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:

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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How to Not Ask About Guns, 2012 Version

Between May 5, 2011 and February 16, 2012, there were twenty televised debates featuring the Republican candidates for President. According to Jay Rosen and his students in NYU’s “Studio 20” class, these debates included 839 questions asked of the candidates by the journalists moderating the events. Only three of these questions mentioned the word guns, and in fact, only one referenced the national debate over violence and gun control. Here are the text of those three questions, as provided by Nadja Popovich, one of the NYU students:

1) Chris Wallace – December 15, 2011, Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa: “Thank you, Bret. The question is for you, Governor Perry. This topic received traffic on Twitter. You have joined the 57 House Republicans who have called for the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, to resign in the wake of the failed federal gun tracking program Operation Fast and Furious.So far, there is no clear proof that Mr. Holder knew about the controversial aspects of this operation. And he points out that he actually helped stop it when it came to his attention. Are you and other Republicans politicizing this issue as General Holder claims?”
2) Chris Wallace – December 15, 2011, Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa: “Thanks, Bret. Governor Romney, you have changed your position in the last 10 years on abortion, on gay rights, on guns. You say keeping an open mind is a strength, but some of your critics say that every one of these moves has been to your political advantage. When you were running in Massachusetts, you took liberal positions. Running now as president, you take more conservative positions. Is that principle or is it just politics?”
3) (Follow up to previous) Chris Wallace – December 15, 2011, Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa: “If I may, sir, in 1994, when you were running for the Senate, you wrote a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans in which you said, “I am more convinced than ever before that, as we seek full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent,” who was Ted Kennedy. In 1994, you also said you supported not only an assault weapons ban, but also a five-day waiting period. And in 2002, when you were running as governor, you said that you supported the tough gun control laws in Massachusetts. And then as you say in 2004, you also signed an assault weapons ban. So you are still more of a champion of gay rights than Ted Kennedy was?”

As you can see, it was only in the last question that gun laws came up as a topic, but Chris Wallace’s phrasing actually was aimed at getting Mitt Romney’s response to a different question–whether he was a flip-flopper–not whether he thought gun laws were too tough or too lax.

During the general election debates between Romney and Barack Obama, the question of guns and violence did get raised once in a much more substantive way, during their second debate, which was held “town-hall” style and moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. Here’s how that went:

MS. CROWLEY: Because what I want to do, Mr. President — stand there for a second, because I want to introduce you to Nina Gonzales, who brought up a question that we hear a lot, both over the Internet and from this crowd.

Q: President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or plan to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, we’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment. And I believe in the Second Amendment. You know, we’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.

But there have been too many instances during the course of my presidency where I’ve had to comfort families who’ve lost somebody, most recently out in Aurora. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, actually probably about a month, I saw a mother who I had met at the beside of her son who had been shot in that theater.

And her son had been shot through the head. And we spent some time, and we said a prayer. And remarkably, about two months later, this young man and his mom showed up, and he looked unbelievable, good as new. But there were a lot of families who didn’t have that good fortune and whose sons or daughters or husbands didn’t survive.

So my belief is that A, we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement.

But I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced, but part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence, because frankly, in my hometown of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence, and they’re not using AK-47s, they’re using cheap handguns.

And so what can we do to intervene to make sure that young people have opportunity, that our schools are working, that if there’s violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control?

And so what I want is a — is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.

MS. CROWLEY: Governor Romney, the question is about assault weapons, AK-47s.

MR. ROMNEY: Yeah, I — I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on — on guns and — and taking guns away or — or making certain guns illegal. We of course don’t want to have automatic weapons, and that’s already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.

What I believe is we have to do as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have and to change the culture of violence we have. And you ask, how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things.

He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state, and I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll — we’ll give people the — the hope and opportunity they deserve, and perhaps less violence from that.

But let me mention another thing, and that is parents. We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the — the benefit of having two parents in the home — and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically.

So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them in the American system.

The — the greatest failure we’ve had with regards to gun violence, in some respects, is what is known as Fast and Furious, which was a program under this administration — and how it worked exactly, I think we don’t know precisely — but where thousands of automatic and — and AK-47-type weapons were — were given to people that ultimately gave them to — to drug lords. They used those weapons against — against their own citizens and killed Americans with them.

And this was a — this was a program of the government. For what purpose it was put in place, I can’t imagine. But it’s one of the great tragedies related to violence in our society which has occurred during this administration which I think the American people would like to understand fully. It’s been investigated to a degree, but the administration has — has carried out executive privilege to prevent all the information from coming out. I’d like to understand who it was that did this, what the idea was behind it, why it led to the violence — thousands of guns going to Mexican drug lords.


MS. CROWLEY: Governor, Governor, if I could, the question was about these assault weapons that once were banned and are no longer banned. I know that you signed an assault weapons ban when you were in Massachusetts. Obviously with this question, you no longer do support that. Why is that? Given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings, why is it that you’ve changed your mind?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, Candy, actually, in my state, the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks came together and put together a piece of legislation, and it’s referred to as a — as an assault weapon ban, but it had at the signing of the bill both the pro-gun and the anti- gun people came together, because it provided opportunities for both that both wanted. There were hunting opportunities, for instance, that hadn’t previously been available and so forth. So it was a mutually agreed upon piece of legislation.

That’s what we need more of, Candy. What we have right now in Washington is a place that’s — that’s gridlocked. We haven’t had — we haven’t — we haven’t — we haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis.

MS. CROWLEY: So if I could, if you could get people to agree to it, you’d be for it.


MR. ROMNEY: I was able to do that in my state and bring these two together.


MS. CROWLEY: Quickly, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The — first of all, I think Governor Romney was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it. And he said that the reason he changed his mind was in part because he was seeking the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

So that’s on the record. But I think that one area we agree on is the importance of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they’re less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts. We’re not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t get weapons. But we can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.

And Candy, we haven’t had a chance to talk about education much. But I think it is very important to understand that the reforms we put in place, working with 46 governors around the country, are seeing schools that are some of the ones that are the toughest for kids starting to succeed. We’re starting to see gains in math and science. When it comes to community colleges, we are setting up programs, including with Nassau Community College, to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school but now are getting another chance — training them for the jobs that exist right now. And in fact, employers are looking for skilled workers, and so we’re matching them up. Giving them access to higher education — as I said, we have made sure that millions of young people are able to get an education that they weren’t able to get before.

Now — but —

MS. CROWLEY: Mr. President, I have to — I have to move you along here. You said you wanted to hear these questions, and we need to do it here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: — but — but it’ll — it’ll — it’ll — it’ll be just — just one second, because —


PRESIDENT OBAMA: — because this is important. This is part of the choice in this election. And when Governor Romney was asked whether teachers — hiring more teachers was important to growing our economy, Governor Romney said that doesn’t grow our economy. When — when he was asked — (inaudible) — class size —

MS. CROWLEY: The question, of course, Mr. President, was guns here. So I need to move us along.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I understand.

MS. CROWLEY: You know, the questions was guns. So let me — let me bring in another —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But this will make a difference in terms of whether or not we can move this economy forward for these young people —

MS. CROWLEY: I understand.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: — and reduce our violence.

The woman who asked this question, Nina Gonzales, didn’t get to ask a follow-up because the rules of the debate, which were written and agreed to by the lawyers for both campaigns, strictly prohibited her from doing so (and indeed called for her mike to be shut off as soon as she asked her question to make sure that wouldn’t happen). The next day, Gonzales was on the Piers Morgan show on CNN along with some of her fellow debate audience members.

MORGAN: ….Nina, gun control was your question. I was thrilled by that. I’ve been banging on about this for a long time on this show. I wasn’t overly impressed by either answers. Nobody really wants to do anything about government control, do they?

NINA GONZALES, ASKED QUESTION AT THE DEBATE: It appears not at this point.

MORGAN: Disappointed?

GONZALES: Yes, I am.

Gonzales later told Morgan that she had tried to have a follow-up conversation with Obama about gun control after the debate was over, but that he was distracted by an interruption and she never got to finish the conversation. What a perfect metaphor for our national conversation about this pressing issue.

Considering that tens of thousands of Americans die every year from gun violence, how is it that we went an entire presidential election with almost no discussion of the issue?

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How to Ask New Questions

Here’s a fun bit of video of film-maker Robert Weide asking director Woody Allen twelve original questions. It’s a great example of doing your homework before talking to a public figure; Weide tells Allen that since he’s been interviewed so many times and asked the same thing over and over, he deliberately developed questions that he’s sure Allen has never been asked. The results are delightfully revealing.

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Have You Read Fifty Shades of Grey?

That was asked of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and her challenger, lawyer Wendy Long, during the “lightning round” of last night’s New York Senate debate by Daily News journalist Liz Benjamin.

As you can see from this clip, the audience enjoyed it and the candidates didn’t seem offended. But really? Does anyone think this is a useful question?

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