The Briefing 09-20-16

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Terrorist attacks in 3 states over the weekend underscore ongoing threat of radical Islam

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Nashville, the "buckle of the Bible belt," to consider decriminalizing marijuana

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Does marijuana produce slackers? New research shows lack of regulatory standards harmful

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7,800,947—the number of opioid prescriptions in TN, surpassing that state's population

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Transcript

The Briefing

September 20, 2016

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

It’s Tuesday, September 20, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Terrorist attacks in 3 states over the weekend underscore ongoing threat of radical Islam

The reality of the threat of terror was made abundantly clear in New York and in Minneapolis on Saturday, but that brings to mind a major shift in terms of the terror threat. The terror threat had been identified, first of all, in terms of Al Qaeda and its terroristic teams. That was made clear at least in the rise of the modern conversation about international terrorism in the United States that can be dated September 11, 2001. After that came the caliphate-based terrorism of the Islamic State. But that very group through its leadership announced about two years ago a major shift, a shift towards what the group called the activation of lone wolf terrorist that would be embedded in the West. The most ominous aspect of that development is that the terrorist masterminds would not necessarily even know the identity or location, much less the timing and strategies of these lone wolf terrorists. Instead, ISIS and similar groups have put up all kinds of information about how to carry out a terrorist attack on the World Wide Web. Add to that what is now described as the process of Islamic terrorists’ self-radicalization, and you end up with the headlines that we had on Saturday.

First of all in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a lone attacker stabbed nine people outside a Macy’s store at that local mall. The suspect was killed in a confrontation with police, but he was identified as Dahir Adan. Then an even bigger story out of New Jersey and New York City, as the New York Times reported,

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“A bomb that injured 29 people on Saturday in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and another that failed to detonate, were filled with shrapnel and made with pressure cookers, flip phones and Christmas lights to set off a powerful explosive compound, law enforcement officials said on Sunday.

In subsequent hours and days, it became clear that there were not only two potential explosive devices, but several. And then it was announced that a suspect had been identified, largely through video footage, having been located in two of the significant locations. As of yesterday, that man was apprehended; he was also shot by police. He’s identified as Ahmad Khan Rahami, and he was identified by a shopkeeper in New Jersey who was watching CNN’s live news report and happened to detect the man just across the street. He then called police.

We face a very interesting pattern in this. Of course, both men are identified as Muslims and thus are quickly identified in terms of the international strategy of terror, and it becomes largely impossible to argue that they are not. Nevertheless, there is a very peculiar though perhaps largely politically necessary form of political correctness that was found in the fact that on Saturday the Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, said that there appeared to be no evidence that this was a part of a terror attack. Meanwhile, yesterday he said,

“We have every reason to believe this was an act of terror.”

[USA Today] cited Howard Safir, a former New York police Commissioner. He held that job from 1996 to 2000 who said,

“It is absolutely an act of terrorism. I couldn’t disagree with him (de Blasio) more. I think they do a disservice to the public when they try to sugar coat something that is a horrific act.”

Well, we should note that not every horrific act is an act of terrorism. Terrorism implies a specific kind of intentionality, not just a strategy. [USA Today] gets to this when it stipulates that federal law defines terrorism as,

“Acts dangerous to human life” that appear intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to influence government policy.

That’s a precise, if bureaucratic, explanation or definition. But what does it tell us? It tells us the essential truth, and that is that there is an intentionality behind an attack of terror or even a thwarted terror attack, and that intentionality is to cause terror in the hearts of a civilian population so that they will respond in some way that will lead to a change in government policy. That threat has been foremost in the minds of Americans since September 11, 2001. But thinking about this intelligently, we have to understand that terror is not a new strategy and that terrorism is not a new enemy. We look back through the annals of human history and understand that at various times the tactics of terror have been used by different kinds of historical actors, individuals, groups, and states.

The rise of modern terrorism in many ways goes back to the 1940s, especially in the aftermath of World War II. World War II is not so much an act of terror as it was classically an act of war. The strategy of terrorists is to try to accomplish what state actors or governments might try to accomplish by war, since they generally do not have armies, not in any sense that can go up against a major power. They have to resort to terrorism, which can use very few persons and can inflict massive damage, especially in terms of attitude and civilian morale. The bombs in New York City and New Jersey were very similar to the deadly bombs that were used in the bombings of the Boston Marathon, and as we now know, that brought massive carnage. And we’re also looking at the fact that there could be the radicalization of any number of copycat terrorists around the world, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city.

We’re talking not only hear about New York City but also about St. Cloud, Minnesota. That underlines the fact that this is not an isolated threat, nor one that law enforcement or military intelligence officials can easily identify in advance. We go back to the very essence of terror and terrorism remembering those opening words in the New York Times Sunday edition that the bombs in New York and New Jersey,

“Appeared designed to create maximum chaos and fatalities.”

That reveals the moral evil at the very heart of terrorism. Terrorism only works if the threat is considered to be credible, and that means that terrorists actually have to do what they threatened to do to bring about the kind of attacks that will bring mayhem and carnage and death. This is where Christians must remember that the most important definition of what we face here isn’t merely psychological or sociological, economic or political. It is spiritual and theological. It is the understanding that there is a deep moral evil at the very heart of this impulse, a moral evil that a secular worldview cannot predict and even more fundamentally cannot explain.

Nashville, the "buckle of the Bible belt," to consider decriminalizing marijuana

Next, armed with the Christian worldview, we have been attempting to understand the process of massive change taking place all around us. We’ve seen that one of the most interesting barometers of that change is public opinion on the issue of marijuana. I’m speaking to you from Nashville, Tennessee, which makes this headline all the more interesting from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times:

“Following Its Country Music, Nashville May Loosen Up on Marijuana.”

Richard Fausset reports,

“Willie Nelson’s famous habit of smoking marijuana is not seen as a badge of outlaw courage here anymore, so much as the frivolous foible of an eccentric uncle.”

And again, the dateline of this story is Nashville, Tennessee. The author goes on to say,

“A popular FM station disgorging the Boomer rock hits of yesteryear calls itself Hippie Radio 94.5; one of its sponsors is a smoke shop that incessantly hawks glass pipes and detox kits. Even mainstream country acts mention smoking marijuana now and again among the litany of acceptable American pastimes.”

Then Fausset gets to the really interesting thing when he writes,

“So perhaps it is not surprising as much as telling that this city, which residents often refer to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt, may be on the cusp of joining the long roster of American cities, including New York, that have decriminalized the stuff.”

Fausset goes on to report,

“On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Council, the legislative body for the consolidated city-county government here, will vote on a proposed ordinance that would give the police an alternative to criminally charging people caught with a half-ounce of marijuana or less.”

It is a really interesting story because it’s datelined in Nashville. If this story were from Seattle or Portland or Los Angeles or New York, it wouldn’t have the same kind of moral meaning, and the New York Times recognizes that. As Fausset writes,

“But the fact that the decriminalization proposal has a good chance of passing here in Nashville — the great promulgator of heartland values in song, and home to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention — says something about the steady erosion of the fear of marijuana, which, for many here, has come to seem about as threatening as a Lady Antebellum ballad.”

Both country music and Nashville’s role as something of the buckle of the Bible Belt play a role in the story. Country music, it turns out, has been softening its understanding of marijuana and importing marijuana as an issue or as a theme in many popular songs. Yet there are limits to this kind of approach, because as the New York Times makes clear, no major country artist or act has been publicly identified with supporting this ordinance that would partially decriminalize marijuana. As the New York Times points out, getting that close to the issue is probably too dangerous to one’s agent or PR agency.

The other issue is of course the fact that this is Nashville, and it’s described here as the promulgator of traditional family values, especially in country music song. That might be hard to argue because country music has been very open, not only about its sentimentality about the family and relationships, but also about the brokenness of many of those relationships. It’s also telling that the New York Times notes that Nashville is the home to the Southern Baptist Convention. Technically, it is the home of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention and other SBC agencies, but the reality is that in all practical terms, so far as the New York Times is concerned, this is where the SBC is headquartered.

Thus, what this shows to a secular reporter in a secular newspaper is that the influence of conservative, evangelical Christianity generally, or in this case the Southern Baptist Convention in particular, is on the wane, even in Nashville, Tennessee, seen in particular on the question of marijuana. There is other interesting material in the story. One of the things we are told is that law enforcement in the area had been steadfastly against any kind of proposed decriminalization of marijuana, either its use or possession, until very recently. But in recent days, law enforcement has been at least lessening its opposition to the proposed ordinance. It’s also significant that in terms of the process of moral change, the New York Times cites singer-songwriter Todd Snider. It describes him in this way,

“But for Mr. Snider, who lives outside the city limits but still plays, records and socializes in the city, the proposal seems like a move in the right direction, especially for a city with a world-famous creative-class economy. On Thursday night, Mr. Snider, whose music straddles the line between country, folk and rock, sat in his living room with a fat green bag of marijuana on a table, occasionally packing it into a pipe and puffing as he spoke of the life of a songwriter.”

The Times then continues,

“He described a good song as something to be caught, as if it were butterfly. Marijuana, he said, afforded people like him a wider net. It was, he said, an essential tool of Nashville’s signature trade. ‘For starters, our job is to lower our inhibitions,’ he said. ‘And anyway, if Paul McCartney does it, you’d be a fool not to do it.’”

So among the significant moral dimensions of this story are the fact that the singer-songwriter makes clear that marijuana is becoming so ingrained in the country music industry that it’s difficult to separate the one from the other. He then goes on to acknowledge that a part of the strategy is to lower inhibitions. That’s also very telling; he says that is common to both music and marijuana. Then we’ll note that the location of Nashville, once again, is significant because this is outside the coastal progressive areas where the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana has been continuing apace. If this can happen in Nashville, by definition it can happen almost anywhere in what’s defined as the New South. Further definition on that issue was made clear when Mr. Snider referred to Nashville’s creative class economy.

The link between marijuana and the creative class points to the role of the creative class in moral change far beyond the question of marijuana, and that’s why by no accident we’ve noticed that the arc of public moral change on the issue of marijuana has tracked very closely with the arc of the same moral change on the question of homosexuality and, in particular, almost in mirror image, the issue of same-sex marriage.

Does marijuana produce slackers? New research shows lack of regulatory standards harmful

Then next on a related theme is an article that appeared over the weekend on marijuana, this one in the Wall Street Journal, and it’s written by scientist Susan Pinker. The title,

“Marijuana Makes for Slackers? Now There’s Evidence.”

Pinker writes,

“In cities like Seattle and Vancouver, the marijuana icon has become almost as common on storefronts as the Starbucks mermaid. But there’s one big difference between the products on offer: A venti latte tastes the same everywhere and provides an identical caffeine rush, while marijuana stores offer the drug’s active ingredients in varying combinations, potencies and formats. There is no consistency in testing, standards or labeling.”

This is one of the oddest dimensions of the moral revolution on marijuana. Whereas Americans would not only expect but absolutely demand a form of standardized quality control when it comes to pharmaceuticals in drugs, when it comes to marijuana, it’s all of the sudden as if the rules are off. And the rules, we should note, are really, really off. On The Briefing we commented on a succession of stories pioneered by USA Today on the issue of the regulation of marijuana and the fact that not only is there no quality control, but random testing to marijuana sold in legal outlets in some states has revealed a significant level of contamination. And furthermore, there is not even any government agency in most locations that takes any responsibility for ensuring quality control or safety in the use of marijuana.

And then there is the bigger issue, and that bigger issue has to do with the fact that marijuana is a mind altering drug. It is still considered by the federal government to be a Schedule I drug as dangerous, says the federal government, as heroin, and yet we’re seeing in America in places like Seattle and Portland, or as we now saw perhaps even in Nashville Tennessee, the fact that popular taste is going to lead to a decriminalization of marijuana. And that is a bigger issue in terms of moral change. But the other interesting and relevant aspect of the sale of marijuana today is that almost all of the marijuana being sold commercially in the United States today is significantly—and that’s an understatement—significantly more potent than marijuana that was available illegally in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Pinker writes that,

“Marijuana’s two psychoactive ingredients, tetrohydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have contrasting effects on the brain.”

Catherine Winstanley, identified as a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, explained that,

“THC makes you feel high, while CBD is responsible for its analgesic, antiseizure and purported anticancer effects.”

“In the street,” writes Pinker, “the THC-to-CBD ratio now tends to be 10 to 1, and it is increasing, a trend occurring even at some marijuana clinics.”

Very few people, writes Dr. Pinker, have any idea whatsoever of the actual effects of the psychoactive drugs or psychoactive substances in marijuana, but then Pinker writes that there is new evidence that the use of marijuana, containing both of those psychoactive ingredients, actually leads to a form of lethargy or slacking, as you saw in the headline. People using marijuana tended to be more keen on easy tasks and very averse to hard labor or hard tasks. Pinker then writes,

“The need for policy-makers to deal with the results of tests like these is complicated by the lack of regulatory consistency. That’s because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana as illegal as heroin, while 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for various purposes. So no national standards exist.”

Michael Bloomfield, a University College London professor in psychiatry, said,

“Thinking that it’s harmless, that you can smoke cannabis and you’ll be fine, is a false assumption. THC,” he concludes, “alters how willing you are to try things that are more difficult.”

So says Pinker,

“Next time you go to a clinic—or dealer—you might want to ask about the product’s chemical breakdown. the next time you go to a clinic or a marijuana dealer, you might want to ask about the products chemical breakdown.”

But, of course, the punchline in that is that the person selling the marijuana almost assuredly couldn’t be held accountable for whatever answer he or she may give. From a Christian worldview perspective, the biggest issue here is found in that interesting word psychoactive. The use of marijuana is the intentional use of a substance which has a psychoactive effect—that is a change upon the brain. That should be of utmost concern to Christians. Any use of any substance that is intended, especially in recreational form as it’s now defined, to have a psychoactive effect on the brain, well that’s something that Christians should by instinct understand is very morally problematic. It’s not only a matter of producing slackers as this article indicates. But it is the question as to why any Christian would think that it would be rightful to use a psychoactive substance that isn’t absolutely made necessary by some kind of medical treatment.

7,800,947—the number of opioid prescriptions in TN, surpassing that state's population

But finally, that takes us to an even bigger story in terms of the front page of Monday’s edition of the Tennessean. That’s the local Nashville newspaper. The entire top half of yesterday’s edition of the Tennessean, the most influential newspaper in the state of Tennessee, is a number. That number? 7,800,947. Again, 7,800,947. That is almost 8,000,000. Here is why it’s important. Right underneath the number,

“The number means there are more opioid prescriptions than people in Tennessee.”

As the story unfolds, it turns out that in the last recorded full year—that is 2014–2015—there were more prescriptions for these painkillers than there were people in the state of Tennessee. And furthermore, it’s not just that raw number. It is also the percentage or ratio that indicates that is 1.18 for every man woman and child in the state of Tennessee. Now compare that to the state of California, where the actual rate is just 0.48, far less than half.

One medical authority here in Tennessee pointed to the obvious fact when he said,

“I don’t think there’s more pain here, nor a lower threshold for pain. There is something else that is going on.”

And that something else isn’t primarily about healthcare. It is primarily about morality, and it’s about worldview. And it’s about the massive cultural shift in this country toward believing that there can be some kind of deliverance by means of a pill. This is not to say that all these prescriptions—and the newspaper’s also clear about this—not saying that all these prescriptions are illegitimate. There is clearly a role for some of these drugs, these prescription painkillers. The problem is the dependency that tends to result by the long-term use of these drugs, and one of the problems is that can’t always be predicted individual by individual.

There are other very telling moral aspects to the story in the Tennessean. For one thing, it turns out that far more doctors these days find that patients demand the elimination of all pain, even when it’s not clear what the magnitude of that pain might be. The Christian worldview reminds us that pain is one of the results of human sinfulness. It is a reality in a fallen world, and there is no way that that pain in terms of this age is going to be fully lessened or much less eliminated. We’re looking at the reality that pain is at least part and parcel of the human life. We also have to acknowledge that pain is maldistributed. It is not evenly distributed amongst human beings nor even in a single human being over a lifetime. That maldistribution is part of the problem. When human beings are experiencing an acute pain, we now automatically look for some means of relief, and that’s understandable from that same Christian worldview. The problems is when that relief long-term leads to an even greater problem, and perhaps the deepest problem of all is the assumption that somehow we can transcend pain and other aspects of the human problem by means of something that can be found in the drug cabinet or available by prescription.

Again, one sign of our times is this haunting top of the front page of yesterday’s edition of the Tennessean with that number 7,800,947. More prescriptions for powerful painkillers in the state of Tennessee than there are people: men, women, and children. That number clearly shocked the Tennessean; it was used by the paper to shock the citizens of Tennessee. It should be in the worldview perspective shocking to all of us.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing