5 Best Thursday Columns
On the John Kerviel sentencing, the demonization of teachers unions, and the unknowns behind terror alerts
John Gapper on the Jerome Kerviel Sentencing This week's ruling that French rogue trader Jerome Kerviel must repay $6.9 billion to his employing bank is absurd, writes the Financial Times columnist. "The only way he might pay up after three years in jail," observes Gapper, "would be to rob Pierre to repay Paul--to get a job with another bank, divert a pile of cash into a hidden account and hand it over to SocGen." Gapper believes the institutions themselves bear the bulk of the blame for pushing rogue traders to operate in their midst with their aggressive culture. Schemes like the one devised by Kerviel are a "symptom of a bigger malaise" afflicting the industry that can only be remedied through stricter regulatory efforts.
John Edgar Wideman on Racism and Trains Writing in The New York Times, the Brown University professor notes the outsized role race seems to play in where people choose to sit on the trains. Wideman speaks to his own striking experiences as a black man who rides the high-speed Acela train to Providence. "Unless the car is nearly full," he observes, "color will determine, even if it doesn't exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me." Wideman doesn't pretend this is entirely a bad thing--no frequent rider of the rails would ever bemoan a chance to "relax, prop open [his] briefcase or rest papers, snacks or [his] arm in the unoccupied seat"--but all too frequently "the very pleasing moment of anticipation casts a shadow ... I can't accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it's empty, without wondering if its emptiness isn't something quite sad."
David Ignatius on the Unknowns of Terror The recent terrorism warnings issued by the State Department prompt The Washington Post columnist to ruminate on the frightening unknowns that complicate counter-terrorism efforts. Acknowledging that "deciding how much information to share in this threat-filled era" presents "a genuine dilemma for governments," Ignatius wonders just how strong government intelligence really is. What can law enforcement reasonably be expected to do when someone like alleged al-Qaeda operative Aafia Siddiqui--sentenced last month in New York to 86 years in prison for shooting her American interrogators in 2008--is revealed to have a flash drive outlining a plan to "'go into supermarkets and randomly inject fruits with poisons, as well as other items that are usually eaten raw'"? How do you defend against a plan like that? The short answer, according to Ignatius, is that you can't. Furthermore, we don't even know how many plans like that are out there. The best hope is to be vigilant and stay on the offensive. Still, he concedes, he would feel better if he "knew that the [counter-terrorism] dragnet included such nations as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and, especially, Pakistan."
Harold Meyerson on the Demonization of Teachers Unions The Washington Post columnist believes the outrage directed against teachers unions is out of proportion to reality. Documentaries like Waiting for Superman, which paints "every public school" a "disaster" and every charter school a "rigorous (but nurturing) little Harvard or Oxford," are disingenuous, Meyerson writes. After all, charter schools produce test results that aren't any better than public schools. The documentary only serves to reinforce the narrative that "education reformers and teachers unions are eternal and implacable enemies." Unfortunately, "blaming teachers for the dysfunction of inner cities and the decline of American industry lets a lot of other, more culpable, parties off the hook."
Dahlia Lithwick on the Supreme Court and the Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps's congregation of about 30 of his friends and relatives have made their name by protesting military funerals with signs that say "God Hates You" or "God Hates Fags" or some variety thereof. This week, the Supreme Court has taken up a case by a grieving father (Albert Snyder) of an Iraq war veteran who's funeral was picketed by the callous church. Lithwick, who writes the dispatch from the deliberations for Slate, is overwhelmed by the "vile, hateful" protests and notes that more than a few justices may be feeling the same way. While the court has First Amendment issues to consider, what the justices "struggled with has very little to do with the law, which rather clearly protects even the most offensive speech about public matters such as war and morality." She elaborates:
They are struggling here with the facts, which they hate. Which we all hate. But looking at the parties through hate-colored glasses has never been the best way to think about the First Amendment. In fact, as I understand it, that's why we needed a First Amendment in the first place.