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No time to lead from behind

WASHINGTON — Responding to the horrifying murder of photojournalist James Foley, Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “ISIL (the Islamic State) and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed.” President Obama said, “people like this ultimately fail.” The first is a pledge; the second an observation. Obama remains a rhetorical spectator to events in Iraq and Syria he does not want to own, and that he believes America has a limited ability to influence.

Fed up with cupcake cops

WASHINGTON — In physics, a unified field theory is an attempt to explain with a single hypothesis the behavior of several fields. Its political corollary is the Cupcake Postulate, which explains everything, from Missouri to Iraq, concerning Americans’ comprehensive withdrawal of confidence from government at all levels and all areas of activity.

Where goes the neighborhood?

WASHINGTON — Consider how our definition of “neighborliness” has evolved. Once upon a time, being neighborly meant “reaching out to the people who lived next door” by, among other things, “offering to watch the kids in a pinch.”

Nature’s creative danger

WASHINGTON — Although the Ebola virus might remain mostly confined to West Africa, it has infected the Western imagination. This eruption of uncontrolled nature into what developed nations consider serene modernity is more disturbing to the emotional serenity of multitudes than it is threatening to their physical health.

Ebola fever

WASHINGTON — A prominent AIDS researcher recently recalled for me the panic at the start of the pandemic in the 1980s. Her superiors asked her not to publicize her work because they didn’t want their institution to be known as an “AIDS hospital.” Some parents instructed their children at school not to play with the researcher’s children, because she was in contact with the AIDS virus. Fear and stigma were only overcome by the relentless application of science.

Bet on Africa rising

WASHINGTON — As more than 40 African leaders gather in Washington for an unprecedented summit, Africa’s brand problem in America has grown significantly worse. Two events — the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram and a currently uncontrolled Ebola outbreak in West Africa — have tuned in clearly through the news and social media static. And they have reinforced existing public impressions of disorder and disease.

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Colleges are slowly taking away your First Amendment rights

PHILADELPHIA — Sept. 17 last year was a pretty bad day for the Constitution on our campuses. Robert Van Tuinen of Modesto Junior College in California was prevented from passing out copies of the Constitution outside of his college’s tiny “free speech zone.” Near Los Angeles, Citrus College student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle was threatened with removal from campus for the “offense” of collecting signatures for a petition against NSA domestic surveillance outside his college’s tiny free speech area. I mention September 17 because that was Constitution Day.

Curse of judicial minimalism

WASHINGTON — Even when Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, the justices can be fiercely divided about fundamental matters, as was demonstrated by two 9-0 rulings last week. One overturned a Massachusetts law restricting speech near abortion clinics. The other invalidated recess appointments that President Obama made when the Senate said it was not in recess. In the first, four justices who concurred in the result rejected the majority’s reasoning because it minimized the law’s constitutional offense. In the second, four justices who concurred with the court’s judgment that Obama had exceeded his powers argued that the majority’s reasoning validated the Senate’s long complicity in practices that augment presidential power by diminishing the Senate’s power to advise and consent to presidential nominations.

Hobby Lobby case is an attack on women

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in the nationally followed Hobby Lobby case. The for-profit corporations that brought these cases to the Supreme Court — a craft store and a cabinet manufacturer — argued that the corporations’ religious convictions should excuse them from compensating their employees through the comprehensive health insurance required by law. Specifically, these private employers sought to exclude insurance coverage of several forms of birth control because, contrary to medical and scientific evidence, the corporations’ owners believe some birth control causes abortions.

The vital incoherent center

WASHINGTON — Here’s one political paradox: A substantial majority of Americans do not fit neatly into the conventional “liberal” and “conservative” boxes, yet there is no coherent political center. Those who dream of a middle-of-the-road third party are destined to be disappointed.

What’s in a name?

WASHINGTON — Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who successfully moved a federal agency to withdraw trademark protections from the Washington Redskins because it considers the team’s name derogatory, lives on a reservation where Navajos root for the Red Mesa High School Redskins. She opposes this name; the Native Americans who picked and retain it evidently do not.

Let’s sue the president

WASHINGTON — Republicans, after years of squabbling with President Barack Obama, have decided to resolve their differences with him according to a time-honored American tradition.