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Monday, May 31, 2004

When we booked our rail tickets on line, we took advantage of discounts being offered by Amtrak. And there are five categories of discounts, ranging from "senior" to "student advantage." There’s also "veterans advantage" and AAA membership, so it’s likely that most rail travelers could qualify for some kind of discount.

My wife and I qualified in two different categories, and that saved us a magnificent $12.50 over the price for two adults with no discount qualifications.

Still, for that $12.50, Amtrak wanted to be sure that we did indeed qualify, and on the tickets that arrived in the mail, it was plainly stated that we would have to present proof of our discount qualification before we could board a train.

And so, on Sunday, May 23, 2004, before seven in the morning, we left our hotel room, took the elevator down to the level where the glass covered walkway to Kansas City’s Union Station began, and walked the zigzag route to the building where we’d attended a wedding reception the night before.

It looked the same, only quieter. It still looked like an entertainment center where, if one searched diligently, one might also find a passageway to board a train.

And indeed , the entrance to the train area was that unobtrusive. As though they really didn’t want to disturb the decor.

We walked through the doors and found a waiting room and a counter manned by a single Amtrak employee taking care of a couple of people who were either buying tickets or who had some problems that needed solving. We had our tickets, but we knew we had to show our discount qualifications, so we stood in line and waited until the Amtrak guy had taken care of the other people at the counter.

Of course you know what happened next. After all, this is an adventure story with twists and turns. The Amtrak representative acted as if he wasn’t familiar with the concept of discounts. He wasn’t the least bit interested in seeing any qualifying ID. He said the conductor might want to see something, but he couldn’t care less.

I suppose one has to be thankful that the guy was working behind a sleepy ticket counter in an equally sleepy railroad station that doesn’t look like a railroad station, and not employed by the Department of Homeland Security. For all he knew or cared, we could have been two aliens from a far off galaxy, armed with enough phaser power to destroy all the tracks from Los Angeles to New York.

We were told we could relax in the waiting room and we’d be called when the train was available for boarding. We relaxed and waited. Nobody called about anything, but after a while, we became aware of a line of moving people, so we joined them and passed through a door leading toward a train track.

Just inside the door was someone taking tickets. He took ours, tore off the stubs, handed them back and waved us on. So much for checking our entitlement to the discounts we received.

We followed the crowd and soon came upon a waiting train where someone in what I presumed to be an official Amtrak uniform and speaking in a difficult to understand foreign accent, was writing on pieces of paper and handing them to passengers before they boarded. These were seat assignments. Someone was sitting in one of the seats assigned to us. It had been assigned to him before he boarded at some previous train stop. My wife went back outside to tell the foreign speaking seat assignor of his error. She came back with another piece of paper with different seat numbers. They were already occupied. Same story. Previously assigned.

We sat down in a couple of seats that were not occupied, and I went out to ask the foreign accent speaking seat assignor what the #$#@% was going on. He muttered something about "people" playing games with seats, which I took to mean that someone on board had given him some wrong information about which seats were taken and which were available.

The train moved out of the station, and we settled down to what we hoped was going to be a fun trip.

It was a little disconcerting when, before we had cleared downtown Kansas City, we spotted the foreign accented seat assignor (henceforth referred to as FASA), walking through our carriage. Somehow I had assumed that he was a station employee to whom some train conductor had handed an incorrect list of available seats, which would have explained why he was handing out assignments for seats that were already occupied. That’s how much I know about train travel and the efficiency of Amtrak employees. This guy was one of the conductors on this train, and as far as I could ascertain, in charge of assigning seats.

Thoughts of inmates running asylums crossed my mind, but I was determined to enjoy the trip and cast the evil thoughts aside. I was also hungry and anxious to sample the Amtrak breakfast menu, and breakfast time is no time to be thinking of madmen and insane asylums.

Swaying back and forth in concert with the serpentine rhythm of the train, we made our way to the dining car where we were seated at a table for four with a 24 year old college kid and his 22 year old girl-friend.

One of the advantages of traveling by rail as opposed to flying, is that you have a chance to meet and have some interesting exchanges with different people, and the seating arrangements in the dining car are conducive to that kind of experience. On a plane, whether it’s a short or long flight, you might not exchange a single word with any of your fellow passengers, particularly if you’re traveling with your spouse. But it’s unlikely that you’ll sit through a breakfast, lunch or dinner meal, sitting across from another couple without saying a word.

The young folks at breakfast were traveling from Phoenix to Maine!! All that way by train!! At a cost of approximately $900 each! For their $1800, they had a sleeper and their meals were included, but still, we were taken aback by that cost. We have flown round trip from Chicago to London for way less than a thousand dollars. How could they be paying so much for a slow trek across the country?

It turned out that, for whatever reason, they had made a sudden decision to leave Arizona and travel to the young man’s home in Maine, and flying would have been more expensive than taking the train.

As I said in chapter one of this saga, if you don’t get a chance to play the transportation game by the rules the carriers impose, you can indeed get screwed. These kids were twisted out of shape.

Our lunch companions were, as John Cleese might have said, something completely different.

Before we started off on the swaying journey for our second and final on-board meal of the trip to Chicago, we were entertained with another glimpse into the workings of the inmate run asylum aspect of Amtrak.

A public address announcement from the dining car informed us that because we were running ahead of time and would be arriving in Chicago early, lunch service would also start early - at 11:15 a.m. That was a little early for us, so we decided to wait - at least until noon.

On the other hand, we didn’t want to walk all the way to the dining car to discover that they were no longer serving lunch. Decisions, decisions.

Just about that time, another conductor, not FASA, came lumbering through our carriage and I asked him how early we were. "Early" he said, we’re a half hour late!!"

It took a while for me to figure out what was happening - just about until we arrived in Chicago as a matter of fact. But I think I solved the mystery. Amtrak has developed a "no fault" system, probably patterned after the Bush administration. They tell you they’re running early and late, and either one of those estimates will turn out to be right - or the train will arrive at the advertised time. Whatever time it arrives, it’s a little hard to complain that you were given wrong information. One of the estimated or published times would have to have been correct.

That’s either an advantage or a disadvantage of inmates running the asylum. I haven’t quite decided.

Anyway, we decided to go for lunch at around noon and we were seated with a couple in their mid to late thirties who had boarded the train in Newton, a small town just outside of Wichita, Kansas at three in the morning, and were traveling to their home in New York State, about an hour’s drive from New York City.

The guy worked for a company headquartered in Wichita and had been there for a one time visit. His job didn’t require him to travel or to spend time at the company headquarters other than the one visit he had just concluded, which was a blessing for him because the guy didn’t fly!! That’s why he and his wife boarded the train at three in the morning and that’s why they would be getting off in Chicago and boarding another train bound for New York - a trip of anywhere from 21 to 28 hours, depending on the train.

For a while, we had a reasonably pleasant conversation with him and his wife, pretty much centered around the food that Amtrak served and how silly it was to be scared of flying. His wife, who had no problems boarding a jumbo jet, said she’d been trying to change his mind for five years without success.

At some point, I’m not exactly sure how it happened, the conversation turned to politics. My wife was telling the couple about Air America radio and the virtues of listening to the disassembling of Republican lies and smears. At which point the guy announced that he was a Republican and that he was privy to the real news that the liberal news media ignored or hid or distorted or in some other way kept from the American public because they were all involved in a vast conspiracy to undermine the nation, bring down the government and put us under the rule of a world government headed by a tent dwelling sun worshiper from Ooogamongo.

O.K. He didn’t say any of that. Not quite. What he did say was that he got his news from the Fox Network and they said that almost all Iraqis were tickled pink that we invaded their country and wanted us to stay there. Not only that, it was a good thing that we invaded because the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were planning to do it again and we had to stop them. That’s why we invaded Iraq.

He didn’t say any of this aggressively. Just with absolute faith that this was the absolute truth.

I asked if he knew that the 9/11 attackers were not from Iraq. He didn’t seem to understand that. He kept saying that we were fighting terrorists. I asked if he knew any of the characters that were behind the push to invade Iraq long before 9/11. I asked if he knew of the group that had sent a letter to Clinton in 1998 urging the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. I rattled off names. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams, Cheney. Others. He showed recognition of the names schoolchildren would know, but his eyes said that others drew a blank.

I asked if he’d read any of the books exposing the march to war. Books written by Republican insiders - not members or captives of the liberal media. Blank again.

He was looking confused and uncomfortable, so we dropped the subject, leaving it with a suggestion that he read some of the current raft of books and named a couple.

I guess what was memorable or disturbing about this brief encounter was that the guy seemed like a pleasant, friendly, not unintelligent average American. But he hadn’t a clue about the basis for his political beliefs, other than his prior belief that only certain news sources provided truth and others ignored, distorted or hid it.

I know that there are polls showing that a disturbingly large percentage of Americans actually believe that there is or was an absolute connection between Iraq and the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001. As we made our way back to our seats, it was just plain scary to realize that I’d just had lunch with one of them.

We were a couple of hours out of Chicago, moving along at a steady clip, and I figured there would be nothing more of an adventurous nature that could occur before we arrived. No more conflicting arrival time announcements. No more encounters with people who were afraid to fly but not to believe anything that Bill O’Reilly might report as "news."

But there was one little icing to be spread over our Amtrak cake. FASA made an appearance in our carriage to make announcements about our arrival. Before we actually stopped in Union Station in Chicago, he said, we would be making a "brake test" stop. So don’t try to get out then. Wait until we’ve finally stopped. That would be the second stop.

You know the answer to all that of course. It was nonsensical gobbledygook. Amtrak talk.

We drifted into Chicago and stopped and started in rail yards before slowly backing into the station. If any of the stops and starts in the rail yards had been the so called "brake test" stop before the final stop, it was not obvious to anyone - except maybe FASA.

And the only people who might have tried to get off in a rail yard rather than at a platform inside the railroad station, would be those driven to distraction by cockeyed seat assigning, conflicting arrival information and being in the company of scary people who were absolutely certain of what was going on in the world without having a clue about what was going on in the world.

We arrived in Chicago at the scheduled arrival time. Not early. Not late.

All in all a fun trip. We might do something like this again some time.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seems like more and more people are finding ways to bug me to the point where I’ll turn my blog into a point/counterpoint publication, with conservatives and right wing nuts on one side and me on the other.

The trouble with that is that I have conservative views in some areas and - dare I use the word - liberal views in others. So, it’s hard for me to be on "the other side" all the time.

But I suppose my opposition to George W Bush puts me squarely in the liberal camp and thus a target for attack from the right. So from time to time, I’ll present opposing views and try to answer them.

The other day, I received an issue of Gary D Halbert’s "Forecast Trends" e-mail newsletter. It was unsolicited and sent to my previous e-mail address which still gets forwarded to the address that appears on this blog, so it wasn’t sent because the guy read my blog and wanted to throw some conservative thinking at me. He probably bought an e-mail list and he’s soliciting business.

What kind of business is hard to figure. Halbert is supposed to be some kind of financial guru, but his newsletters don’t seem to have any financial information - just conservative opinion, and his current letter is all about the alleged Iraqi oil for food scandal which is currently under investigation.

If one is to believe whatever Halbert says - a favorite desire of conservative pundits - there’s no need for any food for oil scandal investigation. He has the scheme, the culprits and the beneficiaries all figured out and his bottom line conclusions are about what you’d expect from the far right.

(A) The nations that were against the invasion of Iraq were making big bucks from the oil for food program. They were OK with attacking Afghanistan because that wouldn’t hurt their pocket books. But Iraq was bad for business. That’s why they opposed military action.

(B) Because someone Halbert describes as a "Senior UN and Foreign Policy Analyst at Freedom Alliance," believes that "the UN created an environment where Saddam could funnel large sums of money to terrorists and terrorist organizations," he writes as follows:
Could this be the clinching connection between al Qaida and Saddam Hussein? Quite possibly. Many conservatives already believe that there is sufficient evidence of a tie between the two. However, I’m sure that the liberals and mainstream press won’t believe there is a tie until they see a picture of Hussein handing a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-sized check to bin Laden.

(C) The US should quit the UN and maybe even ask the organization to move to some other country.

And he sends me his very best regards!!

People on the right are fond of accusing people at the other end of the political spectrum of reaching conclusions based on their beliefs rather than hard facts. But the RWRAR that I read or accidentally listen to, have to be the experts at selective interpretation and snatching syllables out of the context of single words to "prove" their points.

O.K. I exaggerate. I do that a lot. But ultra-conservatives approach just about any political topic from the point of view of prior conclusion, not letting facts or alternative interpretations get in the way.

Halbert is a perfect example. Here’s another quote from his newsletter:
Think about this for a minute. There was very little UN opposition to US military action in Afghanistan. But as we set our sights on Iraq, the protests began in earnest, even though Iraq had been openly defying UN resolutions for over a decade. Afghanistan was not bad for business, but Iraq was. Not only that, but US action in Iraq also carried the threat that the Oil-For-Food program would be discovered to be a sham.

He says, knowingly - hey, the U.N. was fine with our attack on Afghanistan. Why? It was no skin off its financial nose. But Iraq?? Don’t attack Iraq. You’ll cut off all of this money we’re scamming from the oil for food program.

To Halbert, it’s of no consequence that the connection between 9/11 and Afghanistan had been clearly established and that we had a right under any international law that you want to quote, to go in there and attack those who had attacked us. Which is the logical reason why there was little opposition to our action in Afghanistan.

It’s also of no consequence to Halbert that most other countries couldn’t see any danger to world peace from Saddam Hussein and his huge cache of weapons of mass destruction . Nor could they see any connection between Saddam Hussein and those who attacked us on 9/11. And maybe that’s why so many UN members were against military action against Iraq. Not that it would reveal their involvement in a money scam.

And because a "Senior UN and Foreign Policy Analyst at Freedom Alliance," says Saddam could have funneled money to terrorists and terrorist organizations - that’s good enough for Halbert to conclude that there is an absolute connection between Iraq and al Qaida - which the liberal press will never admit!!!

O.K. In the interest of truth in blogging. That "Senior UN and Foreign Policy Analyst at Freedom Alliance" quoted is one Fred Gedrich, a former State and Defense Department official.

And oh - the founder of "Freedom Alliance?" One Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, USMC Ret. That’s right. Good old Iran/Contra Ollie North.

Need I say more?

I don’t think so.

Have a nice week-end.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

You wouldn’t think there could be such a thing as "travel adventures" arising from an overnight round trip between Chicago and Kansas City, but as someone once said, truth is stranger than fiction. Well at least more interesting sometimes.

Air travel is always somewhat interesting, particularly when you spend almost as much time taxiing in fits and starts before take off as you do flying to your destination. We took off about 50 minutes after boarding our plane in Chicago and our flight time to Kansas City was one hour and one minute.

In the good old days of US air travel, the airports of Chicago and Kansas City were actually in those cities. In Chicago, Midway airport is on the south west side of the city - in the heart of Chicago neighborhoods. It’s been remodeled and revitalized in recent years and is still in use for major airlines and private aviation. But the primary airport for the city is now O’Hare - technically in the city, but really not.. If you’re not familiar with O’Hare, take a look at a map and you’ll see what I mean.

In Kansas City, the airport used to be right downtown. The Charles B Wheeler Downtown Airport was and still is, minutes from downtown Kansas City hotels and office buildings. Today, it’s used only by private aircraft. The big airlines use Kansas City International, built in the middle of nowhere, far from the city lights. But a great airport!!

Unlike O’Hare, where you can wear yourself out walking to and from planes, at Kansas City International, planes pull up to a gate just feet from an inner airport road. And your bags are right there at that same gate. There’s no walking involved, except the few steps to get outside, where you can hop onto a bus or into a cab or a car.

All airports should be built this way.

But as I noted, Kansas City International was built in the middle of nowhere, far from the city lights, and on our arrival there, we needed to know how to get downtown as quickly as possible for the most reasonable cost.

As I indicated in chapter one of this adventure, I made our plane and train reservations on line, and while I was at the computer, I also checked transportation from the KC airport to our downtown hotel. The cab fare seemed like it could be 35 to 40 bucks plus tip, but the KC Shuttle Company could get us there for $28. $14 per person one way. According to their web site, they have more than 200 departures to and from the airport daily, so we figured we could land just about anytime and there would be a shuttle waiting for us.

As I said in chapter one. Huh. And double huh!!

The web site said use a courtesy phone in the airport and dial 5000 when you get in. I did and was told to walk to a certain numbered gate. We walked there. It wasn’t far. Outside were some signs saying this is where you board a shuttle. And we watched and waited as a number of rental car shuttles came and went. Finally, a smallish van pulled up with KC Shuttle painted on the side, and started to unload a passenger and some luggage. Wanting to make sure he was going where wanted to go, I asked if he went to the downtown hotels. Indeed he did, but he wasn’t picking anyone up. We’d have to go back inside, find a KC Shuttle counter and buy a ticket.

Back in we went. The counter was just inside the door. We hadn’t noticed it earlier. We bought tickets. We asked how long for a shuttle. Then we noticed another coming our way. and we were ready to rush outside and hop aboard. But that one wasn’t picking up either. It was like a mystery story. The shuttles dropped people off. They never picked people up. If they never picked anyone up, where did they find the people to drop off?

Fifteen or twenty minutes had passed. The guy behind the counter began to explain that the shuttles only carried 11 passengers and they’d been busier than expected and that there would be a shuttle for us in about 25 minutes. I didn’t ask about the more than two hundred to and from advertised departures daily. I was too tired and frustrated. I also couldn’t understand what he meant by "busy."

There was virtually no traffic on the pick up/drop off road outside the terminal. No line of cabs picking up throngs of arriving passengers. The terminal itself was virtually empty. If this had been O’Hare, I would have assumed that there had been a bomb scare, that the airport had been evacuated and no vehicular traffic was being allowed to arrive or depart. In other words, a ghost airport.

Which was what Kansas City International looked like on a Saturday afternoon. But the KC Shuttle counter guy said they’d been unexpectedly busy, which was why we had to wait and wait for a shuttle.

It was perilously close to being more than a 25 minute wait, when counter guy told us to rush outside. There was a KC Shuttle vehicle that would take us to town.

And sure enough there was a vehicle. Not an 11 passenger van, but one that accommodated the driver and four passengers. A couple was already seated. We got in, presented our tickets and off we went on the next leg of our adventure.

The driver was a reasonably pleasant fellow, but all the way into town he kept telling us that he had been pressed into picking us up because KC Shuttle was short handed. This wasn’t his normal run for KC Shuttle. His usual route was in the suburbs. And while he knew how to get to downtown Kansas City, he didn’t know how to get to the hotel where our fellow passengers were staying. He called his dispatcher who gave him one address. We went there. No hotel. We drove around and around while he talked to another dispatcher who gave him another address. This one turned out to be correct, and after going up and down one way streets and turning the wrong way a couple of times, we finally got there and the other two passengers got out.

I was almost scared to ask, but I took the bull by the horns and asked anyway. Did he know the way to our hotel? He assured us that he did and we finally got there after an adventurous ride. As I said, he was a pleasant fellow, so I gave him a decent tip.

It wasn’t as bad as an experience we had in London a couple of years ago. There were some street festivals going on in the West End and some London Transport buses had to be re-routed.

Anyone who knows London, knows that it has one of the most complicated street layouts imaginable. To drive around London, one needs to make constant reference to one of the driving direction bibles, such as "London A to Z." That’s London A to ZED for the uninformed. And that’s an almost 300 page book of 7½ by 5 inch pages, 150 of which are covered with worm-like patterns of streets, intertwining, stopping and starting -some changing names every few hundred yards and numbered in a way that makes little sense to anyone other than a native Londoner. And not to all native Londoners at that.

To drive a cab in London, one has to pass a test that would rival a combination of a New York State Bar exam and a Ph.D. dissertation in nuclear physics in degree of difficulty.

We were on a London Transport double-decker that had been re-routed and our driver got lost. He too was talking to a dispatcher as he turned one way and then another, getting more and more lost as passengers jumped off or tried to make route suggestions or both at the same time. I don’t think one can ever understand the true meaning of the word "lost," until one gets lost driving on the streets of London. We did eventually find our way back to known and recognized territory, but until the moment we did, we were never quite disabused of the notion that we could all have finished up like crew members of a land based Flying Dutchman, wandering the streets of London in perpetuity.

Compared to that experience, our trip from KC International to our downtown hotel was a joyride.

But coming back to Chicago the next day was another adventure. That’ll be chapter three. The final chapter of this saga. Coming to this blog page soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

"Mideast On Target," the Israeli newsletter that I receive by e-mail several times a week, provides quite a bit of information that isn’t often found in the US press, and sometimes not in the Israeli press either.

The authors seem to be well informed, but decidedly and sadly, hard line.

They are maintaining an extreme hard line stance on what has been happening in Gaza, and now they offer an historical explanation of why it is happening.

I presented their first newsletter on this topic in my May 20, 2004 post, and rather than try to paraphrase their follow up, here it is in totality. I disagree with their views and my brief comments follow:
The vehemence of the worldwide condemnation of Israel for the IDF operation into Rafiah this week surprised even some veteran Israeli commentators. The UN Security Council resolution, the US abstention, President Bush’s statement that the operation did not serve Israel’s security interests, along with condemnations from European and other world leaders, fueled a media-led debate over the wisdom of the scope of Operation Rainbow, as the Rafiah incursion has been dubbed by the IDF.

It is telling that the cries of "unacceptable," to quote Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, are applied to IDF operations in Rafiah, but the terrorist murders of a Jewish family in the same area are greeted with a thundering silence. The one-sidedness of the world response is matched only by the feigned or actual ignorance of the many commentators who describe the operation as a pretext to invade Rafiah, kill innocent civilians and wantonly demolish homes.

To begin to set the record straight, we must go back some 10 years when the IDF, following the dictates of the Oslo Accords, withdrew from the Palestinian population centers in Gaza including Rafiah, and handed over control to the Palestinian Authority of Yasir Arafat. According to the terms of the agreement, Israel would remain in control of the international border with Egypt, and transit of people and goods were subject to Israel border oversight. Almost immediately, tunnels were begun to be dug under the 50 meter wide patrol strip separating Rafiah under Palestinian Authority control and that part of the city found on the Egyptian side of the border.

During the optimistic years of the Peace Process, Israeli security experts looked on with concern as a network of tunnels were dug under their noses, with the support of local PA warlords and under the direction of powerful family heads in Rafiah. These tunnels provided an open route to smuggle goods, drugs, weapons, ammunition and terrorists across the border, avoiding Israeli border control. Over the years, these tunnels provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal income to the local families and a concomitant amount in kickbacks to the local strongmen. Simultaneously, the underground arsenals of the terrorist organizations grew to frightening proportions.

With the outbreak of the fighting in September 2000, the IDF command in Gaza was faced with a difficult dilemma: how to reduce the flow of weapons and ammunition to the terrorist organizations that were now engaged in a shooting war with Israel? The obvious solution, an incursion into Rafiah to locate and destroy the tunnels, was rejected for fear of inflicting civilian casualties. Instead, a "tunnel unit" was established made up of engineering corps officers and NCO’s in an attempt to find creative solutions to the tunnel problem.

After two years of research and analysis, they came up empty handed.

In the aftermath of Operation Defensive Wall in April 2002, a series of incursions into Rafiah located a number of tunnels. Their destruction marked a limited success for the IDF, but the victory was short lived. Given the fact that an operating tunnel can net some $50,000 a day for the family head who commissions and owns it, the incentive to dig more and deeper tunnels far overshadowed the cost of losing them. Tunnels were dug deeper, some reaching depths of 10 meters and more (over 30 feet), children were employed to dig around the clock, and when poor conditions led to tunnel collapse and the death of a child, there were plenty more to take his place.

Under these circumstances, and with clear evidence of massive quantities of munitions crossing the border through the tunnels, the decision was made to launch Operation Rainbow. Its objective, the elimination of the tunnels and the cessation of the weapons smuggling that has been the lifeblood of the Palestinian terrorist organizations, is not punitive but military and preventive.

There is no question that the Palestinian civilian population in Rafiah is suffering during the IDF operation, as any civilian population would when it finds itself in a war zone. The fact remains that the IDF has done much to attempt to alleviate the civilian suffering as best it can during battle, including assisting residents in acquiring food and water (an act that cost two IDF soldiers their lives last week) as well as attempting to keep noncombatants out of the line of fire (two were shot and killed by terrorists as they attempted to leave the combat zone according to IDF instructions).

Paradoxically, the scale of forces used in the operation, over two infantry battalions supported by an armored battalion, was necessitated by the fact that the terrorists in Rafiah are so heavily armed thanks to the tunnel smuggling network. To use less force in Rafiah would be tactical folly for the IDF, which would probably suit the UN and other critics just fine. After all, Israeli casualties, civilian and military, are perfectly acceptable to them.
That’s the defense. I don’t buy it but I think this issue of the "Mideast On Target" newsletter does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

Action and reaction. The history of the more than half century of conflict.

And each action and reaction justified by both sides in the conflict.

In this case, the authors offer justification on the basis of violations of the Oslo agreement, which no longer exists. And of course, the right to act preemptively to stop or slow down the flow of arms from one particular source to Palestinians who might attack Israelis.

They speak of the operation as though it is just a military action, carefully planned by thoughtful and analytical military brass, carried out as a last resort, but of course totally justified as part of Israel’s ongoing war against Palestinian terrorists.

But no military operation is carried out in a vacuum. Civilian casualties are almost certain to result, and the authors point out that a major military strike to destroy the tunnels was delayed precisely because of that fear.

Yet, when the decision was made to go ahead, there is little evidence that there was any extensive risk/reward consideration before embarking on Operation Rainbow. And I include world opinion, which the "Mideast On Target" authors swiftly disdain, as an important item in the "risk" column.

I don’t know how much safer Israelis will be or even feel after the operation is finally over - and though it seems to have paused for a moment, there is no indication that it’s at an end.

I do know that there is no way that the killing of scores of Palestinians and the destruction of so many buildings, leaving hundreds of Palestinians homeless, can be dismissed as "acceptable collateral damage" for whatever security gains for Israel the operation might achieve.

I am a strong supporter of Israel. I believe that it has the right to engage in defensive military action when it is being attacked.

But there is no way that the destruction of life and property in Rafiah can be excused in the name of defending Israel.

That’s the way the world sees it. That’s the way I, as a supporter of Israel see it. That’s the way hundreds of thousands - maybe millions of Israelis see it.

And it's the way that a majority of Israelis, including the authors of "Mideast On Target" need to see it. And the way Ariel Sharon needs to see it.

I'll be back at this blog site defending Israel against criticisms leveled against her when I believe those criticisms are not justified.

But I can't see any way to defend the damage caused by Operation Rainbow.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

As readers of this blog may know, I am somewhat equivocal when it comes to the topic of abortion.

I can’t remember on which post I may have revealed some of my thinking on the subject, so I’ll repeat the essence of it here. On a personal basis, I am against it. I wouldn’t like to see any member of my family abort a fetus unless the reasons were compelling.

Or to put that in simpler terms, I would not be comfortable to see abortion practiced as a means of birth control by any of my family members. "Damn it. I didn’t mean to get pregnant. I’m going to abort." That I would object to. The choice of course, would be that of the woman carrying the fetus, but the abortion wouldn’t be something that I’d either encourage or approve. Unless, as I’ve indicated, there were compelling reasons.

Having said that, I take no stand on the general topic of abortion. My view is that it is the choice of the individuals involved. The pregnant woman. The father, if he is the husband or other kind of partner of the pregnant woman. And no one else. Certainly not any self appointed arbiters of right and wrong, legality and illegality, morality and immorality.

Such as one Jerry Bogazc, whose opinion on abortion appeared in the "Voice of the People" section of the Chicago Tribune on May 22, 2004.

I often get miffed at the letters that the Tribune selects for publication, but I’m a little more miffed than usual today because there were two irritating letters published on May 22 from people living in my general part of town, and it bugs me to be confronted with what I already know but don’t want to be reminded of. That there are zealots and idiots living among us. Even in the best neighborhoods. Where one hopes and expects to find enlightened people.

Mr. Bogazc describes himself as a "pro life advocate," which he defines as being against taking the life of an innocent human being, and then goes into a lengthy dissertation about what is or isn’t a "human being."

I don’t need to list his arguments. He makes his case and then presents his version of what a "pro-abortionist" would argue. Don’t you just love people who ask and answer their own questions?? Anyway, you can read his letter by clicking on the link above.

The bottom line of his entire argument is that once a woman becomes pregnant, outside forces should rule that pregnancy and should decide whether or not it should be allowed to proceed to term.

It is, according to Mr. Bogazc, a "human being" and thus entitled to all of the protections of law that are available to other human beings. Those not in a woman’s womb that is.

The problem with that argument is that in order to extend those kinds of protections to what Mr. Bogazc calls "the unborn," you have to exercise what amounts to ownership of the pregnant woman

As far as I know, no laws have been enacted anywhere in the civilized world that forces women to become pregnant and have children. The decision to have a child is made voluntarily by a man and a woman. Sometimes by a woman alone without the knowledge or consent of the supplier of the necessary male sperm.

But in all cases, unless the woman is being held in bondage and is unable to make any decisions for herself, the decision to bear children is voluntary.

Becoming pregnant however, is not always a voluntary matter. There is such a thing as rape that can result in a woman becoming pregnant. And there are accidents. Unintended pregnancies.

In those cases, when a woman chooses to have an abortion, she is making a choice that is entirely hers and that of her husband or other male partner who donated the male sperm. But ultimately, the decision is hers. No one can chain her to a bed and keep her there for nine months and then force her to deliver a child. Not in this society. Not yet.

An abortion does indeed destroy the potential birth of a human being, but to argue that there should be laws that compel that potential to be realized is to argue for an Orwellian society that I don’t think Mr. Bogazc would enjoy, even if he isn’t of the sex that would be under strict government controls.

Of course there are those who would argue that we are already living in an Orwellian society, and if they're right, maybe the transition won’t be so hard for Mr. Bogazc to make.

Meanwhile, if he is interested in spending time in societies where governments and religious leaders absolutely control the lives of its female citizens, I’d be glad to provide a list for him to choose from.

I guess maybe because "Voice of the People" editor Dodie Hofstetter O.K.’d the so called "pro life" letter from a male, she thought it would be appropriate to balance it with an angry letter from a woman - and to really put icing on the irritation cake - a woman also from Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University.

Heaven help me, she could be living minutes away from my normally serene back yard. Except when my dog is greeting her canine friends as they walk by.

What do you say to someone who says "enough already of the whining" about the people that we have been abusing in Abu Ghraib prison, all of whom she unabashedly labels as "terrorists?"

Never mind that many of them were rounded up without any reason to believe that they were engaged in any aggressive actions against the American forces, and hundreds have now been released.

Would we release "fanatics who hate us?"

And how are politicians "politicizing" the situation? By talking about it? By condemning it? By doing the jobs they swore to do when we elected them?

There is no answer for Ms. Corydon.

Like the blinkered RWRAR of the airways, she asks us to brush aside the one issue that has done more to destroy our credibility in the Arab world than almost any other recent action or policy, and concentrate on "respecting" our military. As though confronting the problem that we have created is "whining" and "politicizing" and "creating a more dangerous situation for our troops." And of course, disrespecting them.

It takes your breath away.

I met someone with the same kind of thought processes as Ms Corydon of Evanston on our train trip back from Kansas City. It’ll be in the second or third chapter of the serial begun yesterday.

As George Orwell’s "Big Brother" said, Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace and Ignorance is Strength.

And I keep running into more and more people who are adopting this as their personal motto. And their numbers seem to confirm the polls showing that a huge percentage of Americans actually believe that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was the work of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. They believe it because their president implied it. And keeps implying it.

We can only hope they’ll stay home on election day. Every election day.

I need a drink. More tomorrow.

Monday, May 24, 2004

I traveled to and from Kansas City over the week-end, and I found the totality of the experience was, to borrow a fractured version of a phrase from a Seinfeld episode, "blogworthy."

However, there is much else to comment on, so the experience will be serialized - alternating with dissertations on other topics.

For today - part one - the fare affair.

It used to be that buying a car was a frightening affair because you never knew just what you should be paying for the vehicle. There was no universal price for a particular product. You were expected to joust with the salesman, assuming that he was trying to screw you, and try to get him to lower the price to what you believed was what most people would be paying for the same vehicle. You’d wait for him to go through the ritual of going in the back to have the imaginary conversation with the imaginary manager, who would berate the salesman for trying to give the car away but who would finally "relent," allowing the salesman to come back to you with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face and papers ready to sign for the price you were willing to pay.

Later, you would talk to a friend or colleague who would claim that he paid two hundred dollars less for the same car and you'd look for the nearest hole to crawl into.

It’s a little different today with the low to zero interest rates on car loans and "cash back" incentives and the ability to check what the price should be on the Internet. Today, unless you’re a total idiot, it’s not likely that you will overpay or pay more than your friend or colleague for the same car.

But the old selling practices haven’t disappeared. They’re still being used in the selling of transportation, just in more complicated and subtle ways.

The reason for our brief trip to Kansas City was to attend a wedding reception being held in the Kansas City Union Station. A railroad station!! But at the same time, a beautiful edifice with multiple facilities. A sort of entertainment center that just happens to have some railroad tracks attached.

We decided to fly down, stay overnight at a hotel attached to the railroad station - and, since that’s where we’d be when we woke up on the morning following the reception - take the train back to Chicago, something we’d never done before. An adventure!

We went ahead and booked the flight at the very reasonable cost of approximately $88 for my wife and I on American Airlines and the return by train for about $68.

After it was all booked and paid for, we had some thoughts about staying an extra day to attend a family brunch, and so sat down at the trusty computer to see what could be arranged. For example, maybe instead of training back, we’d put off that adventure for some other occasion and fly both ways.

A few days earlier, there had been that $44 per person price to fly from Chicago to Kansas City. Surely Kansas City to Chicago should be more or less the same price.

Huh. And double huh.

The $44 was nowhere to be found. Or $144 for that matter. Wait. I lied. There was a $130 fare per person from Kansas City to Chicago, by way of Cincinnati Ohio, where one would change planes after about an hour’s wait. Otherwise, the one way fares from Kansas City to Chicago, ranged from the low to the high hundreds.

I read fantasy fiction every once in a while when I get time, so I quickly realized that what I was looking at was the mad pricing scheme that was invented by airline executives who were formally employed as car salesmen - most likely used car salesmen, and who just wanted to recreate the "good old days."

All right. That’s not why air fares are all over the board, but it’s as good an explanation as anything the airlines could offer.

We had a full flight going down. Not a single empty seat. And I would venture to guess that in economy class alone, passengers had paid a dozen or more different fares. I would imagine that one way to start a riot aboard a plane would be to ask the person next to you how much his ticket cost, and if it was hundreds more than yours, tell him and gloat.

Most airlines are in trouble nowadays, and I have to believe that much of it stems from the same kind of convoluted management practices that created this crazy quilt pricing structure.

Could you imagine riding a bus or local train to work and paying whatever fare was being offered at the moment you got on board? A dollar and a quarter one day. Fifty bucks the next. Or maybe on the same day on your way home? Of course not. But we accept this kind of nonsense from the airlines. We have to get from point A to point B and, to put it crudely, they have us by the short hairs.

But they’re not alone in this conspiracy to rob and confuse.

Faced with an air fare that we weren’t about to pay, we thought we’d still stay the extra day and attend the family brunch, but just come back on the train as originally planned. Only a day later.

So I called Amtrak to make the change, which they were very happy to do if I would just give them my credit card number so they could add another $108 for the tickets I’d already paid for. From one day to the next, they wanted more than double the price. I declined. Not that I couldn’t afford to pay whatever they were asking. It was a matter of principle.

What’s wrong with the way the airlines and Amtrak are playing crazy price games with us, is that they want to play the old car selling game but they don’t have any sales people who can go in the back room to talk to the imaginary manager and give us the real price. The bottom line price. The price that tells us that we are not idiots and we haven’t been screwed.

What we have to do to prove to ourselves that we aren’t idiots who can be taken by slick talking salesmen, is learn how to play the game according to the new rules.

Here’s what you do. Decide where you want to go and how - but way in advance. Then go on line and start checking the fares for the dates you want to travel. Do it day after day, even several times a day. They’ll keep changing and you’ll need to keep track of the changes. Until you see the price that you want to pay. Then book it. Fast Let someone else be the idiot and pay the silly prices that you’ve passed up.

Unless you can’t do all that way in advance.

Then you’re screwed.

Next chapter soon. It gets better..

Friday, May 21, 2004

Here we go again with the raft of explanations for the high price of gasoline. It’s "round up the usual suspects" with a few extra twists thrown in.

The one I really like is the "it’s not as much as it seems to be when it’s adjusted for inflation." In fact, that’s a little gem that’s used to brush away price gouging for all kinds of commodities.

All I know is, when I drive by my gas station and see that the price for regular has jumped a dime between early morning and lunch time, I don’t give any thought to inflation adjusting. The price is up - and when it’s way over two bucks a gallon for regular unleaded, that’s a lot of money for local transportation. I’m lucky if I get 16 MPG in town, and filling up at about the half tank level is costing me around $22.

The thing that irritates the most and makes no sense to me, no matter how many different elements the experts tell us are affecting the price of gas, is that there are no lines of cars waiting to get their "quota" of this precious commodity, and there are no signs at any gas station saying, sorry - out of gas. Come back tomorrow.

It’s the same with milk and cheese. They’re up in price too. In some places, way up. And there are explanations for that too. But the shelves are holding just as much dairy product as they did before the current price jumps.

I have tried to listen to all of the economic experts and understand all of the complicated reasons why we’re suddenly paying through the nose for these products, but as long as they’re in abundant supply, the only thing that makes sense to me is that we are paying more because the suppliers are charging more.

And they are charging more because they can.

We’re supposed to be a market economy. The market will determine what an item is worth and what people are willing to pay for it. That’s great when there’s competition. But there’s virtually no competition when it comes to gasoline.

Oh sure, you can get gas a penny or so cheaper if you drive around for a while, but by the time you find that penny or two cheaper station, you’ve used up the "savings" in gas consumption. The price in a fixed area - a city or the suburbs of a big city - is just about the same at all the stations. Sometimes, our government watchdogs look at things like that and call it price fixing.

That’s what the governors of some states are now implying and they are asking for an investigation. Isn’t that something we’ve heard before? Maybe last year and the year before that. And did we ever get an investigation and answers that satisfied? Not that I recall.

Of course if you’re running for the presidency, you blame your opponent for the office for all of the nation’s ills, gas prices among them.

I’m going to vote for John Kerry because he’s the only alternative to George Bush and I consider George Bush a disaster. But I wish Kerry would stop saying silly political things.

Like the president isn’t "doing enough" to get the price of gasoline down. Or that we should open up our strategic reserves, which probably wouldn’t do enough to prices to make it worth while and would be a temporary expedient at best.

If he wants to make an issue of high gas prices, why not some statesmanlike discussion of energy policies? Why not some discussion of the inevitable future, when there won’t be such a thing as gasoline? But I guess that would be like a stock analyst estimating a company’s earnings ten years down the line instead of the next quarter. So I suppose we’ll be stuck with political shibboleths until at least next November.

Speaking of saying silly political things, it may be time for Ted Kennedy to hang up his hat and go home. I know Republicans haven’t let him or anyone else forget Chappequidick for the past 35 years, but he has been a pretty good senator for his constituents and a pretty good spokesman for his party. But speaking of the scandal at Abu Ghraib and saying that "Saddam Hussein’s torture chamber has been re-opened under new management - U.S. management," is about as stupid and irresponsible as it gets. At the very least, he should apologize - say that he spoke at the height of passion or some similar lame excuse.

Stuff like this is why I like to think of myself as an independent, even though I vote much more often for Democratic candidates than for Republicans - and usually, the Republicans that I do vote for lose!!!

I’m off to a wedding in Kansas. Have a nice week-end.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Is there anyone who isn’t sick at heart over what is going on in Gaza - and what happened yesterday at Makr al-Deeb in Iraq?

I lump the two together because in both cases, I am sure that any killing of civilians was accidental. That is one of the tragedies of war.

But surely in the case of Gaza, all of the killing of innocent civilians was avoidable if the Israeli army wasn’t engaged in "Operation Rainbow," its current wave of house destruction and search for tunnels along the Gaza/Egyptian border.

One can understand some of the reasoning behind the operation. Sharon announces a plan to withdraw all Israeli settlements from Gaza, and even though his Likud party declined to endorse the plan, he has made it clear that it will be carried out in one form or another.

The Gaza Palestinian response was the murder of a settlement family followed by bomb attacks that killed 11 Israeli soldiers over a three day period.

And some kind of response from Israel was inevitable. That has been the never ending pattern for decades.

But is what is going on in Gaza an appropriate response and will it achieve something worth the loss of innocent lives and the condemnation of the world, including, by abstaining from a UN resolution instead of vetoing it, the United States??

Closing tunnels through which weapons are smuggled from Egypt to Gaza may have some small, temporary benefit, but to believe that it makes the lives of Gaza settlers or Israelis in Israel proper any safer, has to be ridiculously naïve. Terrorists who are determined to arm themselves will find some way to do it. And terrorists who are determined to attack Israelis will find a way to continue to do so. And as long as settlers and soldiers are in their midst, they will find easy targets.

I asked at the beginning of this post if there was anyone who wasn’t sick at heart over what is happening in Gaza. Apparently there is.

The "Mideast On Target" news letter that I receive, has a very different take on this issue. Since the authors invite subscribers to "forward it to a friend," I am reproducing it here, along with my comments.

The volume of nonsense appearing in Western media reports this week concerning the IDF operation in Rafiah in the Gaza Strip borders on the fantastic. Given that anything the IDF does is almost automatically condemned by these sources, and nearly any Palestinian terrorist act is met with at least understanding if not out right approval, this week has witnessed some of the most blatant distortions in both terminology and reporting seen in the current terrorist war.

The IDF began its operations in Rafiah early this week to attempt, once and for all, to neutralize two major security threats: the corridor along the Egyptian border which has been the target of countless attacks on IDF troops over the past four years, and the numerous tunnels which run under the corridor between Rafiah and its Egyptian sister city.

Last week, the deaths of 13 IDF soldiers at the hands of Palestinians in Gaza brought these two threats into sharp focus. Seven were killed in the corridor by roadside bombs, antitank ambushes, and snipers, and six were killed when their armored vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb in an operation to eliminate rocket factories in Gaza. In all cases, the weapons, ammunition and explosives were smuggled into Gaza through the Rafiah tunnels.

This week it was decided to put an end to the flow of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

Relatively high Palestinian casualties resulted, not from indiscriminate IDF fire, but from a number of behavioral phenomena on the Palestinian side. First, buoyed by their successes in the previous week, Palestinian gunmen made the often fatal mistake of thinking that they could take on the IDF in face to face combat. Second, the Palestinian gunmen used their regular technique of bringing noncombatants, especially children, into the combat zone. And third, Palestinian "bystanders" routinely exposed themselves to danger in the midst of ongoing combat.

Yesterday, the third of these phenomena led to the deaths of 8 Palestinians. In what has been termed a protest by the media, a group of hundreds of noncombatants mixed with gunmen marched toward the area in which IDF troops were engaged in combat against armed Palestinians. Ignoring orders to stop, including warning shots by a helicopter gunship and a tank, the crowd continued to approach until a tank shell, also fired in warning, exploded against an abandoned building. Immediate Palestinian reports of a massacre of 23 were soon reduced to 10, as some of the massacred turned out to be corpses removed from the hospital morgue. Later adjustments brought the total down again, this time to eight.

Naturally, Israel was condemned by the UN and most of the world for the incursion and the loss of life. It is patently unclear under which law this condemnation took place, as there is no provision in the rules of war for noncombatants marching into the midst of a firefight in mixed crowds with gunmen. It is also curious that the US abstained in the UN vote, even as reports came out of an American helicopter attack on an Iraqi wedding party left over 40 dead. Interesting how dangerous celebrations can appear when they include the indiscriminate fire of AK 47 assault rifles into the air.

Last but not least, some in Israel are using the incursion and the loss of life as evidence that Israeli settlements in Gaza are the root cause of all this evil. On this subject it should be clearly understood that regardless of whether one supports the Sharon disengagement plan or opposes it, IDF antiterrorist operations in Gaza will not end with the removal of settlements. They will only end with removal of terrorists.
The sub-title of "Mideast On Target" is "unconventional wisdom." It appears at the top of every one of their news letters.

Sadly, there is nothing unconventional about the views expressed above. Neither do I detect very much wisdom. As I’ve noted before, much of Israeli thought that I read on the Internet is hard line.

I don’t know how the authors are able to determine that weapons used in recent attacks on Israeli soldiers were smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, but even if they were, to say that the IDF was there to neutralize "once and for all," the flow of weapons through these tunnels, implies that Israeli troops will remain in the area permanently. Tunnels have been destroyed before and they get re-built. So how do you "permanently neutralize" their threat unless you stay there to keep them closed? And if you stay there, how could you not expect to be attacked and sustain casualties, which of course will call for retaliation?

The "Mideast On Target" defense of the civilian deaths is truly astonishing. Gaza is a densely populated area. When troops enter such an area with tanks and other vehicles and with helicopters hovering above, it is patently ridiculous to expect all innocent residents to conveniently disappear from the area, leaving only those who wish to do battle exposed to Israeli fire power. And whether or not some of them are brought there as pawns, doesn’t detract from the horror of their deaths.

When Israel was offering a defense of the west bank wall, it pointed to Gaza as an example of the benefits of such a wall. Gaza is fenced in, went the argument - and that’s why we don’t get terrorist attacks from Gaza. No, we get them in Gaza!!

"Mideast On Target" concludes that anti-terrorist activities in Gaza won’t end with the removal of settlements, but with the removal of terrorists. In other words, a military solution.

If the conflict was solvable militarily, it would have been solved by the wars that were fought in 1948 or 1956 or in 1967 or in 1973 or in 1982.

Israel needs to defend itself, but the conflict with the Palestinians will never be solved or moved closer to a solution, by the kind of action that its forces are conducting in Gaza at this moment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

What a bad time for Molly Ivins to be on vacation. No one is better at chronicling the strange goings on in her native Texas, and surely she would have had something to say about the continuation of the Texas tradition of "leaving no convicted killer unexecuted."

I remember that among the many stupid things that George W Bush said when he was running for the presidency, was a particularly stupid one about the application of the death penalty in Texas.

At a time when a scandal of wrongful murder convictions was unfolding in Illinois, leading to the suspension of the death penalty in that state, and virtually all death row prisoners having their sentences commuted, Mr. Bush was insisting that no one put to death on his watch as governor of Texas, could possibly have been innocent. Yes sir, he was absolutely positive. They were all guilty - and for sure not deserving of clemency.

His supporters would describe that aspect of Mr. Bush’s make up as "resolve." Subsequent events have revealed it as more like pig-headed stubbornness - an inability to admit that he could be wrong about anything.

Now it seems that the current governor of Texas is carrying on in the same tradition.

A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic was put to death yesterday, despite the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that his sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. This was something they’d never done before, but it didn’t cut any mustard with Governor Rick Perry. Not that recommendation nor the ruling of the Supreme Court, two years ago, labeling executions of the mentally ill as unconstitutional .

Apparently, in Texas, tradition displaces both law and reason.

Watch out for this guy if he ever decides to make a run for the presidency.
France Trashes Turbans

It’s difficult for me to suggest that England could learn anything from France, but those Frenchmen keep surprising us with their matter of fact enactment of laws to keep personal displays of religious belief out of official public life.

Last June, I expressed my dismay at the decision of the London Metropolitan Police to allow Sikh members of the police force to wear turbans instead of regular Bobby helmets.

It was all done in the name of religious tolerance and diversity. Or some such nonsense.

But the French will have none of it. They’ve already passed laws banning the wearing of Muslim head scarves and Christian crosses and Jewish yalmakes in French schools. Now turbans have been added to the list for Sikh schoolboys.

Everyone pretty much agrees that the laws are really aimed at France’s Muslim population, at around five million, the largest of any European nation.

I think the French have the right approach and the Brits have it all wrong.

There is nothing wrong with people bringing their religious and cultural traditions with them as they move from the countries of their birth to some other land. But I don’t think that it’s helpful to them or to their new neighbors to wear their religion or their traditions wherever they go as though they had never left their native lands.

If I were to lose my mind and decided to emigrate to some Arab nation, I think I would retain enough of my sanity to know that it would behoove me to swap my western clothing for whatever the well dressed Arab in the street is wearing and to be careful not to flaunt any of the traditions of my old country which are anathema to them.

For some reason, certain recent emigrants to the western democracies, seem to think it’s perfectly O.K. to bring all of the trappings of their native land with them and pretty much live their lives as though they’d never left home.

I agree with the French that there are some places where blatant displays of one’s cultural traditions and religious beliefs do not belong. The public schools are one of them. There are probably others where a strong case could be made for the same kind of prohibition. And for my money, none of it belongs on the heads of street walking cops - in London or any place else in the western world.

One final thought about the new French laws. Apart from having the largest Muslim population of any European country, there is more anti-Semitism and more anti-Semitic acts in France than in any other European country, much of it perpetrated by members of that self same large Muslim population.

One possible side benefit of the new laws is that an individual’s religion or ethnicity will become a little less obvious to others, and that might help reduce the incidence of anti-Semitism.

It may not be an intended consequence, but it would be welcome any way. And I’m not sure that it isn’t intended in a roundabout way. The French have had a cozy relationship with Muslim countries for decades, but now they are worried about the growing Muslim population in their own country having too much influence on their national character.

You’d think that their situation would lead them to have a better understanding of Israel’s concerns about maintaining the character of their nation - but I suppose that would be too much to hope for.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

I had a call yesterday from someone I used to do business with and with whom I was pretty friendly. He left town a few years ago and we were out of touch for a while. And then, in the summer or fall of 1998, we began to communicate by e-mail.

In the days when we worked together on a business project, I knew almost nothing about his political leanings, but when we began our e-mail correspondence, it soon became obvious that he was a rock-ribbed Republican with very strong conservative views that he felt compelled to express, pretty much on a daily basis!!

Somehow, I got drawn into responding to his right wing homilies, and over a period of nine or ten months, we argued back and forth by e-mail in a "point/counterpoint" fashion about things political and philosophical.

As the months went by, the points and counterpoints became increasingly heated, and by July of 1999, we were practically at each other’s throats. Finally, after a few particularly angry exchanges, we just quit corresponding and we quit talking to each other.

Until yesterday. We had a friendly conversation and we’re not mad at each other.

But the following may give you some idea of why our 98/99 correspondence got so heated and why we stopped the back and forth e-mails.

It’s his response to views expressed in this blog.

We’re not going to get into another round of point/counterpoint, but I think it’s instructive to get a glimpse of the thought processes and reasoning of some of our fellow Americans with whom we disagree. I’ve titled the piece "how the other half thinks."

I sure hope it’s a hell of a lot less than half!! .

Jeff.. Just read all of your blogs that you sent me and I am afraid to say that I would not agree with much of what you have to say. I know that is a surprise to you but a fact is a fact.

I follow the news pretty well. When I get up about 5 a.m., I check out the NYT and the Wash Post, to learn what these two left leaning rags are spouting as their version of the news.

I then go to Newsmax.com and worldnetdaily.com to see what the conservative slant is on the same subjects.

Often you would not know that they are reporting on the same subjects.

As for your nemesis Rush, I happen to like him very much and think his analysis is far more accurate than most.

Michael Moore is a first class pig and is ripping off the left for the money and they clap their hands and egg him on as long as he is trashing the President.

As for the President. I think his objective of going into Iraq was very smart. They just failed to account for the total failure of the Iraq army to fight.

As for WMSD, the intelligence community of all nations, including Israel, said that they had them. It was a massive failure of all spook organizations of all countries.

he issue for the US is that we sat and did nothing about the attacks during and before the Clinton years, so they hit us here thinking we would do nothing. Well they got a surprise. The extreme Islamist types don't give a damn about life.

When the Western world wakes up to the fact that this is a religious war being waged by a rabid element of the Muslim religions and the believe that their interpretation of the Koran should govern the people in all nations, and takes them seriously, then and only then will we have a chance to stop them. If we don't (The West) then we will have bombing here, and the world will descend into total hell.

You can not negotiate with the Osama bin Ladens of this world. They only understand force. Anything else is weakness.

The show down is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. If we lose, we will have lost far more than a war. We will have lost our country and the West can kiss their ass GOODBYE.

One word about the UN. What we are learning about the "Food for Peace" program and the graft by the UN and the French, Germans and Russians on the take, it is easy to understand why they did not back us in Iraq. MONEY and the fear that the US would know who was pals with Hussein... We have the list and it includes many officials in these three countries governments. To top it all off, the bank for the Food for Peace program was a FRENCH bank.

As for the Israelis, they had a dog in this hunt. They thought that with Hussein gone the suicide bombings would be reduced because the families would no longer be paid by Hussein and thus, they would come out a winner. So, they too wanted us to do it. They have admitted that their intelligence was 10 years old and did not know anything more than all the rest.

We will leave Iraq and it will have a democratic government of some sort. This has taught Iran, Syria and the others in the region that the US will act if attacked and that those that harbor terrorists are on notice.

This is not a classic war. As for the prison issue. The abuse issue is crap. You can not get information by treating them like choir boys. What gets me, our politicians know it, and act as if they are outraged. So, OK, Mr. Kennedy and his ilk, bring them to the US and turn them loose if they are such nice guys. This was mild treatment.

The left is using this to go after the President. They do not give a damn about the country or the terrorists. They want power to do what they did before, which was nothing. Roll over and kick the US again, and again. Put our troops under the UN command, world wide, so says Kerry. That is the way to go. Yes sir, Kofi Annan and his band of socialists who want to control the world. Let all the third world countries outvote us in the UN and they can dictate the laws that govern us. Yes sir, that is the way to go. I want Castro and his type to take over South America so we can go to war with them, too. He really is a nice guy.

I know, we can do like Spain. Roll over and show our belly. Then they will leave us alone. Right? Wrong. With terror they got what they could not get any other way. Are we ready to do the same?

So, Jeff... you and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. You can Blog on. I will not.
And as I used to say to my friend when we were having our e-mail exchanges in 1998 and 1999 and I got a blast like this one - say hi to the white rabbit and the hatter too if you bump into them

Monday, May 17, 2004

In Portland, Oregon, two disc jockeys were fired for playing an audio tape of Nick Berg screaming in agony as his head was being sawed off, and then making what they considered to be funny remarks about it.

Sean Hannity, a radio RWRAR (right wing ranter and raver), played the same audio on his radio program.. He hasn’t been fired. He was on the Today show on Saturday trying to explain why he played the tape. It made me sick. I killed his audio.

His action says all that needs to be said about what kind of a human being he is and about the people who employ him. He can come up with an encyclopedia of reasons why airing the sounds of a man dying in agony is a good thing, but none of them hold water.

He crossed a line that should never be crossed - and the scary thing about that is, he doesn’t know where the line is. He may not even know that there is a line!!

It scares me to death.

What have we come to as a nation when the Sean Hannity’s and the Rush Limbaugh’s and their ilk, dominate the airways and attract millions of slavish followers nodding in agreement to every crazed theory and philosophy they advance?

Watching Meet the Press on Sunday, I couldn’t help feeling sad that neither of Tim Russet’s senatorial guests was running for the presidency. Both Joe Biden and John McClain sounded the way a president should sound - articulate, aware, possessed of ideas and not getting secret instructions from God.

McCain of course was trashed by the Bush money and dirty tricks Juggernaut and got knocked out of the Republican presidential primary in 2000, and in 1987, Joe Biden made the mistake of using a phrase in a speech that was a paraphrase of something that had been used in a speech by British Labor MP Neil Kinnock. He was accused of plagiarism and dropped out of that year’s presidential race.

Two good men who could have been president.

Incidentally, John McCain keeps saying that he isn’t interested in a unity ticket with John Kerry. He does not want to run for vice president. He’s said it over and over again and a few times more on Sunday.

He also says he’s a loyal Republican and he’s supporting Bush for re-election.. Tim Russet didn’t ask him, but I’d like to get an answer to the obvious question.

Why John? Why?

And not why you don’t want to run for vice-president or why you’re a loyal Republican. It’s the other thing. The support thing.

For heavens sake man, why????

I am a frequent critic of the letters that are selected for publication in "Voice of the People" or "letters to the Editor" section of newspapers. But last Friday, the Chicago Tribune published a letter that makes a fine addendum to my comments of May 14th about it being no great surprise that Americans are capable of treating prisoners the way we’ve done so at Abu Ghraib prison.

I didn’t point a finger of blame directly at a Bush administration created atmosphere, as did this letter writer, but he makes some valid points.

And in the points that I made on May 14th, I forgot to add a long standing traditional law enforcement questioning technique that we are told no longer exists, but was once accepted practice. Isn’t what happened in Abu Ghraib little more than a variation of that good old American police tactic known as the third degree??

On the same page, the Tribune gave us a look at the prevailing views of boobus americanus on this same topic.

This guy is sick and tired of hearing about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Who cares, he says.

Only the whole world, you blithering idiot!!

I don’t usually write a "link" blog, but under the heading of "I wish I’d written that," I have to commend the piece on the same general topic by Georgie Ann Geyer on the same day that these two letters appeared.

Georgie gives her view of why - as the sub-headline of her piece says - "Leaders must be held responsible because they set the standard and tell followers by word and action what is permitted and what is not."

And isn’t it interesting that after we have told the world that this is not the American way, that we don’t treat prisoners this way, that this was the unauthorized and uncondoned acts of a handful of prison guards - that Major General Geoffrey Miller, the new US chief of military prisons in Iraq, says we will no longer employ such techniques as placing hoods over prisoner’s heads and depriving them of sleep and forcing them into uncomfortable positions and so on.

He didn’t say that we don’t use those kinds of techniques on prisoners.. He couldn’t say so, because the use of such techniques at Guantanamo has been publicly discussed and admitted at congressional hearings.

Is the difference between Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib one of distance or one of brass doing what it always does - covering it’s rear end.

The last time I typed in the word "Jew" in Google, I still got the disgusting "jewwatch" site, though it had moved down from the first to the fourth position.

But maybe Google is finding a way to compensate. Type in "miserable failure" and hit "I’m Feeling Lucky," and it will go straight to a biography of George W. Bush.

If you don’t click "I’m Feeling Lucky," the George Bush bio will still show up as number one of, according to Google, 273,000 hits.

Interestingly, Jimmy Carter shows up as number two!!

In the number four spot on this search page, a BBC report explains that this is the result of a "Google Bomb."

Whether or not the Kerry campaign is or was directly involved in this accomplishment, they’re using it to their advantage by putting two Kerry for President ads on the page.

Friday, May 14, 2004

I almost took a day off from blogging yesterday. I had a lot to do away from my computer, and I didn’t want to miss the final episode of Frasier. But as you can see, I penned a few words after Frasier - and not suprisingly, my viewing provided me with a topic for today.

Frasier, of course.

The review I read in my morning newspaper was positive. Riding around this morning, I heard a similarly positive review on PBS radio. (I made sure not to punch in the Limbaugh station today).

I had a somewhat different take. There were some touching moments and a couple of clever lines, particularly towards the end. And the final scene, with Frasier landing in Chicago, not San Francisco, was a nice touch.

But why on earth did the writers think it was appropriate to spend a substantial portion of the final program on frenetic slapstick?? How else would you describe the annoying "wedding that never took place" sketch, where one thing after another goes wrong and mounting hysteria is presented as comedy?

And why clutter up the final show with Daphne’s obnoxious and decidedly unfunny brothers, particularly two who, to my knowledge, had never been on the show before?

The comment that I made to my wife at about the mid-point of the non-wedding skit, was that it was time for the program to go. It had pretty much run out of things to say that were funny in a way that we hadn’t seen before.

Also, there comes a point in any long running show, during which the characters have shown their advancing years, where we simply don’t want to see them growing any older.

It’s O.K. for news anchors to age before our eyes. And late night comedy show hosts. They’re real people and we expect them to age just as we do and for that reason we can accept their graying hair and sagging chins.

But not sit-com characters. When they do reprises of old shows, as they did in the first hour of last night’s Frasier finale, and we see how young they were then and how old they are now, it sort of reminds us of our own mortality, and that’s kind of a sad reminder.

Unless, in the case of Frasier, we’re talking about my favorite character. That would be Eddie. The dog. I don’t remember exactly how long Eddie has been on the show, but I know that he looked the same on the final show as he did the first time I ever saw him.

Which got me thinking about how the different species that populate the earth, age. And it occurred to me that the only critters that actually show the aging process in a way that’s obvious, are us. Homo Sapiens. If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will correct me. I’m no biologist or anthropologist.

Now why are we the only ones that look older as we grow older?

I suppose one could conclude that it’s a trade off worked out by nature. Our close companion - the dog - may live into his teens, but that’s about it. And when he/she finally leaves us, he/she looks about the same as when we got him/her. Maybe bigger, depending on the breed. But not much older looking. No turning from brilliant black to dull gray. No balding of the pate. But then, not lasting nearly as long as us. Living a sort of Nick Romano kind of life. That’s the character from Willard Motleys novel, "Knock On Any Door," whose motto was "Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse."

On the other hand, tortoises and some whales and crocodiles can live a great deal longer than humans, and they don’t show any sign of aging either. Well, maybe the tortoise slows his pace just a little.

But if we lived as long as tortoises, three quarters of our lives would be lived the way Shakespeare described the seventh age of man - in a state of second childishness, and mere oblivion - sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything!!

It’s very confusing, but that’s what happens when you watch a sit-com for too many years and there are humans and animals in the cast.

It really was time for Frasier to go.

Oh, and cat lovers, please don’t send me hate e-mail. I know a cat can be a close companion for some people. But let’s face it, dogs are the nobility of household pets.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

It only happens when I’m in the car.

I guess it’s the equivalent of what I do at home when I’m watching television. It’s a good thing we have multiple television sets - and more than one hooked up to our satellite service, or it would drive my wife nuts.

When I’m watching television, I zap. I have the remote in my hands or within easy reach at all times, and I jump back and forth between stations. Sometimes between 3 or 4 stations. I can honestly watch more than one show at a time and make perfect sense out of each one.

In the car, I punch pre-set buttons. That’s about the only time I catch any part of Rush Limbaugh - and I punch back out almost immediately, stopping only long enough to see what matter of idiocy he or a loyal ditto-head is fulminating about.

Today’s moment with the mouth was a doozie. A female caller saying that she had sent an e-mail to Dan Rather complaining about whatever it is she thought he did viz a viz the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Much like the woman I wrote about yesterday.

I couldn’t quite understand her point. That’s frequently the case when one of these nuts is spouting nonsense, but it led up to her denunciation of the "liberal media" which is doing anything and everything it can to defeat George Bush.

Somehow, the story of the abuse and the pictures, is a "liberal media" plot to unseat Mr. Bush. And Limbaugh didn’t disabuse her of the idea. There are lots of people who agree with you, he told her.

Yesterday, it was to take "pressure" off of Jamie Gorelick..

I was tuned in to Limbaugh station for no more than a minute, but somehow, the ranting of this female caller stayed with me until I got back home and for some time after that.

I thought about her and what she said, - and the madmen who stood before television cameras to spout their particular brand of madness before slaughtering Nick Berg in a way that you wouldn’t use to slaughter a pig or a cow.

And I couldn’t help but think that there really wasn’t very much difference between those madmen and the two women spouting their crazed theories about "the liberal media" and "Democrats."

Oh, these people aren’t about to commit some heinous act of murder and record the event for the world to see. Or at least I hope not. We have had some horrendous acts of violence in this country, committed by people who are motivated by their political beliefs - and I don’t recall any of them being members of any liberal cabal.

The Muslim extremists who believe they are doing the will of Allah when they blow themselves up or use other methods to kill those who they regard as their enemies, are of course stark raving mad..

But they are joined in madness by millions of others who may not express their insanity by murdering fellow humans, but who nonetheless live their lives guided by equally nutty beliefs.

Is there any real difference between believing in the evil intent and machinations of the "liberals" and "the liberal media," and the Saudi claim that I cited a couple of day ago that Zionists, not Islamic extremists, are behind the current spate of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia?

If there is, it would be that the Saudis know better, but spout their nonsense for political reasons, whereas the right wing duffers actually believe that there are evil people living among them belonging to a cult like group of Satan worshipers called liberals.

You might not think that there is any valid comparison that can be made between crazed Islamic murderers who think that they will be rewarded with eternal life in paradise if they die while committing their acts of murder against us, and nutty right wing ladies who call Limbaugh and his ilk and receive reinforcement of their nuttiness.

The extremists can kill us. What harm can these women do, expressing their God given right of free speech?

I’ll tell you. They can vote. And there are millions of them. And they’re capable of re-electing George Bush. Or electing someone like George Bush in the future. Someone who may act, based on his nutty beliefs, in a manner that pours gasoline on the burning fire that is world wide terrorism

And that’s as dangerous as the terrorism itself.

As I said yesterday regarding the abuse of Iraqi detainees, perhaps it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. We are quite capable of being violent and bigoted. And today, an
op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune, made exactly that point in graphic detail.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

You wouldn’t know it from reading my posts for the past few weeks, but I’d really like to get away from Mr. Bush and the members of his administration and the problems in Iraq and the problems in Israel.

But it’s hard. This isn’t a personal diary blog. This isn’t a subject specific or an industry specific or a profession specific blog. It’s a commentary blog. Commenting on the passing parade. On whatever I observe happening around me and around the world. And of late, the very things that I would like to get away from for a while are what fill my view as I do my observing.

The shame and danger of what has been revealed about the treatment of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, and the monstrous murder of Nick Berg by sub humanoids claiming some noble purpose.

Some people are trying to equate the two. I’ve heard callers to radio shows saying that what happened to Iraqi detainees was nothing compared to what happened to Nick Berg. As though that somehow excused the horrible treatment of the Iraqi prisoners. The two things are of course mutually exclusive. The monsters of the world will continue to do monstrous things. We should continue to be what we are and act accordingly, and not think of our bad behavior as not quite so bad because other behave far more badly.

But the question of what and who we are and what "acting accordingly" means, is something that, as Hamlet says, "must give us pause."

I’ve lived in the United States for a long time. I won’t say how long. I’m old, but I don’t particularly want to tell the world exactly how old. We’re supposed to be a civilized country. A free country. A beacon to the world. But all of the time I’ve lived here, I’ve had the uneasy feeling that there’s an uncivilized part of our national psyche lurking beneath and being held in check, by a pretty thin veneer of civilization.

Think about it. Our murder rate places us among the world’s leaders in that unhappy category. We are the only country in the so called western civilized world that retains the death penalty. It wasn’t that long ago that segregation of the races was legal
in the United States. We’ve had an assassination of a president and a presidential candidate in the modern era. We’ve had a disgruntled American blow up a Federal building, killing 168 people. In recent years, the advent of personal video cameras has exposed acts of horrible violence by those entrusted with law enforcement that would have gone unnoticed years ago.

We are certainly capable of being violent and bigoted. So maybe we shouldn’t be quite that surprised that Americans can act the way we’ve been seeing them act.

And now that instant, world wide visual communication is commonplace, we may be seeing a lot more that we never thought we would see.

Coming back to people calling in to radio talk shows. I heard a women the other day claim that "they" are releasing the story and the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib, to take the heat off Jamie Gorelick!!

I kid you not.

Someone who very likely is registered to vote and who, in unmistakable language, identified herself as a Republican, had reasoned that some "liberal cabal" that had knowledge of this prisoner abuse and was in possession of all of these pictures, decided that they would release them and get the attention of the American people focused on them and off of 9/11 commission member, Jamie Gorelick.

Except that there is no pressure on Jamie Gorelick and no focus of the American people upon her.

But this nut is focused on her - and naturally thinks that everyone else is!!

Obviously, she heard John Ashcroft testimony before the 9/11 commission, during which he tried to blame Ms Gorelick for part of the intelligence gathering snafus that occurred leading up to the 9/1l attack. According to Ashcroft, it was all because of a memo that she wrote while serving as an assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.

To her feeble minded way of thinking, this amounted to a condemnation of Ms Gorelick as the arch villain of the 9/11 catastrophe - and of course Democrats would do anything to take the non existent pressure off of her. Up to and including releasing the Abu Ghraib story and pictures. Maybe even being behind the sordid affair.

After all, she said - and I kid you not, these are her words - "I know my Democrats."

The program host, in a very mid manner, tried to reason with her, but to no avail. It was his attempt to reason that evoked the "I know my Democrats" statement.

What she didn’t know - as so many blinkered partisans of both parties frequently don’t know, is what she was talking about. Partisans on the right would just accept what Ashcroft said as being true. Anyone with a glimmer of independent thought, would take the trouble to find out what he was talking about. For example, she could have read, as I did, Ms. Gorelick’s own description and explanation of this infamous memo.

But it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to her. She knows her Democrats.

I’ve got to stop listening to these call in radio shows. I want to hang on to my vision of the United States as a reasonably civilized country - and it’s people as reasonably sane.

But it gets harder every day.

I need a drink