How One Question About Nuclear War Cost This Man His Career, But Maybe Saved the World

Ron Rosenbaum shares the fascinating story of Major Harold Hering, who was undergoing missile training at the Vandenburg Air Force base when he decided to ask how he could know if the order to launch was actually “lawful.” Hering’s question led to his being taken out of missile training, and after two years of litigation, the loss of his military career. But Rosenbaum says it also forced the military to wrestle with the possibility that a launch order could be mistaken. He asks:

Should you question the order to launch such an attack, not knowing for sure it doesn’t come from a president off his meds? Or a cyberworm disguised as a president?

Do you have the right to question? Do you have the duty, under the Nuremberg precedent in international law, which denies a “just-following-orders” defense for genocide?

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A good question from John Perry Barlow

Tuesday night, November 19, Columbia University panel on Burning Man, Technology, Religion and the Future:

john perry barlow“I once asked a group of Wall Street types: if you had to give up one thing, all your assets or all your friends, which one would you choose? And they all said they would give up their assets, because, they realized, they could rebuild their assets with the help of their friends, but not vice versa. So then I asked them, so if you think your friends are more valuable, why don’t we have a system that actually takes account of the value of our social assets, instead of spending all this time trying to assign exact values to material assets? <pause> They said they were working on that. Not very hard, it appears.”

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How One Question Can Change the Course of History

This is a guest post from Roger MacDonald, director of the television archive at the Internet Archive.

At a news conference in London September 9th, the following question was asked by Margaret Brennan, CBS News correspondent, of John Kerry, US Secretary of State:

Q.  “Is there anything at this point his (Assad’s) government could do, or offer, that would stop an attack?”

A.  “Sure.  He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.  Turn it over.  All of it.  Without delay.  And allow a full and total accounting before that.”

You can watch the video of that exchange here: http://archive.org/details/ALJAZAM_20130909_090000_News#start/830/end/865

Kerry’s blithe answer initiated a cascade of unanticipated overtures that have restrained the imminent unleashing of war against Syria.

Within hours of the essentially off-hand statement, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called Kerry and said Russia backs the plan and had learned from the Syrians that they were amenable. Not long after, the State Department suggested that it was not a proposal at all, but simply a “rhetorical” device.  Too late.

A number of members of Congress said they backed pursuing this diplomatic opening.  Congressional leaders moved quickly to postpone the planed vote today on authorizing the Administration’s open-ended attack plan.

UN General Secretary started talking about logistics to implement the weapons inventory and transfer.

By the end of the day, Obama’s previously scheduled six, count ‘em – six, planned media interviews where he was going to prep the country for his go-to-war (calibrated strikes) address to the nation, were now mediated by questions about this runaway hope for peace.

Amazing how something as small as a question, at the right time and place, can change the world!  And we’ll preserve this instance, for generations to come, at the Internet Archive.

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Iraq War at 10 and “The Questions We Didn’t Ask”

Veteran Washington journalist Howard Fineman has written a fine, self-critical article about how “we”–meaning “the decision-making machinery of Washington, including elected lawmakers, appointed officials and the national media”–allowed Dick Cheney and George W. Bush’s “warped vision” of the possible threat that Saddam Hussein’s regime might someday play “drive us” to a catastrophic war.

His answer:

Too few questions were asked, too many assumptions were allowed to go unchallenged, too many voices of doubt were muffled or rejected in a toxic atmosphere of patriotism, ignorance and political fear.

….Of course for journalists, the most patriotic thing we can do is our jobs — which meant that we all should have doubled down on skepticism and tough questions. Some did. I wish I could say that I was one of them.

….I should have known more, studied more, asked more questions and been more skeptical.

Indeed. It will be interesting to see how Fineman acts on this hard-won wisdom.

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What They Didn’t Ask Hagel About

James Fallows put together this great word-cloud showing how often particular terms were mentioned during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel:

hagel word cloud (1)-thumb-620x344-112619

As Fallows points out:

What do you have to peer to see? Oh, how about the place where the largest number of U.S. troops are now in combat: “Afghanistan.” Or “Iraq.” And what is not there at all? Or, if present, nearly impossible to find? How about “NATO.” Or “China,” or “Japan.” Or “Pakistan,” or “Russia.” Or “budget.” Or “veterans,” “women in combat,” etc. “Oil.”

Maybe one question to focus attention on, going forward, is “What are we still doing in Afghanistan?”

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Kids Ask the Darnedest Things

An 11-year-old boy, David Williams, recently went to a Dallas city council public hearing to ask some questions about school safety and guns. But when he noticed that he still had some time left over–and that council members were barely paying attention to members of the public–he politely asked:

“Do you find it acceptable for city council members to be up and walking around while constituents are addressing them?”

Not only did that get the council’s attention, it propelled Williams onto the local news:

As Richard Harwood notes,

Williams’ punctured the arrogant behavior of those elected officials, holding them accountable in ways the rest of us often only dream about. His ‘innocence’ only made the question even more potent. Williams’ reminds us of the power of a simple question, and how it begs for an authentic response.

One council member, to his credit, did respond to Williams with the respect he deserved, promising to pay more attention during council meetings with the public.

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#GoodQ: $500,000–Does that guarantee you access to the President?

Here’s a nice example of White House reporter Ed Henry doing his best during the February 25 press briefing to get Jay Carney to answer a direct question about whether donations of $500,000 or more to Organizing for Action result in a meeting with the President for the donor. Note how he persists in patiently re-asking his question. If you listen carefully, Carney never really denies the allegation.

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