The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, June 28, 2021

It’s Monday, June 28th, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Heartbreaking Tragedy in Surfside, Florida: 9 People Confirmed Dead and More Than 150 Missing in Wake of Condominium Collapse in Miami

It happened in the middle of the night. Well, most of the effected people were sleeping, and that just adds to the terror of what took place in Surfside, Florida, in the early morning hours last Thursday. It was the collapse of a 13-story condominium building, a building that is stood for 40 years and was known to have problems. But nonetheless, the collapse of which comes as a major architectural and engineering disaster in the United States. And it may well come with a death toll that rivals that of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

That, too, because of an explosion was a pancake collapse. That means that you had a building collapsing floor by floor in a matter of seconds, trapping a large number of people. By early this morning the death toll was confirmed to be nine, but more than 150 people are missing.

Increasingly with time running out, the reality is that at some point, this is likely to become a recovery operation rather than a rescue and recovery operation. You can imagine the heartbreak and the anguish of family members looking at the building and also at the video and knowing of the human lives that were contained within that building trusting the architecture, trusting that the floor beneath their feet would stay where it was, and the roof above their head would stay where it was. Nonetheless, the collapse of the building took only a matter of a few seconds.

Now, immediately there arose questions of how it could have happened, but the urgency, of course, is trying to rescue the people inside the building. Many in the portion of the Champlain Towers South building there at Surfside that continued to stand had to be rescued from their balconies. The reality is this is one of those events that simply terrifies us all. The idea that a building in the United States could simply collapse, a building that was 40 years old, but that means only 40 years old, a building that had been built by modern American architectural and engineering standards. A building that though it had problems like many other aging American buildings, especially those that are subjected to the corrosion that comes with saltwater, the reality is that the building had been inspected repeatedly, and there had been no warning of any kind of imminent danger.

The fact is that when people went to bed on Wednesday night of last week, they had every reason in that building to assume that they would wake up right on schedule, but instead, the building collapsed. There is not only the evidence of looking at the building but there is also security camera footage of the building collapsing.

By late yesterday evening, the question why had reached a very interesting point when engineers and inspectors began to indicate that it appears to have been a pancake collapse that began in the lowest structures of the building. Last night, a team of reporters for The New York Times offered an article with the headline Possible Failure Point Emerges in Miami Building Collapse. The argument here is that the collapse of the building began at the lowest level in an underground parking garage, where it may well be, according to this theory, that structural columns failed. Why they failed? It is not yet known.

But once again, this is a building that is right there on the Florida Coast, where saltwater is particularly corrosive. Corrosive at the two most important construction elements of this building that would include concrete and steel rebar. The report in The New York Times indicated that at least one person just before the building fell saw a hole appear in the buildings’ pool. Now that would not have just been in the pool, it would have affected the substructure of the building and may explain how the progression reached the point that the building collapsed. It does not fully explain what originated, what was the catalyst of the entire accident in the first place. Was human error involved? Was this an architectural or engineering failure? Was this a disaster caused by environmental forces? Frankly, there is likely to be a very long investigation.

But first of all, there is the nation’s heartbreak. We are talking about human lives, the staggering death toll of a horrifying tragedy like this that will involve dozens upon dozens of families. But then we’re also looking at the horrifying uncertainty being experienced by so many of those families that have to wonder if there is any hope whatsoever that their loved ones can be found alive. There has been very little good news on that account since early morning last Friday, and the clock is ticking.

All this reminds us that we take so much for granted. For certain, we trust the buildings in which we go to sleep. We trust the engineering. We trust the architecture. We’ve been trained to do so because the reality is that buildings like this just don’t fall. When they do fall, it requires some extraordinary explanation. In the United States, buildings are exceedingly safe. Engineering and architecture are professions, and the professionals rarely present any kind of building like this that will simply collapse. It just doesn’t happen until, of course, on late Wednesday night, early Thursday morning, it did.

But then you’re also looking at the fact that in the United States, in virtually all communities in all 50 states, you have significant building codes. You have periodic inspections. This kind of thing just isn’t supposed to happen. And of course, thankfully, it generally doesn’t happen, but we’re talking about it today because it did happen. We take so much for granted, and we are trained to do so by our own experience. One thing, by the way, we understand as a limitation of what it means to be human as a part of human finitude is that we can’t be concerned about everything all the time, or we would fail to be operational. We have to be able to take certain things for granted. We have to be able to trust certain realities. If we can’t trust the floor under our feet or the roof over our heads, basically operational life becomes impossible.

Other issues come to the fore in the tragedy of the collapse of the Champlain Tower South there in Surfside, Florida. If you been overhearing conversations in that building, say just on the very day before the building collapsed, you would have heard conversations, not only in English but in Spanish, Hebrew, and Portuguese.

A building like that is not just a building that houses human beings. It is in its sense a microcosm of society. It is a little civilization unto itself. That civilization, largely because of the location there in Miami Beach, was extremely international. It was a mixture of people who were very clearly identified as Jewish, including Orthodox Judaism, people who were identified as those coming from Central and South America, looking for a home in the United States, sometimes for a season, sometimes permanently a family related to the wife of the President of Paraguay is among the missing. You are looking at the fact that there were people who had come from the American North. There were people who had come from South America. There were people who had come from Europe and elsewhere. It was a mixture of people who were gathered together in one building. That was, as I say, a microcosm of a community, not just a neighborhood, but an entire community, and it reflected the composition of Miami Beach.

When something like this happens, it traumatizes rightly an entire nation. It traumatizes all who have any knowledge of the tragedy, the grief, the uncertainty of the moment, and what will inevitably be a long period of mourning, all of that lies before us. At this point, the entire operation is complicated by weather, by the actual physical challenge of the collapse itself, and by fires that continue to rage even in the ruins. There are also issues that relate to the neighbors of Champlain Tower South, including its sister building Champlain Towers North. Built to a very similar design, that building may face the same problem, and city authorities there in the area said that they could not ensure that that building was safe. Furthermore, if the cause of all of this is shifting sand shifting ground under the buildings, it’s unlikely to affect only this one building, but it could conceivably affect neighboring buildings. And furthermore, it could affect the entire coastal area.

Now at this point, all that is known is that one building collapsed. All that is known is that at this point, the death toll is likely to be very significant. What we do know is that this is a tragedy of immense moral proportions that infinitely actually outweighs engineering and structural issues. There are likely to be huge questions about such realities as a 2018 report that indicated major structural problems in the building. But at the same time, even as those problems were detailed in the study, including failures of concrete and the danger of a shifting foundation, the reality is there was no warning of imminent danger.

At this point, our hearts and prayers are with all of those affected by this tragedy in Surfside, Florida. And we also pray that there will be opportunities in the midst of this tragedy for a witness to gospel hope.

Part II

Sometimes a Deal is Not What it Appears to Be: Biden Celebrates Bipartisan Agreement on $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Plan, Then Undermines the Agreement

Meanwhile, on what could be a related issue. At least when we think about infrastructure at the end of last week, President Joe Biden and a team of bipartisan senators indicated that they had achieved a $1.2 trillion deal, a bipartisan compromise that was intended to fix the nation’s infrastructure, or at least to spend $1.2 trillion in doing so. The background of this is complicated politics, and it got a lot more complicated toward the end of the week when President Biden stepped on his own message, and his own administration spokespersons tried to distance the administration from the president himself. But the use of the word infrastructure in this proposal controversial and rightly so nonetheless points to the fact that the nation, any society, does depend upon a certain infrastructure.

Now, of course, we, as Christians, believe that before there is physical infrastructure, there must be an ideological worldview infrastructure, a moral infrastructure. But when you are speaking about infrastructure in contemporary American culture, you are primarily talking about the kind of physical realities and systems that make a modern society possible.

Examples are, of course, bridges and interstate highways and transportation links, airports, infrastructure includes everything from sewage to electricity lines, and these days it also includes investments in high technology. That is mostly uncontroversial in the sense that if you look at the American people, the vast majority will say there is a role for the government in orchestrating organizing and, to some degree regulating that infrastructure. And there is a role for government at every level and being involved in providing for that infrastructure and for the maintenance, upkeep, and expansion of the infrastructure.

But at the same time, we understand that where politics goes, there is also the opportunity for all kinds of self-dealing. And of course, for ideological conflicts and much of that came to the fore, of course, with the fact that President Biden and those on the Democratic cleft had been pushing in the name of infrastructure what is actually an ideological extension of what amounts to a catalog of far-left dreams of the last several decades.

President Biden was elected upon at least to the promise that he was going to operate in a bipartisan fashion. He’s kind of redefined that in his own terms, but nonetheless, he was looking for a bipartisan deal and the deal was basically orchestrated by United States Senators because the Senate is right now the hinge. The question as to whether or not any kind of bill like this will go forward.

Now those in the Democratic party and those who speak on their behalf in the media, and that’s the majority of the mainstream media personalities, they argue that the big issue is whether or not Republicans would block any kind of similar legislative proposal by the use of the filibuster. The Senate requires 60 votes. There are only 50 Democratic votes.

In the Senate, of course, the vice president, as the presiding officer, and Vice President Kamala Harris is a Democrat too, she could be a 51st vote. but that doesn’t matter if legislation can’t even get to the floor of the Senate because there are not 60 votes to achieve cloture. That is the Senate’s rule whereby the Senate agrees to vote on an issue. Without 60 votes on most issues, the Senate cannot move forward.

But the reality is that it is not, basically at this point, Republican opposition, that is the main issue in truth that has a lot to do with the fact that the Democrats don’t have 50 votes on their own party for every particular version of this infrastructure plan. President Joe Biden, in the name of infrastructure, redefining infrastructure and political terms, he has offered legislation that is basically a cover for another version of the green new deal. He talks about human infrastructure in terms of childcare, early childhood education, paid parental leave. All of these is basically a proposed vast expansion of the American welfare state making the United States much more like a European country, particularly those societies in Western Europe with extremely high social welfare spending.

The $1.2 trillion deal is not a sure thing in the Senate or, for that matter. Also, in the house, it would have to pass both of those chambers. It also requires the signature of President Biden, but President Biden was the one who was pushing for it. But here’s what we’re looking at. The compromise was for 1.2 trillion. That’s with a “T,” $1.2 trillion of spending. And that is more than any previous infrastructure or spending bill of a similar sort in the history of the United States. But President Biden and the Democratic leadership have been pressing for at least $4 trillion under the name of what they defined as infrastructure. Again, not only hard infrastructure like bridges and roads, airports but also what they are defining as human infrastructure that amounts to that vast expansion of the welfare state.

But it’s extremely significant to note that the United States is not paying its current bills, not to mention the bills that would come from federal spending and necessary borrowing up to an additional trillions of dollars. But the fact is that there is the need for some infrastructure spending in the United States, just one glaring example, one bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, has been declared to be unsafe until it can be repaired. And you’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars in negative economic impact in that region every single day. A bridge turns out to be a choke point for an entire society.

You don’t have to look far around the United States to understand that we have a significant bill for physical infrastructure that needs to be paid. That’s why Republicans and Democrats understand that there is political capital in achieving a compromise on hard infrastructure. President Biden, having campaigned on the promise of bipartisanship, finally had, at least, it appeared that he had at the end of last week, an agreement that could lead to the fact that enough senators of both parties would vote for this compromise that it might pass. But it was a compromise that was negotiated over a fairly long period of time and under intense pressure among democratic and Republican senators in conversation with the White House. The White House declared victory and then basically torpedoed its own plan.

Last Thursday, standing in the driveway of the White House, President Biden held an impromptu press conference. By the way, this is a gaffe-prone American leader. He has been known for going off-script. And when he does, disaster can ensue, and it did. He trampled on his own message last Thursday because speaking of this compromise, he bragged about it and then said, “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it. I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest.” What was he doing? Well, he was trying to satisfy the left-wing of his own party that isn’t going to vote for the compromise because it doesn’t spend enough.

The president was basically saying that he was going to veto the compromise he had called for and negotiated if, at the same time, the Democrats did not move unilaterally through the Senate in a process known as reconciliation that allows financial bills to go by without the 60 vote filibuster rule, it would go through with just a majority vote.

But the president had wanted a bipartisan achievement, but the Republicans who had been negotiating in good faith understandably cried foul because the president said that he wasn’t going to go through with a compromise he had just bragged about if he didn’t get everything else that he wanted. In other words, some of the Republican senators said that the president had effectively made them look downright stupid. And he betrayed the deal he had called for and just bragged about because if he gets everything despite what had been a carefully negotiated agreement, then the agreement is worth absolutely nothing.

A team of reporters for the Washington post put the situation this way, “It was all going according to President Biden’s tightrope plan to pass the most ambitious economic agenda in generations, right until the moment the Mr. Biden, a politician with a history of rogue comments veered off script.” Later in the article, we read this, “For more than 24 hours, the White House engaged in damage control with top advisors, calling senators from both parties on Friday, the president spokeswoman gently tried to distance the administration from his comments.” Just to take the obvious. It is very hard to separate a presidential administration from the comments made by the president of the United States.

There is undoubtedly a contest between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, in the House, in the entire Congress, and in the larger political context. But again, the most interesting dynamic is actually within the Democratic party, both of the major Democratic legislative leaders that would be Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, both of them made statements consistent with the President’s veto threat. Senator Schumer said, “These two efforts are tied together. Let me make that clear.” He went on to say, “Speaker Pelosi agrees that we cannot do one without the other, all parties understand that we won’t get enough votes to pass either unless we have enough votes to pass both.” That statement reflects bad faith.

In other words, the Democratic leadership, largely if not entirely captive to the left-wing of the Democratic party, which is in the driver’s seat, it basically sent the message tails, I win, heads, you lose. The bill itself is not likely to get voted on until September. And just to state the obvious, there’s an incredible amount of time for a whole lot of mischief between now and when either of these bills might ever see the light of day in terms of an actual vote in the Senate.

Part III

U.S. Report on UFOs Is Released to the Disappointment of Many: Why Are We Always Looking for a Story Bigger Than Ourselves? Christians Know the Bigger Story

Next, earlier this month on The Briefing, we discussed the fact that Congress had required by the end of this month a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerning unidentified aerial phenomena. That’s the preferred federal government term for what had previously been discussed openly as unidentified flying objects. Of course, this has led to a great deal of speculation. And a lot of that speculation has increased pressure upon the federal government to release information on what it knows, the intelligence and military and scientific sources. Basically, the government has now released that report. And what it tells us is that it doesn’t know much, there are more questions and answers, and there isn’t even a good system for receiving information and reports, much less any way of actually applying any kind of rational process to understanding exactly what some of these unidentified aerial phenomena might be.

Now, this is likely to disappoint just about everyone because there’ve been so much speculation of the fact that Congress had finally required the American government through the Director of National Intelligence to come clean about what the federal government knows and what the federal government may have been involved in, or whether the federal government has detected in terms of some kind of extraterrestrial life, some kind of alien invasion, some kind of phenomenon that might be a misguided military experiment undertaken either by the United States or by some of its adversaries. The reality is that there was the hope that there would be some kind of headline news coming out of this report. But basically, the report is just about as boring as everything else released by a government authority.

The document is less than 10 pages long, and it has been given the name “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. 25, June 2021. From the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” The scope is described as this, “The preliminary report is provided by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ODNI, in response to the provision and Senate report, 116,233, accompanying the Intelligence Authorization Act, IAA that is for fiscal year, 2021, that the DNI in consultation with the Secretary of Defense,”–that’s S-E-C-D-E-F–“SecDef, is to submit an intelligence assessment of the threat posed by unidentified aerial phenomenon, that’s UAP, and the progress, the Department of Defense, Unintended Aerial Phenomena Task Force, that’s UAPTF has made and understanding this threat.” That’s just about the most exhilarating paragraph in the entire report.

The most important word in the report is on the front page, and on every page thereafter, the most important word is unclassified. That means that there remains a great deal of information that is almost assuredly classified, which means we haven’t seen it. And we’re not likely to see it soon. Am I suggesting that the federal government is covering up some kind of conspiracy that aliens had come to planet earth and that somehow the federal government’s trying to hide that from the American people? No, I am profoundly not saying that. I am saying that the government retains unto itself the right to classify material. And if you have the material that’s unclassified, it means you have the material that military and national security authorities want you to have. You don’t have the material they don’t want you to have. So if what you want is a conspiracy, well, you’re given even more full reign to play with that conspiracy to the delight of your heart.

The report does indicate that there are phenomena that aren’t explained. There are aerial phenomena that have not yet been identified. The report makes clear that there are credible reports of what has not yet, and perhaps never will be understood. That, again, points to our human finitude. Does the government know more than is telling us? Probably in some sense. Is it hiding something from us? Likely in a national security context, because even if it reports that there is nothing to report, it might betray certain intelligence-gathering mechanisms or technologies in doing so.

Julian E. Barnes The New York Times said it right when he wrote, “There was no affirmative evidence that the unexplained phenomena are alien spacecraft in the report, but because the government has offered no explanation for so many of the episodes, the new report is sure to fuel the enthusiasm of those who believe they could be.” In reports in the Washington post-NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson had reported that when he served in the United States Senate, he had seen the classified Unidentified Aerial Phenomena report, “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.” But he never explained why the hair stood up on the back of his neck.

The Times also ran an opinion piece by Chris Carter. He’s not a scientist. He is instead a screenwriter and director who created the TV series, The X-Files. He’s not very satisfied with the report pointing out that the report only costs $22 million in federal spending, which he said in what is certainly relevant to himself as a TV producer, “That’s roughly the cost of three episodes of the Netflix Series, ‘Stranger things.'” But among the most interesting observations made by Chris Carter is that among many people, there is a great desire to believe that these reports must be true in the sense that there must be some kind of alien life that there must be extraterrestrials, that there must be other intelligence out there.

From a Christian worldview perspective, what does that point to? All it points to the intense curiosity that is a part of the very structure of what it means to be human, but it also points to the fact that we are looking for a story that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than just human beings, bigger even than just planet earth.

It just so happens that Christians know that story that begins in the book of Genesis. Within the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Christians are those who know that without respect to UAPs or UFOs or whatever, anyone may wish to call them or creatively invent them. The reality is we are not alone in the cosmos, and the cosmos is not meaningless, and we are not waiting on extraterrestrials to tell us what’s missing in our information. Everything we need to know about the meaning of life, the meaning of the universe, and the purpose of the cosmos is made clear in holy Scripture. That might not make headlines, but as you know, it is the very foundation of the Christian worldview.

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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