Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Lesson from the Failed Doomsday Prophecy of Harold Camping

There is a lesson to be learned from the whole Harold Camping affair. It is a counterintuitive lesson, but an important one nonetheless. Read my latest Yahoo! Contributor Network piece, which describes this lesson.

[Readers of this blog are invited to share their thoughts through the COMMENTS link below, and to become followers via the box in the upper-right-hand corner.]

[The photo of a Family Radio bus was taken on March 8, 2011, in New Orleans, by Bart Everson. It appears here under the provisions of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]

Copyright 2011 Mark Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How the Ex-IMF Chief Might Escape

Anyone who’s been following the news at all lately has heard that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until this week head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been arrested on a variety of rape-related charges in New York City. (Indeed, he resigned as head of the IMF because of his arrest.) News broke on Thursday night that Mr. Strauss-Kahn—often referred to as DSK in the media—will be released on $1 million bail and $5 million insurance bond on Friday, to be placed under house arrest at an apartment that his wife has just rented in Manhattan, where he will wear an ankle bracelet and have armed guards monitoring either the apartment or the building (it is unclear which, from news reports).

DSK is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. (This is better than what I understand is the situation in DSK’s native France, where indictment comes, I am told, with the presumption of guilt until proven innocent.) However, the presumption of innocence applies only to the courts of law.

In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty as hell.

(Heck, I sure think he’s guilty as hell.)

If this is at all predictive of how his court case could go, DSK is facing a rough situation:

  • He faces a possible sentence of 25 years or more. With DSK having just turned 62 last month, a 25-year sentence could be a life sentence. Even with time off for good behavior, DSK would not be getting some luxury suite in a white-collar prison; no, he’ll be serving hard time with other rapists. If he survives the experience, he’ll be a wreck of a man, and he knows this.
  • Word on the street is, the DA's office has solid evidence.
  • The New York City Police Department division that deals with victims of sexual crimes is perhaps the most experienced such division in the United States. They’ll not let him get off this charge easily.

Given all this, and given the assets that he controls, my guess is that DSK is going to look his chances in the face—and run, run, run all the way home.

In this blog post, I explain how he could do it.

It is obvious that he has a strong incentive to run. But does he have the means? The Associated Press through Forbes.com has reported that “he and his wife, an heiress to a renowned art dealer, have extensive personal wealth.” Just how extensive?

The same article reported that, as head of the IMF for the last four years or so, DSK's tax-free salary and cost of living allowance ran to just under $500K annually. And that’s just his day job income. To have lunch with his daughter a week ago, he flew to NYC and took one night in a $3K/night hotel room. (That’s over ½% of his day job income, just on the hotel room.) He and his wife have a six-room apartment in a tony neighborhood in Paris, another 1,800+ square foot apartment in Paris, a home in Marrakech, and a house in Washington (reported to be worth $4 million). Methinks they’re not just living off his salary.

So let’s say he has a couple of million to throw around on his escape. How might he do it? Actually, it would be ridiculously simple.

Step 1: Apartment to U.S. Airport

It is worth pointing out that DSK himself is paying for the security guards at his apartment. It would not surprise me in the slightest if, say, personnel beholden to DSK were to be on shift one day—the day that a helicopter diverts from its flight plan and lowers a rope ladder to the roof of the building in which DSK is sequestered.

A fast chopper could make it from midtown Manhattan to, say, Connecticut’s Danbury airport in about 15 to 20 minutes. It might take that long, or longer, for the NYPD to respond to the clipping of DSK’s ankle bracelet, and then discover that this bird truly has flown.

Danbury would be a great choice. It is outside NYPD and NYS trooper jurisdiction, and precious minutes would be lost in notifying Connecticut or federal authorities that a fugitive is in Connecticut jurisdiction. In addition, it is just not that busy as area airports go. (I know--I have flown out of Danbury.) Just the place for a quick getaway.

Step 2: U.S. Airport to Wherever

A private jet, ready on the tarmac at Danbury airport, could be airborne in minutes—like I said, not much traffic at Danbury—and, once airborne, could be outside of U.S. airspace within about two minutes. Mission accomplished!

So where would he go? Possibly not France, because DSK has waived extradition from France; however, given that the French have been, how shall I say, loose in their interpretations of their obligations to extradite accused sexual criminals to the United states (witness Roman Polanski), France itself might be a reasonable bet. Otherwise, Switzerland (also favorable to the accused in the Polanski case), or somewhere without even the pretense of extradition, like Brazil.

The Point

So why am I going through all this? To give the accused pointers on his getaway? I assure you, my friends, that these are not new thoughts to a multi-millionaire facing what is essentially a life sentence. No, I have a different point to make. (Although the NYPD are welcome to consider what I have said here . . .)

The judge who offered DSK bail, under any terms whatsoever, has made a terrible mistake. We should not offer what amounts to terms for escape to people with extraordinary means; Polanski was given bail despite being an escape risk, and fled. The prosecutors in DSK’s instance made the case that he was an escape risk, and the arraignment judge very reasonably agreed, denying the defendant bail. However, an appeals judge decided otherwise, and has given DSK a ticket out.

The ability of a defendant to skip town should not be dependent on the size of his wallet. It’s just that simple.

Basic common sense is most certainly On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to share their thoughts through the COMMENTS link below, and to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right hand corner.]

[The photo of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is his official portrait as the 10th director of the IMF. It was taken in 2008; the photographer is uncredited; its ultimate source is the IMF, where the byline states that it is in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Judgment Day? Not Yet
Book Announcement

[UPDATE: The post-Rapture-that-didn't-happen edition of this book, titled Why Judgment Day Didn't Come: Why Harold Camping's Predictions Failed is available here from Smashwords in multiple e-book formats.]

By now, most tuned-in Americans are aware of a prediction that Judgment Day will occur this coming Saturday, May 21. To be specific, Harold Camping, who broadcasts on Family Radio around the country, predicts that Judgment Day and the Rapture will occur this Saturday, and that the end of the world will occur five months later, on October 21. A number of people are taking this very seriously. Several of Camping’s followers are travelling around the country in Project Caravan (see the photo on the book cover, above), advertising these predictions. The New York Daily News and the New York Post recently reported that a local follower has spent his life savings, $140,000, to put up advertisements about the predictions on buses, subway platforms, and bus shelters around the City.

How sad, then, that Camping’s predictions are worthless.

I suspect that very few of the followers of Camping who have been pamphleteering this past weekend at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan are aware that Camping’s predictions are based on a bizarre interpretation of biblical scripture, timelines, and symbolism that is so severely distorted that it can only be described as pretzel logic.

And yet, false predictions like this are important to address. People who believe that the end of the world is imminent have been known to commit murder and suicide, or to take other rash and ill-considered actions. As a Christian, it bothers me that false predictions of the Judgment Day bring ridicule upon the Bible and upon Christianity itself, and divert attention from the real Christian message. Finally, the more attention is invested in panicky predictions, the less attention is being paid to the important challenges that we face in the world today.

So I wrote a book about it all.

In Judgment Day? Not Yet, published as an e-book on Smashwords.com, I describe Camping’s claims, and explain why they are false. I also describe why claims like these are so attractive to people, and what Christians can do to keep from being misled.

You can read a free excerpt from the book (sorry it breaks off right in the middle of the chapter), and you can order the e-book for only $1.99. The book will ultimately be available in a wide variety of e-book formats, but given the time-pressured nature of the subject (!), you may wish to simply order the .pdf version, which is available now for immediate viewing on your computer.

Given the hoopla that these predictions are causing in some parts, you may wish to tell your friends about this book, or even e-mail this post around. If this book stops even one person from making a rash decision, I will be very happy. And, hey—at $1.99 a shot, how can one go wrong?

Understanding the difference between real biblical prophecy and false predictions is definitely On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to comment by using the COMMENTS link below, and to become blog followers through the upper-right-hand box.]

[The book cover photo of a Family Radio bus was taken on March 8, 2011, in New Orleans, by Bart Everson. It appears here and on the book cover under the provisions of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Omar bin Laden
(Son of Osama bin Laden)

[Note to other readers: Omar bin Laden is the fourth-oldest son of the late Osama bin Laden.]

May 10, 2011

Dear Mr. Omar bin Laden,

I am writing in response to statements attributed to you in a report by Reuters, to the effect that the recent killing by U.S. forces of your father, Osama bin Laden, was “criminal,” and that his burial at sea by these forces “demeans and humiliates his family and supporters.” The report indicates that you stated that your father’s burial in the Arabian Sea “challenges religious provisions and feelings of hundreds of millions of Muslims.” If these remarks have been attributed to you erroneously, I ask you to ignore the rest of my comments here. Below, I assume that these remarks are correctly attributed to you. My comments are also directed to those others whom the Reuters report states have taken issue with these events on the same grounds.

Your objections are at best silly and worthy of ridicule. At worst, they exhibit a deep moral blindness of the sort that has alienated many people all over the world from Islam itself, however unfairly.

The killing of Osama bin Laden was an act of war against a man who had publicly declared war on the United States, and who had publicly taken credit for the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of non-combatants on American soil. Killing a man who gleefully killed thousands as an act of war is hardly criminal. To you, and to those of a radical Islamist persuasion who have declared war on the United States, America says this: you want war, you’ve got war. But don’t expect it to be pretty. And members of al Qaeda can expect to see more of the same, in coming days. That's what people get when they ask for war.

Yes, the United States conducted this attack on the territory of another sovereign nation, without that nation’s permission. Given that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight, apparently for years, sheltered within a community of active and retired military officers, we have every reason to believe that elements of that sovereign nation have been playing treacherously while acting as our supposed allies. Certainly it was the acts of this element that were not only criminal, but even a treasonous offense against the government of Pakistan itself.

As far as the fact that Osama bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was killed—oh, come now. This was war, a war that he first declared. He killed thousands of people on 9/11 who were equally unarmed. There is an ancient saying that uses a farmer's metaphor: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Osama bin Laden reaped the crop of violence that he himself had sown so spectacularly.

What should, in all decency, be held as demeaning and humiliating to the family of Osama bin Laden is not the manner of his death and burial, but rather the murderous acts which earned him that death and burial. This was a man who killed thousands of noncombatants in a sneak attack. He killed thousands of people—parents to children now orphans, children to parents now bereft, brothers and sisters to siblings now mourning—people who had nothing whatever to do with the argument between radical Islamists and the United States government. Those murders are what put shame on his family; those murders are what should be considered a humiliation.

Was Osama bin Laden concerned about the horrifying deaths that his victims endured? Was he the least bit concerned about their burials? About the effects of their deaths upon their families? About their survivors’ “feelings”? Of course not. At least the United States forces, albeit perhaps in a clumsy way, tried to follow what they thought were the rudiments of Islamic custom in burying Osama bin Laden’s body. No similar concern was shown by Osama bin Laden regarding those whom he had attacked.

In this context, your complaints seem haughty to the point of the ludicrous. Your complaints give Islam itself a bad name, because you clearly take no consideration of the murders that Osama bin Laden committed, and show no concern for his victims. You would serve the cause of Islam well by making a clear and unequivocal condemnation of your father’s murders on 9/11. Without that, you seem only to align yourself with your father’s murderous activities.

--Mark E. Koltko-Rivera

Focusing on what is important is most definitely On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to share their thoughts using the COMMENT link below, and to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner.]

[The photo of the Arabian Sea as seen from the Karachi Beach in Pakistan was taken on April 6, 2008 by Wikipedia user “Pakistanmera,” who placed it in the public domain. The image was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Should a Christian Celebrate the Death of Osama bin Laden?

The announcement that American military forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday has prompted some interesting Internet discussions. One involves the issue, “Should a Christian celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden”? That’s the issue that I consider in this post. (In doing so, I mean no slight to those of other faiths, nor do I make any implications about other faiths or their stances on bin Laden’s death.)

It’s easy to see how the question comes up. Within minutes after the death of bin Laden was announced, crowds assembled before the White House in great celebration; the crowd at a Phillies baseball game shouted U-S-A! U-S-A!; here in New York City, a crowd gathered and sang patriotic songs at what we call Ground Zero—the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center that killed thousands on September 11, 2001, attacks that were engineered and celebrated by Osama bin Laden. In the midst of all this celebration, some people reflected, “hey, wait a minute—what we’re cheering about is somebody’s death. How okay is that?” Within a Christian context, it’s a good question.

I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a student in elementary and high school, I watched the World Trade Center go up, and later I visited a friend’s father’s office in one of the Towers. As an adult, I knew former classmates and other friends who worked in the Towers. Although I moved out of town a little over a year before 9/11 (I’m back now), watching the television coverage of the 9/11 attacks put me into shock: this was an attack on my home town. Then I saw TV coverage of celebrations in some parts of the Muslim world right after the destruction of the Towers and the assassination of thousands of American civilians. That made me very, very angry.

I am not from a part of the world that is big on either Forgive or Forget. The Lower East Side (LES), as the T-shirt mottos go, is a place where “the weak are killed and eaten,” and “only the strong survive.” The ethic one learned growing up on LES is that, if someone does something to you or yours, your duty is to turn the offenders into something resembling Beefy Chunks dog food.

Given that background, there is a part of me that wanted revenge on bin Laden. Big time revenge. Find bin Laden, strap him and his family—yes, especially the wives and all the little children—to chairs on top of a tall, abandoned building, and bring the whole thing down with them on top; save them at the last second and then do it again on a taller building. End up with them each on individual skyscrapers, watching each other as the buildings fall—but this time with no rescue. Do Osama last. This is the sort of thing that we would think up on the Lower East Side. Back in the day, it was the sort of place that encouraged one to raise revenge fantasy to the level of art form.

But I am also a Christian.

Yes, an exceptionally imperfect Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and that brings a different kind of perspective into play here. Am I not supposed to forgive my enemies? To turn the other cheek? To love those who hate me, and despitefully use me? Jesus was not joking. So how do I make sense out of all this? Here are my reflections. (I am indebted to the GodDiscussion website for the contributions of some of their readers.)

Vengeance is the Lord’s

The scriptures are very clear about vengeance. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). And this message is repeated, not once, but many places throughout the scriptures.

The implication here is clear. Whatever I celebrate, it should not be the achievement of vengeance. Quite frankly, this goes against everything in my upbringing. But being a Christian is not easy.

There are different ways to look upon what a Christian is supposed to be, but an off-the-shelf human being—what Paul calls “the natural man”—is not one of them. Christians are called to go beyond the merely human in a number of ways; the following teaching of Jesus is a particularly difficult one for me, especially in relation to bin Laden:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. ...

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45, 48)

Difficult or not, this is the job of a Christian. I have failed magnificently at this. But I recognize that this is a problem of mine. As a Christian, I am not allowed to hate bin Laden.

Rejoicing at the Death of an Evil Man

So how about just being happy that this rotten excuse for human waste is dead? The counsel of God doesn’t support this, either:

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth (Proverbs 24:17)

What About Forgiveness?

Many have commented on the Internet in recent days that the duty of the Christian is forgiveness. The Roman Catholic priest, James Martin, S.J., had this to say about this issue on The Huffington Post:

Christians are in the midst of the Easter Season, when Jesus, the innocent one, not only triumphantly rose from the dead but, in his earthly life, forgave his executioners from the cross, in the midst of excruciating pain [Luke 23:34]. Forgiveness is the hardest of all Christian acts. (Love, by comparison, is easier.) It is also, according to Jesus, something that is meant to have no limit. No boundaries. Peter once asked him how often he was supposed to forgive. Seven times? “Not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” [Matthew 18:21-22]. In other words, times without number.

In light of all this, am I required to forgive Osama bin Laden?

I think that this esteemed commentator at HuffPost has overlooked a couple of crucial details. Jesus forgave his executioners because they were ignorant of the nature of whom they were executing, and of his innocence. As he put it, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (emphasis added). Certainly no sane person would claim that Osama bin Laden was ignorant of what he was doing; this was, after all, the man who clearly claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, specifically the ones on the World Trade Center towers, as an act of war. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the grounds of ignorance.

Peter’s question presumed that the one who had offended him came to Peter as a penitent, someone who had repented of the offence. No luck for bin Laden here, either. As a recent Associated Press timeline (click the “bin Laden’s Life” tab) shows, bin Laden repeatedly was involved in attacks that each killed hundreds, and there is not the slightest indication that he was penitent. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the basis of repentance.

What is Christian forgiveness, anyway? As I understand it, "forgiveness is to pardon or excuse someone for blame for an offense or misdeed." But surely that forgiveness cannot be unconditional. At the very least, so far as forgiveness between people is concerned, forgiveness must be conditional upon some outward demonstration of repentance. Even the universal atonement of Jesus Christ, in terms of its full effects, is dependent upon repentance. Osama bin Laden showed none of that, in the slightest, not the least bit of remorse. Forgiveness simply does not apply to him.

So Where Does This All Leave Us?

On the one hand, as a Christian, I am commanded not to hate bin Laden; rather, I am to love that tiny spark of divinity that was within bin Laden, no matter how small that spark had become during his descent into evil; and I am not to seek vengeance on bin Laden. I do not have to forgive him, because he was neither penitent nor ignorant, but I am not to rejoice at his death itself.

But I can feel grateful, and I surely am: grateful that he will not send out more mass murderers. One can surely hope that his successors will think twice about sending out terrorists, given that the United States showed some persistence and determination here. I have no illusions that bin Laden’s death will end the threat of terrorism. But, at the very least, this is one less terrorist. Gratitude for this is something a Christian can get behind.

Gratitude for at least the possibility of a little more safety is surely On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to become "followers" of this blog through the box in the upper-right hand corner.]

[The photo of the replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue, in the North Latter-day Saint Visitor’s Center of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, was taken by Ricardo630, who released the photo into the public domain. It was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lessons from Osama bin Laden’s Death

President Obama announcing bin Laden's death, May 1, 2011

The announcement on Sunday night that an American special forces team (Navy SEALS) conducted an operation in which they killed Osama bin Laden is surely welcome news to many Americans. But what can we learn from the whole, nearly decade-long affair?

Lesson #1. The Pakistani government is full of liars who collaborate with Islamist extremists.

For years, the Pakistan government has been claiming that bin Laden was beyond its grasp, either dead or in the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan. Now we learn that, possibly for many years, bin Laden was in hiding, not just anywhere in Pakistan, but in a million-dollar mansion located in an upper-middle-class suburb full of retired military, just down the road from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, all a mere 35 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Sound suspicious to you? Sure does to me—and to hundreds of millions of other Americans, as well.
This mess should inform all future White House and Pentagon relationships with the Pakistani government. Frankly, if the Pakistani government shows itself reticent about cooperating with American operations in the future—drone attacks, military intervention near the Pakistani border—the White House should not hesitate to hold the Pakistanis’ feet to the fire on this issue.
Bottom Line: The White House should hold the Pakistani government responsible for sheltering bin Laden, wittingly or not.
Lesson #2. Some Muslim clergy simply don’t get it.

One item in the news today is the reaction of some Muslim scholars and clergy to President Obama’s statement that bin Laden’s body was dispatched with respect for Muslim custom. A number of Muslim scholars and clergy have stated that burial at sea is only permitted under Muslim law under extreme circumstances, and that bin Laden should have been buried somewhere with a headstone. 

My, what a grand idea: build a nice little memorial that would become the focus of Islamist extremists for centuries. No, I don’t think so.

Here’s news for these Muslim scholars and clergy: the real thing to focus on here was the devilish nature of the 9/11 attacks, which focused mostly on innocent noncombatants. For Muslim scholars and clergy to complain about the treatment of bin Laden’s body gives creedence to the perception that Islam as a whole is all right with the murder of thousands of civilians on 9/11. Frankly, for the good of Islam itself, Islamic scholars and clergy need to be much more concerned with distancing themselves from Islamist extremism. Why have we not had a massive organization of Muslim scholars and clergy condemn the 9/11 attacks, and Islamist extremism in general?
Bottom Line: Muslim scholars and clergy should focus on condemning the 9/11 attacks and Islamist extremism as a whole in a united fashion. 
Lesson #3. President Obama’s approach got the job done the right way.

Ostensibly, American forces have been trying to find bin Laden for almost ten years. However, the reality is that for six years of that time—basically, from even before the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003 through the inauguration of President Obama in January 2009—the United States was much more focused upon a completely irrelevant and unnecessary war in Iraq.

Whether you believe that President Bush was misled by faulty intelligence, or that he or members of his government deliberately misrepresented that intelligence to provide a justification to invade Iraq, it is absolutely clear that there was not the slightest real justification for the Iraqi War. There simply were none of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that the Bush Administration had claimed there were. In its focus on the Iraq War, the Bush Administration dropped the ball on finding the actual force behind the 9/11 attacks, and so let bin Laden slip away.

President Obama, on the other hand, adopted a straightforward approach: 
  • He made the finding of bin Laden a top priority for the CIA. 
  • Having identified a likely location, he performed the difficult homework of substantiating whether bin Laden was actually there. 
  • He sent in an American special ops team with surgical precision, and got the job done with no innocent casualties.
Bottom Line: Everyone should put first things first.
Lesson #4. By focusing on the unimportant and inessential, the Republican Party are the big losers here.
Whether out of desperation or simple lack of ideas, the Republican Party has given increasing time and attention since the 2008 election to the “birther” movement, which claims—against all the voluminous evidence to the contrary—that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Yet it was one of their own, George W. Bush, whose team let bin Laden get away (again, by losing focus on what should have been his prime objective). The Republican Party is in danger of being perceived as the lightweights of American politics, focusing on protecting the wealthy and arguing about idiocy, while President Obama is doing the hard work of protecting America and its interests. Frankly, there is a lot of substance to that perception.

Bottom Line: Republicans had better focus on matters of substance and logic if they wish to avoid being declared a party of irrelevance.
President Obama’s getting the job done is most definitely On The Mark.

[The photo of President Barack Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden was obtained from the website of CNN.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)