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Round and round / September 08, 2021

The never-ceasing news cycle spins out controversies faster than Waffle House can stack pancakes on a plate. Bite into one, two more pop up in its place. Yum.

Let’s see if we can’t cut into the backlog in this space today, starting with the letter A ...

» Afghanistan. I know I’m late in joining the media free-for-all on the subject of America’s withdrawal from this benighted land, but as you’ve probably already noticed, the outrage meter has been turned up to 11 with Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war. Exactly who is outraged, you ask? The rundown includes TV generals who pontificate on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News — cable news’ contribution to bipartisanship, apparently — mainstream media bigfoots with a fondness for interventionist foreign policy, Northern Virginia defense contractors and related interests with expensive mortgages to pay (another bipartisan horde), and Republican politicians who aim to score cheap points against the president. That’s a short list, by no means complete.

The unifying, animating argument from all of them is that Biden has shown fatal weakness and damaged America’s national interests by ending the war in Afghanistan. For now let’s leave aside the fact that many of these Biden critics are the same architects of a conflict that has gone nowhere for the past 20 years. As the troops slogged dutifully through war and occupation, America spent $2 trillion to buy Afghan stability, a dollar sum that utterly failed to prevent the collapse of a civilian government tasked with protecting ordinary citizens from extremist Taliban rule.

A lot of excellent reporting on the ground from Afghanistan, however, has given us a pretty sure sense of who has benefited from our presence — corrupt interests, both Afghan and American, that made out like bandits while the Taliban gathered strength in the countryside. There looms over this entire debate the question of exactly how long America was supposed to stay in Afghanistan to achieve war aims that no one has been able to convincingly define for at least the past decade. Joe Biden is the fourth president to be part of this foreign policy disaster and the first and only one to cut it off. Gutless?

I think not. A prediction: Not only will history record that Joe Biden did the right thing — not just the right thing, but the courageous one which no other president, Republican and Democratic, has been able to manage — public opinion will swing his way if and when the opposition tries to milk political gain from America’s so-called abandonment of Afghanistan. No doubt there’s a strong distaste for the notion that the United States of America should ever lose a war. But after 20 years, thousands of lives lost, tens of thousands of service members bearing the scars of battle, trillions spent and wasted, and no clear answer for what the heck we were trying to do at this point in Afghanistan anyway, Biden — and the U.S. military that executed an unprecedented airlift of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan friendlies with exceptional courage and skill — can walk away from this conflict with heads held high. And I believe the American people recognize this basic truth far better than the armchair pundits do. That’s my prediction. We’ll see how it holds up.

Next up in the A’s ...

» Abortion. As most everyone probably knows by now, the Supreme Court this week declined to halt the implementation of a Texas law that effectively overturns Roe v. Wade, the 48-year-old landmark case that legalized abortion in America. For all practical purposes, abortion in Texas is outlawed after six weeks of a woman’s pregnancy — a timeframe that allows scant time for women to even recognize that they’re pregnant, much less do anything about it.

Abortion is a subject where almost no one is able to change the mind of anyone else, and I get it — lots of people view the issue in deeply-held moral and religious terms, which naturally lends itself to unyielding convictions on the matter. However, for those open to sincere consideration of the real-world consequences of the Texas law, there is an apt place to start: go visit any of our local courtrooms, where not every day, but on all too many days, you can sit in on criminal cases involving young girls and despicable old men, who rape and impregnate, even when the victims happen to be their own family. Such cases are real and they do happen. (These crimes are adjudicated even more often in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, where the proceedings are closed to the public). Should a 13-year-old child be allowed to abort the non-viable fetus of her father? Think hard before you answer that one.

Another scenario, drawn from real life: If an expectant mother is at risk of dying due to a complicated, hopeless pregnancy, should that mother be subject to ruinous legal fines, public shaming and enduring grief for making the decision to abort? These two scenarios — sexually abused children, and mothers who may suffer death or lifelong physical harm from their pregnancies — are extreme, but they are also real. Which also happens to describe the Texas law, which (after the six weeks’ gestational period) makes no exception for the health of the mother, no exception for rape, no exception for incest, and serves almost exclusively to humiliate and shame women.

That the Supreme Court of the United States would allow this law to take effect, without a full airing of the facts, oral argument, and no formal ruling on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade itself, is shocking and toxic to the idea of democracy itself — but it’s hardly a surprise. Five right-wing justices (Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett) signed off on a page-long opinion, part of the Supreme Court’s ever-growing “shadow docket,” that upends settled law in America for the past half century. So much for past pledges by several of the justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett being the most recent culprits) promising to uphold Supreme Court precedent.

The fifth conservative member of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts (a Bush appointee), sided with the court’s liberal bloc in declaring the majority decision an abuse of process and likely wrong on the legal merits. Unfortunately for Roberts, his ambition to lead a conservative court that retains the respect of the American people is gone, and the Trump Supreme Court has risen to take its place.

The Texas law evaded serious judicial review because it was engineered with exactly this goal in mind. How so? Ordinarily, enforcement of laws rests with the state, thus establishing grounds for citizens to sue if laws appear to conflict with high court precedent. With the Texas law, there’s literally no one to take to court, because the State of Texas has accepted no actual enforcement authority. Instead, the law outsources this authority to any plaintiff who chooses to sue those who aid a woman seeking an abortion — it can be a doctor, a nurse, a family member, a member of the clergy, a taxi driver who drives a woman to a clinic, practically anyone at all.

The law allows any number of plaintiffs to sue for sums of $10,000 or more, a potentially limitless dollar amount. This scheme has been described in various unflattering terms — a bounty hunter law, vigilante justice, a backdoor, brazen attack on women’s rights — and it’s all justified.

So what happens now? It’s hard to put much faith in the idea that legal challenges will thwart the Texas law, since any such course of action will inevitably end up at the same Supreme Court that allowed this atrocity to go forward in the first place. This moment — with its abiding sense of despair among those who believe in the rule of law, as opposed to the warped definition of justice foisted upon the country by right-wing extremists — reminds me of the late stages of the Trump presidency, when it seemed like the man was unstoppable. Except, of course, he wasn’t. As happened to end the era of Trump misrule, it will be up to the people to put a stop to this madness. And Virginia is a good place to start, with our races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general entering the final stretch before the November general election. There’s no better way to send a message than with a good old-fashioned election thumping. But more about that in the weeks to come.

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