How author went from college to CIA

An early paragraph in “The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists” by Tracy Walder with Jessica Anya Blau notes how the Iraq war hinged on proof Saddam Hussein had created and was storing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq. Walder belonged to a Central Intelligence Agency team assigned to find proof of those weapons — but the team found none.

Moreover, Walder writes someone in the White House altered a chart her team had made to show the White House that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. The purpose of the change: to persuade the world he did.

Rather than an exploration of decision-making at the highest levels of government, this book is more a diary of the author’s journey from bullied grade-schooler through her work at the CIA and the FBI. Publisher St. Martin’s Press says the book embodies “a message of female power. If one sorority girl can come face-to-face with the most dangerous men the world has ever known and come out ... triumphant and with compassion, then there’s hope for everyone.”

Well, maybe so. If you are a white girl of privilege fortunate enough to attend a top private university such as the University of Southern California, where Walder graduated, yes. But it’s hard to imagine girls of color from the grittier parts of America seeing themselves in this early-career odyssey of CIA work mostly as a researcher and analyst.

Walder said she moved to FBI counterintelligence when her undercover CIA life overseas felt untenable. At the FBI, Walder complained of sexism; she also concluded her “skills and talents were not being properly utilized.”

However, she remains a CIA loyalist.

Walder writes she doesn’t support torture and doesn’t believe it works, a conclusion shared by academics, the FBI and other experts at coaxing information from people. Nonetheless, Walder spent the better part of a page rationalizing the Bush administration’s decision to use torture.

Walder also excuses the 9-11 commission report that faulted the CIA for failing to communicate with the FBI. Walder said from where she sat, everyone at the CIA was trying to make America safe.

Perhaps so, but some insight into how the two agencies communicate would have been illuminating.

Walder now is teaching high school. St. Martin’s Press says she is leaving that career at the end of this semester; she has joined the board of Girl Security, a nonprofit organization that labors to boost the number of women in national security through training and mentoring programs.

Inspiring stories in ‘The Gift of Forgiveness’

Forgiveness is liberating to the forgiver and the offender. For the forgiver, the suffocation of anger lifts; the liberation of letting go is physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.

Chris Williams forgave the drunken teen who smashed into his car, killing his pregnant wife and two of their children. Williams realized withholding forgiveness and seeking revenge would lock him into a never-ending cycle of anger. Forgiveness offered him the “ability to regain control when you experience something that seems to take every choice away from you.”

However, as the author notes in “The Gift of Forgiveness: Inspiring Stories from Those Who Have Overcome the Unforgivable,” forgiveness also is complicated.

Should we forgive those who not only don’t ask for it, fail to display any remorse, snap back at any notice of their wrongdoing or are dead?

The author says yes.

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in 2002 at age 14. Her kidnapping made national news. Smart said forgiving her captors enabled her to move on with her life.

“Forgiveness is not necessarily a two-way street,” Smart said, nor is it necessarily the banishing of anger. “It’s allowing myself to feel whatever emotions I feel and to deal with them.”

In Smart’s telling, forgiving also has a practical benefit.

“Holding on to a traumatic past does nothing but consume your present emotional space.”

Forgiveness, it turns out, is more a process than a single decision.

Sue Klebold, whose son was one of two shooters who killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in 1999, said she always will wonder if she could have done more had she been aware of her son’s emotional unraveling. She said she never truly will forgive herself but has come to an understanding: She has let go of her anger and cultivated empathy.

Sometimes, forgiveness takes an unusual course. In return for his wife’s forgiveness for having an affair, Ron Hall agreed to befriend and help a homeless man. Thanks to his wife’s selflessness and compassion, three lives were changed.

Here’s a sure conclusion from reading Pratt’s book: The world would be a far better place if we practiced more of what the people Pratt profiles have discovered. It would be less angry and more giving, less anguished and more empathetic, less vengeful and more loving.

Using Shakespeare to take the pulse of America

America: land of the free, home of the brave, known for Route 66, Silicon Valley … and Shakespeare? Yes, and from colonial days onward. Back then, the Bard wasn’t even considered high culture — his plays were as familiar to ordinary folks as the King James Bible.

In his new book, “Shakespeare in a Divided America,” James Shapiro makes the case that arguments about the Bard’s plays long have reflected our conflicted beliefs as a nation about hot-button issues such as immigration, adultery, homosexuality and interracial love.

“His writing continues to function as a canary in a coal mine, alerting us to, among other things, the toxic prejudices poisoning our cultural climate,” wrote Shapiro, a Columbia University professor whose earlier works include an anthology on Shakespeare in America with a foreword by Bill Clinton.

To explore this novel intersection of social and literary history, Shapiro selected eight particular years to examine which plays were popular, what people were saying about them and how they were staged.

For instance, John Quincy Adams couldn’t stop obsessing about “Othello” — and, in particular, the Moor of Venice’s marriage to the white Desdemona. In an 1835 letter to a friend, Adams, then a member of Congress after serving one term as president, condemned her passion as “unnatural.” That same month he wrote an essay arguing when Othello smothers her, any pity we might feel for her must give way to the grim recognition she got what she deserved for being physically intimate with a black man.

Given his reputation as a staunch abolitionist, Adams’ reaction seems weird. Unless, as Shapiro contends, he was working out his own ambivalent feelings about what it would mean for former slaves to be truly equal to whites in U.S. society.

“By directing his hostility at Desdemona rather than Othello, he was able to sidestep criticizing black men.”

No discussion of Shakespeare as a “canary in a coal mine” would be complete without mentioning the 2017 production of “Julius Caesar” in New York City’s Central Park, which was disrupted by Trump supporters upset at the parallels drawn between the U.S. president-elect and the Roman tyrant who is assassinated.

Shapiro, who serves as a consultant for the Public Theater, which stages the free Shakespeare in the Park festival every summer, is uniquely qualified to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at what happened. It’s a fascinating story — one of many in this entertaining and accessible book — that underscores Shapiro’s key point: Shakespeare never goes out of style. — The Associated Press

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