Sep. 23, 2012: Violent Anti-U.S. Protests Continue

The violent protests from last week that killed several U.S. officials, including our ambassador to Libya, only spread and intensified this week, expanding to U.S. embassies and military bases in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Pakistan, among other countries. Hundreds of angry men clashed with police, setting fire to cars, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and chanting “Death to America.”

Dozens of police officers have been injured thus far. Afghani suicide bombers also killed 12 people with an attack on a minivan carrying foreign workers, and shortly announced that it was revenge for the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” trailer on YouTube which mocked the Islamic Prophet Mohammad. At least 20 countries are now mired in furious anti-American protests of their own, including Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. And Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed last week, has blossomed into a key al Qaida recruiting ground to build their terrorist ranks.

Australian officials saw little choice but to close their own Pakistan high commission for fear of violence against their own diplomats. In a span of three days, eight NATO coalition soldiers were killed by the very Afghani officers they were helping to train. Another radical leader was arrested in Tunisia, while the U.S. ordered all non-essential personnel removed from both Tunisia and Sudan. Hundreds of student protesters also called for the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, while the al Qaida branch in North Africa threatened further attacks on U.S. diplomats.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah terrorist organization, stoked the anti-American flames by calling for sustained protests in a rare public appearance in Beirut, Lebanon on Monday. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the audience chanted, “America, America, you are the greatest Satan! Israel, Israel, you’re the enemy of Muslims!” U.S. officials consequently warned American travelers not to visit Lebanon in the foreseeable future. Good advice, given that protesters even saw fit to torch a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant after Nasrallah’s speech, despite Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s calls for peaceful protests. At least 20 people were killed and over 200 more injured in Pakistani protests after Friday prayers, and we can likely expect that number to climb in the immediate future.

Of course, there has naturally been considerable scrutiny of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of this debacle. The key question here seems to be whether the U.S. government was wise in backing the protests which formed the heart of the so-called “Arab Spring” and ousted such dictators as Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi, or whether the existing regime, while oppressive and less-than-ideal, served some purpose in restraining the blind anger we now see across the region. As one analyst outlined:

U.S. relations with Egypt have dived dramatically since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, so much so that [President Barack] Obama said this week he doesn’t necessarily consider the two countries allies. In Yemen, al-Qaida took advantage of a year of internal fighting to make inroads across the country. After defeating Gadhafi, Libyans sent pro-American moderates to power but are still struggling amid a wash of weaponry and militias that remain unchecked.

The ensuing instability since the ouster of Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the death of Gadhafi and the power transfer deal ending the reign of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh has led some foreign policy experts — particularly conservatives and former Bush administration officials — to question whether Washington acted unwisely by siding with the protesters. Such language has even crept into the presidential campaign, with Republican Mitt Romney vowing to “strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.”

After 20 months, the Arab Spring continues to polarize even conservatives, dividing those who see in it the triumph of freedom from those who criticize Obama for abandoning traditional friendships with leaders like Mubarak and say he helped usher in instability and the rise of political Islam.

Of course, the original source of the rage is still widely being debated. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that there is no connection whatsoever between Obama’s foreign policy and these deadly attacks, arguing that all the rage instead stemmed from “Innocence of Muslims.” Rice cited other examples of radical Islamic groups violently reacting to portrayals of religion, such as responses to the 2006 film The Da Vinci Code. This seems to be supported by Middle Eastern groups calling for international legislation banning criticism of Muslims and classifying it as a terrorist act (which would seem, naturally, to contradict any notion of free speech in the U.S.).

Others, however, blasted Rice as being “asinine, naive, inept, incompetent and borderline ignorant” for saying that the attacks were poorly-coordinated mobs who were just angry over a film. In their retorts, Rice’s critics noted the tactical military maneuvers that they say would have demanded extensive advance planning, as well as several reports that the initial attacks were actually revenge for the slaying of al Qaida’s second-in-command, using “Innocence of Muslims” as little more than a cover.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of protesters have not seen any part of the trailer themselves, and many Muslims oppose violent responses to what they still see as blasphemy. There are, after all, over two billion Muslims around the globe, most of whom have not appeared on any news feeds in the past two weeks. This is perhaps clearest in Libya, where government-allied citizens fought back against militia members and seized several bases that had been taken by the radicals. An estimated 30,000 people subsequently launched an exceedingly rare pro-American protest, holding up slogans and banners and demanding justice for Ambassador Stevens, saying that “Libya lost a friend” when he was slain.

There’s also the question of whether all the violence stemmed from the same source. Some analysts say that the Cairo mob we discussed last week was indeed fueled by citizens’ rage over “Innocence of Muslims,” while the Benghazi strike was a coordinated effort by al Qaida operatives that specifically targeted Ambassador Stevens. Such reports are scarce in the media, which has otherwise lumped the Libyan attack in with other protests to frame the story as a sea of Islamic overreactions, but there are a few commentators arguing that the story is much more complicated than that.

Regardless, in order to curtail the further spread of this violent wave, Google has shut down access to the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer in protesting countries. Pakistan’s prime minister blocked YouTube as a whole, with users informed that the video-hosting site had been classified as containing “indecent material.” Russia, likewise, moved to ban the film, while Germany is pondering a similar ruling.

Of course, the Middle Eastern turmoil has changed the nature of the U.S. presidential election, too. Some are saying that the crisis abroad could spell doom for Obama, as there are many similarities between his arguably timid response to these protests and the 1979 Tehran revolution that derailed Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign. But while Ronald Reagan landed a key blow against Carter in 1980, Mitt Romney is struggling to do the same against Obama — the incumbent has actually extended his lead in most polls over the past week — due in large part to a scattered Republican National Convention and campaign management concerns, as well as media upheaval over his own response to the protests abroad.

Romney dismissed reports that his staff is in disarray, but he has been retooling his message over the past week to focus more on the economy. One key argument he hopes to make is that several key taxes in the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” will shatter the already precarious financial standing of the middle class. On a broader level, he is hoping to challenge the status quo that Obama established, hoping that voters will accept his claim that the current presidency has been a failure across the board.

However, a few poorly chosen (or at least poorly worded) off-the-cuff comments have alienated Romney from key demographics. Several key missteps have made it appear that Romney doesn’t care about a substantial portion of the electorate, and further distracted voters from the uphill battle he seeks to wage against Obama.

Over the final 50 days of the campaign, both campaigns have a lot of work to do. Most analysts agree that Romney has to solidify his campaign team and adopt a single, clear message if he wants to make ground on Obama, an effort he beganwith mixed reviewslast week. By the same token, Obama is hardly secure in his lead, as he cannot simply rely on what some commentators call the liberal media bias to protect him forever. Furthermore, he won’t make any real headway in the polls as long as he continues to watch the Middle Eastern violence escalate — even as Romney tripped over his words last week, Obama gained less than a percentage point across most major polls.

With both candidates struggling to show that they are up to the task, no wonder several African-American Christian pastors told their congregations to just stay home on election day.

Now that we’re close enough to election day that trends in the polls are actually meaningful, it’s worth noting that there are some substantial concerns with those very polls. Perhaps the biggest problem is with a technique called stratified sampling. To state it simply, not everyone in the U.S. actually votes on election day, and some groups are more likely to vote than others. So when pollsters try to predict the outcome of an election, they seek a particular balance of “likely voters.” Thus, various demographic groups are independently sampled. For instance, minority groups are historically less likely to vote than their Caucasian counterparts. So if a particular region has, say, 60% Caucasians and 40% African-Americans, the pollsters might call 75 Caucasians and 25 African-Americans, in order to predict the attitudes of those people who will actually show up to vote.

To be clear, stratified sampling itself is a time-tested, methodologically sound statistical technique. It reduces the “error” that occurs when, in pure random samples, different demographic groups are randomly sampled in wildly disproportionate ways.

The problem is that predicting what groups will actually make the effort to vote, and in what numbers, is an exceedingly difficult task. If you don’t know what proportion of the populace will vote on election day, you can’t accurately stratify your sample. If you guess the wrong proportions for groups voting on election day, the findings in your poll will be wrong as well.

In short, bad stratifications lead to bad results. Or “GIGO,” if you prefer: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

So how do the pollsters get their strata? Well, some polls just use the U.S. census data and assume that different demographic groups are likely to vote at equal rates. So in our example above, they would call 60 Caucasians and 40 African-Americans, even if a given Caucasian is actually more likely to cast a ballot than a given African-American. One can imagine the pitfalls of that approach.

Others try to dodge this problem and use exit polls from the previous election to predict voter turnout. Unfortunately, voter turnout hardly remains the same from one election cycle to the next. In 2008, for example, Obama was able to energize young voters and minority groups, driving a nearly unprecedented push to the polls that helped him secure a landslide win. It is hard to say whether he will be able to do the same in 2012. The demographic groups that arrive at the polls on election day this time might be far different than those four years ago, in which case any pre-election poll based on the 2008 results could be very wrong.

There are a number of other problems with modern polls. For instance, some emphasize land lines instead of cell phones, which overlooks the fact that a relatively high proportion of young and Latino voters only use cell phones (and are therefore missed in these polls). There’s also the Bradley effect, named for Tom Bradley’s stunning loss in the 1982 California governor’s race after he led the pre-election polls by a substantial margin. Typically, in a race between Caucasian and African-American candidates, many voters will lie to pollsters and say that they intend to vote for the African-American, even if they swing the other way on their actual, confidential ballot. Presumably, they deceive the pollsters in order to avoid any appearance of being racist, as they feel pressured to state the response they think is more “politically correct.” The difference between these lie-filled responses and actual election day voting has historically changed the results with a median of 3.1%, a tremendous shift in most elections. Of course, there’s considerable debate about whether the Bradley effect still exists, particularly after Obama outperformed predictions in 2008, but whether or not that came from a unique campaign climate or a long-term national transition remains to be seen.

In any event, the point is that there’s a reason you see such a wide scope of results across different polls. Different agencies use slightly different polling techniques (and many employ a mix of approaches to reduce their error and bias) that have substantial effects on the outcome. They’re all grounded in legitimate logic, but they’re all a little different, so most will be just a bit wrong, one way or the other. So pay attention to the polls, and watch how they move — but take them with a grain of salt.

Let’s turn our gaze back overseas for a bit. The French magazine Closer set off an international furor last week when it published topless photos of Great Britain’s crown princess, Kate Middleton, during a visit to France. The British royal family swiftly filed a lawsuit in French courts, saying that the photos were of a “highly intimate moment” between the royal couple. Covertly snapping such photos is illegal in France, one of the few nations where that is the case.

The lawsuit asked for an injunction to block further publication, have all existing copies of the magazine pulled, and have the photos relinquished. With that in mind, the royal family must have been dismayed when Chi, an Italian magazine, also published the photos, adding a picture of Middleton applying sunscreen to the set that had previously appeared in Closer. (Both Chi and Closer are owned by the Mondadori media group, which explains the free photo sharing between the two publications.)

The French court ultimately sided with the royals, blocking further publication and demanding that the magazine hand over all copies of the photos. The magazine was also forbidden from reselling or redistributing the images in any form. But the action came too late to stop international publication, demonstrating just how difficult it is to enforce such a privacy law in the modern age.

Some have pointed out that the reaction to Kate’s photos is far different than the backlash after Prince Harry was photographed frolicking nude with a bevy of girls in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Those pictures were published around the world, and the British palace’s response was little more than a bored shrug. Kate’s topless sunbathing photos, on the other hand, exploded into an international incident. Many hailed Harry for doing what they said a young man should be expected to do. The images of Kate were met with “disgust”, “offence” and “disbelief.” So it’s the “Party prince versus Demure Duchess.” Read into that what you will.

In any case, there are now criminal charges pending against both Closer and the photographer for their actions. If convicted, both the photographer and the magazine’s editor could face a fine and a year in jail.

Elsewhere, a recent study in the journal Pediatrics indicates that teens who “sext,” or send sexually explicit text messages or images, are far more likely to be sexually active and to have unprotected sex with their partners. The study of Los Angeles residents from ages 12 to 18 may indicate that sexting is not a safe alternative to real sex, as some previous researchers had suggested, but instead a gateway to taking chances with their bodies. 15% of participants admitted to having sexted, and those who had done so were seven times more likely than their peers to also be sexually active. However, it is quite possible that sexting did not necessarily lead to risky sex practices, but that those teens who were going to have unprotected sex were just more inclined to sext, as well — perhaps sexting, in the end, was just another way for them to experiment.

In tech news, preorders for the iPhone 5 cleared two million units within the first 24 hours, completely destroying the previous record of one million for the iPhone 4S despite underwhelming reviews for the new device. The tremendous demand boosted investor confidence, but it does mean that some pre-ordered units will not be shipped until October. Most were sent on September 21, the same day that the iPhone 5 appeared in stores; it’s only a minority that will face delays. And at least being delayed by a few weeks is better than spending billions on repairs.

At first, football commentators praised the replacement NFL referees for at least doing a respectable job as the league continues to negotiate with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA). That time is over. Yes, a few referees were caught being fans of the teams whose games they were officiating or even getting paid for their efforts. And sure, there’s the report of one ref telling running back LeSean McCoy, “Come on, I need you for my fantasy [team]” during his week one game. But those seem like minor issues compared to the complete debacle in week two, where almost every matchup featured a major refereeing mistake that shifted the tide of the game.

The officials obviously weren’t fully aware of the rules, and the players effectively pushed them around at will, wresting control of the game away from the inexperienced refs. Myriad personal fouls went uncalled, posing a danger to players across the league, and the officials oscillated between calling phantom fouls and missing obvious infractions. They incorrectly assessed the yardage on several penalties, and both sidelines cleared after an especially controversial turnover call in the Denver Broncos-Atlanta Falcons clash. The outcomes of several games were likely altered by the unpredictable refereeing.

It’s little wonder that we’re seeing such problems, given that the most experienced of these replacements came from Division II and III college football. Many were instead drawn from the high school level and amateur leagues. And given that negotiations between the NFL and the NFLRA have made little headway, we’re likely to endure at least another week or two of these baffling calls. I’ll let a viewer’s comment sum it up: “If I wanted to watch a car wreck, I’d be a NASCAR fan, not a football fan.

The NFL isn’t the only site of odd decisions, though. HALO Corp., which offers training programs for various agencies throughout California, will conduct a counterterrorism training program for 1,000 military personnel, law enforcement officials, medical experts and government workers in San Diego next month. Participants will train on realistic sets, dealing with Middle Eastern terrorists, maritime pirates… and the undead. (“Pirates vs. Zombies,” anyone?) After all, “a future crisis could arise from an outbreak of viruses that destroy brain cells and render people violently catatonic, like zombies.” So a thousand of our nations finest will learn how to protect the American public from a Night of the Living Dead. One has to wonder how much the five-day program actually costs.

Finally, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is at the center of one of the most heated arguments that the Viola School District in Arkansas has ever seen. Jenkins Clifton-Jones didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he brought the delicious homemade treat to school for lunch, but a teacher hastily confiscated his meal. The reason? Viola School District has maintained a ban on peanut products for the past six years, citing some students’ allergies. (One student apparently has such severe allergies that he could suffer a potentially fatal anaphylactic shock simply from breathing in the vicinity of peanut products.) The teacher replaced Clifton-Jones sandwich with an alternative meal and gave him a note to explain the school’s policy to his parents.

And that’s where the story really picked up, as Denise Clifton-Jones, the boy’s mother, was livid. She started a Facebook page, dubbed “School Nut Ban Discussion,” to express her aggravation, and the conversation has since exploded into an international movement over peanut rights that has already received warnings for name-calling and profanity by both sides of the argument.

District superintendent John R. May says that the district’s Wellness Committee is looking into the policy to see if there is a better approach, but noted that “Until we figure out something else, it would be foolish to drop the policy.” In the meantime, some parents continue to champion food rights on Facebook. Clifton-Jones herself, who is a nurse practitioner, argued that

Placing kids in a “bubble” is not managing anything…There are many severe allergies to many kinds of healthy foods. Just because a few children are allergic to something is no good reason to ban ALL kids from eating their favorite foods. Public schools should try to accommodate all kids to the best of their ability, not accommodate a few at the expense of the masses.

Others, however, are concerned that the will of the majority might trample legitimate protection for those who really need it. As one mother said,

When so many children suffer from peanut allergies (some reports say it may be as high as 1 in 25) and children can DIE if exposed to them, then I don’t think asking people not to bring peanut products to school is such a big deal. It’s one meal a day, and no one is going to die if they don’t get their favorite sandwich.

I’ll leave this one to the peanut police to decide.

Other articles of interest:
Biology professor in Alabama university shooting rampage pleads guilty
Rapist’s alleged taunt: Ha-ha, I just gave you HIV
Police: Vandal with spelling problem hits Pa. car
UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor to resign amid scandals
Record-setting female astronaut takes command of space station
Baby Needs Surgery After Swallowing Expanding Ball
Flame malware continues to burn
Reversible gene marks linked to reversible careers in bees
NHL Lockout 2012: Overseas Option for Players Gives Owners Less Leverage
‘Resident Evil’ Tops Slumping Box Office
‘The Master’ smashes box-office records

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