During the 1990s, most of us thought we were living in a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. We even spent the "peace dividend" -- cutting resources for intelligence and the military. The Cold War was over. We had no enemies worth worrying about. That was the accepted narrative of that giddy era.
The fact that Americans were being attacked with regularity by Islamist terrorists -- for example in New York City in 1993, at Khobar Towers in 1996, at two of our embassies in Africa in 1998, off the coast of Yemen in 2000 -- did not lead most politicians to conclude there was a crisis that needed to be addressed. As a result, the catastrophic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, came as a shock and a surprise.
This column is about the health-care debate, but first we must take a little diversionary walk -- because the weather is still fine and a nice walk is a healthy activity -- down to our lawyer's office.
As it happens, the lawyer occupies a special place of disrepute in the chronicle of unloved professions. Why, lawyers enjoy even less social standing than other public scoundrels such as journalists.
Of course, lawyers have always been an unloved lot. More than four centuries ago, William Shakespeare gave a rebellious character named Dick the Butcher the famous line: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
A sleepy Montana checkpoint along the Canadian border that sees about three travelers a day will get $15 million under President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. A government priority list ranked the project as marginal, but two powerful Democratic senators persuaded the administration to make it happen.
Despite Obama's promises that the stimulus plan would be transparent and free of politics, the government is handing out $720 million for border upgrades under a process that is both secretive and susceptible to political influence. This allowed low-priority projects such as the checkpoint in Whitetail, Mont., to skip ahead of more pressing concerns, according to documents revealed to The Associated Press.
The Obama administration took office, in the new president's words, determined to look forward, not backward, and as part of that philosophy it was agreed that it would be unfair to prosecute frontline CIA agents for harsh, even unduly harsh, interrogation techniques that they believed were authorized by the Justice department and encouraged by the White House.
In 2004, the CIA's inspector general did an investigation of those interrogations and found much that was "inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights." Not only inconsistent but also very likely illegal under U.S. and international law.
With just two weeks of training, or about half the time it takes to become a truck driver, the CIA certified its spies as interrogation experts after 9/11 and handed them the keys to the most coercive tactics in the agency's arsenal.
It was a haphazard process, cobbled together in the months following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington by an agency that had never been in the interrogation business. The result was a patchwork program in which rules kept shifting and the goals often were unclear.
At times, the interrogators went too far, even beyond the wide latitude they were given under the Bush administration's flexible guidelines, according to newly unclassified documents released Monday. Interrogators took the simulated drowning technique of waterboarding beyond what was authorized. Mock executions were held. Family members were threatened. There were hints of rape.
Call me a socialist -- and certainly someone will -- but in light of President Barack Obama's diminishing insistence on a public option in the health care reform package that is developing in Congress, it's worth noting that, despite the noisy support for the status quo arising from the right, many Americans would welcome significant change in our health care system, which even some Republicans admit is broken.
You would like to think that we learned some lessons from the exotic financial products that did so much to push us into recession.
But maybe not.
In a disturbing report, the Associated Press says that financial institutions have begun repackaging old mortgage securities -- some of them good, some of them not so good -- and selling them as top-rated bonds.
If the Secret Service and the White House don't worry about armed-to-the-teeth civilians being in relatively close proximity to Barack Obama, why should we? Certainly no one who might disagree with what is going on inside one of those free-for-all forums on health care could be expected to use his Second Amendment privilege to harm the president or any of the rest of us who might be outside, hoping to get in.
In fact, it is a safe bet that if you asked the fellow chillingly pictured at one of these affairs with a semi-automatic assault rifle slung over his shoulder and a handgun on his hip why he felt the need to come so loaded for bear, he would reply that he was there to protect himself and the rest of us. From what or whom? It is a good thing, too. Obviously the several hundred police officers guarding the outside of the presidential venue couldn't handle the job. Only a National Rifle Association-certified American could be trusted to do that.
Wall Street may have discovered a way out from under the bad debt and risky mortgages that have clogged the financial markets. The would-be solution probably sounds familiar: It's a lot like what got banks in trouble in the first place.
In recent months investment banks have been repackaging old mortgage securities and offering to sell them as new products, a plan that's nearly identical to the complicated investment packages at the heart of the market's collapse.
"There is a little bit of deja vu in this," said Arizona State University economics professor Herbert Kaufman.
Millions of older people face shrinking Social Security checks next year, the first time in a generation that payments would not rise.
The trustees who oversee Social Security are projecting there won't be a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the next two years. That hasn't happened since automatic increases were adopted in 1975.
By law, Social Security benefits cannot go down. Nevertheless, monthly payments would drop for millions of people in the Medicare prescription drug program because the premiums, which often are deducted from Social Security payments, are scheduled to go up slightly.