Monday, May 31, 2021

Memorial Day is for fallen heroes

This will be a short post (unless I get longwinded). I didn’t intend to write today after I wrote a Memorial Day piece earlier this week, but I mentioned in that article that I was reading “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,” the inspiration for the movie “We Were Soldiers.” I haven’t quite finished the book, but there were a few stories there that seemed appropriate to pass along on Memorial Day.

In several cases, the stories of American survivors of the North Vietnamese ambush of the second battalion of the Seventh Cavalry in Vietnam’s Ia Drang in 1965 seem too farfetched to be real. For example, Specialist Jack Smith was wounded and then played dead as the NVA advanced. A North Vietnamese machine gunner used what he thought was Smith’s dead body as a sandbag for cover. Smith was left with the unenvious choice of getting up and being shot by the NVA or staying still while his own comrades shot at the NVA soldier hiding behind him. Ultimately, the NVA soldier was killed but Smith survived.

Combat operations at Ia Drang ValleyVietnam, November 1965. Major Bruce P. Crandall's UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission. (US Army)

Another American survivor, Sergeant James Mullartey, also played dead after being wounded. As the NVA walked the battlefield, executing American survivors, one of the Vietnamese stuck a pistol into Mullartey’s mouth and fired. The bullet exited Mullartey’s throat and knocked him unconscious but failed to kill him. When he awoke, he crawled through the jungle to American lines.

Another survivor, who was not identified in the book, had a similar story. This soldier was wounded in the legs and had been burned by napalm that was dropped on the NVA and Americans alike due to the lack of identifiable lines. The North Vietnamese intended to execute this soldier and fired a pistol point-blank into his eye. The bullet blinded him, but he survived to be evacuated.

You won’t find stories like these in war movies because no one would believe them. They really happened in November 1965, however.

Sadly, many other Americans were not so lucky. Many who initially survived the attack were executed by the NVA on the battlefield. Some American bodies were found with hands tied behind their backs and bullet wounds to the back of the head.

One of the other things that struck me was that at least two of the dead from the Ia Drang battle seem to have been recent immigrants. One of the new widows was a young, “very pregnant” Hispanic woman who was the wife of a trooper of the first battalion. The woman and her husband are not mentioned by name, but the implication is that they were recent immigrants because the soldier’s wife could not speak or read English.

Another immigrant who is mentioned by name is Sergeant Lloyd Joel Monsewicz, who brought his family to the US from France about five years before he shipped out to Vietnam. Monsewicz’s wife was still learning English when he died in Ia Drang.

Immigrant soldiers are a relatively unknown part of American history, but no small number of American soldiers who have fought and sometimes died for the United States were not Americans at all. For example, Revolutionary War heroes such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben immigrated to aid the colonial army and Irish immigrants were commonly recruited into the Union army during the Civil War. Mexican immigrants were part of US military ranks in both WWII and the War on Terror. The AP reports that about 38,000 noncitizen soldiers were in the US military at the time of the US invasion of Iraq. One of these, Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 22, was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala and one of the first to die in the Iraq War.

You don’t have to be a citizen to love America and to die fighting for the American dream. In my opinion, immigrants who serve honorably in the US military have earned citizenship. Those who die for America deserve to have citizenship extended posthumously, as it was to Lance Cpl. Gutierrez.

From the Racket

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Remembering our fallen

 I’ve long thought that the greeting, “Happy Memorial Day,” is rather inappropriate for the nature of the holiday. While Memorial Day is a three-day weekend for many of us, the true purpose of the day is one of somber remembrance and appreciation for those Americans who paid the ultimate price.

As most of you probably know, Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War, a conflict that cost more American lives than any other, including World War II. Over time, the remembrances became a national holiday in which we pause to remember our war dead.

Photo credit: Smith


Like many people, guys especially, my perception of military service has changed as I’ve grown older. Like every other young boy, I played “army” with my friends and even thought seriously about enlisting. I was in the running for an ROTC college scholarship when I was disqualified by a medical issue. Nevertheless, I’ve had a lifelong interest in the military that pairs nicely with my interest in history.

Even if I didn’t serve, I have many family and friends who did their time. A cousin is currently a Ranger captain stationed in Alaska after spending time in Iraq. A different cousin served in both Iraq wars, first as a military intelligence officer in Desert Storm and then as a chaplain stationed in Mosul. My dad was stationed at an army base in Germany in the 1950s and his brother served on a destroyer in post-war Japan. Growing up we had a family friend who limped from a wound suffered in Normandy, and I even had a great-grandfather who was captured by Union soldiers in the Civil War.

A lot of us know what it is like to have friends and family who serve, but it is a far smaller number who have gone through the pain of losing one of these uniformed loved ones. The people who go experience these losses more than anyone else are their brothers in arms. If I were to guess, I’d say that almost everyone who has spent any time in uniform has at least one friend that they will be thinking of this weekend. Some have more fallen friends to remember than others. Some also have friends who were lost to PTSD and suicide after returning home.

I think it’s also safe to say that those of us who have never experienced combat cannot comprehend what many of our veterans have gone through. Books and movies really can’t convey what it is like to be in the middle of a firefight with bullets flying and death all around, although my guess is that movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers” do a better job than most.

After watching “We Were Soldiers” a few months ago, I decided to read the book and the movie really does not do the story of the 7th Cavalry’s struggle in the Ia Drang Valley justice. Hal Moore’s detailed account is difficult to read from an emotional perspective because it so vividly portrays the horror of the battle.

And the movie only covers half the story. After the Battle of LZ Xray was over, a column of American soldiers was ordered to march through the jungle to a different landing zone. Along the way, they were caught by surprise and ambushed by the North Vietnamese. In a few hours, almost 400 Americans were killed or wounded, including many wounded who were executed by NVA soldiers. An article on the Army website about the Battle of LZ Albany describes a soldier reading casualty lists and checking of the names of 65 of his friends who were among the dead.

Another great series of histories is Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation” trilogy, which describes the African, Italian, and Northern European campaigns of the US Army in WWII. Atkinson has a talent for blending historical facts with human narrative to create a very readable, compelling, and complete story. Think Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary in book form.

Soldiers have also lost their lives in small, forgotten conflicts. A few years ago, my hometown placed a memorial on the courthouse square that honored the county’s war dead. We were baffled by Pvt. DeWitt Rucker who was listed as killed in the “MPE.” It took quite a bit of research to determine that the “MPE” was the “Mexico Punitive Expedition” against Pancho Villa in 1916. The full story of DeWitt Rucker, a Buffalo Soldier with the 10th Cavalry, is available on my blog.

I think that it would be great to take a few moments out from our festivities this weekend to read such factual accounts or watch a documentary that details the sacrifices that America’s soldiers have made for us. In big wars or small, popular or unpopular, America’s soldiers have gone where they were told and served admirably.

Military service entails risks even in peacetime. Training accidents often cost lives and sometimes soldiers become targets. In 1986, a bomb at a West Berlin disco killed two off-duty American soldiers, and the year before, Robert Stethem, a Navy diver was murdered by the hijackers of TWA 847. In the past few years, military members have even been targeted in a series of terror attacks on military bases and recruiting offices here at home.

On a personal level, this Memorial Day feels a little different for me because my son, a rising high school senior, is thinking seriously about joining the military. As parents have no doubt discovered throughout history, the possibility of joining the military yourself and having your kids do it feel very different. I can only imagine how it felt for the parents and spouses of soldiers as they departed for the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Or what it felt like to receive a telegram or a visit from the army representatives.

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, but take at least a few moments to reflect and appreciate the sacrifice of America’s fallen warriors. Whether you agree with our foreign policy or not is immaterial. These Americans laid down their lives for their country and that sacrifice is worthy of honor and respect.

And if you know a veteran or military member, give them a hug or handshake or a hearty “hello.” Sometimes it can be awkward to say, “Thank you for your service,” but I think most appreciate the thought. (A high school friend who served in Afghanistan says he responds with, “You’re welcome for my service.”)

And finally, if you’re a veteran who is feeling depressed and lonely this weekend, know that you are not alone and that people love you and care about you. Call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 if you need someone to talk to.

We at the Racket appreciate our veteran readers as well as those who have friends or family who serve. We wish you all a great weekend.

From the Racket

Friday, May 28, 2021

Paul Ryan returns

 When Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) stepped down from the speakership and retired from Congress in 2019, I predicted that he would be back. I was a fan of Ryan’s technocratic, principled conservatism long before Mitt Romney picked him as his presidential running mate in 2012 and viewed him as the future of the Republican Party. That year, the country chose a different path, and four years later the Republican Party went in a different direction as well. Today, Paul Ryan steps back into the limelight as the kickoff speaker at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library’s “Time for Choosing” speaker series.

The text of Ryan’s speech has not been made public, but excerpts were leaked to Punchbowl News and reported in the Hill. The former speaker of the House of will reportedly call for Republicans to unite against the policies of Joe Biden while simultaneously warning against aligning behind a single personality or populism.

By Office of the Speaker -, Public Domain,

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“Once again, we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads,” Ryan will tell his audience. “And here’s one reality we have to face. If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere.” 

“We win majorities by directing our loyalty and respect to voters, and by staying faithful to the conservative principles that unite us,” the prepared remarks continue. “This was true even when the person leading our movement was as impressive, polished, and agreeable as they come.”

I don’t think he is referring to Donald Trump here.

“The country wanted a nice guy who would move to the center and depolarize our politics," Ryan’s speech says of President Biden. “Instead, we got a nice guy pursuing an agenda more leftist than any president in my lifetime. These policies might have the full approval of his progressive supporters, but they break faith with the middle-of-the-road folks who made the difference for him on Election Day.”

Ryan strikes an optimistic tone, however, saying, “For conservatives, this painful existence as the opposition can actually be an opportunity. Out of these years can come a healthy, growing, and united conservative movement, a movement that speaks again to the heart of a great nation.”

Indeed, the humiliating and demoralizing Nixon, Ford, and Carter years brought the conservative revival in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The country was not ready for Reagan, who lost the Republican primary in 1976, until it experienced Jimmy Carter. If the party plays its cards right during the Biden presidency, we could experience a similar conservative revival.

The problem is that the party seems to be moving away, not only from Ryan’s style of detailed planning, but from basic conservative principles as well. Where Ryan was known for putting together realistic roadmaps for limiting government, balancing the budget, and saving Social Security, today’s Republicans seem more interested in emotional appeals about Dr. Seuss and cancel culture as well as myths about stolen elections.

Ryan will warn against these cultural battles, saying that such debates “draw attention away from the far more important case we must make to the American people.”

“Culture matters, yes, but our party must be defined by more than a tussle over the latest grievance or perceived slight,” Ryan’s remarks say. "We must not let them take priority over solutions ­— grounded in principle — to improve people’s lives.”

This brings us back to the Republican Party of today. It has jettisoned its core beliefs to follow Donald Trump and veers wildly from what I like to call one Outrage du Jour to the next. The party focuses on whatever happens to be in the headlines at the moment. And not just any headlines but the headlines of Fox News and OANN, which are often devoid of reality.

Paul Ryan is probably one of the smartest and most principled conservatives left in the Republican Party, but he’s predictably considered a RINO. He has his work cut out for him in steering the party away from the “populist appeal of one personality” and “second-rate imitations.”

The current signs are the Republican Party is not ready to listen to people like Ryan. Instead, the party seems to be preparing to renominate the man who lost the House, the Senate, and the White House in four short years or one of his (wannabe) clones.

The Republican Party may be beyond salvaging or it may simply take another round or two of electoral losses to convince the party that Trumpism is a dead end. If the GOP does not follow Ryan’s advice, I think that more devastating defeats are where the party is headed.

Yesterday there was yet another mass spree killing. This one was in San Jose, California where a transit worker killed nine people before turning his gun on himself.

Details are still sketchy, but there are a few important points to make. First, California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, but the state also has the highest number of mass shootings of any state based on statistics from 1982 to 2021. The most recent mass shooting in California before yesterday’s spree was in March when four people were killed in Los Angeles. Strict gun control laws seem to have little effect on shooting sprees.

Second, even though the shooting will no doubt spark calls for another assault weapons ban, the guns used in yesterday’s murders were semi-automatic pistols. For those unfamiliar with firearms terminology, this means that only one bullet fires each time the trigger is pulled. The San Jose Chronicle reports that the Santa Clara County sheriff said that the guns “appear to be the type that would be legal in California.”

Finally, California does have red flag laws, but there may not have been recent indications of problems that would have triggered the red flag process. The shooter’s ex-wife said that he talked about killing people at work, but the kicker is that these conversations took place more than 13 years ago.

I’ll add that these mass murders are not a uniquely American problem. Several studies show that the US ranks pretty far down the list of mass murders when differences in population are considered.

There seems to be no easy solution to the problem of mass shootings. Even if guns could be banned, there would still be enough guns and ammunition in the US to last for decades. It simply isn’t realistic to assume that all guns would disappear, even if such a law was constitutional. I do support well-crafted red flag laws, but the San Jose murders show that even these laws cannot prevent every spree killing.

As uncomfortable as it is to say, spree murders are not going away anytime soon. The best we can do is to protect ourselves. This may involve getting a carry permit and training for your own defensive weapon, but it should definitely include maintaining good situational awareness and having an escape plan.

From the Racket

Ordering up more restaurant workers

 A week from today, the May jobs report will be out, but there are indications that the news will be rosier this month than it was for April. Last month, economists had predicted a million new jobs and only got a quarter of that. However, yesterday there was encouraging news as initial unemployment claims fell to a new low since the beginning of the pandemic. For many employers, finding workers is already a big problem. That seems particularly true in the restaurant industry.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen a lot of help wanted signs in restaurants lately. The restaurant where I ate last night had a sign warning that service was slow because they were short-staffed and one of our favorite pizza places is now closed on Sundays until further notice because they don’t have enough workers. It seems as though every restaurant that I go into is hiring. Or trying to.

Photo credit: Seitamaa

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In a recent article, the Washington Post pointed out that the restaurant industry posted a record number of job openings in March per St. Louis Fed numbers. Despite the hiring boom, the industry still has about 1.7 million fewer jobs filled than before the pandemic.

Many of the people who worked in restaurants before the pandemic are not returning to their old jobs for a variety of reasons. For some, there are still concerns about safety. For others, the problems are the long hours and low pay that are typical of the industry. Many states have lower minimum wages for tipped employees, which can sometimes mean that there is little to show at the end of a long, slow shift. Others are tired of working in an unstable industry that often takes a quick hit when the economy slows down. It shouldn’t be surprising that many restaurant workers are moving to other jobs while there is an opportunity.

“The staffing issue has actually a lot more to do with the conditions that the industry was in before covid and people not wanting to go back to that, knowing what they would be facing with a pandemic on top of it,” Crystal Maher, 36, a restaurant worker in Austin, told the Post. “People are forgetting that restaurant workers have actually experienced decades of abuse and trauma. The pandemic is just the final straw.”

An additional factor may be the federally enhanced unemployment benefits. Nearly half the states will be dropping the supplemental benefits before they expire in September due to a strong labor market. Analytics from the job-posting site, Indeed, reported that job search clicks in states that were ending the enhanced benefits showed a temporary spike after the end of the benefit was announced.

But job searches don’t mean that people will be returning to restaurant jobs. Eateries may have to sweeten the pot to get the workers they need. Some restaurants are doing just that. The rising demand for workers has led some companies to increase wages and offer signing bonuses for new employees, says It may be that market conditions will lead to a $15 wage for restaurant workers where legislation did not.

The flip side is that, if you’re a diner sitting at the table rather than a restaurant worker standing behind the counter, the increased cost of labor may soon translate into higher prices for dining out. There is also a question of whether the wage increases could contribute to inflationary pressures.

wrote last week that some things may not return to the pre-pandemic normal very soon. Or possibly ever. It looks as though we can add the restaurant industry to that list.

From the Racket

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ron DeSantis and the freedom of speech

 This week Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an important piece of legislation to protect freedom of speech on the internet by limiting free speech on the internet. The word “Orwellian” gets bandied around a lot these days, but claiming to protect the First Amendment while in fact giving the government expanded authority to limit the speech and expression of private companies comes dang close to the textbook definition.

The law at issue is Florida’s Senate Bill 7072, which makes the fundamental mistake of confusing public and private property. In its preamble, the law makes the statement, “Social media platforms have transformed into the new public town square.”

The problem with this statement is that it is demonstrably false. Social media platforms are not public property as a town square is. They are private property that belong to specific companies and not the government or the public at large.

DeSantis speaking at the Hudson Institute in June 2015 Photo credit: Hudson Institute/Wikimedia

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A more accurate analogy would be that social media platforms are the new coffee shops that line the public square. Free discussions and protests can take place in the public square and then the same people might drift into the coffee shop to continue their conversations over a latte or a simple cup of joe, but the rules governing conduct on public property and inside a private business are different. Indeed, the private business has the right to set rules that are much more stringent than the state laws and city ordinances that exercise control over conduct outside.

The fallacy can be summed up in a simple phrase that President Obama used back in 2012 when he noted, “You didn’t build that,” but before you pillory me for quoting Barack Obama, consider that it’s DeSantis who is now taking up Obama’s argument that owners of social media platforms owe something more to the government than what they are currently providing. The implication was that Obama wanted businesses to pay more to the government in taxes while DeSantis believes that social media companies have a duty to provide a platform to politicians and other users.

In other words, DeSantis is telling social media companies, “You didn’t build that. It’s not yours. It’s a public forum.”

Florida law states that social media companies “should be treated similarly to common carriers,” but the fact is that they are not treated that way under federal law, which, as we should have learned in high school civics, preempts state law. Back in October, I described in The First what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says.

In short, the law gives internet companies broad protection for moderating content as long as their action is “voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected” [emphasis mine]. In other words, Americans have a right to freedom of speech, but they do not have a right to speak on any particular internet platform.

When the Florida law states, “A social media platform may not willfully deplatform a candidate for office” or even limit the reach of their content, it runs directly counter to the federal law of Section 230, but the new Florida statute does not stop there.

Section four of the law further attacks the ability of social media companies to moderate content under Section 230. Among other things, Florida requires social media companies to publish their standards for “determining how to censor, deplatform, and shadow ban” users and apply them “in a consistent manner.” Again, this language runs afoul of Section 230.

One of the most egregious clauses says, “A social media platform may not apply or use post prioritization or shadow banning algorithms for content and material posted by or about a user who is known by the social media platform to be a candidate.” Even if Section 230 did not exist, this provision would run afoul of the First Amendment by forcing private companies to post political messages that contradict their beliefs.

The reason that Florida is violating the First Amendment while the social media companies are not is simple. Gov. DeSantis and the State of Florida represent the government and, although social media companies are not the government and not restricted in their moderation policies by First Amendment concerns, the First Amendment very much restricts DeSantis and Florida.

Savvy readers may say, “But wait, doesn’t the Constitution pertain to the federal government, while Florida is a state?”

The answer is both yes and no. While the Constitution was originally aimed at limiting federal authority, several amendments have been ruled to be applicable to state governments through a process called “incorporation.” Both the First and Second Amendments are among those that have been fully incorporated so, even if your state constitution does not protect the right to keep and bear arms, your state government is still prohibited from banning guns under the federal Second Amendment.

The problem that DeSantis runs into is that when the government requires private companies to provide a platform for political candidates or a “journalistic enterprise,” it abridges the First Amendment rights of the private business and its owners. As government expands, freedom contracts.

What the Florida law would do is force American companies to give a bullhorn to speech they find abhorrent. No company should be required to give a platform to Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) anti-semitic posts, neither should they have to allow the rantings of Marjorie Taylor Greene (Q-Ga.) or Donald Trump.

It’s important to note here that, although the Florida law would regulate social media companies similar to how broadcast television and radio stations are regulated, internet companies are treated differently from broadcast companies under federal law. This is because they are different.

Broadcast stations are regulated under the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1966. More stringent regulation of these industries is permissible because radio and television stations use airwaves owned by the public while internet companies do not. Social media companies use privately-owned platforms that are transmitted through privately owned internet service providers. In other words, companies that broadcast over public airwaves represent the public square while internet companies using private infrastructure are not.

The Florida law is almost certain to be struck down because Section 230, as a federal law, has priority. Additionally, portions of SB7072 are blatantly unconstitutional. Social media companies can be regulated differently than they are today, but that would be up to Congress, not Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature. Ironically, the constructionist judges appointed by Donald Trump will likely be the ones to rule against DeSantis’s law.

Beyond the legal issues is the practical one. I’m old enough to remember when conservatives rightly fretted that a government big enough to give you everything you want would also be big enough to take everything you have. Many on the right have forgotten this concern in the rush to legislate government-imposed fairness on the internet.

Today, the assumption is that regulation of social media will favor those on the right, but this is almost certainly wrong. Given the fact that Democrats control the White House, both houses of Congress, and the federal bureaucracy, any new regulation of social media is almost certain to comprise changes that the right will like even less than they like the status quo.

The Florida law is probably not intended to stand. Ron DeSantis, as a graduate of Harvard Law School, should know that it will not survive a federal judge. The real purpose is probably to pander to Trump supporters who don’t believe that the former president should have been kicked off Twitter and Facebook.

When the law is struck down, DeSantis and other Republicans will preen about judicial activism, censorship, and paint pictures of dystopian nightmares. The entire saga will be bad for the country, but the political theater may benefit DeSantis within his own party.

The Florida law presents an additional problem for conservatives who might consider voting for DeSantis as a presidential candidate in 2024. Any candidate who would present such an unconstitutional and unwise power grab while mischaracterizing it as protecting freedom of speech cannot be trusted with the reins of government. Republicans need to embrace their traditional principles of limited government rather than pursuing the concept of big government populism from a right-wing perspective.

When I look at Ron DeSantis, I think back to Obi-Wan Kenobi (the Sir Alec Guinness version) and want to warn Republicans, “This is not the candidate you’re looking for.”


We had an interesting comment on our Facebook page yesterday. On my recent article about Belorussian air piracy and the kidnapping of Raman Pratasevich, a user named Desree Pether commented with the hashtag, “#freerobertpether.”

I was understandably curious so I did a little research to see who Robert Pether is. It was a story that I had not heard, but one that was interesting nonetheless.

Robert Pether is an Australian contractor who works for a consulting company in Dubai. On April 7, Pether and an Egyptian colleague, Khalid Zaghlol, went to a meeting in Baghdad with the Central Bank of Iraq. The meeting was a setup, reports Australia’s Express Digest, and the two men were arrested as part of a contract dispute when they arrived. (Details on the dispute can be found in this article in the National News.)

Twenty days after his arrest, Pether was allowed to call his family, the Irish Times notes in an article today. Pether’s wife, Desree, said that the Australian government has done nothing to help even though the Australian embassy in Baghdad had assured Pether that it was safe to come to Iraq three days before his arrest.

It appears that Pether has done nothing wrong and is caught in the middle of a high-stakes shakedown by the Iraqi government. There certainly seem to be no criminal charges or allegations that would require indefinite detention. While his situation is an example of what can go wrong when first-world companies deal with third-world governments, it is troubling that the government that is holding Pether is one that many Americans sacrificed their lives and health to install and preserve.

Even though Pether and his colleague are not US citizens, it would be a good gesture for the Biden Administration to intercede on behalf of the two men. The US still has influence with the Iraqi government and could use it here to help two innocent men.

Just as Belorus should free Raman Pratasevich, the Iraqi government should release Robert Pether and Khalid Zaghlol or provide evidence as to why justice requires them to be detained.

Mrs. Pether, if you’re reading this, we wish a speedy reunion for you and your family and pray for your husband’s safe return.

From the Racket

Monday, May 24, 2021

Belorussian Air Piracy Must Not Go Unanswered

 I’m an avid reader and quite a few years back, I read a novel by John J. Nance that described an attempt by international authorities to arrest a former American president for alleged war crimes as he traveled through Europe on an airliner. Truth can be stranger than fiction and Nance’s scenario played out in the real world yesterday as w Belorussian MiG-29 jet fighter forced an airliner down so that authorities could arrest a journalist critical of the regime. 

Raman Pratasevich, a vocal critic of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, was on board Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania when it suddenly made a sharp turn to the east and landed in Minsk instead. CNN reports that after the plane landed. Pratasevich was arrested. About seven hours later, the plane departed Minsk one passenger short.

Exactly why the plane diverted is the subject of debate. Belorussian authorities claim that the crew made a precautionary landing in Minsk after being notified of a bomb threat. Ryanair claims the plane was “notified by Belarus ATC [air traffic control] of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk." Both sides agree that Belorus dispatched a Mig-29 to escort the airliner to Minsk, although Belorus claims that the jet fighter was present to monitor the situation and assist if necessary. 

There is doubt about the Belorussian version of the story, however. Minsk was not the nearest airport when the diversion took place. It would have been faster and simpler to land at Vilnius, the planned destination, than to divert to Minsk, as the flight map below shows.

Witnesses on the plane told that Pratasevich became visibly upset when the airplane turned toward Minsk and told other passengers that “the death penalty” awaited him in Belorus. On the ground in Minsk, soldiers deplaned the passengers and dog teams checked the baggage. Pratasevich’s luggage was opened and the contents were thrown onto the pavement. The journalist was then arrested and taken away by soldiers. Photos on Twitter show black-uniformed soldiers leading Pratasevich away. 

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, a former Soviet republic in eastern Europe, has been in office since 1994. Since he took office, Lukashenko has extended the presidential term and delayed elections. The last candidate to oppose Lukashenko is in exile in Lithuania. As a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Belorus has close relations with Putin’s Russia. 

Intercepting an international airline flight to arrest a political opponent is unprecedented as far as I can tell. The only incident that I can recall that is remotely similar was in 1985 when US Navy F-14 Tomcats intercepted an Egyptair 737 that was carrying four terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and killed an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer. Mohammed Abbas, a Palestine Liberation Front member, and several PLO officials were also on the plane. The Navy fighters forced the airliner down at a NATO airbase in Sicily and turned the terrorists over to Italian authorities. 

Lukashenko’s actions are violations of international law and the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation which guarantees the right to overfly countries without landing. Forcing down an airliner with a jet fighter to arrest a passenger is a naked act of air piracy and kidnapping. 

If Lukashenko’s actions are allowed to go unchallenged, it might very well be the end of international air travel as we know it as the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi may have inspired Lukashenko. If one dictator can pull off such a brazen act, others will certainly try. Passengers with political enemies would have to consider how close their flights would be to countries where they were persona non grata. Airlines might have to screen passenger manifests for controversial passengers that could provoke an interception. Ultimately, attempts to intercept and divert airliners could lead to shooting on either small or large scales. 

Although the United States is not directly involved in the incident, both political parties seem to be united in opposition to Lukashenko’s shocking action. Julie Fisher, President Biden’s new ambassador to Belorus called the interception “dangerous and abhorrent” in a tweet.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the act “an egregious affront to democratic societies” and said that Lukashenko “cannot go unpunished.” 

What the West can do to punish Lukashenko is the question. Sanctions are an obvious answer, but may be of limited use since most of Belarus’s trade is with Russia. This is especially true since the US, Canada, and Europe have already targeted the country and many of its officials with sanctions and asset freezes in retaliation for the regime rigging an election last year. The good news is most countries that aren’t Russia are lining up to demand an explanation from Lukashenko. 

Whatever happens in the coming days, the world should hold Lukashenko responsible for the safety of Raman Pratasevich. If the journalist is not released unharmed, Lukashenko and Belarus should be isolated and impoverished. Doing so may require further isolating Russia as well. 

In the US, we take many things for granted. Safe air travel and freedom from arrest for political reasons are two big ones. It’s difficult for most of us to fully comprehend how a flight of an hour or two across Europe, Asia, or Africa can cross a number of dictatorial regimes and even run the risk of being shot down like Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. We complain about the other party, but in reality, we know we don’t have to worry about being arrested, tortured, and murdered for our political views. 

Alexander Lukashenko’s decision to risk the lives of almost 200 Ryanair passengers and crew to arrest a political opponent is a reminder that there are still very bad and dangerous people in the world who will push the boundaries of international law to the brink of war in order to ensure the survival of their regime. Sometimes a backwater dictator’s actions are so blatant and dangerous that they cannot be ignored by the world. 

This is one of those times.

From the Racket