genius or because the hijackers were a squad of elite ninjas. 9/11 happened because the agencies we created to stop 9/11 failed in the most epic way possible. If we are really afraid of another 9/11, I would prefer the government to check all the systems and measures at the FBI, FAA, DHS and CIA, rather than spending time dropping bombs around the Haditha Dam. On that, while the dam is a key piece of infrastructure that would be nice for IS not to have, Americans are far too afraid of IS gains in other parts of Iraq. The news headlines displayed utter shock that IS had managed to take the town of Jalula. My immediate reaction to seeing this news: Johnny, tell 'em what they've won!

Then there's the matter of the "IS laptop of doom," which supposedly contains plans to build a bubonic plague bomb. Al Qaeda experimented with this for years before 9/11. They couldn't get their program off the ground. I'm not sure why we think IS will have more success, especially when they keep losing their laptops with the instructions for building one.

And even if they do still have a laptop, should we be afraid of it? The answer is still no. As the United States' chief counterterrorism official recently explained, IS isn't actually a threat to America. The greatest threat at the moment is that individual American citizens travel to Syria, train with IS, and then come back to conduct terrorist attacks in their home country.

Therein we have the final brush stroke in the big picture. What is the threat, what should we genuinely fear, and how should we react to it? Our top counterterrorism guy just said that our greatest problem is American citizens coming back from Syria. Why then, are so many generals and politicians telling us that we should be afraid of this large group of people from Middle Eastern countries invading Iraq? The threat comes from individuals returning to the U.S., not armed groups lingering overseas. If there's any terrifying parallel to be made with 9/11 at this juncture, it's in how similarly misguided our national leadership is about how to deal with the problem.

I'm not afraid of IS, or at least not any more than I am of Al Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or the Haqanni Network. President Obama is wrong to call IS "a cancer." It's a bad metaphor. Cancer either kills you, or you operate on it, remove it, and eradicate it with chemo and radiation. Terrorism is more like salmonella. It's not going to kill your country, but at the same time it's an extreme pain in the ass because you can never completely get rid of it. It's always going to find some bad cilantro to grow on. If you can't eradicate it, then it's silly to dread its existence. It's always going to be there, and all we can do is learn the lessons of the last bad experience with it and try to guard against a repeat of history. The existence of the Islamic State does not equate to threat level Jack Bauer for America. It's no more or less dangerous than Iraq, or Russia, or North Korea, or global warming. If we're able to wake up with those every day and not feel utterly terrified of them, we should be able to get along with the existence of the Islamic State a little easier.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

National Insecurity

Wikimedia Commons
Most people don't give much thought to national security. When we do, those thoughts are usually bent in the same direction of those that lend extraordinary thought to the principle. Television and internet-based graphics obligate us to perceive national security in very geographic terms. Whether it's Ebola or ISIS, we view threats to the American way of life as little red dots trying to infiltrate the fragile membrane of our coastline. But our actual concept of national security that dominates our existence is very different. We don't spend our days worrying about more planes crashing into the structures of our governmental and financial institutions, or about outbreaks or disasters decimating local populations. Our fears are much more personal and localized. We put the greater conflagrations raging across the world on the same level as the specter of unemployment or an unexpected auto repair bill. We feel safe so long as the chaos around us doesn't interfere with the predictability of our daily commute. We don't want to be bothered as we go about our way, minding our own business. "National security," in the mind of the average American citizen then, is just a euphemism for personal security.

With that scale in mind, how tragic would it be if suddenly our most private thoughts and feelings were put on global display? How violated would we feel if suddenly the world did not let us mind our own business, and bothered us in the harshest and most persistent way with its unforgiving judgments? For more than a decade, the witnesses of 9/11 have contextualized an event that changed world history in the form of personal narrative. For whatever value such stories hold in their detail and humanity, there is no ignoring how profoundly myopic the "through their own eyes/in their own words" stories are. It seems reasonable (and patterns of human behavior bear out) that we would contextualize a personally traumatic event as a global catastrophe. "My world is over," as we say. It doesn't take a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster to compromise one's sense of security. In fact, the amount of effort required to visit the suffering of Job on a person is terrifyingly small.

So why did Americans receive the news of this very sort of thing happening to 100 women this week so lightly? Why did so many people around the world make crude sport of the theft and publication of nude photos of their fellow human beings? A legion of people were made to feel extremely insecure about themselves. They were exposed to the world, humiliated and shamed. No person could possibly conceive of such a thing happening to themselves without being mortified. And yet we neither demonstrate sympathy for the victims nor consider the threat to ourselves.

Consider the scope of the operation necessary to accomplish this cruel stunt. A person (ostensibly one individual) achieved the capability to locate and identify a hundred specific women living all over the world, break into their files stored on the servers of the world's most popular and successful technology company, download, sort and find very specific files and content, and then broadcast it. It is the height of folly to think that this sort of thing can only happen to other people. It can happen to anybody. It already does. The revelation earlier this month that more than a billion usernames and passwords were compromised in one fell swoop shows the vast capabilities people can already levy against society. We wring our hands over the possibility of terrorist attacks somewhere in our country as we ignore the ongoing assaults directly against us. These are not attacks that can turn buildings to rubble or kill the president, but they can still end life as we know it. We view pornographic content. We purchase underwear. We have pap smears and prostate exams. Some of us are secretly gay or transgender. Some of us are secretly in love with our coworkers. Some of us flagellate ourselves before a crucifix in our bedroom. Some of us are alcoholics or recovering heroin addicts. Some of us once shoplifted, or were sexually abused, or used a racial slur in a joke, or hit our spouse or child in a fit of anger. We all have secrets. We all have regrets. We all have intimate thoughts and feelings. And our entire existence, as individuals and a collective species, depends on our ability to maintain a vital wall of privacy around those things. It is the analog firewall of humanity-- a boundary that parses who we were from who we are. Without it, the code of our being is corrupted and we lose our identity. There's no distinction between milestones in our moral and ethical development.

Yet we are tearing down those walls. The exposure of the celebrity women is not the first case. After the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, the New York Journal News obtained license information of all handgun permit owners in surrounding counties, and published maps showing the addresses of gun owners. In retaliation, someone obtained the addresses and personal information of members of the paper's staff and published it on the internet. Included in the data were the names and schools of the editor's children. The hacktivist group Anonymous similarly published the private information of the mayor and police chief of Ferguson, Missouri during the protests there. The practice of "sexting" among young people is on the rise, and consequently many young people are finding themselves the subjects of public humiliation and private torture. Some of them have killed themselves over threats and bullying as a result of something they thought was private and intimate being distributed to the public.

We find people we disagree with, whose ideas or causes we dislike, and instead of holding a debate with them about the issue at hand we hold a gun over their privacy. It's the nuclear option of human dignity, and we are using it at a frightening pace. 

Our minds have evolved technology that allows us to collect, share and broadcast information, thoughts and feelings at a rate and on a scale that are incomprehensible. Part of the problem is that we don't comprehend the destructive nature of that power. Imagine if this capability had existed sixty years ago. What would have been the consequence of outing every LGBT person, communist or Black Panther Party member to the world? What if the papers had decided to show Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair? What if Jane Austen hadn't been able to maintain the secret of her identity?

It's very likely the world would be a radically different place, and not necessarily for the better. Now we do live in a world where we have the ability to deny such people their privacy, and we use it to deliberately silence and damage the very thought and creativity that helped create it in the first place. We are thrusting successive generations of potentially great people into it. How will they grow up in and respond to it? Few things shape a person's character like mistakes and regrets. Do we still live in a world where a person can make mistakes, accumulate regrets, and still leverage the experiences to achieve greatness? We may someday soon face a choice. Are we willing to respect our neighbors and give them their privacy and dignity, or are we prepared to abandon the idea of privacy entirely? What happens to our private and intimate thoughts, feelings and relationships when they are no longer private or intimate? What happens to our humanity without privacy or intimacy? If we can never do something that we'll regret, what lessons will we be unable to learn?

Part of living is moving on with life. We are ephemeral beings traveling on a linear timescale. We are born. We live. We die. It is required of us that we have a past, present and future. It violates our deepest sense of self and humanity to live with the prospect that we may never have any future, yet that is precisely the type of existence we are creating for ourselves. Without the ability to leave the past behind, there can be no future. With only the cloud of shame on the horizon, there can be no sunrise tomorrow.

Our society's greatest advances have not been on rails or roads or even rockets. We are propelled farthest by our minds. If we compromise the idea of privacy, then we do irreparable damage to the endeavor of thought. That constitutes a critical-- potentially fatal-- breach of personal security. The legend says that when Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy, he ran naked from his house screaming "Eureka!" Perhaps the combination of his society's immodesty and the potency of his idea made such a thing acceptable. It's unthinkable that the physicists at CERN could have done the same today upon discovering the Higgs-Boson.

A hundred women who have given us incredible performances in sports and entertainment have been humiliated and shamed for no other reason than the notoriety wrought of what they've given to us. The message we've sent is clear: society will punish people who contribute to it. More than any threat to our physical infrastructure from across the oceans, this form of terrorism-- the terrorism of insecurity-- vies to spread decay across the intangible fabric of thought. It will do worse than tear our country down brick by brick. It will doom us all to spend our entire existence at a fixed place in time, and die in our own past.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What cops ought to fear more than young black men: young white men

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri continues to simmer. But with Michael Brown's funeral scheduled for this weekend, it is far from over. I anticipate it will get worse before it gets better, and even then "better" will only be a relative term. Much ado has been made of the police response to crowds of black citizens gathering in the streets. It's obvious that Ferguson law enforcement is extremely hostile to the town's black residents. In the videos and photos I've seen, I cannot say that this hostility is bred of fear, at least of physical harm. If anything, the police are afraid of losing their sense of control and dominance. It's almost like some kind of territorial animal. If they back down in the face of these demonstrations, they'll be perceived as weak. You have to watch how they carry themselves and speak to others as they go about their business, but it's evident. Indeed, this attitude is apparent even at the organizational level. The closure of airspace, the blockades preventing people from entering the town and the handling of journalists show that there is an institutional sense of invincibility in the Ferguson Police Department. And against the disorganized, unarmed and unarmored groups of people in town, they are. Police south of the Mason-Dixon have been dealing with angry black people for decades. They became very good at it during the 1960's, and it is eerie how culturally indoctrinated racism have given these sorts of tactics the same shelf life of weaponized plutonium.

However, what is being overlooked is the Ferguson and St. Louis governments' impotence against another threat. Since Tuesday, hacktivists from Anonymous have pulled the original audio from the police transmissions at the time of Brown's death, potentially obtained the identity of the officer that shot him, and released the personal information of several public officials, including the mayor and police chief of Ferguson. Local government networks, to include phones, have been disrupted or completely shut down.

This is nothing new for Anonymous. The group has gone against national government agencies around the world, and been very successful. What is glaringly important here is the racial dynamics. Anonymous is primarily made up of computer-savvy men in their early 20's to 30's. They are reasonably educated, come from a middle class background, and are politically active. In short, they have very little in common with the people most abused by cops in Ferguson and America at large. Yet they have become involved because they feel common cause with the people there.

This is an extraordinary turning point. There have been numerous cases of police excesses in the last year. Far worse than the death of Eric Garner in New York City earlier this month are the egregious practices of the Albuquerque PD. Yet anonymous, and white people in general, have not involved themselves. The conflict was couched predominantly in ethnic terms. Police have problems dealing with minorities. Whites aren't in the minority. Therefore it's not a white people problem. And people of all colors tend to avoid being part of the solution if the problem doesn't affect them. Watch YouTube or social media long enough, and you see the difference in how people regard their local law enforcement. White people's biggest concern is that a cop will shoot their dog. Black people's biggest fear is that a cop will shoot their son.

That is now changing. Ferguson could become to American policing what the Alamo was to Santa Anna. Anonymous is, if nothing else, a group of idealists (I'm not sure you can call it an idealistic group) and they are acting on the basis of conscience, not interest. There are other groups like that in America. But instead of keyboards they tend to use assault weapons. The pro-gun, anti-government militias of the United States are, like Anonymous, predominantly white. But their membership has a wider age range and from an economic and educational background more similar to the people of Ferguson. The biggest thing the Montana prairie militias have in common with the inner city demonstrators is that they believe the government and the police are the enemy. Their biggest difference is that they are much better prepared to kill people. You are welcome to have whatever views you like about the April standoff between Cliven Bundy's militia supporters and the federal government, but the tactical assessment is not up for debate. Barring a peaceful resolution, lots of people were going to get shot and killed. You don't have to look at the Hutaree plot of 2010 in great detail to realize that it would have been highly successful if they hadn't been caught beforehand. The group was tactically proficient. If their marksmanship had been as good as their fieldcraft, they would have chewed a SWAT team to pieces.

There are two conclusions from this that we must acknowledge. First, that American police are brutally efficient at suppressing and terrorizing our minorities. Second, that American police are woefully unprepared to deal with substantial backlash from organized anti-government groups. If American cops think angry black people are a threat to their sense of territorial dominance, then they should be utterly terrified of crazy white people. Let's allow ourselves the worst stereotypes possible for a moment. Young black men deal cocaine, rape women, rob convenience stores and steal cars. Young white men blow up federal buildings, go on shooting rampages, steal billions of online identities and spew terabytes of top secret intelligence data out into the world. If anything, cops are shooting the wrong people.

And at the rate cops are becoming more indiscriminate, it's not going to be long before a cop somewhere shoots the wrong white kid instead of the wrong black kid. Somewhere where there are a lot of unemployed people who don't know how to hack a government website, but spent a year or two learning how to fight in an urban environment. Somewhere where everyone stays in town after they graduate high school, where everyone knows each other, and where your fondest childhood memories are going out into the woods every weekend during deer season. Somewhere where they still take rifles into the woods on weekends, but they're not practicing shooting at deer anymore.

It's a horrible truth that passive racism has kept the greater American population from confronting the issue of police brutality. The hubris of American police is chiseling through that barrier, abuse by abuse. Right now the backlash from white America is coming in the form of newspaper editors and computer hackers. But those who discount the possibility that it will come in more violent forms ignore the fact that white America's legacy of using deadly force against authority extends just as far as its racism. Commentators have opined that cops in military gear give some people the impression that they're an occupying force rather than public servants. What kind of message does it send to the people who already thought the police were occupiers?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On educating my son in less than 1,000 words

My wife and I are considering entering my son into a private school. Part of the application requires an essay from the parents on why they want their child to attend the school. It's been a long time since I wrote an essay to get into a school and I wasn't sure I'd warm up to the task, but as I wrote I considered just why I feel this is a good choice. This is what I came up with.

As a stay-at-home father who was educated as an engineer and works as a writer, I have taken an active interest in Ethan's education with a careful view of what it means to educate. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, and more than twelve years after departing the latter institution, I find that I very much sympathize with Erica Goldson, the high school valedictorian who declared in her graduation speech that she felt like a slave of an institutional process. She famously confessed that she felt terrified because the education she'd attained was wholly inadequate in preparing her to deal with the chaos of the world she was about to enter. One of my greatest fears for Ethan-- both as his father and teacher-- is that he will be subjected to that same institutionalism. I am also acutely aware that I could potentially become that kind of institution as easily as any school. My greatest hope for him is that he will be able to discover just how large and filled with opportunity the world is at a much younger age than I did, and consequently find the path of greatest enlightenment and happiness for himself before he feels he's become a fixture along its wayside.

To that end, I am delighted to tell you that I don't know all of Ethan's strengths and weaknesses. I do not presume to have him figured out. As convenient as that would be to my parental dominion on a day-to-day basis, it would also mean that I've become the worst sort of educational institution I so fear. I can tell you some of the things he knows. He knows how to read quite well (better than an average first-grader, I'd warrant). He knows how to add and subtract. He knows who Yo Yo Ma is and he knows that he prefers to listen to 'Gangnam Style.' He can spell words and write them in his own hand. He knows that fire is hot and knives are sharp and that we shouldn't touch them. But he also knows that clone troopers and Jedi knights have exciting adventures with bombs and light sabers. He knows the names of all the planets, that the sun rises and sets every day because the earth spins, and that gravity is a force. He also knows that, as a result of these astronomical arrangements, daddy will make him have lessons every morning and insist that he pedal his bike back up the hill after he rides it down. He knows that sunsets are pretty and that it's important to observe them. He knows the Legos can be used to build a monster truck. He knows that getting them to actually assemble into the monster truck requires patience and concentration. He is still learning patience and concentration, but I can attest that he has mastered diligence and perseverance.

As with his strengths, I am just as unfamiliar with his weaknesses. I can tell you what he doesn't know and what confuses him. He doesn't know that the "good guys" sometimes lose. He would be surprised to know that the good guys aren't always actually good. He has no concept of treating a person differently because of the way they look. He doesn't understand why so many people on television are hitting and shooting each other or why tanks and soldiers are all around the place where he currently attends daycare, and yet mommy and daddy tell him that it's bad to hit or shoot people. He doesn't know what a war is. Sometimes he doesn't understand certain household rules. Sometimes he doesn't understand why he's the only one who has to follow them. Sometimes he doesn't understand what sense there is in my rules or what power invested the authority in me to make them in the first place.

 And I must confess that I am also confused by a great many of these things. I am certainly at a loss to articulate what I would believe to be an irrefutable explanation of them. This is why I seek to enter him into the Radford School. I could home school him. I could teach him calculus by ten, walk him through Plato's The Republic by thirteen and have him fluent in Mandarin Chinese and HTML by sixteen. I know he and I could do it because many other parents and children have done it. But the question on which everything hinges is to what end? Would that constitute a good education? More important than the skills and knowledge he acquires is how he will use them. Will he be a good and decent person? Will he be happy? Will he even know how to determine what it is to lead a good life, and will he possess the intellectual agency to effect the necessary changes to achieve one?

I believe that our modern society has nominally tried to settle the moral-intellectual education dialectic in public schools by method of partition-- the parent teaches right from wrong and the school teaches fact from fiction. I believe the relationship should exist on a continuum. I could teach him myself. I could also hand him over to the public education system and let them do it. Neither option gets the best results, because both of them inevitably lead to one kind of institutionalism or another. I want a third option. I want my son to attend a school where he and I are welcomed as part of the process, and where it is understood that the standard by which the quality of the final product is measured will change as a result of the influences exerted on it. Because in the end, there is only one person who will be able to tell us if Ethan received a good education. And that's Ethan.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What veterans can learn from Michael Corleone

Wikimedia Commons

My recent essay on Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense" providing ten reasons not to vote for a veteran-turned-politician was meant to be equal parts modest proposal and friendly warning to fellow vets. Based on reader comments, it's obvious that the majority of people aren't familiar with Thomas Paine or the idea of a friendly warning. Maybe using a movie analogy will get the point across.

There are movies that every red-blooded American male ought to see. "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "True Grit," "Tombstone," "The Goonies." The one-liners alone are essential to the American man's survival in society. "The Godfather" is a cornerstone of that heritage. It's a heartwarming coming-of-age story in the best traditions of "The Lion King," except the horses don't make out so well. But there is one particular scene that explains the thrust of my essay and the crisis American veterans are bringing upon themselves.

The setup is this: Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather. Specifically, the youngest son. As the youngest male child, he carries special status in the mafia families. The unspoken rule is that Michael will never take part in the family's criminal business activities. In exchange, he gets immunity. He can never be held for ransom or harmed as an act of revenge against the Godfather. It's every mob boss's assurance that at least one of his children will live long enough to join AARP. Early in the movie, the Godfather is shot and taken to the hospital on the brink of death. The mob wants to get revenge against the mobster who planned the hit and the corrupt police chief who helped him. Michael volunteers to do it. He is able to use his special status to schedule the meeting and get close enough to the men to kill them.

The specific scene involves one of the Corleone mobsters helping Michael prepare for the hit. They go over the plot and take a few practice shots with the gun. As a combat vet himself (he picked up a Navy Cross as a Marine during WWII), Michael cracks wise and looks very comfortable with what he's preparing to do. But he does ask one question: How bad do you think it's going to be?

He's referring to the consequences of his actions. It's a foregone conclusion that there will be a mob war after this. He will have to go into exile in order to avoid being assassinated in retaliation. He'll become a murderer in the eyes of the law. His immunity in the mob world will disappear. In other words, he is crossing a line and there is no going back. For the rest of his life, every time he tries to get out, they'll always pull him back in. Spoiler alert: he kills them anyway.

Michael has no confusion about that. He walks into that restaurant with the mobster and the police chief with eyes wide open. And when he walks out, he leaves behind all hope of a conflict-free life (he also forgets to take the cannolis).

Therein lies the point of my original essay for American veterans when it comes to politics, and in most other aspects of our post-uniformed life. Being a veteran is just like being the Godfather's youngest kid: there's an exchange at work, and lines you don't cross. If you go into a restaurant and someone happens to finds out you served in Afghanistan, they might buy you a beer because they feel the urge to personally show you a little gratitude for your service. You go, they buy. It's an exchange. But you don't start your meal by climbing on the table, holding up your DD-214 and asking people to pick up your tab. That's crossing the line.

Veterans in politics, both democrat and republican, fail to obey those rules all the time. When you run for political office, it's not just the public's right to scrutinize you, it's their duty. There are certain things that deserve special immunity in politics. A candidate's children ought to be hands-off. If Tammy Duckworth had not wanted to discuss the trauma she experienced as a result of her injuries, or if John McCain doesn't want to relive his experiences in Hanoi on Meet the Press, they have that right to compassionate sensitivity. But if they put a photo of themselves in uniform in a campaign commercial, or say that they would make a better governmental leader because of their military experience, then it all becomes fair game. They cross the line, and there's no going back.

Politics is only one dimension of society. At present, American military members and veterans enjoy an unprecedented level of public support. It's a reputation that's been earned through thirteen long years of war. It's in the military and veteran communities' vital interest to maintain an acute awareness that reputations are hard to earn and easy to diminish. Whether it's in politics, business, or your local bowling league (as so eloquently demonstrated in another American "dude" flick), veteran status is not a get out of criticism free card. No one will ever respect you more than you respect yourself, so the saying goes. There's a huge difference between using your veteran reputation as a personal shield and making yourself one of its public ambassadors. That difference is defined by which side of it you want to stand on, and whether you're prepared to cross that line.