The Weekender: September 25, 2015

1) “The Avenger” (The New Yorker, 41 minutes, September 2015). The subhead: “After three decades, has the brother of a victim of the Lockerbie bombing solved the case?”

Wen Ken Dornstein learned that Pan Am Flight 103 had exploded, he did not realize that his older brother, David, was on the plane. It was December 22, 1988, and Ken, a sophomore at Brown University, was at home, in Philadelphia, on winter break. Over breakfast, he read about the disaster in the Inquirer: all two hundred and fifty-nine passengers were killed, along with eleven residents of Lockerbie, Scotland, where flaming debris from the plane fell from the sky. David, who was twenty-five, had been living in Israel and was not scheduled to fly home until later that week, so Ken absorbed the details about the crash with the detached sympathy that one accords a stranger’s tragedy. That evening, the airline called. David had changed his plans in order to come home early and surprise his family.

[ . . . ]

When terrorists strike today, they often claim credit on social media. But Lockerbie, Dornstein told me recently, was a “murder mystery.” Flight 103 had left London for New York on December 21st, with David assigned to Row 40 of the economy section. After the plane ascended to thirty thousand feet, an electronic timer activated an explosive device hidden inside a Toshiba radio in the luggage hold, and a lump of Semtex detonated, shearing open the fuselage. The plane broke apart in midair, six miles above the earth. Many of the victims remained alive until the moment they hit the ground. But who built the bomb? Who placed it in the radio? Who put it on the plane?

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3) “The Philosopher of Surveillance: What Happens When a Failed Writer Becomes a Loyal Spy?” (The Intercept, 13 minutes, August 2015). The title sums up the main ideal pretty well; the only other thing you need to know is that the NSA, for all intent and purposes, had a blogger.

The surveillance archetypes that dominate popular culture are different from Socrates [not his real name] because they eventually see evil in the systems of surveillance that employ them. There is Winston Smith in 1984, who works at the Ministry of Truth and despises everything it does. Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others turns insubordinate after he receives an assignment to surveil a well-known writer and his girlfriend. And Harry Caul in The Conversation comes to fear that he is being played by the business executive who hired him.

Socrates, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault. One of his columns made a point of saying that even if an NSA employee disagrees with a policy, and even if the policy is wrong, she should stay the course. “We probably all have something we know a lot about that is being handled at a higher level in a manner we’re not entirely happy about,” he wrote. “This can cause great cognitive dissonance for us, because we may feel our work is being used to help the government follow a policy we feel is bad.” Socrates advised modesty. Maybe the policy is actually correct — or perhaps it is wrong but will work out in the end. “I try,” he explained, “to be a good lieutenant and good civil servant of even the policies I think are misguided.”

4) “The Coddling of the American Mind” (The Atlantic, 29 minutes, September 2015). The authors argue that “trigger warnings” — a notice to the reader or listener that the content or materials may upset certain classes of people — are teaching us the wrong lessons and ill-preparing college students for life. Their sub-head: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.” The article has a few critics; here’s a New York Times op-ed by a Cornell professor, responding to the article, in which she explains why she uses trigger warnings.

5) “Welcome to Liberland, the World’s Newest Country (Maybe)” (The New York Times Magazine, 36 minutes, August 2015). For years, a man named Vit Jedlicka had scoured the world for a homeland for a micro-nation which could roost his extreme-libertarian ideology. Earlier this year, he may have found it, wedged between Croatia and Serbia.

This latter pocket, which local residents call Gornja Siga, is the no man’s land in question. When the two countries were neighboring republics of Yugoslavia, these orphaned riverbank plots were of little concern, but since the 1990s they have presented an intractable problem. The stranded pieces of Croatia now contiguous with Serbia are some 10 times larger, in aggregate, than the rather trifling portion of Serbia now joined to Croatia; Serbia has been all too glad to assume ownership of its expanded territory, but Croatia sees the situation as unacceptable. In light of this ongoing disagreement, for Croatia to accept Gornja Siga would constitute a de facto recognition of the Serbian view of the border and a relinquishing of Croatia’s claim to the more considerable, though equally mosquito-infested and uninspiring, portions of Serbian bank.

[ . . . ]

And so, on April 13, 2015, he [Jedlicka] and his exploratory committee read, in English and Czech, the following proclamation:

We, the members of the Preparatory Committee of the State of the Free Republic of Liberland, issue this proclamation:

We, by virtue of the right to self-determination, right of discovery and the right of self-governance, proclaim the existence of the Free Republic of Liberland. The Free Republic is a free and independent country; and that as a free and independent state, the Free Republic of Liberland shall have the full power to defend itself, conclude peace, form alliances, establish commerce, and enjoy any other rights which sovereign states have. As a member of the family of nations, we pledge to abide by international laws that bind all states in existence.

6) “Merlin” (NBC, three hours, 1998). This is a video, not an article; the link goes to YouTube (so it may auto-play). In 1998, Hallmark Entertainment produced a miniseries about the Arthurian legend through the eyes of Merlin, and it’s really good. I watched it as it aired and for some reason thought to Google it this week and found that the entire thing is on YouTube — for free. (So I watched it again.) It deviates significantly from the traditional story of Arthur by creating a new antagonist, but it’s still a really great adaptation.

Have a great weekend!