Saturday, March 31, 2007
Mob rule: Robert Iler and James Gandolfini, photographed at Chelsea Piers Studios, have been son and father on HBO's Sopranos for eight years.
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
March 30, 2007
NEW YORK — Robert Iler doesn't recall much about that summer in 1997, when at age 12 the former Pizza Hut pitchman won the role of a mobster's bratty son in the pilot episode of an edgy new cable drama.
"I just remember not wanting to be there. I wanted to be hanging out with my friends," Iler says.
Excitement built, even as veteran co-stars cautioned him that the odds were against the show ever becoming a series. "This is probably the last time you'll see any of us," he was told by Tony Sirico, who plays hot-tempered lieutenant Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri.
Ten years later, the cast of The Sopranos finally is preparing to say goodbye. Production is set to end on HBO's biggest hit — and one of TV's seminal series — just as nine final episodes begin airing April 8.
But not before the ties between Iler's Anthony Jr. ("A.J.") and Mob boss dad Tony take center stage, James Gandolfini, 45, and Iler, 22, reveal in their only joint interview, at a sprawling sports and studio complex on Manhattan's West Side.
"The relationship between A.J. and the parents is a very big part of the season," Gandolfini says. In burying the series after eight years and 86 episodes, creator David Chase explores the generational divide and the strange pull of the Mob "family" on the Soprano family, the heart of the series.
From Episode 76 (Season 6)
Last season, wayward teen A.J. dropped out of a local college, got fired from Blockbuster for stealing and was eager to stab his great-uncle Junior in retaliation for an attack that left Tony hospitalized in critical condition. In doing so, A.J. would have thrust himself into the mobster's life of crime.
For all the bravado, "Tony as a 19-year-old would have eaten A.J. as a 19-year-old alive, would've taken his lunch money," says Gandolfini, quoting a description by Sopranos writer/producer Terence Winter.
But as a parent, Tony has changed his tune.
"In the scene where he was going to go stab Uncle Junior, maybe in a different world Tony's father would have encouraged behavior like that, whereas Tony's like: 'You make me want to cry. You can't do this. I don't want you to do this for a living,' " Gandolfini says. "And (Tony) says to him, 'You're a good guy. You're a nice guy. You're not cut out for this kind of (stuff).' "
Do the actors bring any of their own upbringing to their TV personas? "I'm sure we do. My father used to swat me on the back of the head occasionally, which I did to him on the show," Gandolfini says, gesturing to Iler. "My father used to call me gogoots, which I didn't even tell David, and he wrote it into the show. I think it means eggplant." (Actually it's a squash, but colloquially it's an affectionate term for a stupid person.)
"His family is very old-world Italian, like mine," he says.
An unusually reflective Gandolfini speaks of a generational divide, calling Tony and his wife, Carmela, a different breed from his notoriously cold and psychologically abusive mother, Livia, as played by the late Nancy Marchand.
"We're better parents, but I don't think that's necessarily good in a way," Gandolfini says.
"Because we've become dependent?" Iler asks.
"Yeah, maybe," Gandolfini responds. "One way to look at it is they're going to toughen up when they have to. Another way to look at it is if you give them (grief) right away, they're used to it."
Which could just as easily apply off-screen.
The show's aura of authenticity also provides eerie parallels for the actors, who prefer not to discuss them. Iler pleaded guilty to robbery and drug possession in an incident in 2001; Gandolfini was in the midst of a messy divorce just as Tony and Carmela separated on-screen late in 2002.
"The show has a lot of real-life situations, not TV situations, so it's bound to happen in real life, too. And that can get a little weird," Gandolfini allows.
And it was just as strange for the adolescent Iler. "I was going from being at home arguing with my mom to going to work and arguing with my (TV) mom," Edie Falco. "It was weird; it was a great experience. I'm thinking about it now, how much I'm going to miss it. I don't know if it's fully hit me. This is going to be the first time since I'm 12 years old that I'm going to be unemployed."
Alone among his castmates, Gandolfini is itching to get out, saying that though he'll miss the cast and crew, the intensity of playing Tony for so long has taken its toll. "It's like you take a sponge and you wring out the sponge and then, you know, it's empty. After a while you've been to too many of the same places, and it's time to explore something new."
HBO chairman Chris Albrecht understands the three-time Emmy winner's emotions as the series winds down. "No one has had to take a character on this length of a journey, on this depth of a journey, through as long a period," he says.
And like a proud papa, Gandolfini is impressed with Iler's blossoming in upcoming episodes. (He's forbidden from describing them because of Chase's notorious penchant for secrecy.) Iler, he says, has "done incredible work this year; some of the scenes shocked me. I really was taken aback about how powerful some of the stuff was. Wow."
And Iler, who grew up in an Irish family, says that "after working with these people for 10 years, a part of me has become almost like Italian. I see myself pick up Italian mannerisms, little sayings. When you grow up with an Irish family, you say 'Cheers' I guess, but now, whenever I'm with my friends, it's like, 'Cent'ann'." It started like a joke between me and my friends, but now it's what I say."
Gandolfini grins, noting that "95% of the people on the show are Italian, really Italian." So for him, "it wasn't that big a stretch. I have an Uncle Al who reminds me of Uncle Junior. The only difference is the Mob stuff."
Tony and A.J. in Episode 5 of the first season
As for The End —the long-awaited and much-speculated-about conclusion to the often-violent drama — the series' final scene was shot last week at an ice-cream parlor in Bloomfield, N.J. The filming attracted throngs of nostalgic onlookers, although other scenes remain to be filmed before the series wraps its production in mid-April.
Betting sites are laying odds on which regular characters get whacked before it's all over and which loose ends are tied up. On that front, don't count on too many, thanks to the unconventional interests of creator David Chase.
But after all that has come before, the series finale "makes sense," says Michael Imperioli, who plays Soprano deputy (and cousin) Christopher, though, like life, "it's never really cut-and-dried and clean."
Adds Falco, Tony's wife, Carmela: "It's as unpredictable as everything else in this show."
Fans continue to be frustrated specifically by Chase's refusal to revisit the whereabouts of Valery, the Russian mobster last seen in "Pine Barrens," a beloved third-season episode in which Christopher and Paulie get lost in the Jersey woods.
"David has a vision of what he wants to do; he's not going to do something to have a nice clean ending, to have the audience satisfied that the Russian guy" reappears, Gandolfini says.
As the cast finished the final "table read," a run-through in which actors read through the script, "we all kind of sat there," he says. "I think for five minutes nobody said anything. It just kind of felt satisfying. Nobody was like, 'Whaaaa?' "
The actor had higher expectations than anybody: "I didn't want it to go out like something I didn't like. And I should have known he wouldn't do that."
When it ends, Iler has nothing lined up yet, but he says, "I want to start working right away." Gandolfini, who starred in a few films during the Sopranos run, plans to take some time off; he also is producing an HBO documentary about American soldiers wounded in Iraq.
But he's no longer sentimental about Tony Soprano, the character with whom he'll be forever indelibly linked: "No more beatings for a while and no more yelling for a while will be good. But I don't know what else I'm going to (expletive) play."
Awaiting their fate
Hit HBO show may well end with a hit.
By Martin Miller
Los Angeles Times
April 1, 2007
If any television character has a bullet, or meat cleaver, with his name on it, it's Tony Soprano.
As HBO's "The Sopranos" counts down its final nine episodes beginning next Sunday, the existential question hanging over the series is: Should Tony live or die? Given the show's bleak themes, anything less than killing him off could be construed as a miscarriage of justice — and a dramatic sellout.
After six seasons, even Tony doesn't seem to like his chances. In therapy, the married father of two admitted to his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, that there are two outcomes for "guys like me" — prison or death.
The New Jersey don has meted out death to family (cousin Tony Blundetto), friend (Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero), and foe (witness protection turncoat Fred Peters) alike. He has sanctioned many more cold-blooded hits, of course, as on his daughter's boyfriend Jackie Jr. or on his nephew's fiancée, Adriana. He once even tried to snuff out his smothering mother, Livia, with, appropriately enough, a hospital pillow.
The crime boss' intuition is dead-on, argues Al Gini, who contributed an essay for the 2004 book "The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am." By summer, says Gini, whose essay was called "Bada-Being and Nothingness: Murderous Melodrama or Morality Play?," Tony will be sleeping with the fishes.
"Tony has got to be killed. It's the only satisfying ending," said Gini, a philosophy professor at Loyola University in Chicago who has incorporated Soprano's leadership traits into a business ethics course. "We're not talking about Robin Hood here, someone that takes from the rich and gives to the poor. We're talking about a hood. If Tony doesn't lose everything, what's the message? The bad guy gets away with it all?"
Gini isn't suggesting a Sgt. Joe Friday "crime doesn't pay" lecture as much as a dramatization of the biblical injunction that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. God's judgment may be evident, but a sudden, violent death for Tony would also have to do with probability. In other words, those who live with mobsters, drug dealers, loan sharks and waste management consultants are probably going to die like them.
But popular L.A. mystery writer Robert Crais still would find such a finale overly simplistic, out of sync with the complexity and sophistication that have been earmarks of the show's storytelling. There are things worse than death, after all. Tony should survive some type of mob conflagration, said the former writer for "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" and "Cagney & Lacey," but not without dire consequences.
"I don't think the audience would be happy if Tony gets a bullet to the head," said Crais, who wrote the bestselling fictional thriller "The Watchman." "In the end, he should be promoted, but where the cost far exceeds the triumph."
When it comes to story lines, "The Sopranos" breaks all the rules, but that hasn't stopped oddsmakers from weighing in on how the show will end. The line seems to recommend not betting against the man with a back office at the Bada Bing! At an online gambling site based in Costa Rica called Bodog.com, the odds are running 1 to 2 against Tony's demise, according to Bodog.com founder Calvin Ayre. However, Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti is a 2-to-1 favorite to be a stiff before the final curtain falls. (Tony's son, A.J., is a 15-to-1 family long shot to die.)
Certainly, there are no shortage of "Sopranos" characters with the opportunity and motive to knock off Tony. Perpetually disgruntled Paulie Walnuts, rival mob boss and recently imprisoned Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni, even nephew Christopher all would be credible assailants to perform the foul deed. But perhaps there is someone closer still to Tony who would do him in.
Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico)
"You see echoes of great Greek tragedy in all this," said Glen O. Gabbard, a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who has written extensively about the show. "I could see Carmela getting so furious that she killed Tony."
Long torn, as she once said, between doing what is right and doing what is easy, Carmela could become the fury behind Tony's death. All the goodwill built between the reunited couple could vanish in a flash if Carmela were to learn the truth behind Adriana's disappearance.
An equally powerful dramatic finish would be if the prone-to-depression mobster took his own life, contends Peter H. Hare, an emeritus philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who also wrote an essay for "The Sopranos and Philosophy."
Tony's suicide should not be a personal moral reaction to his many evil acts but rather stem from a deepening melancholy that overtakes him as he realizes his life is without true meaning or purpose. The suicide can't be the result of a pill popping or a gun to the temple. Instead, in what Hare terms an "ambiguous suicide," Tony could deliberately maneuver himself into a heroic battle ostensibly for his Mafia family but actually meant as a way to kill himself.
"I don't want to imply Tony deserves to die," said Hare, whose essay is titled "What Kind of God Does This …?" "But the whole 'Sopranos' narrative has a great deal more meaning if it ends with his death."
Will he or won't he?
Should Tony die is one question. Will he die is quite another. Wrapping up any beloved and long-running television series is extraordinarily difficult, much less one that has drawn comparisons in breadth and depth to the works of Shakespeare and has so clearly stamped its brooding, darkly humorous soul onto the pop culture canopy.
Not surprisingly, series creator David Chase and his staff are in lockdown mode in their New York studios zealously guarding any hint over Tony's ultimate fate. Though the show's writers are renowned for their ingenuity and unpredictability, storytelling convention can still offer clues to the final days of Tony Soprano.
Endings typically hew closely to the logic established within a show's fictional universe while also resolving outstanding dramatic questions. This basic storytelling rule would, it is hoped, eliminate Tony's possible escape into the federal witness protection program, or worse, a "St. Elsewhere"-like scenario where the whole "Sopranos" pageant had been all in the mind of an autistic child.
But memorable endings — Bob Newhart ending up back in bed with Suzanne Pleshette! — usually pack a surprise, and that as much as anything else could spare Tony.
"I watch shows like 'The Sopranos' for the unknown — the twists and turns and for the nice ride," said Saul Friedman, a writer for the website http://www.TVgasm.com . "We've all seen the mafia movies, and we know how they end. I want to see something different here."
It's worth noting the conclusions of "The Godfather" movies, which are frequently alluded to and even quoted outright in "The Sopranos." Mafia head Vito Corleone, after being nearly assassinated, turns over his empire to son Michael. Vito's brush with death seems enough punishment and he dies relatively peacefully in the family garden before his bewildered grandson.
Meanwhile, "Godfather II" would seem to offer an ending more in keeping with "The Sopranos" overall tone. There, Michael consolidates his rule, but it comes at the price of murdering his older brother and forever alienating his family. The final shot of a soulless Michael staring off at a frozen Lake Tahoe is more chilling than any murder could ever be. (Sorry, "Godfather III" doesn't count.)
From a strictly storytelling point of view too, killing off Tony now would seem repetitive and anticlimactic. It was only a handful of episodes ago that Tony escaped death after being shot in the belly by a senile Uncle Junior.
Another problem with killing Tony is how likable he is despite his pathologically long list of misdeeds and murder. We like him, that's why we watch the show, and doing him in may be more than the writers and the audience can bear. Indeed, they want to believe he can change.
"Arthur Miller used to say, 'You don't go to the theater unless you see yourself onstage,' " said Gabbard, who wrote "The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America's Favorite Gangster Family." "The audience thinks that maybe, just maybe, this bad man can be transformed into a good man. That's what Melfi thinks, that's what the audience thinks."
And yet, something more powerful than the demands of storytelling may dictate Tony's final fate — Hollywood. Although Chase is ending the series because he's mined the show for all he can on television, rumors persist about a possible "Sopranos" feature film. A "Sopranos" movie without Tony? As the Bada Bing! boys might say, not going to happen.
Where the dysfunction left off
When we last saw the family Soprano, America's favorite mobsters were gathered 'round the Christmas tree, bathed in the warmth of the yuletide season. Well, you know that's not going to last. The upcoming final episodes are actually the second half of Season 6. The season's first half, which aired 12 episodes last year, left mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) with his hands full and enough angst for him to check his rearview mirror. To recap:
• Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), though temporarily felled by a heart attack, is at increasing odds with Tony over their entangled organized crime business. Leotardo's boss, Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola), bitterly languishes in prison.
• Soprano son A.J. (Robert Iler) has a new girlfriend, while daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) has headed out to California with boyfriend Finn. Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who in a moment of dementia nearly killed Tony in the first episode of Season 6, is in a guarded care facility.
• Nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) started using drugs again, but he's heavily involved in the mafiahorror movie he's co-producing.
• Carmela (Edie Falco), though temporarily distracted by her spec house, is increasingly troubled by Adriana's disappearance.
• There could be trouble with the suspicious-looking Arab men who have been frequenting the Bada Bing! and buying guns from Christopher. All of which suggests the show goes out with a bang-bang, not a whimper.
— Martin Miller
Head coach Ben Howland of the UCLA Bruins is shown during practice for the NCAA Men's Final Four at the Georgia Dome (3/30/07).
UCLA has spent a year learning how to win tonight
The Los Angeles Times
March 31 2007
ATLANTA — Listening to UCLA's Minutiae Man regale the national media with a dozen different statistics in one nine-sentence stretch Friday — I am not making this up — I felt a pang of guilt.
Upon hearing Ben Howland spill his numerical guts about Florida shooting this or Florida rebounding that, I feel a need to confess some details of my own.
Before six of the Bruins' last seven NCAA tournament victories, I picked them to lose.
Mad, but true. Check my brackets. Hack into my e-mail. Ask my friends. It's all there.
Last spring, I was certain the Bruins would lose to Gonzaga, then Memphis, then LSU. This spring, I adamantly believed they would lose to Indiana, then Pittsburgh, then Kansas.
I admire the coach, I like the kids, but I hated the style. They weren't athletic enough. They weren't skilled enough.
The Bruins had enough toughness to bully through the Pac-10, but I never figured they could keep slogging their way through the swifter game in the rest of the country.
There was a reason nobody played the way they did. Nobody thought a team could win that way. The Bruins were like a suede coat. They were good until the rain came.
Or so I thought, until I have watched them survive storm after storm, from sleeting Adam Morrisons to pounding Glenn Davises to pelting Brandon Rushes to their second consecutive Final Four.
Where I will not make a seventh mistake.
UCLA beats Florida tonight.
Bandwagon riders are stomping on my fingers as I dangle above the street, but I will say it again.
UCLA beats Florida tonight.
The Bruins couldn't do it in a seven-game series, but they can do it once, and that once is now, when the scowls and sighs have aligned to create the most memorable UCLA victory since that 1995 team stared down 40 minutes of you-know-what.
There are three reasons, one for every giant wrinkle in Arron Afflalo's glare.
Arron Afflalo is all smiles during practice (3/30/07)
The Howland Effect.
There is little chance that the most-prepared coach in college basketball will lose a game that he's been pondering for a week.
This is zero chance he will lose a game that he's been pondering for a year.
Last spring's 16-point loss to Florida in the national championship game was Howland's personal embarrassment.
"We were outplayed in every facet of the game," he said. "We were horrible at both ends of the floor."
Usually Howland watches losses immediately after the game, often more than once. He didn't watch the Florida tape until four months later.
"It was very painful," he said.
One can surmise that this week, that pain has been transferred to his players, especially those who were on that Indianapolis floor. They have watched the film and been poked in the pride.
"We know we blew it," said Darren Collison. "We didn't play with enough intensity."
Anyone think Howland will let that happen again? Anyone think he won't figure out a way to frustrate Florida's big men and wear down their shooters?
Anybody remember when he's done this before?
Last season, in November, the Bruins were overrun by Memphis, 88-80. Four months later, when they met again in the tournament's regional finals, Howland outcoached John Caliperi so badly the beaten Tigers scored only 45 points.
Even without the distraction of the Kentucky rumors, Billy Donovan would suffer the same fate here.
The Championship Effect.
No team in the Internet era has had to endure national scrutiny like this year's Gators. No team here is more exhausted.
Visiting with them in Gainesville this week, I could see it in their eyes. That same look was visible Friday as they were surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras in the bowels of the Georgia Dome.
"Last year we shocked a lot of people, but now it's all different," said the Gators' Chris Richard, shaking his head. "Everybody thinks we're the perfect team, the best team of all time, and if we lose, they're all going to think we're just terrible."
Feeling pressure, anyone?
"Every day this year, 15 or 20 people have come up to me and wanted to talk about the team," said the Gators' Joakim Noah. "It's draining."
There is a reason it has been 15 years since a team repeated as NCAA basketball champions. After about 30 minutes of Florida being pushed into submission tonight, that reason will reveal itself again.
The Collishipp Effect.
Collison and Josh Shipp were not a factor last season, but could be the difference here.
Collison is better for this offense than Jordan Farmar, who was awful in the championship game. He was eight for 21. He threw up too many wild shots. He failed to make many smart passes. Players grumbled about him in the locker room.
Collison will be a better leader against the Gators. He will not get beat by the quick Gators guards. He will be unselfish in directing the offense.
Then there is Shipp, the double-digit scorer who watched last year's game from the bench because of a hip injury. He will double Cedric Bozeman's two baskets, and keep the Gators' defense from keying on Afflalo.
"This is one of the great teams in college basketball, in history," said Howland of the Gators.
Tonight, for one night only, the Bruins will be better.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
This Final 4 may be his last college test
By FILIP BONDY
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS SPORTS COLUMNIST
Saturday, March 31st 2007, 4:00 AM
Ohio State center Greg Oden begins his practice session for the Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Georgetown (30-6) vs. Ohio State (34-3), 6:07 p.m.
Florida (33-5) vs. UCLA (30-5), 8:47 p.m.
Monday, 9 p.m. All games on CBS
ATLANTA - The man who once dreamed of dentistry as a solitary, stable career sat in front of a locker yesterday, surrounded by 50 reporters and protected by two Ohio State team managers playing the roles of makeshift bodyguards.
Greg Oden is in the middle of it now, soft-spoken and gigantic.
He is starting to understand what it was like for the best big men at the Final Four - for Lew Alcindor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. There is no escape from the questions about the NBA, or about his freak show of a college career.
One and out? Oden still won't say. "I tell the truth," he said. "When I start thinking about it, I'll let you know. I'm not thinking about it yet. I'm a college student right now."
It is impossible not to ask him, and to keep asking.
Oden is the poster player for this NCAA basketball tournament. He is the product of the latest NBA regulations that have turned tonight's semi-finals into a showcase for underclassmen. Mike Conley, his talented, longtime teammate, played with Oden in high school in Indianapolis and is also a freshman. UCLA starts three sophomores. Florida starts only one senior. Georgetown doesn't start any.
This is it, what college basketball has become. Oden is what happens when the NBA rules that players can't join the league until they are 19 years old and one year removed from high school. College basketball becomes a holding pen.
Oden had to find something to do for 12 months. Winning an NCAA championship seemed like more fun than playing overseas or hanging out with the neighborhood buddies.
So he enrolled in some courses at Ohio State - people keep asking him about his rock-and-roll history class - and within three months he is likely to become the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft.
Most people who coach the college game seem to think that the Rent-A-Star structure is a reasonable arrangement. UCLA coach Ben Howland said yesterday he would prefer the NBA change the rule, forcing players who commit to college to remain in school for at least two seasons. Baseball has a three-year rule like that.
But then Howland has just recruited the next great big man, Kevin Love, the national high school player of the year. Howland can offer no guarantee that Love will stay long in school or even attend classes after his first semester.
It is not Oden's fault that he is part of this crazy system. By last year's rules, he might have gone directly into the NBA from Lawrence North High. He never had to make the decision.
"It was out of my hands," he said. "I didn't have a choice."
He's still a pup. He just turned 19, even if he is 6-111/2, averaging 15.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks.
Oden says he's enjoyed his experience at Ohio State; that he aced the rock-and-roll class and doesn't want to talk about it anymore.
"I'm done with that class," he said. "When it's over ... " He waves his hand.
If only he could make these reporters go away, too. Oden doesn't really look happy to be here in front of the microphones. He goes to movies by himself for relaxation. He had that dream of becoming a dentist, working with silent, jaw-affixed patients, until he grew too large.
Tonight he faces another big man, Roy Hibbert, and Oden makes a point of telling people that he will be giving up 21/2 inches in the matchup with the Georgetown center.
"I'd rather be playing against a guy smaller than me," Oden said.
Roy Hibbert (R) averages 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Hoyas. The 7-2 junior scored just 5.1 points per game as a freshman but he has raised his scoring output each year. Hibbert posted a scoring average of 11.6 last season.
I nstead, he must pick on somebody his own size. The pro scouts will be watching very closely. Oden has been guilty of some sloppy habits lately. He missed half his free throws against Memphis in the regional final and he has picked up at least four fouls apiece in his last three games.
"That was just me being stupid, trying to get 25 blocks a game," he said.
Oden must be more careful tonight. He kept saying that he won't be playing against Hibbert, that he will be facing the entire Hoya team. Either way, Georgetown will go into the low post and try to get him in early foul trouble.
Oden walked out of the locker room, onto the Georgia Dome court. He practiced some free throws in front of the fans. He didn't appear too concerned.
There is always a backup plan available. The center of attention is majoring in business administration, it says right there in the Ohio State media guide.
Florida coach Billy Donovan after the Gators won the Midwest Regional to advance to the 2007 Final Four.
The Boston Globe
March 31, 2007
ATLANTA -- Even Billy Donovan admits he would never have believed there would be a scenario like this, in which an entire draft-worthy starting frontcourt from a newly crowned NCAA championship team would put the NBA on hold in favor of pursuing another title.
"I think in today's day and age, it's very, very rare," says the University of Florida coach. "I'm hopeful maybe some of our guys have maybe carved out a path. I'm not sitting here saying that guys leaving early to go to the NBA is the wrong decision. I think when guys leave early is the wrong decision is when they don't want to, but feel pressured or forced into it. I think the one thing I respect and admire about all these kids' families is that they were supportive of, 'What makes you happy? What do you really want to do? What's going to make you happy?' They chose to come back."
"Just being around those guys, knowing how much they enjoy playing with each other, how much they enjoyed college and the experience, it didn't surprise me at all they decided to come back," says shooting guard Lee Humphrey.
Yes, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer are back, the Florida Gators are back, and through the luck of the draw, they will be playing UCLA tonight, the same school -- neither can be said to be the same "team" -- they defeated a year ago to win the championship. That's not the ideal circumstance, but the way the Gators see it, what's one more obstacle in a season that has offered them life experiences they will refer to until their dying days?
There may not be any Shakespearian scholars among them, but were someone to say to any member of this team, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," he would nod in affirmation.
The player who would most readily testify to the truth of that line is Noah, the 6-foot-11-inch junior who, by virtue of his extraordinary skills, vibrant personality, signature ponytail, and celebrated upbringing (the offspring of a tennis star-turned-singer and a former Miss Sweden), has become college basketball's link to pop culture.
Florida's Joakim Noah (13) goes up for a shot against Oregon's Joevan Catron (50) during the first half of the NCAA Midwest Regional final basketball game in St. Louis, Sunday, March 25, 2007
Noah has evolved from a somewhat frustrated freshman grubbing for every available playing minute to the MVP of a Final Four to a designated villain/piñata in two years, and it has had an enormous effect on him. Worldlier than the average college student to begin with, he has now been stripped of every last shred of naiveté concerning what it means to be a scrutinized college athlete in contemporary society.
"Last year we played for a lot of people," Noah explains. "But now we realize that at the end of the day, who cares? We were put under a microscope this year and people were so quick to jump on us. So what's important to me now is my family and the guys in this locker room. That's the people I'm playing for. No one else."
Florida is attempting to become the first back-to-back champion since Duke in 1991-92. Arkansas gave it a shot, winning in '95 and losing to UCLA a year later, and I'm sure the Razorbacks have stories to tell about their quest, especially since coach Nolan Richardson was always a lightning rod sort. But we have come a long way in terms of media scrutiny and fan sensitivity in the ensuing decade, and it's safe to say that no school has ever been treated so, well, professionally in its post-championship season. Noah is the primary reason for this, but for some reason people seem to have decided they've had enough of Florida already. The Gators are one of the few teams, college or pro, that really does have a right to invoke the usually bogus "us against the world" theme.
Once the three stars made their decisions to stay, the trick was to not get ahead of the story. The games were no problem. The problem was everything else.
"Everyone would be asking me about the NBA or last year," Noah sighs, "and I'd say 'We've got a game to play.' That's why it was so hard. All anyone wanted to do was talk, talk, talk. Let's talk for a half-hour here. Let's talk for a half-hour there. All we want to do is play basketball."
Florida's Al Horford (42) reacts after Florida defeated Oregon 85-77 in an NCAA Midwest Regional final basketball game in St. Louis, Sunday, March 25, 2007. Florida advances to the Final Four in Atlanta.
There was no fast-forwarding to the Final Four. The Gators have played 38 games, and they have not all gone according to plan. After clinching the Southeastern Conference's East Division with four games to go, they hit a speed bump, losing three of four games. Serial killers have gotten better press.
Smirks Noah, "It was like, 'The Gators have lost three in a row! They're gonna be out of the tournament in the first round, baby!' You know what I'm saying?"
Then they rolled through the SEC tournament, only to encounter some NCAA Tournament resistance from the likes of Jackson State, Purdue, Butler, and Oregon. When you're the defending champs, and when you've got this whole Band of Brothers thing going, just winning isn't enough. To keep everyone happy, you need style points, too.
All the while, Donovan is trying to negotiate around and through all the obstacles, knowing that being defending champions doesn't even necessarily mean you were the best team to begin with.
"I think if you would start the tournament all over again, there would maybe be four different teams sitting up here right now," he maintains. "Let's be honest, we all have had close calls to get to this point. We've all had close calls, a bounce of the ball, a missed free throw, a last-second shot. We've all been vulnerable . . . It's the greatest college, and maybe sports, event in this country because of the uncertainty of what's going to happen. In order to find out who the best team is, you almost have to have a series . . . I don't know who the best team is in college basketball. But that's what makes this tournament great -- the uncertainty."
There was nothing certain about any of it. These three kids decided to return. OK, fine. Everyone had to stay healthy. Egos had to stay in check. They had to maintain the common purpose. They had to get past the days when they'd start daydreaming about the money they didn't have. They had to deal with the bewildering days when the entire basketball world seemed united in its desire to see them fail. Do they know how hard it is to win again? Duh.
"If we didn't look at it," says Noah, "you guys told us about it. It's not like we didn't know about it. Nobody told me it would be easy, but if it was easy, everybody would do it, right?"
Repeat. That's the idea, of course, but it's one word that has never been spoken inside the locker room.
"People want to talk about the repeating part," Donovan says, "but you have to get to Monday first. So I don't really think about repeating as much as trying to play the best game we can against UCLA. This game's not about repeating. It's about playing UCLA for the opportunity to win it all."
Noah, Horford, and Brewer could be in, let's say, Sacramento, Charlotte, and Philadelphia, in varying stages of personal NBA happiness. All things considered, they'd rather be in Atlanta, pursuing their little dream and brushing up on their Shakespeare.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who cares about the Second Amendment?
Considering how badly things have been going for conservatives, right-wingers, Republicans and anyone else whose brain doesn’t explode like one of those guys from the movie Scanners at the thought of another Republican president, it’s worth noting that one of the greatest conservative victories of the last 40 years is quietly unfolding right in front of us. On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an epochal ruling. The court found that the Second Amendment actually protects the right to bear arms for individuals.
Now, that in and of itself is huge. For decades, the courts, the legal and academic establishments, the press and all right-thinking people everywhere have been arguing that not only is the Second Amendment a chestnut from a bygone age, but that enlightened judges should just go ahead and void the darn thing like a bad parking ticket.
The high-water mark of anti-gun-rights shabbiness was the 2000 release of Arming America by then-Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles. The book purported to prove that gun ownership was never a major part of American society and that America’s gun culture was a useful myth for the gun-nutters eager to make the Second Amendment mean something it doesn’t. The book received lavish praise from the liberal establishment, including a rave review by Gary Wills in The New York Times, and won Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize.
The only problem was that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, perpetrated with faked or nonexistent evidence. Intellectually honest liberals had to recant. The Bancroft Prize was revoked. Wills admitted: “I was took. The book is a fraud.”
Of course, there has always been a minority of liberals who’ve shown a willingness to admit, often reluctantly, that the Constitution can approve of something they disapprove of. Liberal journalist Michael Kinsley famously quoted a colleague as saying, “If liberals interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the rest of the Bill of Rights, there would be law professors arguing that gun ownership is mandatory.” And in 1989, Sanford Levinson penned a Yale Law Review article tellingly titled “The Embarrassing Second Amendment.”
Such honesty has proved contagious. As Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes chronicles in the current edition of The New Republic, various liberal legal scholars have come to grudgingly accept that the Second Amendment’s meaning and intent include the individual right to own a gun. “(T)he amendment achieves its central purpose by assuring that the federal government may not disarm individual citizens without some unusually strong justification,” writes no less than the dean of liberal legal scholars, Laurence Tribe. Tribe had to update his textbook on the Constitution to account for the growing consensus that — horror! — Americans do have a constitutional right to own a gun. It’s not an absolute right, of course. But no right is.
Now, you might think this is what I have in mind when I say that the Court of Appeals ruling was an epochal victory for conservatives. But it’s not.
No, the real victory is that liberals are starting to accept the fact that the constitution has a meaning separate and distinct from what the most pliant liberal judge wants it to mean.
Therefore, writes Wittes, “perhaps it’s time for gun-control supporters to come to grips with the fact that the (Second Amendment) actually means something ... For which reason, I hereby advance a modest proposal: Let’s repeal the damn thing.” Wittes isn’t alone. A number of left-wing commentators have picked up the idea as well.
Personally, I would oppose repeal, and I have problems with many liberal arguments against the Second Amendment. But that liberals are willing to play by the rules is an enormous, monumental victory that transcends the particulars of the gun-control debate.
According to the so-called “living Constitution” championed by liberals from Woodrow Wilson to Al Gore and Bill Clinton, amendments are a waste of time since enlightened jurists can simply “breathe new life” into the meaning of the Constitution. No more, if Wittes and Co. have their way. Now, we’ll have to have an argument.
“It’s true that repealing the Second Amendment is politically impossible right now,” Wittes concedes. “That doesn’t bother me. It should be hard to take away a constitutional right.”
Yes, it should. It should also be hard to mint a new one. And, as conservatives have argued for decades, in both cases the ideal method is democratic debate and legislative deliberation, not judicial whim.
So buck up, my conservative brethren. It’s not all bad news these days.
Jonah Goldberg is Editor-at-Large of National Review Online.
Friday, March 30, 2007
CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
Prophet of Decline
BY TUNKU VARADARAJAN
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, June 23, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT
NEW YORK--Oriana Fallaci faces jail. In her mid-70s, stricken with a cancer that, for the moment, permits only the consumption of liquids--so yes, we drank champagne in the course of a three-hour interview--one of the most renowned journalists of the modern era has been indicted by a judge in her native Italy under provisions of the Italian Penal Code which proscribe the "vilipendio," or "vilification," of "any religion admitted by the state."
In her case, the religion deemed vilified is Islam, and the vilification was perpetrated, apparently, in a book she wrote last year--and which has sold many more than a million copies all over Europe--called "The Force of Reason." Its astringent thesis is that the Old Continent is on the verge of becoming a dominion of Islam, and that the people of the West have surrendered themselves fecklessly to the "sons of Allah." So in a nutshell, Oriana Fallaci faces up to two years' imprisonment for her beliefs--which is one reason why she has chosen to stay put in New York. Let us give thanks for the First Amendment.
It is a shame, in so many ways, that "vilipend," the latinate word that is the pinpoint equivalent in English of the Italian offense in question, is scarcely ever used in the Anglo-American lexicon; for it captures beautifully the pomposity, as well as the anachronistic outlandishness, of the law in question. A "vilification," by contrast, sounds so sordid, so tabloid--hardly fitting for a grande dame.
"When I was given the news," Ms. Fallaci says of her recent indictment, "I laughed. Bitterly, of course, but I laughed. No amusement, no surprise, because the trial is nothing else but a demonstration that everything I've written is true." An activist judge in Bergamo, in northern Italy, took it upon himself to admit a complaint against Ms. Fallaci that even the local prosecutors would not touch. The complainant, one Adel Smith--who, despite his name, is Muslim, and an incendiary public provocateur to boot--has a history of anti-Fallaci crankiness, and is widely believed to be behind the publication of a pamphlet, "Islam Punishes Oriana Fallaci," which exhorts Muslims to "eliminate" her. (Ironically, Mr. Smith, too, faces the peculiar charge of vilipendio against religion--Roman Catholicism in his case--after he described the Catholic Church as "a criminal organization" on television. Two years ago, he made news in Italy by filing suit for the removal of crucifixes from the walls of all public-school classrooms, and also, allegedly, for flinging a crucifix out of the window of a hospital room where his mother was being treated. "My mother will not die in a room where there is a crucifix," he said, according to hospital officials.)
Ms. Fallaci speaks in a passionate growl: "Europe is no longer Europe, it is 'Eurabia,' a colony of Islam, where the Islamic invasion does not proceed only in a physical sense, but also in a mental and cultural sense. Servility to the invaders has poisoned democracy, with obvious consequences for the freedom of thought, and for the concept itself of liberty." Such words--"invaders," "invasion," "colony," "Eurabia"--are deeply, immensely, Politically Incorrect; and one is tempted to believe that it is her tone, her vocabulary, and not necessarily her substance or basic message, that has attracted the ire of the judge in Bergamo (and has made her so radioactive in the eyes of Europe's cultural elites).
"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder," the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, and these words could certainly be Ms. Fallaci's. She is in a black gloom about Europe and its future: "The increased presence of Muslims in Italy, and in Europe, is directly proportional to our loss of freedom." There is about her a touch of Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher and prophet of decline, as well as a flavor of Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilizations. But above all there is pessimism, pure and unashamed. When I ask her what "solution" there might be to prevent the European collapse of which she speaks, Ms. Fallaci flares up like a lit match. "How do you dare to ask me for a solution? It's like asking Seneca for a solution. You remember what he did?" She then says "Phwah, phwah," and gestures at slashing her wrists. "He committed suicide!" Seneca was accused of being involved in a plot to murder the emperor Nero. Without a trial, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. One senses that Ms. Fallaci sees in Islam the shadow of Nero. "What could Seneca do?" she asks, with a discernible shudder. "He knew it would end that way--with the fall of the Roman Empire. But he could do nothing."
The impending Fall of the West, as she sees it, now torments Ms. Fallaci. And as much as that Fall, what torments her is the blithe way in which the West is marching toward its precipice of choice. "Look at the school system of the West today. Students do not know history! They don't, for Christ's sake. They don't know who Churchill was! In Italy, they don't even know who Cavour was!"--a reference to Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the conservative father, with the radical Garibaldi, of Modern Italy. Ms. Fallaci, rarely reverent, pauses here to reflect on the man, and on the question of where all the conservatives have gone in Europe. "In the beginning, I was dismayed, and I asked, how is it possible that we do not have Cavour . . . just one Cavour, uno? He was a revolutionary, and yes, he was not of the left. Italy needs a Cavour--Europe needs a Cavour." Ms. Fallaci describes herself, too, as "a revolutionary"--"because I do what conservatives in Europe don't do, which is that I don't accept to be treated like a delinquent." She professes to "cry, sometimes, because I'm not 20 years younger, and I'm not healthy. But if I were, I would even sacrifice my writing to enter politics somehow."
Here she pauses to light a slim black cigarillo, and then to take a sip of champagne. Its chill makes her grimace, but fortified, she returns to vehement speech, more clearly evocative of Oswald Spengler than at any time in our interview. "You cannot survive if you do not know the past. We know why all the other civilizations have collapsed--from an excess of welfare, of richness, and from lack of morality, of spirituality." (She uses "welfare" here in the sense of well-being, so she is talking, really, of decadence.) "The moment you give up your principles, and your values . . . the moment you laugh at those principles, and those values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilization is dead. Period." The force with which she utters the word "dead" here is startling. I reach for my flute of champagne, as if for a crutch.
"I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger." I had asked Ms. Fallaci whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, and Pope Benedict XVI was evidently a man in whom she reposed some trust. "I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It's that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion."
Ms. Fallaci, who made her name by interviewing numerous statesmen (and not a few tyrants), believes that ours is "an age without leaders. We stopped having leaders at the end of the 20th century." Of George Bush, she will concede only that he has "vigor," and that he is "obstinate" (in her book a compliment) and "gutsy. . . . Nobody obliged him to do anything about Terri Schiavo, or to take a stand on stem cells. But he did."
But it is "Ratzinger" (as she insists on calling the pope) who is her soulmate. John Paul II--"Wojtyla"--was a "warrior, who did more to end the Soviet Union than even America," but she will not forgive him for his "weakness toward the Islamic world. Why, why was he so weak?"
The scant hopes that she has for the West she rests on his successor. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the European (and the Western) condition. Last year, he wrote an essay titled "If Europe Hates Itself," from which Ms. Fallaci reads this to me: "The West reveals . . . a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West . . . no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure."
"Ecco!" she says. A man after her own heart. "Ecco!" But I cannot be certain whether I see triumph in her eyes, or pain.
As for the vilipendio against Islam, she refuses to attend the trial in Bergamo, set for June 2006. "I don't even know if I will be around next year. My cancers are so bad that I think I've arrived at the end of the road. What a pity. I would like to live not only because I love life so much, but because I'd like to see the result of the trial. I do think I will be found guilty."
At this point she laughs. Bitterly, of course, but she laughs.
Mr. Varadarajan is editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal.
2210 Capital Blvd.
CD Release Party "The Trailer Tapes"w/ Mando Saenz
Show: 9:30 PM
Tickets: $12 Advance / $15 Day Of Show
Houston Press: "The Trailer Tapes"
Posted On: Tuesday, Feb 20th, 2007
Chris Knight / The Trailer Tapes
Drifters Church Records
In the summer of 1996, Houstonian Frank Liddell and a 22-year old engineer named Joe Hayden took some beer, guns, fishing poles, and a portable tape machine up to Chris Knight’s mobile home in Slaughter, Kentucky. Knight wasn’t on the national radar yet; that would come with the release of Chris Knight in 1998. But the wheels for Knight’s career were already in motion and to Liddell it was apparent that Knight’s life was about to change drastically. Liddell recalls the spirit of recording Knight in the very mobile home where he wrote this first batch of songs as “fun and hobby-esque.” After Knight’s first album skyrocketed him to the top of the Americana scene, the tapes became the stuff of Nashville rumor and legend. Some leaked out over the years, passed from hand to hand.
Publicists and critics like to toss around phrases like “sounds like it was recorded in the living room,” but The Trailer Tapes actually was. It’s just Knight and his guitar, and from the chilling opening growl of “where the hell’s the sun” Knight is as compelling as anyone on the scene. While critics have for years repeated a mantra that Knight sounds like Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, John Prine, and Bruce Springsteen, on this one Knight reminds me of Hank Williams with a gun and a Vicodin ‘script. There’s pain, anger, and surly I-don’t-give-a-damn unreasonableness in Knight’s throat, an end of the world voice reminiscent of author Robert Stone. Only three of these raw-bone songs – “Something Changed,” “House and 90 Acres,” and “If I Were You” — have made it on to Knight’s studio records, and that’s a shame because “Rita’s Only Fault” and “Move On” are lawless, real, and dangerous as a rusty razor in a speed freak’s pocket. With lines like “I’ve got a pistol, all you’ve got is a knife / so you better move on if it ain’t worth your life,” these trailer tapes make for absolutely essential Chris Knight, one of the edgiest writers ever to hit Nashville. — William Michael Smith
Retail Street Date: April 3.
A replica of the 17th century sailing ship Godspeed, sails into New York harbor as part of America's 400th anniversary, June 26, 2006. The ship is similar to the one which landed in Jamestown, Virginia, bringing some of the earliest settlers to what would become the United States. REUTERS/Chip East (USA)
Friday, March 30, 2007
The Far East has its Mecca, Palestine its Jerusalem, France its Lourdes, and Italy its Loreto, but America's only shrines are her altars of patriotism -- the first and most potent being Jamestown; the sire of Virginia, and Virginia the mother of this great Republic. -- From a 1907 Virginia guidebook
The quadricentennial of the Jamestown settlement will be noted this spring. Whether it will be celebrated is a freighted question. Virginia has gone to some expense and effort remembering the founding settlers of 1607. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is serving as honorary chair of what is being called "America's 400th Birthday." There will be musical performances, lectures and seminars. The Queen of England will visit on May 4 and 5.
But emblematic of our troubled understanding of our past and our present discomfort with our national identity, the powers that be in Virginia have decided not to refer to these and other observations as "celebrations." Instead, they will be called commemorations. "You can't celebrate an invasion," declared Mary Wade, a member of the Jamestown 2007 organizing committee. The native people were "pushed back off of their land, even killed. Whole tribes were annihilated. A lot of people carry that oral history with them, and that's why they use the word 'invasion' . . ."
Virginia is expecting many visitors to the reconstructed Jamestown settlement -- and it is worth the trip. We've taken the children a couple of times. But the timid, apologetic tone of some of the exhibitions detracts from the experience. As Edward Rothstein reported in The New York Times, "The Indians, we read, were 'in harmony with the land that sustained them' and formed an 'advanced, complex society of families and tribes.'"
Rothstein continues: "English society -- the society that gave us the King James Bible and Shakespeare . . . is described as offering 'limited opportunity' in which a 'small elite' were landowners." England, they tell us, suffered from social dislocation, unemployment, difficult working conditions, and so forth. The exhibit goes on to suggest that Virginia's history evolved out of the "interaction" of three different cultures: British, Native American and African.
This sort of hokum has become de rigueur at American museums. By all means, let's be honest about American history and admit that American Indians were often mistreated (broken treaties, displacement, murder). The Trail of Tears deserved its name. But the description of Powhatan culture as "advanced" is ridiculous. When the two cultures met, one was hundreds of years more advanced than the other. If the Powhatans had been further along, they would have prevailed. They certainly didn't lack the will.
One of the early setbacks (1622) for the British Jamestown settlers was a fierce Indian attack that killed 400 men, women and children. And though the exhibit does mention this elsewhere, it is worth remembering what should be too obvious to require restatement -- that precolonial America was no idyll. Indian tribes were in more or less constant warfare with one another -- just like humans in the rest of the world.
Some black leaders have objected to celebrating Jamestown's founding because it led to black slavery. It is perhaps worth recalling that Captain John Smith, a figure who gets less attention at the new Jamestown observance than Powhatan rulers Wahunsonacock and Opechancanough and African Queen Njinga, was once a slave himself. Fighting in Transylvania in 1602, he was captured by the Turks and enslaved. Through scheming and murder, Smith was able to escape back to England in 1605 and departed for Virginia soon after. His firm hand permitted the tiny outpost to survive. He memorably explained to the settlers that "He who does not work will not eat." And, as every schoolchild used to know, he believed that Pocahontas saved his life when her father captured him.
Black slavery was actually still several decades in the future when Jamestown was founded. And while neither Virginia's nor America's history can be unchained from the taint of slavery, can't we be mature about this? Keith Richburg, foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, was stationed in Africa in the early 1990s. What he saw there -- rampant corruption, casual cruelty on the streets of Nairobi, civil war in Somalia and genocide in Rwanda -- made him express gratitude that his ancestors had been dragged to the New World, the horrors of slavery notwithstanding.
There is every reason to celebrate the 400th birthday of America -- for warts and all -- there never has been a better country for all its citizens.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help.
The Union Jack flaps below as the Iranian flag flies on the British boat
March 30, 2007 5:00 AM
The EU’s delusions about the sufficiency of “soft” power are embarrassingly revealed.
“It’s completely outrageous for any nation to go out and arrest the servicemen of another nation in waters that don’t belong to them.” So spoke Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, concerning the present Anglo-Iranian crisis over captured British soldiers. But if the attack was “outrageous,” it was apparently not quite outrageous enough for anything to have been done about it yet.
Sir Alan elaborated on British rules of engagement by stressing they are “very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting ... Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away.”
One might suggest, not necessarily “sinking everything in sight,” but at least shooting back at a few of the people trying to kidnap Britain’s uniformed soldiers. But the view, apparently, is that stepping back and allowing some chaps to be “captured and taken away” is to be preferred to “roaring into action and sinking everything in sight.” The latter is more or less what Nelson did at the battle of the Nile, when he nearly destroyed the Napoleonic fleet.
The attack coincides roughly with Iran’s announcement that it will end its cooperation with U.N. non-proliferation efforts. That announcement was in reaction to a unanimous vote to begin embargoing some trade with Teheran of critical nuclear-related substances. With that move, Ahmadinejad is essentially notifying the world that Iran will go ahead and get the bomb — and let no one dare try to stop them.
If a non-nuclear Iran kidnaps foreign nationals in international waters, we can imagine what a nuclear theocracy will do. The Iranian thugocracy rightly understands that NATO will not declare the seizure of a member’s personnel an affront to the entire alliance.
Nor will the European Union send its “rapid” defense forces to insist on a return of the hostages. There is simply too much global worry about the price and availability of oil, too much regional concern over stability after Iraq, and too much national anxiety over the cost in lives and treasure that a possible confrontation would bring. Confrontation can be is avoided through capitulation, and no Western nation is willing to insist that Iran adhere to any norms of behavior.
Yet the problem is not so much a postfacto “What to do?” as it is a question of why such events happened in serial fashion in the first place.
The paradox now is that, just as no European nation wishes to be seen in solidarity with the United States, so too no European force wishes to venture beyond its borders without acting in concert with the American military, whether on the ground under American air cover or at seas with a U.S. carrier group.
There are reasons along more existential lines for why Iran acts so boldly. After the end of the Cold War, most Western nations — i.e., Europe and Canada — cut their military forces to such an extent that they were essentially disarmed. The new faith was that, after a horrific twentieth century, Europeans and the West in general had finally evolved beyond the need for war.
With the demise of fascism, Nazism, and Soviet Communism, and in the new luxury of peace, the West found itself a collective desire to save money that could be better spent on entitlements, to create some distance from the United States, and to enhance international talking clubs in which mellifluent Europeans might outpoint less sophisticated others. And so three post-Cold War myths arose justify these.
First, that the past carnage had been due to misunderstanding rather than the failure of military preparedness to deter evil.
Second, that the foundations of the new house of European straw would be “soft” power. Economic leverage and political hectoring would deter mixed-up or misunderstood nations or groups from using violence. Multilateral institutions — the World Court or the United Nations — might soon make aircraft carriers and tanks superfluous.
All this was predicated on dealing with logical nations — not those countries so wretched as to have nothing left to lose, or so spiteful as to be willing to lose much in order to hurt others a little, or so crazy as to welcome the “end of days.” This has proved an unwarranted assumption. And with the Middle East flush with petrodollars, non-European militaries have bought better and more plentiful weaponry than that which is possessed by the very Western nations that invented and produced those weapons.
Third, that in the 21st century there would be no serious enemies on the world stage. Any violence that would break out would probably be due instead to either American or Israeli imperial, preemptive aggression — and both nations could be ostracized or humiliated by European shunning and moral censure. The more Europeans could appear to the world as demonizing, even restraining, Washington and Tel Aviv, the more credibility abroad would accrue to their notion of multilateral diplomacy.
But even the European Union could not quite change human nature, and thus could not outlaw the entirely human business of war. There were older laws at play — laws so much more deeply rooted than the latest generation’s faddish notions of conflict resolution. Like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, which would work only against the liberal British, and never against a Hitler or a Stalin, so too the Europeans’ moral posturing seemed to affect only the Americans, who singularly valued the respect of such civilized moralists.
Now we are in the seventh year of a new century, and even after the wake-up call on 9/11, Westerners are still relearning each day that the world is a dangerous place. When violence comes to downtown Madrid, the well-meaning Spanish chose to pull out of Iraq — only to uncover more serial terrorist cells intent on killing more Spaniards.
To get their captured journalists freed, Italians paid Islamists bribes — and then found more Italians captured. When Germany, Britain, and France parleyed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the “direct talks” that we in the states yearn for) to try to get Iran to cease its plans for nuclear proliferation, he politely ignored the “EU3.” The European Union is upset that Russian agents murder troublemakers inside the EU’s borders, and so registers its displeasure with the Cheshire Vladimir Putin.
The latest Iranian kidnapping of British sailors came after British promises to leave Iraq, and after the British humiliation of 2004, when eight hostages were begged back. Apparently the Iranians have figured either that London would do little if they captured more British subjects or that the navy of Lord Nelson and Admiral Jellico couldn’t stop them if it wanted to.
“London,” of course, is a misnomer, since the Blair government is an accurate reflection of attitudes widely held in both Britain and Europe. These attitudes have already been voiced by the public: this is understandable payback for the arrest of Iranian agents inside Iraq; this is what happens when you ally with the United States; this is what happens when the United States ceases talking with Iran.
The rationalizations are limitless, but essential, since no one in Europe — again, understandably — wishes a confrontation that might require a cessation of lucrative trade with Iran, or an embarrassing military engagement without sufficient assets, or any overt allegiance with the United States. Pundits talk of a military option, but there really is none, since neither Britain nor Europe at large possesses a military.
What does the future hold if Europe does not rearm and make it clear that attacks on Europeans and threats to the current globalized order have repercussions?
If Europeans recoil from a few Taliban hoodlums or Iranian jihadists, new mega-powers like nuclear India and China will simply ignore European protestations as the ankle-biting of tired moralists. Indeed, they do so already.
Why put European ships or planes outside of European territorial waters when that will only guarantee a crisis in which Europeans are kidnapped and held as hostages or used as bargaining chips to force political concessions?
Europe is just one major terrorist operation away from a disgrace that will not merely discredit the EU, but will do so to such a degree as to endanger its citizenry and interests worldwide and their very safety at home. Islamists must assume that an attack on a European icon — Big Ben, the Vatican, or the Eiffel Tower — could be pulled off with relative impunity and ipso facto shatter European confidence and influence. Each day that the Iranians renege on their promises to release the hostages, and then proceed to parade their captives, earning another “unacceptable” from embarrassed British officials, a little bit more of the prestige of the United Kingdom is chipped away.
In the future, smaller nations in dangerous neighborhoods must accept that in their crises ahead, their only salvation, even after the acrimonious Democratic furor over Iraq, is help from the United States.
America alone can guarantee the safety of the noble Kurds, should Turkey or Iran choose one day to invade. America alone will be willing or able to supply Israel with necessary help and weapons to ensure its survival.
Other small nations — a Greece, for example — with long records of vehement anti-Americanism should take note that the choice facing them in their rough neighborhoods is essentially solidarity with the United States or the embrace of Jimmy Carter diplomacy or Stanley Baldwin appeasement.
Quite simply, there is now no NATO, no EU, no U.N. that can or will do anything in anyone’s hour of need.
March 30, 2007
The capture by Iran of fifteen British sailors and marines while they were inspecting a trading dhow in international waters for smuggled goods could be the spark that ignites the next war.
Whether that happens or not will not depend on us, or on the Brits. It will depend on President Ahmadinejad, his backers in Tehran, and Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Clearly, Ahmadinejad and his supporters have been planning this sort of thing for some time.
One week before the kidnapping of the British hostages, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards weekly newspaper, Sobh-e Sadeq, published these incendiary remarks from Reza Fakr, a writer said to have close links to Ahmadinejad:
“We’ve got the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks. Iran has enough people who can reach the heart of Europe and kidnap Americans and Israelis.”
At the time, the Revolutionary Guards were seeking to ”retaliate” for moves by multinational forces in Iraq to crackdown on Iranian intelligence networks in Iraq, including the capture of five Iranian intelligence operatives in Irbil on the night of Jan. 10-11, 2007.
But they had already exacted tit-for-tat retribution in the attack on Karbala on January 20, when what now appears to have been an Iranian snatch team posing as American security guards kidnapped five U.S. soldiers inside an Iraqi army base.
That attack went awry, and the Iranians slaughtered all five Americans instead of taking them hostage.
My sources in Iran tell me that the IRGC leadership realized it was going to be too hard to go after U.S. forces, given stepped up protection measures the Americans instituted after the Karbala incident. So they sought British targets as a substitute.
This hostage-taking was no accident. It didn’t just “happen.” It was part of a centrally-planned and organized strategy to step up tension with the West.”
As we learned on Wednesday, the Iranians most likely sent their snatch teams into international waters where the Brits were conducting maritime inspections to catch smugglers. In fact, the initial GPS coordinates the Iranians themselves released showed that they captured the Brits 1.7 miles beyond their territorial waters. Then conveniently “altered” those GPS coordinates in subsequent communications with the British government.
So what can the Iranians possibly hope to gain? Are they miscalculating? Do they simply believe that Tony Blair is a “wimp” and won’t respond? That they can tweak the noses of the Brits, perhaps even compel them to withdraw their forces from Iraq?
This is what I heard earlier this weak from an eminent, former CIA analyst of Iraq at a forum on Iranian policy sponsored by the Center for Naval Analysis.
Judith Yaphe believes the Iranians are “rational” and calculating, but may have “over-reached.” (She also believes that Iran is seeking a stable, unified, but weak Iraq, something that simply defies the facts).
Yaphe “advised” the Baker-Hamilton commission – no surprise there. She has been consistently wrong on everything involving her area of expertise for over twenty years. Her views tend to parrot those of the Saudis and the Jordanians, who have shown little insight into the psychology or eschatology of Iran’s current leaders.
A far better interpretation was offered by the CNA’s own Alireza Nader. He believes the Iranian hostage-taking was “Iran’s way of saying, don’t mess with us, because we can mess with you.” He also noted that it was timed just the day before the March 24 vote at the UN Security Council on the latest sanctions resolution on Iran.
But instead of convincing the Brits to walk away from the UN Security Council resolution, the Iranian regime’s actions only hardened Britain’s resolve.
So what’s happening here? How could the Iranians be so stupid as to miscalculate so totally the Western response?
The answer, of course, is that Ahmadinejad and his supporters don’t think as Westerners think. They aren’t making cost-benefit analyses. They aren’t looking at their “bottom line.”
The only bottom line that counts for them is the perpetuation of their regime. They believe that by attacking Britain and America they can rally their supporters, rally the faithful beyond Iran, and launch their worldwide jihad to “destroy America” and “wipe Israel of the face of the earth” – the two goals Ahmadinejad set for his presidency.
In the April issue of Newsmax magazine, which will be on newsstands next week, I run through a detailed, blow-by-blow scenario of what a six-day military confrontation with Iran could look like.
One thing is very clear: the spark that could ignite such a confrontation could come from any number of different sources.
It could be a kidnapping such as this one. It could be an attack on a U.S. warship by Iran, using its Russian and Chinese-supplied bottom-tethered sea mines. Or it could be something completely different.
But what’s clear is this: Ahmadinejad and his faction want war. They believe that war with the West is their ticket to victory.
Even if they lose large portions of their country, or if their nuclear sites are destroyed, they believe that they will emerge victorious. Because in their eyes, this type of war with the West will hasten the return of the Imam Mahdi, the savior figure of the radical hojjatieh sect of Shia Islam in which Ahmadinejad and his faction believe.
But don’t make the mistake some have made in placing all your bets on Ahmadinejad. If somehow the U.S were able to wave a magic wand and get rid of him overnight, we would still be facing a security and political establishment in Iran that is devoted to confrontation with the West, and to the destruction of Israel.
Don’t forget that it was Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the “moderate” former president of the Islamic Republic, who first evoked publicly the possibility of a nuclear weapons exchange with Israel. I quote him in my book, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
“The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely, while [the same][against [Iran] would only cause damages. Such a scenario is not inconceivable,” Rafsanjani said in a sermon at Tehran University on Dec. 14, 2001.
Decoded, the message is chilling. Iran has no fear of an Israeli nuclear attack, because Iran is a vast country, with deep underground bunkers for its leadership, and clandestine nuclear sites that most likely are not on anyone’s target list. If the Israelis were to attack, or to respond to an Iranian nuclear attack, Iran will suffer great losses. But Israel will cease to exist.
Such is the calculus of a “moderate” leader of Iran’s Islamic “Republic.”
But the Iranian regime does not believe it will fight for its survival in Iran alone. Over the past nine months, since Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon was devastated by Israeli air strikes last summer (after Hezbollah’s unprovoked attack on Israel), the Iranians have been shipping massive quantities of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in preparation for the coming war.
Iran’s clerical leaders and Ahmadinejad believe that they actually defeated Israel last summer during Iran’s first proxy war with Israel. And that they can do even greater damage in the next war, which could come next month, this summer, or next year.
Arieh Eldad, a leader of the opposition National Union Party in Israel’s Knesset, or Parliament, told me this week while on a trip to the United States that he is convinced there is “no way to avoid the next war” in Lebanon.
He sees the massive rearmament of Hezbollah by Iran, with Syrian assistance, as clear evidence of Iran’s strategy to launch another war against Israel. “Hezbollah is becoming stronger every day,” he said.
Eldad believes Israel must “neutralize Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria as a preliminary step, or we will not be able to engage Iran.”
By “engaging” Iran he does not mean economic or diplomatic “engagement,” as the State Department might use the term. He is talking about having Israel’s military take out Iranian nuclear and missile sites.
Now that’s engagement.
Dr. Eldad is a plastic surgeon who headed the burns at Hadassah hospital for twenty years. He has personally treated Palestinian suicide bombers, only to see them come back after their treatment with bombs strapped to their chests to blow themselves up in the very hospital that saved their lives.
The foes that oppose Israel and America do not reason as we do, he says. “When states have missions that are bigger than life, they are not obeying the basic rules of logic that Western civilization obeys.”
He believes the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a state, is following the same logic as a suicide bomber. “If the goal is to kill the Big Satan [America] or the Small Satan [Israel], then your own life is not to be considered under their logic,” he told me. “The Iranian regime is willing to sacrifice millions and millions of their own people to defeat the Big Satan and the Small Satan.”
Because of this, we need to understand that Tehran regime will not comply with sanctions, and does not care about sanctions. “It’s just not the same logic,” he said.
Dr. Eldad’s fear is that Israel will be “left alone” and have to confront a nuclear Iran. And if that day arrives, he warns, “the world should know that we will be ready to destroy the nuclear infrastructure of Iran at whatever the cost it takes.”
“That means we will be ready to use unconventional weapons, because conventional weapons will not be enough,” he added.
These are stakes.
A seemingly simple hostage-taking could be how this begins. A series of mushroom clouds could be how it ends.
In the meantime, the U.S. is conducting naval and air exercises in the Persian Gulf with two carrier battle groups. The message to Iran, one administration official told me yesterday, was clear: Don’t make any false moves.
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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Last updated at 19:38pm on 29th March 2007
Iran has released a second letter from kidnapped British marine Faye Turney in which she calls on Tony Blair to withdraw British troops from Iraq.
The letter was released by the Iranian embassy in London, which stated that Turney was the author.
"Isn't it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" said the letter, addressed to the British parliament.
The second letter allegedly written by Faye Turney
Some language experts are already questioning the letter's validity, the suggestion being that the language used indicates the letter is an English translation of a Farsi original.
Turney's release is on hold after Iran accused Britain of having an "incorrect attitude".
The move comes on the day when Iranian television released footage of the operation to seize the 15 British naval personnel last week and presented what it claimed was evidence of the Britons encroaching into Iranian territory.
But Britain said the sailors and marines were detained in Iraqi waters and said global positioning data proved its position.
Faye Turney and the other British marines held captive as they appeared on state Iranian TV. Faye, who describes her captors as 'compassionate' has apologised for entering Iran's waters
The announcement that Turney's release is on hold by the head of Iran's supreme national security council Ali Larijani reperesented a clear u-turn and dashed hopes that the 26-year-old mother would be released "very soon".
New TV footage shows Iranians en route to seizing 15 British sailors last week
But Mr Larijani said on state television today: "It was announced that a woman in the group would be freed, but (this development) was met with an incorrect attitude. Naturally, (the release) will be suspended and it will not take place."
The hostage crisis also took a sinister new turn today as a hate mob in Tehran demanded that the 15 captured British Navy personnel be hanged.
Protesters waved placards demanding "15 British aggressors must be executed" outside the foreign ministry.
Earlier today the head of the United Nations personally intervened in the British hostage crisis.
The dramatic move by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came as the tense international stand-off entered its sixth day.
Mr Ban held talks with Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki in an attempt to negotiate the release of the 15 Navy personnel. Confirmation of the meeting emerged from the Saudi capital Riyadh shortly after Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett urged Mr Ban to get involved.
Britain will begin moves to push for a UN Security Council resolution that will "deplore" the detention of the seven Royal Marines and eight sailors including Leading Seaman-Faye Turney who was paraded on Iranian TV wearing a headscarf. Iran had earlier upped the stakes by telling Britain: "Apologise before they go free."
The demand by Mr Mottaki was described by one senior British diplomat as "impossible to meet". The Foreign Office rejected Iran's call for an apology, insisting Britain would "hold its ground" until the captives are released.
The sabre-rattling by Tehran reversed Iran's claim yesterday that 26-year-old Leading Seaman Turney would be set free.
Mr Mottaki said: "This can be solved but they have to show that it was a mistake. That will help us to end this issue."
His intervention raises fears that the crisis could last for weeks or months. In 1979 Iran held 60 American diplomats captive for 444 days and experts today warned Britain faced a similar situation.
Mr Mottaki offered to allow British diplomats to visit the hostages who are thought to be in Tehran.
Government officials produced data it said proved the boarding party from HMS Cornwall was two miles inside Iraqi waters when the group was seized on Friday.
Tony Blair vowed to "ratchet up" the pressure on Iran. He called for an "uncoditional release" of the hostages.
He said: "The important thing is we just keep making it very, very clear to the Iranian government it is not a situation that will be relieved by anything but the unconditional release of all our people."
It is understood that Mrs Beckett has been lobbying Iran's neighbouring states - including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Oman - to press Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to release the Britons.
She will ask EU leaders for support at a summit this weekend.
In an interview broadcast on Iranian TV, Leading Seaman Turney said the group had been seized in the Gulf because they had "obviously trespassed" in Iranian waters. She said her captors had been friendly and that everyone was unharmed.
"Obviously we trespassed into their waters," she said at one point, her voice audible under a simultaneous-Arabic translation. "They were very friendly and very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people." The broadcast included footage of other marines and sailors sitting in the same room eating a meal.
It also showed a letter from Leading Seaman Turney to her parents in which she said the Navy personnel had "apparently" crossed into Iranian waters, and asked the couple to look after her three-year-old daughter Molly and her husband Adam. The Foreign Office reacted furiously to the broadcast, calling the screening "completely unacceptable".
One of the marines was named today as 26- year-old Danny Masterton, from Muirkirk, Ayrshire. His father, a retired professional footballer, said: "We just want Danny home."
Faye's letter telling her family not to 'worry' about her and that she is 'staying strong'
Video footage on state TV of Tehran parading its captives inflamed the worsening crisis - and led to demands for decisive action from the Foreign Office.
Faye Turney, the mother of a girl aged three, was singled out by the cameras in the first glimpse of the hostages since they were seized by Iran's Revolutionary Guards six days ago. Tehran had earlier claimed it was ready to release the sea survival expert 'very soon', but she showed clear signs of strain.
Words she was forced to write and speak for Tehran TV, apparently confessing that the Britons had 'trespassed' into Iranian waters, spoke of being well treated by her 'compassionate' captors.
But the harrowing footage of Mrs Turney, whose husband Adam and daughter Molly wait anxiously at their family home in Plymouth, told a different story.
Gone was the fresh-faced, enthusiastic young sailor filmed by the BBC on HMS Cornwall only hours before the British forces were captured at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.
She was evidently traumatised - at one point seen nervously sucking on a cigarette - in footage which the Foreign Office described as 'completely unacceptable' and British diplomats said was a clear breach of the Geneva Convention.
In the broadcast Mrs Turney, filmed in front of brightly-coloured curtains, is heard saying: "My name is Leading Seaman Faye Turney. I come from England. I serve on Foxtrot Nine Nine. I have been in the Navy nine years. I live in England.
"I was arrested on Friday March 23. Obviously we trespassed into their waters.
"They were very friendly and very hospitable, very thoughtful, good people.
"They explained to us why we had been arrested. There was no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very compassionate.'
A letter allegedly handwritten by Mrs Turney and addressed to "Dear Mum and Dad", says: "We were out in the boats when we were arrested by Iranian forces as we had apparently gone into Iranian waters. I wish we hadn't because then I would be home with you all right now."
She continues: "I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologise for us entering into their waters. Please don't worry about me. I'm staying strong. Hopefully it won't be long till I'm home to get ready for Molly's birthday party and with a present from the Iranian people."
She ends: "Look after everyone for me, especially Adam and Molly, I love you all more than you will ever know."
Leading Seaman Faye Turney, who was one of the sailors captured, is being kept separately from the other hostages
Not all the 15 captured sailors and Marines were shown during the brief broadcast. Only two other captives have been publicly identified, Marines Danny Masterton, 22, from Muirkirk, Ayrshire, and Paul Barton, 21, from Southport.
Condemnation of the broadcast was immediate. Defence Secretary Des Browne said: "It is totally unacceptable to parade our people in this way."
Tory former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the pictures were "totally repugnant". He said: "This is a PR exercise. If they believed in their own propaganda, they would release all of our personnel.
"We need to make clear there will be no concessions and they will suffer harsher penalties unless our personnel are handed over.'
War zone: British marines patrolling aboard an inflatable off Basra
Mrs Turney's husband declined to respond to the Iranian pictures but a friend, Kim Slater, 49, said: 'It is a very shocking film. She looked very uncomfortable with what she was saying. There is something not right in her eyes. I am sure she has been forced to do that and say those things.'
The dangerous game of brinkmanship at a time of world tension over Iran's nuclear programme moved to a new level when Ministry of Defence officials told how the Iranians had launched an 'unprovoked, unprecedented and improper' attack last Friday.
They published detailed evidence of how heavily-armed Iranian gunships had 'ambushed' the British personnel while they were patrolling in Iraqi waters.
Defence chiefs also released satellite pictures and graphics which prove the British boats were well within Iraq waters - despite Iranian claims that they had strayed into their territory.
The data shows that the Navy personnel were 1.7 nautical miles inside the Iraqi part of the Shatt al Arab waterway, which forms a boundary between the countries.
The Ministry of Defence said it "unambiguously contested" claims from Tehran that the UK vessel was in their waters.
Deputy chief of the defence staff Vice Admiral Charles Style said their detention at gunpoint was "unjustified and wrong".
He said the British personnel had carried out an "entirely routine" boarding of an Indian dhow carrying a suspicious cargo of cars off the coast of Iraq.
The ship's co-ordinates had been confirmed by the Iraqi foreign minister and verified by the Indian vessel's captain. They confirmed the ship was inside Iraqi waters.
The Vice Admiral also disclosed that the Iranians had changed their account of where the incident had taken place after it was pointed out that the first set of co-ordinates they gave were in Iraqi waters.
The Prime Minister, who spoke to George Bush yesterday about the growing crisis, told MPs: "It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure the Iranian government understands their total isolation on this issue."
He also defended the boarding party's 'entirely sensible' decision not to fight back against their captors, as they were heavily outnumbered and it would have led to "severe loss of life".
However the decision is being angrily criticised around the world, particularly in the U.S., with talk of "timidity" and "impotence" in the face of Iran's aggression.
One irate critic declared Britain had "covered itself with shame" for failing to show a more aggressive response to Iran.
In a New York newspaper article, military historian Arthur Herman claimed: "The escorting ship HMS Cornwall could have blown the Iranian naval vessel out of the water."
One reader wrote: "The United Kingdom is acting like the French. Say what you want about President Bush, but I bet the Iranian madmen are not mad enough to try this on our Navy."