Understanding Islam

At the turn of the 6th century, two superpowers had come to dominate the area surrounding the Middle East. The Christian Byzantine Empire ruled Western Europe, including Italy, Anatolia (modern Turkey), Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and a strip of the North African coast. The Persian Sassanian Empire controlled Iraq, Persia (Iran), and the area that today comprises the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. These two empires collectively controlled the civilized world from central Europe to India. One area, however, avoided their domination. Just south of where they met lay the massive and inhospitable Arabian Peninsula. Christianity looked ready to overwhelm the barren peninsula just as it had Europe, but instead, the people of Arabia, under the banner of Islam, would soon bring both superpowers to their knees and remake the world.

Many nations over the ages had tried to make inroads into Arabia and failed; their ruins lay buried in the all-consuming sands. In the long run, the hostile environment of the peninsula and its lack of agricultural viability did not make it worth the effort of any sustained military occupation. The staggering size of it was another strike against attempted occupation. Arabia spans 1,300 miles north to south and 750 miles east to west. It is the largest peninsula on earth. Three times the size of Texas, it sits on its own tectonic plate and can be rightly considered a small continent. Alaska would fit comfortably inside of it, with room for a few smaller states stuffed into the borders.

Arid living desert, stony plateaus, and barren valleys constitute the bulk of the peninsula. It has no rivers that do not dry to dusty gullies for a portion of the year. Snakes and scorpions hide among the desert scrub and thorny cacti. Mountains rise in the north and in the southwest corner where Arabia nearly touches Ethiopia at the southern end of the Red Sea. Small fertile areas can be found in the north, south, and west, but for the most part the land cannot support agriculture.

This lack of fertility freed Arabia from the political and social systems that governed the lands to the north. The native Bedouin lived a nomadic, tribal lifestyle that defied the chains of a national government. And while they fought fiercely among themselves and along their foreign borders, this same lack of central authority could not produce a military sizable enough to allow the tribes to break free of the desert and expand beyond its borders. While the overwhelming majority of Arabians worshipped pagan idols, some Christian and Jewish settlements were scattered among the tribes. However these settlements followed the tribal structure of the Bedouin. Just as water surrounded Arabia on three sides, isolating it, in the same way were the Bedouin themselves isolated; they were a homogenous people who had developed for 16 centuries nearly untainted by foreign influence.

The tribes of Arabia lived fiercely and independently, answering to none but their own tribesman. Life in Arabia was harsh, and often short. Respect for community was near absent. Women were treated abysmally. Female infanticide was widely practiced. Spousal abuse occurred often within the tribes, and women were given no redress against it. They could not inherit or even own personal property, and in fact were considered the property of their husbands. If widowed, they could be “inherited” by one of their husband’s sons and become his wife. Slaves fared even worse than women, and had to endure any cruelty or torture imagined by their masters, including death.

Despite its fundamental lack of resources and general inhospitality, Arabia did posses one thing: location. Just to the north lay Palestine, the gateway to Europe and Egypt, and the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 25 miles across the mouth of the Red Sea were Ethiopia and central Africa. A short voyage by water to the east led to India and the riches of Asia. Inevitably, trade became the economic backbone of Arabia. Caravan routes developed, jumping across the desert from oasis to oasis. Villages appeared at these small green islands in the desert, especially in the Hijaz, the nominally fertile strip of land that runs along the western coast of Arabia.

Eventually, one tribe, the Quraysh, came to dominate trade in the Hijaz. The Quraysh were descended directly from Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. First taking control of trade with Syria and Lebanon, the Quraysh eventually befriended the rulers of Rome, Persia, and Ethiopia, and also the leaders of the Arabian tribes, ensuring safe passage of their caravans through most lands. They began the tradition of two great annual caravans, one in the winter and the other in the summer. The Quraysh became renowned as shrewd and capable merchants, and over the generations amassed considerable wealth and political clout. They chose Mecca, an already ancient settlement, as their mercantile capital.

For centuries Mecca, home to the Ka’ba, had been a popular pilgrimage destination. By the time the Quraysh tribe settled there the Ka’ba housed hundreds of pagan idols. One month a year the constantly bickering tribes around Mecca ceased their hostilities for the benefit of the pilgrims, and violence and the carrying of arms were forbidden at all times in the area surrounding the Ka’ba. This mixture of people coming from every corner of Arabia all at the same time and under an unspoken understanding of peace surely benefited the trade aspirations of the wily Quraysh merchants.

In Mecca around 570 A.D. a son was born into the Quraysh tribe who would exert a lasting influence upon the world. Born into the harsh realities of 6th century Arabia, his parents named him Muhammad; he was to be the prophet of Islam.

Muhammad’s father died around the time of his birth and his mother died when he was 6. He was raised first by his grandfather, and then by his uncle Abu Talib. From Abu Talib Muhammad learned the merchant trade and he traveled with him to far lands. As a young man he was hired by a rich widow named Kadhija to serve as her trade agent. Muhammad proved a very reliable and successful agent, and Kadhija eventually saw fit to marry him. Muhammad led an uneventful life increasing his wife’s fortune until the age of forty. That is when God intervened in his life.

Muhammad had taken the tradition of retiring to a remote mountain for one month of the year, a period of introspection during which he contemplated life and the mysteries of the universe. Muhammad deplored the social inequities replete within Arabian tribal society, so he also used his time on the mountain to feed the poor who would come to receive his charity. During his retreat in the year 610, Muhammad was awakened from a deep sleep by a frightening apparition who declared itself the angel Gabriel. Gabriel claimed to have been sent by no less than God Himself. Gabriel issued the order “Recite!” to Muhammad, and then delivered to him the first revelation of the verses that would later be compiled into the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Gabriel’s revelations would continue for 22 years.

At first Muhammad thought himself mad, or having been visited by a demon. During these revelations, Muhammad’s body would shake in convulsions, and he seemed a man possessed. But eventually, with Kadhija’s urging and support, he accepted his role as God’s prophet.

One night Gabriel flew Muhammad across the desert and took him to the city of Jerusalem, From the rock of Moriah, the site of the ruined Jewish Temple, Muhammad ascended to heaven. There he met with the prophets of the Old Testament. He met with their ranks and all vestiges of doubt dissipated from his no longer troubled mind. He decended to Jerusalem and Gabriel spirited him back to Mecca before the sun broke the horizon.

Gabriel showed to Muhammad rites of washing and prayer, and instructed him to perform them every day. As the verses accumulated, Muhammad added more content to his preaching in Mecca. His wife Kadhija became his first convert, and later other immediate members of his family, with the exception of his uncle Abu Talib, who refused even up to his death to accept Muhammad’s message. Eventually other Meccans began to heed his call, and converts began to appear in other tribes outside of the Quraysh.

For a while the Meccans tolerated their upstart son, but after a time Muhammad began to denounce their many gods. He spoke instead of one God, Allah (literally the God). The Meccans began to view Muhammad as a heretic and possibly dangerous. What he preached described the antithesis of their way of life, for the Meccans, especially the Quraysh, had become aggressive economists who valued wealth over social responsibility and charity. Conversely, Muhammad rallied for better treatment of the poor and unfortunate.

Mecca suffered from a lack of central authority and instead suffered the chaotic competition between the numerous tribes. As the new religion spread throughout Mecca, it added to this divisiveness. The Meccans eventually became openly hostile to the followers of Muhammad, and new converts would quickly become outcasts in their respective tribes. At one point Muhammad, who himself lived under the protection of his powerful uncle Abu Talib, sent many of his followers to Ethiopia where they received the protection of its king. Subsequently, when Abu Talib died suddenly, Muhammad’s security evaporated, and he quickly looked to relocating himself and his now somewhat considerable body of followers to a friendlier location.

Muhammad would travel to fairs in the region and preach, always keeping an eye open towards a community that might prove friendly to his message and take his followers in. One day six men from the city of Yathrib, which lay nearly 200 miles north of Mecca, approached Muhammad. They described the unique situation present in their city, and why they thought that Muhammad could help them.

Jews had been the original settlers of Yathrib, which lay in a pleasant oasis in the Hijaz, the fertile strip of land that bordered Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Over the centuries, Arab tribes had also settled in Yathrib, mainly because it lay along the main caravan trail that led from Mecca to Syria. Yet three Jewish tribes still remained, and fighting between the Jews and the Arabs over the area’s considerable wealth and resources threatened to destroy the very fabric of the city.

Upon hearing Muhammad’s message, the men of Yathrib recognized the similarities between the prophet’s brand of monotheism and that of the Jews. But since Muhammad’s message was also specifically tailored to the needs of Arabic society, they felt that it might be the way to unite the two factions and bring peace to the city. They promised Muhammad protection from the Meccans if he would come to Yathrib and attempt this seemingly impossible reconciliation. In 622 A.D. Muhammad began to move his followers north to their new home.

This great emigration of Muhammad and his congregation, called the Hijra, marks the defining moment for Islam, much as the Exodus did for the Jews and the Resurrection did for Christians. The first year of the Hijra therefore is year 1 of the Islamic calendar. Upon reaching Yathrib, Muhammad chose a name for his new religion: Islam. Islam by definition means “submission,” so the followers of Islam became known as Muslims, or “those who submit.” Submission, of course, is to God’s will. In honor of Muhammad, Yathrib took a new name, Medina, “the City of the Prophet.

The Hijra established a sense of community among the faithful and defined the roles for the different members of the new Islamic society. The emigrants from Mecca became the muhajirun, and the newer local converts in Medina, the ansai (helpers). Together they collectively comprised the ummah, the community of the faithful. As pressure to convert increased, another faction emerged in Medina, the munafiqun, the “hypocrites,” pagans who professed to Islam in public but privately continued to worship their father’s gods.

Fighting between the Jewish and Arab tribes demanded Muhammad’s immediate attention. Tension also existed within the ummah. The ansai believed the newly arrived muhajirun intended to take over the city. To address these issues, Muhammad decreed the Constitution of Medina, which became a social and political model for the city.

This Constitution dealt with four main points. It defined a united community that included non-converted Jews. It established the complete authority of God and his prophet, Muhammad. It defined the boundaries between Islam and the existing tribal society. Finally, it established the necessity of war to expand Islam, and the provisions for covering the cost of waging it. Since Jews were included in the community defined in the city’s Constitution, they were also required to contribute to the war fund. This led to resistance from the Jewish tribes, and Muhammad quickly banished two of three tribes from Medina.

In the second year of the Hijra Muhammad initiated a raid on the Quraysh summer caravan. This inflamed his old enemies and they sent an army of 1,000 from Mecca to intercept and annihilate Muhammad’s party of 300. Vastly outnumbered, the Muslims nonetheless defeated the Meccan army (known as the Battle of Badr). This victory increased Muhammad’s standing with the Bedouins in the Hijaz and greatly bolstered the confidence of the Muslims in the righteousness of Islam.

The next year, however, the Meccans defeated Muhammad’s forces near Medina. Within two years the Meccan army had fought their way directly to the gates of the city. To reinforce his defenses, Muhammad dug a massive ditch around it, giving the name the Battle of the Trench to the engagement. Muhammad and his Muslim army delivered a resounding defeat to the Meccans, and they fled home.

Muhammad discovered a plot by the remaining Jewish tribe to aid the Meccans against his Muslims. He enacted swift and brutal vengeance against its members. All of the men of the tribe were executed, and the women and children pressed into slavery. Thus ended any attempt at peaceful relations between the Jews of the Hijaz and the Islamic community.

One year after defeating the Meccans at Medina, Muhammad offered them a truce, which they gladly accepted. His attention then shifted temporarily to other settlements in the Hijaz, and in the 7th year of the Hijra, his armies took the Jewish oases of Khaybar and Fadak and the Arabian settlements of Hunayn and Ta’if. After this, most of the Bedouin tribes of the Hijaz decided it was better to live as Muslims than die as idol worshippers and they quickly became converts.

The next year, ignoring the truce, Muhammad marched his army unopposed into Mecca and took the city. Muhammad went directly to the Ka’ba and destroyed the pagan idols housed within it. He then dedicated the shrine to Allah.

Knowing that he needed to keep the economy of the city alive, Muhammad spared the lives of the Meccans and let them retain their property, but only if they converted. Anyone not of the Ummah was banished from Mecca, and entrance to the city from that point on was granted only to Muslims.

Over the next two years Islam conquered all of Arabia, and Muhammad next looked to expand into Roman Palestine. But in the 10th year of the Hijra, or 632 A.D., Muhammad died before the invasion could be mounted. He had already served the will of God; Islam had established itself as powerful institution, both culturally and militarily.

When Muhammad died, he left behind a complete model of Islam, of which the basic underlying philosophy was strict monotheism. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad had claimed no divinity; he served simply as God’s conduit. The Koran, being God’s direct word, took precedence as the ultimate authority of Islamic Law, (like Judaism, Islam is a religion based upon a strict code of law). As a doctrine, the Koran covers a wide range of religious, social, and political issues. It mandates the procedures for marriage, divorce, and inheritance. It prohibits drinking and usury, and provides severe penalties for murder and theft. It provides detailed instructions for religious rites: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage, and diet. Despite the wide scope of the scripture, howeve,r as Islamic society evolved, gaps appeared in its treatment of the law.

While alive, Muhammad himself would resolve any disputes whose answers were not found in the Koran. To cover these issues after his death, Islamic scholars developed hadiths, traditions based upon Muhammad’s words and actions. As more and more generations passed, hadiths held greater validity if they could be verified through an unbroken chain of witnesses leading back to an eyewitness account of the event by a close companion of the prophet. Scholars, the Ulema, interpreted the laws of Islam, sometimes in contradictory ways, and they issued fatwahs, legal opinions and edicts. This collective work of the Ulema is known as Sharia law, and designed to guide a person successfully from birth to death. The main intent of the Sharia is to create the perfect Muslim state, the model of which is Muhammad’s Islamic community at Medina. Keeping with the inseparable nature of Islamic religion and politics, Sharia Law draws no dividing line between them. Indeed the inseparability of these two elements in Islam continues to baffle Western culture.

Islamic ritual consists of five obligations, referred to as the Five Pillars. They define the duties of the ummah. The first is shahad, which is testifying to the monotheistic basis of Islam. i.e.there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Shahad also requires an individual to completely submit to the will of God as laid out in the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad.

Salat follows next, consisting of five daily prayers preceded by a ritual washing. This prayer is a direct link between the worshipper and God, and in it the supplicant recites verses of the Koran. Islam possesses no priests or clergy; the prayer is led by a learned member of the congregation. Muslims are not required to pray in a Mosque, and may do so any where. Prayers are performed at sunrise, mid-day, late afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. They set the tone of the day, and other activities are scheduled around them.

Sawm is the third pillar, the ritual fast during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan (since the Islamic calendar follows the lunar year, which is 11 days shorter than the solar year, the date of the start of Ramadan and other Muslim holy days cycle throughout the seasons). During Ramadan, fasting is performed from sunrise to sunset, and couples abstain from sex. The sick and elderly as well as women who are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing may break the fast, but are encouraged to make up lost days at a later time. Fasting serves to purify the body and focus the mind upon the participants role and purpose in serving God’s will.

Number four is zakat, donating a portion of one’s income to charity. Since God and not man possesses all the wealth on earth, God requires all Muslim’s to return an alms tax back to the community. By doing this, the individual’s other possessions are purified, and a balance is achieved. They may donate more of their own accord, but it must be done in secret. The charity of also Islam carries a wider meaning than just monetary donation. If an individual is unable to pay the tax, he or she must help the disadvantaged. If they cannot do that, they should promote good and refrain from evil acts. All are forms of charity. Similar to Christianity, true charity is living the spirit of the law and not just adhering to the letter of it.

The fifth and final pillar of Islam is the hajj, the once a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca and the Ka’ba. It is an obligation only for those that are physically and financially able to perform it. It occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and remains a time for the people of the diverse nations of Islam to come together.

Monotheism offers to its diverse followers two conflicting ideals. The first is that man shapes his own future and earns the wrath of God through his exercise of free will. The second is that every event happens only in accordance with the will of God. This creates the following paradox: If all events happen only according to God’s will, then God wills evil upon the world, and this goes against the very nature of God, who is the essence of righteousness. One would seem to necessarily exclude the other, and this dichotomy continues to plague Jewish and Christian Scholars. Islam, however, deals neatly with this apparent contradiction. Allah feels that hell as well as heaven needs an equal number of inhabitants, therefore “He guides who he will, and misleads who He will.” This maintains a balance in the layers of the world.

The Islamic universe is structured differently from the Jewish and Christian versions. It includes an earth, a heaven, and a hell, but instead of merely existing as three separate domains, they are broken up into 14 layers, stacked like plates. Of the seven layers of earth, man inhabits the topmost and hell lies at the bottom. The intermediate layers transition between the ones at the top and bottom. Over the top of the earth are the 7 layers of heaven with our physical sky representing the lowest layer and paradise at the top. 500 years of travel separate the different layers. God Himself holds the sky in place, and from that vantage point He can attend to the infinite minute details of running the earth, providing rain and making sure plants grow as well as managing the affairs of man.

Drawing directly from Muhammad’s revolutionary lifestyle the theme of revolution runs deep in Islam. Aside from adhering to the Five Pillars, Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are expected to spread God’s word to all the people of earth. For Muslims that means a complete conversion of not only the religious mores of a people, but also their social and political systems (remember here that to Islam all three are but one system).

One means of expanding the influence of Islam across the globe follows the example of the Hijra, the great emigration of Muslims from Mecca to Medina. Followers are encouraged to move to foreign lands and establish communities there. Over the generations, Islam will inevitably grow in strength, allowing the Ummah to defeat any resistance from within. If they are unable to accomplish this, more reactionary processes may be used. Also understood is that once a region has come under the dominion of Islam it shall always remain the property of Islam. Allah takes great affront when a foreign people occupy a formerly Islamic land, as is the case with modern Israel, and it is a dishonor to the Islamic community if they do not do everything in their power to reclaim it.

The Koran defines the earth as two separate components: Dar al-Islam, the House of Peace, and Dar al-Harb, the House of War. Only the ummah may reside in the House of Peace. All others reside in the House of War. The Koran calls on Muslims to peacefully convert unbelievers first, if possible, before resorting to more violent methods of persuasion. Apostates, those who once embraced Islam but then renounced it, are seen as forever lost. The Koran sentences them to death.

The term Jihad, defined as a “struggle” or “great effort,” has a dual meaning to Muslims. Greater Jihad is the personal struggle to retain one’s faith in times of adversity. Lesser Jihad conforms to our Western understanding of it, a holy war waged against unbelievers, infidels, and apostates. The more a member of the ummah can do to help spread Islam, be it through emigration or the exercise of Jihad, the greater his or her reward in heaven. Sacrificing one’s life for the cause gives the martyr the quickest and most direct route to the highest level of paradise.

The Koran grants Christians and Jews a certain modicum of respect, labeling them as “People of the Book,” a reference to Biblical scripture. The intent of Islam is not to replace Judaism and Christianity, but to further expand upon their principles as necessary for the Muslim people. So just as God’s word as given in the Koran guided the people of Arabia back to the true path from which man had wandered, so was His message to the Jews and Christians tailored specifically to their needs. So while the scripture of Jews and Christians remains sacrosanct, it does not necessarily apply to Muslims or regulate their behavior. The Koran overrides any previous interaction or agreement between man and God. In this way Islam can be viewed as a liberalization of Biblical Law.

The Koran talks at length about the prophets of the Bible, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus. Yet it fits the stories of these men into the mold of Islam and its emphasis on monotheism. It becomes the same story told over and again. Man falls from God’s grace by reverting to polytheist pagan worship. God chooses one man to warn the people of their coming doom if they do not return to worshiping only Him. The people ignore the prophet’s warning, no matter if he is Noah, Moses, or whomever. God then destroys them in the most horrific ways. The few survivors repent and revert to the true faith. But over the generations they again lose sight of and return to their pagan ways. The cycle repeats. For example, in the Koran the people destroyed in the great flood of Noah’s time were guilty of idol worship instead of immorality and perversion, and Moses demanded from Pharaoh not that he free the Hebrew slaves, but rather that he renounce the many Egyptian gods. The Koran claims that Jesus refuted and denied his divinity. Jesus as an earthly incarnation of God goes against every fiber of the monotheistic grain of Islam, so this denial by Jesus is necessary before Muslims can grant him even the tiniest bit of legitimacy. In the Koran, he escapes crucifixion, and the Romans crucify another man in his stead. So while Jews reject Christ and Christians deify him, Muslims simply accept him as another in a long line of mortal prophets, a line that irrevocably ends with their final prophet, Muhammad.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share many commonalities, but different interpretations of them leads to more division between the three than unity. This shared history also implies that there will never be agreement or accord between them, for to accept the validity of another’s faith, one’s own is then compromised. Considering their adversarial roots, the odds of effective diplomacy between Jews, Islam, and the West seem rather slim. This is the relevance of ancient history to the modern Terror War.


The Controversial Survey


1. Do you have the guts to answer these questions and re-post as The Controversial Survey?


2. Would you do meth if it was legal?

No, I like sleeping too much.

3. Abortion: for or against it?

Abortion is a necessary evil. Ideally, I think if it truly deserves Constitutional protection, it should be granted legally through an amendment instead of on the basis of judicial bias. Realistically, I am a man, so I also don’t think I can stand in the shoes of women on the issue and make a qualified judgment concerning the effect on the body both mental and physical.

4. Do you think the United States would fail with a female president?


5. Do you believe in the death penalty?

Yes. It should be expanded to include child molesters.

6. Do you wish marijuana would be legalized already?

Not particularly.

7. Are you for or against premarital sex?

I was for it when I was single.

8. Do you believe in God?

Not in the conventional sense. I believe that man is a spiritual being, and being in touch with that spirituality makes him better.

9. Do you think same sex marriage should be legalized?

I think civil rights should be equal, other than that, it is just semantics.

10. Do you think it’s wrong that so many Hispanics are illegally moving to the USA?

I think it is wrong that a country with the immense natural resources of Mexico has a 50% unemployment rate. Corruption in both the Mexican and United States governments drive this unprecedented migration. I do not blame the immigrants themselves. If I could find no work and my family faced imminent starvation I also would do what was necessary to ensure their survival. Anyone would. My main concern is criminal illegal aliens, MS 13, etc., those who would enter our country to willfully commit crimes. We need to enforce mandatory deportation of convicted criminal aliens after they are released from prison.

11. A twelve year old girl has a baby, should she keep it?

It is up to her and her family.

12. Should the alcohol age be lowered to eighteen?

Yes. If you are old enough to serve, you are old enough to be served.

13. Should the war in Iraq be called off?

The term “war in Iraq” is misleading, because it constitutes only a small component in the global terror war. Should the concentration of effort in the terror war be redirected from Iraq to other spheres of conflict, yes.

14. Assisted suicide is illegal: do you agree?


15. Do you believe in spanking your children?

I haven’t done it yet, but I will if necessary.

16. Would you burn a flag for a million dollars?

Ha ha I love America, but HELL YES!

17. Who do you think would make a better president: McCain or Obama?

Irrelevant now.

18. Are you afraid others will judge you from reading some of your answers?

No, except for my Mom.

Hang Up and Drive

Disrespect is fostered within the citizenry by irresponsible government and law enforcement. At it’s best, it is mere disrespect for one’s fellow man. At the worst, it is blatant disrespect for the law. One need only look to the roads to find anarchy in America.

Living in a major Metropolitan area on the east coast for the last 15 years has made me an expert on traffic and disrespect. The roads are an arena, where tin-horn gladiators vie for pole position. Our irresolute decision to defend our lane from offending and intrusive vehicles has led to a perfect model of our self-serving society. We aggressively assert ourselves on the highways, and will do almost anything to stay one car length ahead of the next guy. We will run you off of the road, or drive on the shoulder when you are too slow. We will not merge peacefully. We will change lanes in a frenzy to get ahead. We will cut you off, and then curse and flip the bird when it happens to us. Other traffic is the enemy.

I have been the victim of road rage, and I have suffered in it’s grip myself. More recently I have tried to relax on the roads, and as a result have become fascinated with people’s behavior as they drive. They read books or newspapers while whizzing down the highway at high rates of speed. I have even seen several people shaving on their morning commute. And then there are the phones.

It used to be, that when I saw somebody driving like an idiot, I assumed they were drunk or stupid. Now I assume that they have one of those annoying little phones screwed to their ear. Everyone knows that it is dangerous to talk on these things and drive, but everybody does it. Do they realize that their speed drops by 20 mph the second they dial, that they swerve, veer, and generally just drive worse than they did during driver’s ed sophomore year? When did it become necessary to be constantly in communication with everyone we know at all times, anyway? Does our right to free speech entitle us to endanger others while exercising that right?

The Clinton Legacy

People love Bill Clinton. A lot of people. Why?

Ask them. They’ll tell you. The economy was great. There was no war. The economy was great. No war.

I’ll grant you those two, but what about the rest of it? Ask them about Mark Rich, and you will get one of two responses…a blank stare, or they will change the subject. Ask about Monica Lewinski and you will only get one response…yeah! he got a $%#& #!* Why not?

Because he was supposed to be watching the country, is why not. Was it on auto-pilot while he was getting a “Monica?” Yeah, good job, Bill! way to go!

Maybe Clinton did have good economic policy. I’ll give him that. But the man himself? He is like the Mike Tyson of politics: the champ, but not really championship caliber. Here’s why:

1 Waco.

2 Pardoned Mark Rich, the largest tax cheat in U.S. history. Rich, a billionaire, was on the FBI’s most wanted list when Clinton pardoned him shortly after receiving a $150,000 contribution to the Clinton Library Fund from Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Rich.

3 All the other pardons.

4 Monica. Disgusting. Do your job.

5 Clinton lost the nuclear codes during the Paula Jones incident. That particular set was never retrieved.

6 Black Hawk Down. Bin Laden specifically mentioned this as the primary example of American cowardice that spurred him to his final decision on whether or not to launch the 9-11 attack.

7 Decimated our military.

8 Stole furniture from the White House. This was the Clintons’ grand departure, they took the stuff. They later brought it back.

Love him or hate him, he just won’t seem to go away!

The Children of Waco

What happened at Waco?

The story of Waco is one that raises more questions than it answers. What happened there will undoubtedly remain one of the unresolved mysteries of our times. In fact, nothing much of anything has ever been resolved about Waco in the ensuing years. When I ask people about Waco, I run into an unvaryingly strange reaction. Nobody cares. When I mention that 21 children who never committed any crimes died there, they still don’t care. They vehemently defend the government and blame the Davidians themselves. They take at face value the Official Government Story, that the Davidians had committed mass suicide, thank you very much. There was an investigation, of course, and nothing came of it, of course. Now, more than 15 years later, people remember no more than what they were told to remember.

Much controversy surrounds the events leading up to the stand-off at the Waco compound. The original reasons for an ATF investigation of the Davidians, the misleading and untrue statements in the affidavit used the secure the search warrant. Who shot first, and what happened to the crucial piece of evidence, the front door? Were the allegations that the Davidians were manufacturing automatic weapons and methamphetamine true (they remain still unproven)? Did the Davidians really incinerate themselves and their children in an horrific mass suicide?

If it comes down to placing blame on the government versus the men and women of Waco, we will probably never agree. But the fact seems to escape us, there were kids in there. So first we have to agree on this: the issue really has nothing to do with anything but those kids and the government’s responsibility to protect them. So for now forget about Koresh, forget about automatic weapons, forget about everything except those kids. Kids never shot at ATF agents, or manufactured automatic weapons or methamphetamine, or any of the Davidian’s other alleged crimes. Didn’t they have a right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”  like the rest of us? Agreed?

So here is the situation. It is day 51 of the stand-off. You are the U.S. government. You have hundreds of FBI agents surrounding the Waco compound. There are 21 children inside, ranging in age from infants to teenagers. The Davidians may or may not be holding them against their will. You have to get them out. That is unquestionably your main priority. What is your plan?

The Government’s plan was this: Use military tanks equipped with special nozzles and grenade canisters to inject CS gas, a chemical nerve agent, into the compound in an attempt to drive the Davidians out. Lets recap: kids, tanks, chemical nerve agent. Brilliant! Who thought of this little gem?

That credit goes to then Attorney General and head of the Justice Department Janet Reno. In a cruel twist of irony, Reno had based her career as Attorney General of the state of Florida on the protection of children. President Bill Clinton examined (did he?) and signed (he did!) Reno’s plan. And so they proceeded.

So let’s start with the tanks. The first question is: Is it legal for the President of the United states to use the military to attack civilians? The answer is, of course, no. (If you answered yes, please go back to your homework.) The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prevents the use of the military to execute the duties of police and law enforcement. Does it matter that ineptly trained FBI agents were driving the tanks instead of the Texas National Guard? No,that is obviously more irresponsible and dangerous. Tanks…kids.

Now let’s examine the chemical agent used. Reno’s weapon of choice was type CS nerve agent. It is not really a gas at all, but a solid that is dispersed as an aerosol in a liquid droplet form. After dispersal, the aerosol turns into a particulate residue (like dust) after the temperature and pressure of the liquid form have stabilized. CS agent is designed for outdoor use. The proper chemical agent usually chosen by law-enforcement to evacuate a building is type CN nerve agent. There are several reasons for this:

1)The particulate residue of CS is flammable.

2)CS nerve agent incapacitates those exposed to it.

3) If exposed to open flame, the liquid form of CS emits cyanide gas as a by-product.

CS is internationally banned for military use, including the U.S. armed forces.

How were they supposed to evacuate the building if they were incapacitated by blindness, vomiting, convulsions, and the torturous burning of every mucous membrane and inch of exposed skin? Also keep in mind that the Feds had cut the power to the Davidian compound and knew that the members were using candles and kerosene lamps for light. Now the question you have to ask yourself is this:

When the kids didn’t emerge after the first or second hour, why didn’t they stop the gas attack?

How about the third, fourth, or fifth hour? The attack lasted for 8 hours.

This is the question that I cannot get past. Why didn’t they stop when the kids didn’t come out? Did the Feds forget that they were in there? Were they having too much fun driving the tanks?

Even forgetting momentarily the implications of the flammability of CS particulate, in what context is it acceptable for the Government to use military tanks to inject a chemical weapon banned by our own military into a building where 21 children are being held hostage, especially knowing that there is open flame present in the building? Is that not completely and utterly irresponsible and against the best interest of those children?

The plan stunk, they used the wrong gas, and when it all blew up in their faces, they lied about it.

I just don’t see where I am wrong about this.

Deciphering the Financial Crisis

As we draw nearer to the upcoming election, one issue has arisen to eclipse all others: the financial meltdown. Frighteningly, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama seems to have the slightest clue as to what really caused it, or how to fix it. Neither man has done his homework. How will we know who to choose to lead us back from the brink of economic disaster?

The implications of this crisis will continue far beyond November 4th, and we can realistically expect years of economic hardship before any semblance of prosperity returns to our nation. Bad luck for us. We’re pissed off, the lowest cogs in a complex machine we don’t understand.

So what happened? How did we land in this mess?

It can be said that what happened was due to greed, and that is 100% true, but greed must have an enabler. It must be understood right here that the enabler in this situation was not the the original program and legislation, but subsequent legislation that created a way for the prospect of profit to appear in a market where it should not have been. The original intention of the Community Reinvestment Act and the laws surrounding it were and remain noble. It should not be discarded because of its role in this crisis.

A 1961 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that banks were engaged in discriminatory acts against African American borrowers. Institutions required  that black Americans make larger down payments and gave them less time to pay their loans back. Most nefarious, however, was the practice of redlining, when a lending institution simply refused to extend credit into certain neighborhood. This 1968 Civil Rights Act (commonly known as the Fair Housing Act) addressed discriminatory housing practices, but provided no framework from which the Federal Government could work to effectively combat them.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Congress passed legislature that began to work towards compliance with the Fair Housing Act. In 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed for credit applicants to seek civil punitive damages against lending institutions that discriminated against them. The 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure act required banks to give the Federal Government personal information about the race, gender and demographics of their customers. Then, in 1977, President James Earl Carter signed into law the Community Reinvestment Act. (Please note that both the Community Reinvestment Act and the Civil Rights Act are referred to as the CRA. From this point forward, when I refer to the CRA I will be referring to the Community Reinvestment Act).

The CRA dealt primarily with redlining, trying to ensure that residents of poverty-stricken and low-income neighborhoods were not denied credit. At the same time, it was only a directive and provided little means for the redress of grievances against lending institutions. Slowly community advocacy groups formed as a means to communicate resident’s concerns. The failure of numerous savings and loan companies in the 1980’s spurred the passage of FIRREA (Financial Institutions Recovery and Reform Enforcement Act) in 1989. FIRREA increased oversight of CRA guidelines and expanded the degree with which the Government could asses a bank’s compliance by creating a four-tier rating scale of Outstanding, Good, Needs Improvement, and Substantial Non-compliance. Public disclosure of CRA ratings and other information gave greater leverage to advocacy groups, but the Federal Government still had little means of enforcement. In 1994, the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act repealed restrictions on interstate banking practices. The Government began to use CRA compliance ratings as one method of determining an institutions eligibility when applying to open interstate branches. Eventually CRA ratings would be examined any time a bank required Federal approval for an expansion or other action. The Feds now had leverage to begin CRA compliance enforcement.

The CRA is the first loose brick of Wall Street that contributed to its collapse. We will come back to it, but first must examine another component.

Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE’s) are financial entities created by Congress to provide transparency, oversight, stability, and stimulus to three specific areas of the credit market: agriculture, finance, and education. In 1916 Congress created the first GSE, the Farm Credit System. In 1932, during the Great Depression, it created the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks to stabilize the housing market by offering liquidity in the form of low-interest loans to banks operating in the home mortgage market. The two most well known GSE’s are undoubtedly the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage corporation, also known respectively as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae was created in 1938 as part of the New Deal, and Freddie Mac in 1970 to compete with Fannie Mae and bolster the market. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are separate from the Federal Home Loan Banks.

One way that GSE’s invest is by securitizing mortgages. This means that they buy mortgages from banks, pool these bundles of home loans, and then sell them as investments. The value of the security is guaranteed only by the repayment of the principal and interest of the loan by homeowners. Therefore, prepayment of loans can affect the value of a mortgage–backed security (MBS). So can foreclosures. GSE’s also created a secondary market for home mortgages, meaning that MBS’s can be bought and sold in bulk between different financial enterprises. This allowed more liquidity for the investors of securities. Because of their government affiliation, GSE’s generally receive below market interest rates for loans issued to them and high prices for their securities. The Government also exempts them from paying income taxes. While the CRA and the GSE’s are separate, they connect through the government’s desire to expand home ownership in lower-income families. In 1992, the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to direct a certain percentage of their enterprise towards the subprime mortgage market.

President Bill Clinton in 1995 pushed for extensive regulatory revision and expansion of the CRA.  This deregulation streamlined Federal CRA examination techniques and, more importantly, allowed for the first time public sale of CRA related securities. These securities were given a AAA rating by Fannie and Freddie, misleading the public into believing that they carried some sort of guarantee from the Federal Government.

In 1999 Bill Clinton signed into law the Financial Services Modernization Act. It repealed the depression era Glass-Steagel Act which had prohibited institutions from mixing investment, commercial, and insurance interests. Also called the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act after its sponsors, GLB passed as a compromise bill after an initial defeat. The compromise involved the call of Republican Senator Phil Gramm for transparency in the dealings of advocacy groups (which he felt were strong-arming lenders), versus the Clinton Administration’s mandate that all banks expanding in mixed commercial, investment and insurance holdings be CRA compliant.This compromise allowed the creation of mega-corps like Citi-group. Suddenly the sub-prime mortgage market became very profitable, and the banks themselves, with the approval of CRA auditors and community groups, began lowering their underwriting standards, which led to extremely risky no down payment and no income verification loans.

The next relevant piece of legislature came a year later. The Commodity Futures Modernization Act, aka the “Enron Loophole,” allowed the creation of single-stock futures (futures being investments that allow investors to purchase future deliveries of as-yet unproduced commodities and services). Offering futures that deal only with single stocks instead of blended assets allows speculators to control the markets of essential industries such as oil, energy, and agriculture and also wreak havoc with consumer prices . Evidence points to Republican Phil Gramm as being the contributor of the few lines in the Act which enabled single-stock trading. Bill Clinton signed the CFMA in December of 2000, shortly before leaving the office of President of the United States.

Now enter Democrat Franklin Delano Raines. A Rhodes Scholar, Raines attended Harvard, Harvard Law, and Oxford. A man of ambition. Raines worked for Jimmy Carter as an assistant budget director in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). After that he joined Lazard LTD. I will let Lazard itself describe what they do; here is a clip from the front page of their website:

“Lazard, one of the world’s preeminent  financial advisory and  asset management firms, operates from 41 cities across 24 countries in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Central and South America. With origins dating back to 1848, the firm provides advice on mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and capital raising, as well as asset management services to corporations, partnerships, institutions, governments, and individuals.”

Raines left Lazard in 1990, after becoming a partner. He became Vice Chairman of Fannie Mae where he stayed until 1996. He returned to the White House, this time as Director of the OMB. To briefly describe the job of the OMB, it oversees federal agencies, programs and services ensuring that they meet the requirements of the President’s budget. OMB has a secondary mission also. From their official Government website:

“In addition, OMB oversees and coordinates the Administration’s procurement, financial management, information, and regulatory policies.”

Basically, in Government, you don’t spend without OMB approval. Raines cabinet appointment wielded him immense power and influence in Washington. As we shall see, that influence would serve Raines well.

In 1999 Raines left the Clinton Administration to take control of Fannie Mae as its CEO. Over the next 5 years, Raines stole tens of millions of dollars (purportedly $90 million) in the form of executive bonuses by overstating the earnings of Fannie Mae to the tune of 6 to 9 billion dollars. In 2004, the OFHEO (Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight) and the Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Frank Raines. The Congressional hearing on this investigation was taped, and the video of it is widely available on the internet. Here are some transcripts.

Congressmen Richard Baker, R-Louisiana: “It is indeed a very troubling report [by OFHEO regulators], but it is a report of extraordinary importance, not only to those who wish to own a home, but as to the taxpayers of this country who would pay the cost of a clean up of a [government-sponsored] enterprise failure…The analysis makes clear that more resources must be brought to bear to insure that high standards of conduct are not only required, but more importantly, they are actually met.”

In her reply, D-California  Congresswoman, Maxine Waters: “[We sat] through nearly a dozen hearings where, frankly, we were trying to fix something that wasn’t broke. Mr. Chairman, we do not have a crisis at Freddie Mac, and particularly at Fannie Mae. Under the outstanding leadership of Mr. Frank Raines, everything in the 1992 act has worked just fine. In fact, the GSE’s have exceeded their housing goals. What we need to do today, is to focus on the regulator, and this must be done in a manner so as not to impede their affordable housing mission, a mission that has seen innovation flourish, from desktop underwriting to 100% loans.”

Congressman Gregory Meeks, D-New York (Meeks’ rant is directed at the OFHEO regulator): “I’m just pissed off at OFHEO, because if it wasn’t for you, I don’t think that we’d be here in the first place and now, the problem that we have and that we’re faced with is, maybe some individuals who wanted to do away with GSE’s in the first place, you’ve given them an excuse to try and have this forum so that we can talk about it and maybe change the direction and the mission of what the GSE’s had, which they’ve done a tremendous job. [There] has been nothing that has been indicated as wrong, you know, with, uh, Fannie Mae. Freddie Mac has come up on its own, and the question that then presents is the competence that, that, that your agency has, with reference to deciding and regulating these GSE’s. And so, I wish I could sit here and say that I’m not upset with you, but I am very upset because, you know, what you do is, you know, you give, maybe giving any reason, to, as Mr. Gonzales said, to give someone a heart surgery when they really don’t need it.”

Congressman Ed Royce, R-California: “In addition to our important oversight role in this committee, I hope that we will move swiftly to create a new regulatory structure for Fannie Mae, for Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks.”

Congressman Lacy Clay, D-Missouri: “This hearing is about the political lynching of Franklin Raines.”

Ed Royce: “There is a very simple solution. Congress must create a new regulator with powers at least equal to those of other financial regulators such as the OCC [Officeof the Comptroller of Currency] or the Federal Reserve”

Meeks vs. the Regulator, part II: “Why should I have confidence, why should anyone have confidence, in you as a regulator at this point?”

Regulator: “Sorry, Congressman. OFHEO did not improperly apply accounting rules, Freddie Mac did. OFHEO did not try to manage earnings improperly, Freddie Mac did. So this isn’t about the agency engaging in improper conduct, its about Freddie Mac.”

Congressman Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut: “ We passed Sarbanes-Oxley, which was a very tough response to that.” [My note: Sarbanes-Oxley is 2002 bill designed to counteract securities market failures as a result of corporate scandals like Enron. It applies to publicly owned corporations only and excluded private corporations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] “And then I realized, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wouldn’t even come under it. They weren’t under the 34 act, they weren’t under the 33 act, they play by their own rules, and, and, I’m tempted to ask, how many people in this room are on the payroll of Fannie Mae? Because what they do is, they basically hire every lobbyist they can possibly hire. they hire some people to lobby and they hire some people not to lobby so that the opposition can’t hire them.”

Congressman Artur Davis, D-Alabama, addressing the OFHEO regulator: “A concern that I have, you’re making very specific, what you have correctly acknowledged, broad and categorical judgments about the management of this institution, about the willfulness of practices that may or may not be in controversy. You’ve imputed various motives to the people running the organization, you went to the board and put a 48 hour ultimatum on them, without having any specific regulatory authority to put that kind of ultimatum on them, um, that sounds like some kind of invisible line has been crossed.” [Note: Artur Davis has since apologized for his role in this hearing. He is the only Democrat as of yet to do so.]

Christopher Shays: “Fannie Mae has manipulated, in my judgment, OFHEO for years. and for OFHEO to finally come out with a report as strong as it is, tells me that’s got to be the minimum, not the maximum.”

Congressman Barney Frank, D- Massachusetts, then ranking democrat on the House Financial Services committee (Frank is currently the Chairman of said committee): “I,I,this, you, you seem to be saying well, these are in areas which could raise safety and soundness problems. I don’t see anything in your report that raises safety and soundness problems…but I have seen nothing in here that suggests safety and soundness are at issue. It serves us badly to raise safety and soundness as a kind of general shibboleth [i.e. a phrase distinctive of a specific issue] when it does not seem to me to be an issue.” [In 2003  Frank opposed a proposal by the Bush administration to create a separate oversight agency for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.]

Congressman Don Manzullo, R-Illinois: “ …Mr. Raines, 1.1 million bonus and a $526,000 salary. Jamie Gorelick, $779,000 bonus and a salary of $567,000. This is, what you stated on page 11, is nothing less than staggering. The 1998 earnings per share number turned out to be 3 dollar and 23 cents and 9 mils,” [meaning that pennies were counted down to minute decimals]” a result that Fannie Mae met the EPS maximum payout goal right down to the penny. Fannie Mae understood the rules and simply chose not to follow them…If Fannie Mae had followed the practices, there wouldn’t have been a bonus that year.”

Christopher Shays addressing Frank Raines: “You have about three percent of your portfolio set aside.” [I believe this addresses the amount of liquidity of an asset an institution is required to keep on hand.] “If a bank gets below four percent, they are in deep trouble. So I just want you to explain to me why I should be satisfied with three percent?”

Frank Raines: “ Because banks don’t, there aren’t any banks that only have multi-family and single-family loans…these assets [securitized subprime mortgages] are so riskless that their capital for holding them should be under two percent.”

This transcript reveals several disturbing things, foremost among them members of Congress bullying and intimidating Federal regulators. We also have Democratic resistance to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac coming under the regulation and oversight intended to counteract exactly the kind of fraud that allowed Frank Raines and other F&F executives to commit their heinous crimes. Raines took early retirement from Fannie Mae shortly after this hearing. He remains a free man, having paid back less than $5 million of the $90 million he purportedly stole in a settlement with OFHEO and the SEC. Fannie Mae itself paid a whopping $400 million in its settlement.

Lets compare what we know about Republican and Democratic roles in regulation from this hearing with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s comments during House debate on the bailout:

“When was the last time anyone ever asked you for $700 billion? It’s a staggering number, but only a part of the cost of the failed Bush economic policies to our country. Policies that were built on budget recklessness…and now eight years later, the foundation of that fiscal irresponsibility, combined with an anything-goes economic policy, has taken us to where we are today…[Republicans] claim to be free market advocates, when it’s really an anything-goes mentality. No regulation, no supervision, no discipline. And if you fail, you have a golden parachute, and the taxpayer bails you out…How did it sneak up on us, so silently, almost on little cat feet?”

Pelosi’s accusations seem to indicate the opposite of what my research has revealed. The sale to the public of securitized subprime mortgages happened under Clinton’s watch, not Bush’s, as did the deregulation of depression-era legislation with Riegle-Neil and GLB. During the Bush administration, Republicans called for greater oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while executives like Frank Raines robbed them blind. Democrats blocked the proposed regulation, intimidated the regulator, and covered for Raines. In the face of an imminent election, Pelosi made misleading comments obviously designed to bolster her own party and undermine the Republicans.

Scarier yet, in a July interview, Washington post reporter Anita Huslin claimed that Raines had said he had “taken calls from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign seeking his advice on mortgage and housing policy matters.” The McCain campaign took this tidbit and blew it up in a campaign ad that purported that Raines was a “close economic advisor” of Obama’s, an idea for which there is little support, but the fact remains that Raines himself admitted being contacted by Obama’s campaign staff. Shouldn’t Raines be behind bars? Didn’t he receive the same “golden parachute” spoken of by Nancy Pelosi? (For the sake of fairness, I must point out that just as Obama has been linked to Frank Raines, McCain has ties to Phil Gramm.)

The truth is that both parties contributed to this crisis, and both are to blame. But we cannot let ideology stand in the way of reason. Objectivity by Democratic party leaders seems to have flown out the window on this one.