Monday, Aug 13, 2018

Monday, Aug 13, 2018

The Briefing

August 13, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, August 13, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Questions remain after tragic human drama plays out in the air over Seattle

A tragic human drama played out mostly in the sky over Seattle, Washington on Friday night. As a team of reporters for the Associated Press tell us, investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent working his regular shift stole an empty Horizon Air turbo prop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport, and fatally crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jet that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.

Now, that brief lead to a major news story just begins to scratch the surface of this story and what it means. We are talking about a human drama, a human drama that in this new age can be played out almost in real time before watching eyes all over the world. One of the first things to catch the attention of people in Seattle was the unusual behavior of the turbo prop airliner over the Seattle skies. It was doing acrobatics. We now know that a 29-year-old man who had been working for three and a half years as a member of the ground crew for Horizon Air stole the aircraft.

Some of the media have described the crime as a hijacking, but it wasn’t a hijacking technically because there was no one on the plane to be hijacked. Rather, it was a stolen plane. We now know that the man was Richard Russell. He originally flew the plane towards the mountains and one of the things that becomes very clear as you take a closer look at this story is the compassion and the professionalism of the air traffic control team there at Sea-Tac Airport. ATC personnel established contact with Russell shortly after he took the plane and even as he was flying, they engaged in a conversation that was clearly intended to try to help the man to save his own life.

But we also see in the course of that conversation that this was a man who did not intend to survive the flight. A host of questions immediately will come to mind. For example, how is it that a man who was a member of a ground crew for an airline could effectively steal an airliner, get it off the ground, and fly it around? The answer that came back almost immediately is likely to surprise most Americans. It turns out the airliners are not locked and no key is required to start the engines. One of the responsibilities of this man, Richard Russell, who took the plane as a part of the ground crew was to use what’s called a pushback tractor to move the airliners when they are waiting for scheduled maintenance.

He used one of those pushback tractors to put the airliner that he stole in position to takeoff. The airliner, by the way, was a Bombardier Q400. It’s a turbo prop that is used all over the world. Many people have flown the plane under its previous name, which was the de Havilland Dash 8. In any event, Richard Russell was able to take the plane. But the question is how was he able to fly it? Because according to the best knowledge at present, he had no pilot’s license and had never had flight training. Nonetheless, he was able to get the airliner in the sky and he was able to fly it around.

Not only that, but as people on the ground in Seattle quickly began to understand, you had an airliner doing acrobatics. Not only that, but rather skillful acrobatics, raising the question, how did this man have any ability to fly? His own answer given in the conversation with ATC personnel is that he had experience flying through video games. But one of the most tragic dimensions of the story comes out in the dialogue between Russell and the ATC controllers. It became abundantly clear that even though this man had the ability to get the plan into the sky and to fly around, he had no ability to land the plane, which pilots will tell you is a far more complex operation.

Now, this raises a very different dimension. The big issue here from a national concern is not just the fact that you had a man on a ground crew able to steal an aircraft worth more than $30 million and to fly it around. It’s not just that the airplane was able to take off from Sea-Tac Airport. It is also that anyone who’s able to fly a plane in this way could have done so with deadly intention. It becomes very clear, not only in the behavior of the man, but also in his conversation, that Richard Russell meant to hurt no one other than himself. There’s a basic compassion and humanity that comes out on both sides of the conversation that is now recorded for all to hear.

Richard Russell speaking of himself described himself as a broken man. He apologized to all those whom he would disappoint by not only taking the plane, but by ending his life. Speaking of himself very movingly and poignantly, Russell said that he was, “Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose, I guess. Never knew it until now.” That’s an incredible statement of self-knowledge in the final moments of a man’s life. He describes himself as broken and he also describes himself as having a few screws loose. But he goes on to say that he didn’t know it until now. You can only imagine what was going through the mind of a man who had taken this airliner, had taken off and gotten it into the sky, but had no ability to land the plane.

The conversation playing out in real time must not have appeared real to those ATC controllers who were handling it so well. Russell at one point said to them, “All right. I just kind of want to do a couple of maneuvers to see what it can do before I put her down, you know?” Speaking of himself in the plane, he said, “I wouldn’t know how to land it. I wasn’t really planning on landing it.” Speaking to the controllers, he said, “Man, I’m sorry about this. I hope it doesn’t ruin your day. It’s a blast,” he said. “I’ve played video games before. So, I know what I’m doing a little bit.”

As the controllers are trying to give him advice on where he might try to land, Russell indicated that he would not make that attempt, indicating not only that he didn’t know how to land the plane, but that he was concerned that in trying to land, he might hurt someone on the ground. Instead, he the aimed the plane toward Puget Sound and crashed it on a sparsely populated island. The Christian worldview significance of this story has a great deal to do, of course, in the beginning, with the human drama, the man involved, a deeply troubled man, a man whose life ended with the crash of the airplane.

But the larger issues that are likely to continue of national consequence have to do with the security failures that were demonstrated in the event in Seattle on Friday. Here’s something to keep in mind. The basic ingenuity of the fallen human mind and, of course, the kind of ingenuity that enabled this man given his own security clearance to steal the plane. Put simply, it is obvious that there were no adequate protections in order to prevent what took place in Seattle. All that is likely to change. Anyone who can remember September 11, 2001 certainly will recall that Americans had hardly, if ever, conceived of major airliners being stolen or hijacked and then flown with deadly intent in a terror attack into major American buildings.

But that’s exactly what took place on 9/11 and that’s very much now in the foreground of the concern about what took place in Seattle over the weekend. Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, also identified as a transportation security expert said, “The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat.” He went on to say, “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and he had a skillset proficient enough to take off with that plane.” Later, he said, “If he had the skillset to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground.”

It became very clear that Richard Russell had no intention to kill anyone on the ground. But this does make us recall to chilling effect the fact that those terrorists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 had taken flight lessons, but they had taken lessons only in how airliners should take off and fly. That was their training. They did not have training in how to land the plane. Of course, they never intended to land those airliners. But only in retrospect did even the people who offered them flight training discover that it was indeed unusual as they thought about it that these were men who wanted to know how to take off in airliners and fly the planes around, but they didn’t have any interest in learning how to land them. One of the sad dimensions of life in a fallen world is that we so often understand things backwards. We only see the pattern after something like this has happened.

Part II

One year after deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Christians must be very clear that biblical Christianity is incompatible with any claim of racial superiority

But next, we shift across the country to Washington D.C. and not only Washington, but Charlottesville, Virginia. This past weekend marked the one year anniversary of a White supremacist march there in Charlottesville that turned deadly. The scene shifted this year largely to Washington D.C. where the organizers of the event last year in Charlottesville tried to have a second event in the nation’s capital. The event happened, but it turned out that not many White supremacists showed up.

They called the event the second Unite the Right rally. As the team of reporters for the Washington Post, Joe Heim, Peter Hermann, Perry Stein, and Marissa Lang report, “White supremacists held a rally in Washington on Sunday and almost no one but their opponents the police showed up.” The Post report continued, “Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of last year’s violent and deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, wanted to hold an anniversary demonstration there, but the city wouldn’t let him. So, he brought his show to Washington where he hoped 400 supporters would join him for a rally at Lafayette Square across from the White House. Fewer than 40 turned out.”

Now, the first reflection on this story is the relief that there were not more than just a handful of people who would show up to identify with White supremacy at this event in the nation’s capital. The organizers again had claimed that there would be at least 400, but just about every major media source says that there were only a handful of such protestors. Certainly, no more than 40. That’s good news. But it is a reminder nonetheless that there is a virulent strain of racial superiority ideologies still in the United States and the predominant form of that ideology so deeply and tragically ingrained in American history is White supremacy.

Throughout American history, that strain of White supremacy has been deadly again and again and again. We should be very thankful that it was not deadly in the form of the demonstration in Washington. It’s also really clear as a second observation that when you have this kind of demonstration, especially one coming on the anniversary of a previous demonstration, you have not only force, but you have counterforce, and both sides extremely politicized. That’s not to say that there are two moral sides to the question of White superiority. Of course, there are not. But when you look at a demonstration, especially one like was held in Washington, we do know that the average American is not involved in such demonstrations.

The people who are involved are clearly trying to make a point. In this case, a point and a counterpoint. The counterpoint in this case was far larger in numbers and far louder in voice than the original point. Police in Washington D.C. had the strategy of keeping the two groups separated as we think of physical proximity in order to prevent the opportunity for violence. Some in the counter protest who identify with the Antifa movement were very frustrated by the fact that the confrontation was not allowed and as the Washington Post reported, many of their members “vented their frustration at not being able to confront the rally goers by lighting smoke bombs and firecrackers and throwing eggs at federal buildings downtown”.

The event last year in Charlottesville had turned particularly dangerous and as it turned out, deadly when the two groups were allowed in physical proximity and did enter into what became a violent confrontation. The big news in Washington D.C. this weekend is that White supremacists held a rally and almost no one on their side showed up. Again, that’s encouraging. But it is also potentially misleading because it will lead some Americans to say that White supremacist ideology, that racial superiority theories are really not present in America. They’re not a clear and present danger. But they’re not just a part of American history. We see them repeatedly coming up now in more public ways, especially over the last 24 months or so.

But this is where Christians in the United States must be very clear, publicly clear that Biblical Christianity and the Biblical worldview, they’re incompatible with any claim of racial superiority or White supremacy. By the time you get to a demonstration and a counter demonstration, a protest and a counter protest, the issue in the United States becomes so politicized that you have groups lining up in order to make their points on the cable television news programs and in social media where most Americans need to take a pause and think clearly about what really is at stake. This is where Christians go back to Genesis and the creation of every single human being equally in God’s image.

This is where we go to the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb where the new humanity, the redeemed humanity in Christ to the church is seated at that table. Men and women, we are told, from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. What does this tell us? It tells us that the Creator, God, who has redeemed us in Christ glorifies Himself. He brings glory to His name and He brings glory to His son, the Christ, at this marriage supper where humanity becomes a new humanity, this new humanity seated at the table of the lamb from every tongue, every tribe, every people, every nation. From Genesis to Revelation, there is absolutely no room for racial superiority.

Part III

Why we should be careful with our language when using the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ to describe the different ideological sides in partisan politics

But then on a related issue, we turn to a question that certainly some must be asking. The name of the event in Washington D.C. was supposedly the second rally entitled Unite the Right. Well, what is the right and why do we talk about left and right? In the United States, but long before the modern era of American politics and before the language was used in the United States, left and right began to be attached to a more liberal and a more conservative direction or impulse in politics and in worldview. But where does that come from? Why do we use the term “left” and “right”? Is this like two hands on two arms? No. It’s like two different sides of the room because in a very real historical sense, that’s exactly what it was.

In 1789, the First National Assembly was held after the French Revolution. Actually, more properly, we should say as the French Revolution was continuing. The National Assembly met in a room and those who were more conservative sat to the speaker’s right. Those who were more radical sat to the speaker’s left. In the National Assembly room, left and right became a reality physically. Now, of course, it is a reality in our language. We borrowed it from France. The language of left and right indicating more liberal and conservative directions that began in the French Revolution became a part of British political conversation because of that revolution and from Britain, it spread to the United States.

Why the room, why the left, why the right? As the French baron de Gauville said in 1789, “Those of us attached to the king and the religion positioned ourselves to the right of the presiding chamber in order to avoid the shouting and the indecent language coming from the other side.” Well, as we now know, by the early 19th century, left and right had become two different political identifications. But this is where Christians need to think particularly careful. Just what does the left include and just what does the right include? Interestingly, if you go back the French Revolution, the left represented the more radical, the more pro-revolutionary, and the more secular side. The right, wanting to continue the tradition and the established patterns of the past, was more committed to the church and to at least some form of the monarchy, a more conservative trajectory.

Well, as you look at left and right as these terms have developed over the last several decades in particular, as you come to the early 20th century, the left became associated again and again with more revolutionary ideas. Thus in Europe and in the United States, the left became associated with what you might call the far left of communism, and of course, there are different variants, especially in revolutionary fervor of the communists and then the socialists and then the social democrats and then others that would be far more centrist in political philosophy, but still identifying more with the left than the right.

In the United States and in Western Europe, the right has been largely defined as opposition to the left. The right has been the more conservative trajectory. But just as the left includes those who are close to the center, those who are further, and those who are even further to the left, the same thing is true of the right. The organizers of the rally calling it Unite the Right were really talking about the far, far right. That leads to a different consideration. Sometimes, we hear “liberalism” and “the left” used as synonyms the same way we were “conservatism” and “the right” used as synonyms. Actually, neither is fully accurate.

First, looking at the left, liberalism, classical liberalism, as in the liberal arts or a modern liberal democracy, liberalism would include several affirmations about human dignity, human rights, and liberty that would also be affirmed by those identified as conservative. On the other hand, as you look at conservatives, the right would go far beyond anything that’s rightly described as conservative. The very point of being conservative, the essence of conservatism is the effort to try to preserve institutions, patterns of life, and affirmations of dignity that are required for a flourishing civilization. This also means that political conservatism has grave concerns about the expansion of government, seeing that as coming at the cost of human liberty.

By the time you come to the 19th and 20th century, especially the 20th century I Europe and in the United States, liberal and conservative refers to what was understood as the great political center. Just think of the British Parliament or think of the United States Congress. In that sense, the left would go far beyond classical liberalism and the right would go far beyond classical conservatism. True conservatives, principled conservatives, traditional conservatives would see the far right as a great threat to human dignity and to our national future the same way that classical liberals would look at the far left as a similar danger.

But what’s really interesting to note in this contemporary moment is that on the left and on the right, there is movement. The far left and the far right are now more animated than they have been in the United States and throughout much of Europe for the last half century or more. But it is perhaps important for Christians to think through the fact that we should be careful with our language and careful in understanding what it means to say liberal and conservative, what it means to say politically the left and the right. In order for us to understand that, it is interesting to go back to that room where the National Assembly of revolutionary France met in 1789.

One side of the argument on one side of the room. The other side of the argument on the other side of the room. It reminds is that history is never far from us. As Marcel Gauchet, the historian, commented, “A great deal of water flowed under the bridge between the Revolution when people hesitantly spoke of the Assembly as divided between a right side and a left side and the Restoration when the terms were permanently enthroned in the parliamentary lexicon.” Oddly enough, an ongoing part of our American vocabulary as well.

Part IV

As always, words matter. Even when you ‘throw in the towel’ or ‘chuck up the sponge’

But finally, we turn to yet another related dimension of vocabulary. Over the weekend, Victor Mather wrote an article for the New York Times asking the question, where do so many of these terms and metaphors from sports come from? How did they end up in our vocabulary? To what can they be traced? He then explained some of the sports idioms, such as “hat in the ring”. It turns out that that goes back to boxing and the fact that in the early days, the rather unorganized days of boxing, if an individual indicated a willingness to fight, then a hat was thrown in the ring. “Throw in the towel” was really the opposite. It has to do with a boxer’s corner man who throws the towel into the ring as a sign of surrender, quitting, or giving up.

But as Mather tells us, in earlier times, it was a sponge that was hurled, and thus the phrase back then was “chuck up the sponge”. But the sponge gave way to the towel and “throw in the towel” has been a part of the American idiom since the early 20th century. “Out of left field”, no one knows exactly where “out of left field” came from. It definitely comes from baseball, but no one knows exactly why. William Safire a generation ago argued that it likely had to do with the fact that in early ballparks, left field was sometimes deeper than right.

But Mather argues that a more colorful explanation could have to do with the fact that the Cubs stadium back in the early 20th century had an insane asylum, as it was called then, near left field. Thus, noises were heard coming out of left field. What about “back to square one”? Well, the British like to think that it had something to do with what we call soccer, but their own Oxford English Dictionary says that the term is rooted only in the 1950s and actually has to do with board games where if you pull the wrong card or throw the wrong number, you might have to go back to square one.

What about “across the board”? Well, that goes back to horse racing and the betting where you spread bets potentially across the board. “There’s the rub”, that goes back to bowling where a rub, Mather tells us, is an unevenness in the playing surface that can cause the ball to slow or alter the ball’s course. What about “wheelhouse”, “strong suit”, and “forte”? Well, Mather tells us that “wheelhouse” is used in baseball, the area in which a batter feels most comfortable hitting the ball. “Strong suit” is from card games and “forte”, well, this is the most interesting. It goes back to fencing because “forte” is the stronger part of a sword blade.

As always, words matter, even if you throw in the towel or chuck the sponge, going back to square one across the board, and there’s the rub if words are your forte.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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