Happy New Year

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Two happy developments late last year.

The first, and surely the more important, is the apparent rapid success of the Ethiopian Army in defeating the al Qaeda-linked Council of Islamic Courts front that seemed to be in control of much of Somalia, including the capital of Mogadishu. Now the Ethiopians have taken not only Mogadishu but, reportedly, the final Islamic Courts stronghold of Kisimayo, in the southwest part of the country.

Of course we have no way of knowing all the facts. The Islamic Courts folks in southwest Somalia could still be a threat to Kenya, and we don't know what the Ethiopians' tactics have been and whether in this fastidious age we would approve of all of them. But it does sound like the Islamic Courts group, linked to al Qaeda and trained, it appears, by Saudi Wahhabists, fell apart very fast indeed–which suggests it didn't have much support among the general population. All of which is very good news.

Journalistic accounts were painting a picture of a Somalia open to al Qaeda-type terrorists. The danger has probably not entirely passed, but it doesn't look as dire as it did just a few days ago.

The second happy development is the collapse of the prosecution of the Duke lacrosse players. I haven't written about this case before, and I do know (but haven't recently seen or talked to) the parents of David Evans, one of the accused students. But I don't feel at all bashful about saying that it has long been apparent that the case against these students has been a travesty. If you want to read more about it, you can do no worse than consult the leading blog, Durham-in-Wonderland, by Brooklyn College Prof. KC Johnson. And here's a definitive piece from the Wall Street Journal editorial page by Johnson and Stuart Taylor, the evenhanded and careful legal writer for National Journal. Johnson and Taylor are apparently writing a book on the case, and I'm sure it will be terrific.

You might also want to read an editorial run Sunday by the Washington Post, which calls for dropping all charges against the students and says that Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong should be subject to more charges than even those that the North Carolina Bar Association brought against him Thursday. Nifong's conduct in this case reminds me of the conduct of the prosecutor in the novel and movie To Kill a Mockingbird.

One thing I would be interested to know is what is going on in Nifong's mind. Is he a cynical and vicious man, or only a stupid and dangerous one? He had an obvious political motive for making his improper statements, conducting a viciously unfair lineup, and bringing charges where none should have been brought.

He wanted the votes of black voters in the May 2006 primary. Some took the view that because black women had been mistreated by white men in the past, charges should be brought against these white men on the say-so of this (very shaky) complaining witness who was black. Was Nifong cynically pretending to take this view or did he sincerely see himself as an avenger of past injustices?

When the DNA evidence came up negative, and when the outside DNA inspector found evidence that five men–none of them Duke lacrosse players–had had sexual contact with the complaining witness the night of the alleged offense–after all that, could Nifong possibly have been stupid enough to believe that the defendants were guilty? If so, that helps to explain his statement that he had an obligation to prosecute the case as long as the complaining witness was making the charges. Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with prosecutorial ethics knows that a prosecutor has a duty to bring a case only when he believes a conviction is warranted and that he has a duty not to bring one otherwise. He serves justice, not every complainant.

Of course, one could ask similar questions about Nifong's numerous journalistic cheerleaders, from the Durham Herald-Sun to the New York Times. When the case first became public, they were evidently captivated by the narrative virtuous-black-working-class-woman-abused-by-privileged-rich-white-athletes. But to anyone with an ounce of sense it should have been clear as the facts came out that they didn't fit this narrative. Yet, as KC Johnson shows exhaustively, journalists plowed on. I am reminded of the Hollywood TV detective story scriptwriters, at least in the 1970s when I used to watch these shows. If a businessman was getting a civic award in the first scene, you could be sure he was the murderer–even if you hadn't yet seen the murder. The underdog was always virtuous, the overdog always the villain. Too many journalists covering the Duke case couldn't get out of this "progressive" mind-set–a fine example of one of the many things rotten in the state of journalism today.