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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Yesterday I commented on an Australian who faces death by hanging in Singapore for possession of heroin - a punishment that seems totally inappropriate to most people in the western world. But we have our own laws and punishments that seem inappropriate to many people - certainly to me.

To begin, let me make something very clear. I can’t conceive of any punishment too severe for monsters who inflict bodily harm on children and helpless animals. I don’t necessarily advocate executing them. In general, I’m against the death penalty, though there are some criminals that I often think I could kill with my bare hands and not lose a moment’s sleep over it. I also think that penalties for deliberate cruelty to helpless animals should be as severe as those for helpless children. In terms of helplessness, I place kids and puppy dogs in the same category.

The worst kind of monster is the sub-humanoid who tortures or sexually abuses young children and derives pleasure from these obscene acts. For these creatures, I would advocate a punishment that fits the crime. We don’t have such punishments but this would be one instance where I might be supportive of the kind of justice that I spoke of disparagingly yesterday. But lacking that, I would be all for locking these monsters away and never letting them out.

But then there is another kind of twisted - or maybe just mixed up individual - who doesn’t commit any acts of physical aggression against young children, but thinks about them being victims or being in compromising situations. This is someone into child pornography from a distance. Someone who looks at pornographic pictures. Someone who collects such pictures - who maybe looks for and downloads them from the Internet. Just a collector. A looker. A thinker. But who doesn’t engage in physical pornographic acts with anyone.

Is such a person a criminal? Is such a person breaking laws just by looking at these pictures and thinking pornographic thoughts - maybe deriving sexual pleasure from looking at them? Apparently the answer is yes according to the laws of the state in which I reside. A pediatrician of all people - a doctor with no criminal record of any kind was recently sentenced to five years in the hoosegow for collecting hundreds of child pornography pictures for which he paid close to ten thousand dollars!! Just for having the pictures!!

Now I suppose one could make the assumption that someone who spends that kind of money collecting child pornography pictures has the potential to go beyond looking and thinking and to go out and engage in actual physical pornographic acts with children. But that’s a little like saying that any adult who reads or views any kind of pornographic material has the potential to commit criminal acts mimicking the pornography that he or she read or viewed. Some psychiatrists and psychologists would argue just the opposite - that the reading and viewing of pornographic material acts as an outlet for fantasy desires and is more likely to prevent than cause criminal activity.

People who are drawn to child pornography may well be a different breed - but again, I would think that using such methods to indulge in ones fantasies is more likely to prevent indulging in actual pornographic acts with young children than cause it to happen.

There’s probably little doubt that harm is caused to the children that are photographed to produce these pictures and that it is likely classified as a criminal activity no matter where it took place. And I guess that technically, buying pictures that were criminally produced could be thought of as a crime - an "accessory after the fact" type of crime.. But the good doctor who will be going to jail was sentenced under a law that makes it a crime in the State of Illinois simply to possess such pictures.

I find that scary. A little too close to the concept of the bedroom police who can peer through your window to see what kind of activities are going on in or out of your bed. Or the library police who can check to see if you are borrowing books that may be pornographic in nature and that might induce you to engage in acts of physical pornography.

I know the law’s the law and there’s no getting around it. But I have a hard time understanding or accepting this particular law. I can understand "possession" being a crime when it comes to heroin or some other illegal drug. The assumption is obvious that it’s not just in your possession to look at and admire, but to use or to sell to someone else - and there are laws against the use of illegal drugs. Fortunately, they’re not like Singapore’s laws and there’s no death penalty involved. Of course there may be for possessing kiddy porn pictures. I haven’t checked all the laws of Singapore.

I’m willing to concede that’s it not an entirely bad idea to make it some kind of offense to amass huge collections of kiddy porn pictures. But I believe that making it an offense that is punishable by years in jail - if no crime was committed other than owning the pictures - is unconscionable. A fine would seem to be more than appropriate - that and the fact that the story of the arrest and arraignment would likely be in the papers and on the news and result in a degree of shame and embarrassment that could be as severe a punishment as incarceration to most people.

To my mind, the law and its punishment as it stands, is one such as Dicken’s Mr. Bumble described in Oliver Twist. He was speaking of a matter far removed from what this issue is about but the words seem appropriate to what the current law "supposes" about the person who possesses pornographic photographs. That he is some kind of criminal. ".If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble "the law is a ass - a idiot!!"

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It isn’t listed as a "rogue" nation or a member of the "axis of evil" or on the lists of dictatorships or repressive regimes, but if I was a leader of a western democracy, I would be concerned about any of my citizens setting foot in the Republic of Singapore.

Remember the American teenager Michael Fay who was caned on his bare buttocks for vandalizing two cars?

Australian citizen Tuong Van Nguyen didn’t vandalize anything. He was arrested in Singapore and sentenced to death by hanging for being in possession of 386 grams of heroin 3 years ago. He wasn’t a drug dealer. It was a one time effort that appeared to be an act of both love and desperation. He was trying to raise money to pay off his twin brother's considerable debts.

It didn’t matter to the Singapore government. You’re caught with drugs - you hang - and that’s what will happen to Van Nguyen on Friday. No fifteen to twenty years of appeals. He’s lucky he’s lasted three years since his sentence was pronounced.

I don’t know what kind of warning Australians get about travel to Singapore, but if you’re an American citizen planning a trip, you’d be well advised to read the information provided by our government as follows:
While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe in Singapore than for similar offenses in the United States, and persons violating Singapore laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.

There are strict penalties for possession and use of drugs as well as for trafficking in illegal drugs. Singapore has a mandatory death penalty for many narcotics offenses. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.

Visitors should be aware of Singapore's strict laws and penalties for a variety of actions that might not be illegal or might be considered minor offenses in the United States. These include jaywalking, littering, and spitting. Singapore has a mandatory caning sentence for vandalism offenses and caning may also be imposed for immigration violations and other offenses. Commercial disputes that may be handled as civil suits in the United States can escalate to criminal cases in Singapore, and result in heavy fines and prison sentences. There are no jury trials in Singapore, judges hear cases and decide sentencing. The Government of Singapore does not provide legal assistance except in capital cases; legal assistance may be available in some other cases through the Law Society.
Pleas for leniency for Van Nguyen have fallen on deaf ears - specifically on the deaf ears of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee_Hsien_Loong. It was the same in the case of Michael Fay. A different Prime Minister but the same response to international pleas for mercy. Deaf ears.

Supposedly, we have "good relations" with Singapore , but apparently we turn a blind eye to what has been called a pseudo-democracy and to their interesting ideas about crime and punishment.

I have sympathy for Van Nguyen who had the misfortune to be caught smuggling heroin in Singapore rather than in the United States of the United Kingdom, but the main reason that I comment on his case is to make the point that there are many countries in this world that are the antithesis of everything we believe and hold sacred - but that we deal with on a "friendly basis." Others we attack, condemn or - as in the case of our neighbor a few miles off our southern shore - we ostracize. But I also comment because the Van Nguyen story is a chilling reminder that both Singapore and the United States are among the minority of the world’s nations that still utilize the death penalty - though so far the United States only executes people for murder or treason. And in case you’re interested in who the rest of those minority countries are - minority in the sense that more countries have abandoned the death penalty than those who retain it - they are:


To paraphrase an old adage, the death penalty sure makes for some pretty odd bedfellows.

Monday, November 28, 2005

I must apologize to my vast reading audience - I know there are at least six of you - for the absence of my words of wisdom for the last five or six days. There is a reason. This is a time of the year when I like to relax and enjoy a holiday mood. My working wife is taking a break and so we’ve be in a "vacation mode" since the day before Thanksgiving and it will extend until next Thursday when she rejoins the working world. That is to say, I had hoped that it would extend until then because I wanted to rest up, clear my mind, forget about Iraq and political scandals and collapsing businesses in this sterling economy created by the Bush tax cuts - and just think pleasant holiday thoughts. - at least for a few more days. The trouble is, the newspaper comes every day, holiday or not and broadcasting goes on, holiday or not - and I’m weak. I can’t stop myself from reading my newspaper and from turning on a radio in the morning. Even watching a little television in bed while I sip my morning tea and my wife sips her morning coffee. And last week - on the eve of Thanksgiving, both the radio and the newspaper got me irritated, then aggravated and then just plain angry.

The morning guy I listen to on the radio took last week off and someone else was doing his shift - someone who has considerable talent but who has a habit of being over solicitous of guests that he speaks to - either in studio or on the phone. I’m being polite with my selection of language and I’ll leave it at that. On Thanksgiving eve he was being supportive of our troops in Iraq by talking to an officer at camp Liberty in Baghdad. After talking about the holiday and what kind of a Thanksgiving meal they were having (supplied by a subsidiary of Haliburton at Lord knows what cost), he just had to ask if the troops were keeping up with the bickering back home and if it was affecting their morale. The guy said yes, they were aware of it. They didn’t like it. They wanted to complete their mission - which comment I found interesting because I’m still waiting for an explanation of the mission from the President. But the thrust of the radio guy’s call was that he was supportive of the assertion that criticism and questions about the Iraq war and whether the American people were misled about the need for war was sending a "wrong signal" to the troops, and it irritated me that he injected this Bush administration "talking point" into a conversation where it didn’t really belong. He tried asking the same question to a newsman at Camp Liberty the following day and got a different answer that didn’t seem to please him but which I imagine holds true for almost everyone serving in Iraq. The troops follow whatever orders they’re given, he was told. As far as the newsman was able to observe, their morale wasn't being affected by exercises in democracy taking place back home. As I wrote recently about my own military service, when you’re a "grunt" on the ground, you take your orders from above and you do your best to carry them out - and what you do and how you do it and feel about it isn’t affected by whatever yacking may be going on back home.

The irritation caused by listening to those radio conversations turned to aggravation when I opened my paper and read an op-ed piece by syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker and found her speculating about - and I quote verbatim - "what Senate Republicans would be saying if polls showed that most Americans overwhelmingly support the war in Iraq. Would they be scrambling toward the defeatist, anti-war side of the political aisle, as they did Tuesday by passing a resolution that suggests a weakening of resolve?"

A defeatist , anti war side? A weakening of "resolve?" This was a war started on the basis of phony information and phony threats to our security and with zero understanding about what would happen or what we would have to do once the war had been "won." I caught the tail end of a speech by Richard Clarke on CNN the other day and he was answering a question about the apparent lack of expertise on what to expect from a military defeat of Iraq, Clarke quickly dispelled that notion. He identified the groups within the Federal government where the expertise was to be found and what they had said about what would happen - exactly what IS happening - but no one in the White House listened to them. Now when people have thought about this mess after watching it become messier and messier for 32 months and are starting to push for an exit strategy other than "stay the course" and the utter impossibility of "defeating" the insurgents, we get armchair pundits calling them "defeatist" and undergoing a "weakening of resolve."

No Kathleen. This isn’t a game of chicken and your choice of words was enough to make my Thanksgiving turkey stick in my gullet. What you call "defeatism" and "weakening of resolve" is the "realpolitik" view of those who think that the President and the group of hawks commonly referred to as the "neocons" - whose desire to invade Iraq was well known during the Clinton administration - are operating from a view of reality that is rooted in theoretical and wishful thinking and that they need to consider the fact that a great many people see a totally different reality.

It’s easy for the armchair warriors to have "resolve." I’m sure those who had all kinds of "resolve" about how to avoid serving in the military when their time came are experts on the subject. But while they are exercising all this resolve, people are dying horrendous deaths every day - Iraqis and Americans. We need to hear what the end game is from our leader. Not "stay the course." Not "we’ll stand down when they stand up." That’s a formula for being in Iraq forever - with internal security of that distant land a permanent American responsibility. We need to hear something other than meaningless slogans. We need to hear something other than vicious attacks on those who disagree with the President - only to be changed 180 degrees when the realization hits that it’s not resonating with voters - even Republican voters. We need to hear some straight talk from our President - and from behind his desk in the Oval Office - not in front of the military backdrop of the week.

At the very least I’d like to approach the Christmas season with some degree of hope that next year’s Thanksgiving can be enjoyed without Iraq being a major topic of conversation that irritates, aggravates and casts a pall on the celebration. But since there can’t be any change in the White House by then, I won’t hold my breath.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

This may sound a little petty but I’m close to being annoyed at the idea that the appearance of Oprah Winfrey on the Letterman show is some kind of major news story I never watch Oprah as I’ve indicated here before and I’m both amused and bewildered - and sometimes irritated when I read about her world wide popularity and influence. So why am I writing about her and her upcoming appearance with Letterman? I guess because it’s being presented as a major story - in the case of the daily paper that I read, on the front page of the business section!!

In the years when I stayed up later than I do now, I would occasionally watch a part of the Letterman show and I was aware of some kind of running gag about Oprah not calling him or inviting him on her show. - or maybe it was appearing on his. Now I read that there was an underlying story of petulance on the part of Oprah who had made a couple of appearances on Letterman’s show and felt that she was treated badly.. Also, she didn’t take kindly to Letterman’s attempt to be funny by repeating her name and that of Uma Thurman when he hosted the Oscars in 1995. Remember? Uma , Oprah. Oprah, Uma. It wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny as I type it now. And apparently - again I presume in an attempt to be funny - Letterman from time to time has made some disparaging remarks about Oprah on his show.

Why have they buried the hatchet? The speculation is that it has something to do with the fact that an Oprah stage production of "The Color Purple" is about to open at a theater a stone’s throw from where Letterman tapes and that Oprah would rather make nice with Dave and publicize her show than allow for the possibility of him pointing cameras at the marquee where the show is playing and make jokes about it and her. And as for Letterman, the expected ratings boost would be welcome for a show that has consistently lagged behind Jay Leno .

I suppose I could have saved a lot of words by simply noting that I’ve read the story about Oprah and Letterman burying the hatchet but who cares. Obviously a lot of people do. A lot of people identify with performers that they watch on the boob tube. They become part of their "family" - part of their lives. I’m sure that there are people among us who truly believe that Jennifer Aniston is Rachel and that David Schwimmer is Ross. I would imagine they’re the same people keeping "Natural Cures "They" Don’t Want You to Know About" on the New York Times best seller list.

But there’s another reason I’m penning comments having to do with Oprah today Something that irritates every time I hear about it. As I was listening to the radio early this morning, I heard some hysterical screaming - and the host explained that it was from a recording of a recent Oprah show - maybe yesterday’s - I didn’t quite get the time frame. But the reason for the screaming was that it was another of Oprah’s "giveaway" shows - shows where everyone in the audience is surprised with the gift of a car or the crown jewels or the deed to the Taj Mahal. In this case, the audience was made up of Katrina volunteers who thought they were there to talk about their experiences but instead each of them was lavished with a basket of gifts valued at several thousands of dollars. And of course they were hysterical with surprise and gratitude. Like the recipients of cars at an Oprah show some time ago, many "couldn’t believe it."

I think that anyone who did volunteer work in the wake of the Katrina disaster deserves any gift of gratitude anyone wants to lavish upon then. And if Oprah Winfrey, who has become one of the richest women in the country through the syndication of her television talk show wants to show her personal gratitude for the work that they did by giving them expensive gifts, more power to her. I think it’s wonderful. But I don’t want to hear about it. Or at least I don’t want to hear that she’s produced yet another syndicated television show built around her largesse so that the whole world can observe and admire her generosity. The true "giver" doesn’t trumpet his or her giving to the world or use such giving to promote his or her business. It’s something that should be done quietly, with dignity - and preferably anonymously. Oprah’s way of "giving" may be greeted with hysterical screams of gratitude from the surprised beneficiaries, but it strikes me as being more about telling the world what a wonderful person Oprah is than about the people she helps.

Another "smoking gun?"

Could 10 Downing Street be the absolute downfall of George Walker Bush.? First we had the infamous Downing Street Memo which spoke of a decision that had been made to invade Iraq and of fixing intelligence to support that decision. And once the attack was launched, we had image after image of the President in his swaggering, shoot from the hip, "bring ‘em on" mode, leaving some to conclude that he was a loose canon who might get us deeper involved in military adventures beyond Iraq.

And now we have the UK’s Daily Mirror reporting on another Downing Street memo, detailing Dubya’s desire and intention to bomb the headquarters of Al Jazeera and of being talked out of it by Tony Blair!!

The push is on to get Downing Street to publish the transcript of the back and forth conversation between Bush and Blair. One way or another, I think it will see the light of day and I’m already becoming convulsed with anticipatory laughter imagining the response that Scott McClellan will offer and the contents of the talking points memo that will go out to all the conservative print and broadcast sycophants.

Stay tuned

Monday, November 21, 2005

I watched a couple of programs on CNN over the week-end and both of them had me pining for some changes to our elections rules and to the way our government is configured.

One was a speech by Bill Clinton on November 10 at Hofstra University where he was awarded an honorary degree at the opening session of a three day conference on the Clinton Presidency. Maybe I should have said a "talk" rather than a speech because what Clinton did in about an hour, occasionally referring to notes, was give a mostly ad-lib review of his eight years in office.

He spoke about the accomplishments of his administration in the first and second terms. He spoke about efforts that didn’t come to full fruition but nevertheless from which sprang beneficial results. He spoke of the problems he faced, both personal and governmental. He spoke without pause and with great articulation. And the impression that he left - indeed that he conveyed from the first few minutes of his remarks, was that here was a man who knew what he was talking about!! When he spoke of various programs that were undertaken - of international events that took place during his eight years - there was no question about his understanding of those issues and events.

Early on in his presidency - in fact when he was first campaigning for President - and took part in round table discussions on various issues, experts noted that this was a man who researched his subject before he discussed it - a man who had a great deal of familiarity with many of the topics with which Presidents are forced to wrestle. Yet he was known as someone who invited the individual opinions of those who worked with him. He was not one to surround himself with "yes men" to boost his ego or self confidence. He didn’t consider it "negotiating with himself" when he invited people to critique his arguments.

And if that last line sounds like a dig at out current President it’s because that was my intention. The whole point of these comments is to note that watching him give this talk over the week-end reminded me that the former President, with all his personal flaws, was a brilliant man who knew what he was talking about when he opened his mouth. I turned to my wife and asked her of she could visualize George Bush standing up at a podium for an hour and making the kind of sense that Clinton was making without a speech to read. She laughed.

If the rules hadn’t changed in 1947, limiting Presidents to two terms, Clinton would now be in his fourth term, matching FDR - and this country would be a whole lot better off!!

The other program that I watched was Question Time in the House - the House being the British House of Commons. It was packed as usual. Not an empty seat to be seen on any of the benches. A far cry from what the chamber looked like on the one occasion some years ago when my wife and I were able sit in the visitors gallery and watch for a short time while nothing of any great interest was going on. And even then, we had to wait in line to get our brief chance to observe the proceedings. But I digress. Apart from the questions, there was a spirited back and forth debate between Tony Blair and the still leader of the Conservative party Michael Howard. Calling each other "honorable gentlemen" they still managed to rip each other and each other’s policies to shreds - all the time doing it politely. One beautiful moment was when Howard noted that they both would soon be out of a job - he by whoever gets voted in as leader of the Conservatives next month - and Blair when he steps aside to allow Gordon Brown to take over. The context of the moment was that Howard had risen to offer the Prime Minister some advice - to which Blair responded that he would accept advice from Howard when the Conservatives win an election as opposed to Labour’s record of winning three in a row!! Touche!!

I know we have a fine system of government that works well for us - at least most of the time. But oh how one wishes that at least the "Question Time in the House" part of British governance could be adapted in some way to our system of government. How long would it have taken for Mr. Bush to lose the credibility he has finally lost of he had been subjected to week after week of televised questioning by members of Congress and ad hoc debates with a designated leader of the opposite party? Six months would be generous,. I think he would have been "gone" in three.

I note with sadness the announcement of plant closings by General Motors, resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs. What a pity that Rick Wagoner didn’t consult with Mr. Bush before making such an announcement. Dubya I’m sure would have told him to hold off while he proposed the solution which he assures us provides all that we need in the way of boosts to our economy. Tax cuts!! That’s what’s been kick starting our economy and creating jobs - and what’s good for the country should be good for General Motors. Even more so at a time of war. Or did I get that backwards?

I also note with merriment the change in this week’s "response to Iraq critics" talking points memo. This week it’s no longer cowards cutting and running, sending wrong signals to our brave fighting men and the enemy. This week the critics are honorable men and women who have every right to advance their views on the situation in Iraq, though we respectfully disagree with them. And mind you, this is a President who pays no attention to the polls!!

Friday, November 18, 2005

It was March 30, 1981 when a crazed John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Rushed to George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. with a bullet lodged less than one inch from his heart, the President remained conscious and in good humor, quipping to a trauma team as they prepared for surgery - "Please tell me you’re Republicans."

It was typical of the good humored former "B" picture actor and I’m sure helped to put the surgeons at ease, who I imagine were a little tense having the life of the President in their hands. But think for a moment if political philosophy or membership in a political party had been a factor affecting the decisions of those doctors as they labored to save their patient. The thought is ludicrous of course. You couldn’t imagine such a thing . But today, that kind of misplaced political influence governing decisions of those who have other people’s live in their hands, is more the norm than the unthinkable exception.

Just today, the Chicago Tribune devoted it’s lead editorial to the refusal of the FDA to approve an over the counter version of the "morning after" pill. Supposedly, their decisions are based only on scientific considerations, but it has now been clearly revealed that the agency made a non-scientific decision. They ignored the recommendation of their own scientific advisory committee, leaving the conclusion that their decision was influenced by politics and not by science!!

But perhaps the most egregious example of being influenced by or expressing loyalty to one’s political philosophy or party before that of the national interest, is the blind, unthinking support of Congressional Republicans for the Bush administration Iraq policy - and what happened yesterday and today is positively sickening.

John Murtha of Pennsylvania had been a strong supporter of the Iraqi adventure, but now has concluded that it is a failed policy that needs to move in a different direction. He is being described as a 37 year veteran of the Marine Corps and a great friend of the military who commands great respect from both sides of the aisle in Congress. Yet from the moment that he urged a withdrawal from Iraq proper and a re-deployment of troops in Kuwait, the Republican attack machine was launched in full force and House and Senate members who should know better began mouthing the despicable "talking points" that flow from the house of Rove to them and to his media sycophants.

There may be honest disagreement about why we invaded Iraq and what we may have accomplished there and what effect our continued presence is having on the population and how we should proceed from this point on - and the disagreement may sometimes become heated. But there is no excuse for the dishonest and to my mind despicable rhetoric that is being hurled at those who disagree with the Bush policy and - as of yesterday - at the honorable man who expressed an honorable opinion about what we should do next.

The favorite phrase being used to describe any suggestion of withdrawing from Iraq is "cut and run." To that is now being added the word "surrender" and the phrase "surrender to the terrorists." Speaker Dennis Hastert said of his colleague and those who support his position "They want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world." Sure! Of course "they" do. Of course this decorated 37 year military veteran from Pennsylvania wants to be at the head of that column of cowards as they hold up their white flags and march towards the terrorists to bow in submission And who should know better than someone with the distinguished military service of Speaker Hastert. ? Here is a man so modest that he doesn’t even mention his years of military service on his web site. Type in "find" (F2) for Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force on this bio page and nary a mention. Such modesty.

Congressman Murtha really hit the nail on the head when he described the policy with which he disagrees -
It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."
And he hammered it deep into the soft underbelly of the armchair warriors who are so anxious to send our young men and women into harm’s way to "stay the course" when he said
I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.
Then we have Congresswoman Jean Schmidt representing Ohio’s second district. That’s the heavily Republican district in which Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett mounted a surprisingly strong campaign, losing 52% to 48%. And that’s the Paul Hackett who Rush Limbaugh said went to Iraq to "pad his resume!!!" The Republican voters of Ohio’s second district must be mighty proud of who they sent to Congress, watching Schmidt get up on the floor today and telling John Murtha that "cowards cut and run - marines never do." That the comments were later stricken from the record doesn’t detract from the fact that this Republican dominated Congress has sunk to a low not seen in modern history.

The Murtha comments offered Congress an opportunity to engage in some serious non-partisan dialog about our Iraq policy and for the President to say something that would make more sense than his oft repeated "stay the course" statement, which, as many critics have pointed out is not a policy. Instead, the partisanship of the Congressional response was thick enough to cut with a blunt knife - and the President simply cranked up the swaggering bravado that he offers as a surrogate for policy - promising that "we would never give up until we have achieved total victory." Which of course is ridiculous. Which of course would mean that we would continue to occupy Iraq for uncountable generations to come, during which time we will invade and occupy Saudi Arabia, Iran and who knows what other country harboring "terrorists." And we would still be no closer than we are today to achieving "total victory" over terrorism.

But there is hope. Murtha has turned up the heat and it won’t that easily be cooled down. Not with mid-term elections getting closer and closer. Some Republicans might veer away from the party line and give some thought to what’s best for the country.

One final thought. Too many Republicans from the President on down, keep mouthing this ridiculous nonsense about dialog at home - even protests at home - sending "wrong signals" to our troops and to our enemies. They even say that criticizing the Iraq "policy" puts those serving there in greater danger. Of all the partisan disingenuous rhetoric, this surely has to be the most disingenuous. I was in the service for three years and 77 days. I never gave a good Goddamn about any political dialog or the spouting of political pundits about where I was serving and what I was doing. I’m not sure that I was that aware of the jabbering of politicians and pundits while I was serving - and for sure, their yacking didn’t put me in greater danger. Maybe it would have if I was forced to listen to it!! I have a feeling that the guys and gals serving in Iraq feel just the same way.

And as for the terrorists being "emboldened" or changing their tactics because of anything that is said in our free and open society - if someone can show me proof that this actually happens - I’ll volunteer to become a founding member of the Society to Establish the Royal House of Bush - advocating the coronation of Dubya on January 20, 2008 and the elevation of Jeb to Royal Prince and Heir Apparent. Somebody want to start a web site???

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"I consider Cheney a good friend—I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore." Those were the words of Brent Scowcroft, spoken not that long ago about Cheney’s involvement in our decision to invade Iraq.

I don’t know what Scowcroft thinks about Cheney’s latest involvement - that of public opposition to the McCain amendment which passed the Senate 90 to 9, calling for a ban on torture of detainees by the armed services, the CIA or anyone else. The White House is against it. Cheney wants an exception for the CIA and pundits from the far left to the far right are having a field day.

I haven’t known Cheney for thirty years except from a distance - watching him perform on television, but I can still conclude that he’s lost his marbles. Here is the Vice President of the United States, backed by the President, announcing to the world that we don’t torture anyone but we don’t want any law, rule or regulation that would say that the CIA can’t torture anyone. McCain says we can’t have any exceptions. The right wing pundits are saying oh yeah? What if we have a terrorist in custody and we know there’s a bomb going to go off in less than an hour and we don’t know where but we do know that the terrorist knows?? (Sorry if that sounds a little Rumsfeldesque).

The answer to that question of course is that the United States does not condone nor practice torture on detainees - even known terrorists who know the location of a bomb that’s about to go off in less than an hour. However, it’s likely, if Senators and Presidents and Vice Presidents and pundits would busy themselves with other matters, that we’d find a way to discover the whereabouts of that ticking bomb.

In other words, it is our official policy that military and civilian government employees are prohibited from torturing prisoners. It is also our unofficial policy - or should be our unofficial policy - that we engage in extraordinary effort to combat dangers to the nation of an extraordinary nature - but this wasn’t in McCain’s amendment and shouldn’t need to be in any amendment.

Pundits and "experts" say that torture doesn’t work - that the individual being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. But of course if what the detainee says can be checked within minutes and found to be a lie, the torture stoppage would be temporary, so saying "anything" might not work. It may well be that a dedicated jihadist would be difficult to "break" - but there is a definite difference between a jihadist’s willingness to die and his ability or willingness to withstand the pain of non stop torture.

Of course it should be our official policy that we do not torture prisoners. Of course it should be our official policy that we only use psychological pressure to extract information that we believe a detainee knows and we need to have. As Senator McCain has said repeatedly, even in Israel, where terrorist attacks are an every day threat, that nation’s Supreme Court has said that torture can’t be used on prisoners to extract information about a possible pending attack. They use psychological pressure. And so, as in Israel, it should be our official policy to refrain from using torture and it should be our unofficial policy that in the case of known "ticking bombs" we, like the Israelis, engage in whatever activity works to get the ticking to stop. As long as it isn’t torture of course.

And all of this would probably work out just fine if Cheney had left well enough alone. The McCain amendment is a fine sounding amendment - illustrating the values for which this nation stands and is known for throughout the world. But as Brent Scowcroft observes, this ain’t the old Cheney. This is someone who seems to have embarked on a late life career of muddying up waters and vying for recognition as the nation’s official Darth Vader. Or as some people might say - inflicting torture on our national psyche.

How to have your pork - and eat it

I have a call in to Dick Durbin’s Washington office about Alaska’s "bridges to nowhere." Those are the bridges about which Senator Ted Stevens threatened to resign if the Senate voted for Tom Coburn’s amendment calling for the $452 million involved to be diverted to repair hurricane damage in New Orleans.

Well, he didn’t have to resign his seat. The amendment went down in pork flavored flames 82-15. That was last month. Today, I open my paper and read - with satisfaction - that the Senate had come to its senses and put the kibosh on building the bridges. I mean, it was really silly. One of the bridges would have connected Ketchikan to Gravina Island which has a population of less than 50 people and is served by a ferry service that takes seven minutes and that runs every half hour. Hell - it would have put the ferry boat out of business!!

So hooray for the wisdom of the Senate and congratulations New Orleans. Or maybe not. There’s more to the story. No bridges - that’s clear. But the cost? The $452 million? The pork. Will it help New Orleans? Nope. It still goes to Alaska!! I guess I don’t quite understand the wisdom of the Senate. That’s why I have a call in to Durbin’s office to have it explained to me. I can’t wait for the call back.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I’m not surprised at the theme chosen by President Bush (read Karl Rove) for his Veteran’s Day speech. It is the Rove approach to politics - never defend, always attack. And when the need is perceived to launch an attack, respect for tradition - or just plain respect period - goes out the window. Hence the substitution of a political attack for the traditional Presidential speech honoring Veterans of past wars on November 11.

And what is the attack all about? Lousy poll numbers and lousy poll numbers attached to a growing belief that we were lied to about Iraq - that maybe the decision had been made to invade Iraq long before we began our charade at the United Nations - maybe lots earlier. The belief that if Bush attacks those who are suggesting such things, he can turn his bad poll numbers around. The critics are re-writing history, the President says. What’s more likely is that more and more people are coming to understand the history leading up to the Iraq invasion.

Not everything can be known of course. This is as secretive a White House as has ever existed in modern times. That’s not something of which I have personal knowledge. It’s the conclusion of many many professionals, "insiders" if you will - inside the beltway - and I assume they know what they’re talking about. But a great deal is known - and it isn’t that hard or unreasonable to connect the dots and arrive at a conclusion that represents the history of what really happened and not a re-write of that history.

We could go back many years to pick a starting point, but a reasonable place to start would be not that long ago, the 1998 letter to Bill Clinton urging the removal of Saddam Hussein from power on which there were eighteen signatures including those of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and John Bolton. We don’t know what Bush thought about Iraq in 1998. His name wasn’t on the letter. But these were people wielding influence on foreign affairs once he assumed power and there was no question about what they wanted to do.

Then we have the books and statements of the likes of Paul O’Neil and Richard Clarke - both with long and distinguished careers in their respective fields and not people who would dream up something out of whole cloth to make President Bush look bad. O’Neil said that Dubya was planning the overthrow of Saddam within days of being inaugurated. And Clarke , anti-terrorism expert and advisor to Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton before Bush two, told us that Rumsfeld was pushing for retaliatory strikes against Iraq right after the 9/11 attack and that Dubya wanted him to probe for a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attack even though he told the President that there was no evidence of any connection.

Then we have the whole United Nations charade which pushed Saddam into answering the accusations about weapons of mass destruction with volumes of information and explanations. Remember his 12,000 page report supposedly detailing the destruction of all WMD’s - a report that was rejected almost before anyone had even looked at it? Remember his offer to allow U.S. troops to come and search for WMD’s - an offer that was summarily rejected ? Saddam could have offered to submit himself for public castration on the White House lawn to avoid being attacked and the invasion still would have been launched. It was obvious at the time that Saddam Hussein could have complied with any demand made of him and it would not have stopped the military onslaught.

And then we have what amounts to a smoking gun to pretty much everyone other than those in permanent denial - the Downing Street memo. The minutes of this meeting were never meant to be seen by the general public and it’s obvious why. The language couldn’t be more clear.
" Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
What other proof does anyone need to understand that the President and his advisors had made a strategic decision to overthrow the Saddam regime by force - and that the decision had nothing to do with any belief that we were in imminent danger of being attacked by his mighty weapons of mass destruction?

The President is trying to fend off his critics by saying that Senators who voted to authorize the use of force if necessary had "the same intelligence" that he had. That’s nonsense to begin with because only he gets the daily Presidential briefings. But beyond that, the "intelligence" that Senators had was what they were given - and there’s no indication they were informed of dissenting views in the intelligence community about any imminent threat posed by Iraq. Republican senators have been mute about this but a number of Democratic senators have made it clear that they did not know many of the things they now know at the time they voted to authorize force - that there were doubts in the intelligence community about the reliability of information that was being used as justification for military action - doubts that the President chose to ignore.

But I’ve long felt that there was much more to the Senate vote than the influence of dire intelligence reports. This was in the post 9/11 period and followed a full court press by the administration to alert the nation to possible additional terrorist type attacks, either by or aided by Iraq. The last thing that Democratic Senators wanted to do was appear to be "soft" on matters of defense - and few were willing to deny a sitting President in a time of war - albeit an unorthodox war - the authority to use force against a perceived threat to our security if he believed it was necessary. And on top of that, there was Colin Powell making the case for the danger posed by Iraq’s WMD’s and there was probably greater respect for him than for the President on the Democratic side of the Senate. Maybe on the Republican side too, though they would never admit it.

The President is also fond of talking about all the other countries who had the same "intelligence" about dangers posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The only question I have about those assertions is - whose intelligence is he talking about? What was the source of the "same" intelligence that all these other countries had about Iraq? Could it be us? Our "intelligence?"

Maybe it will all be revealed by historians. According to the President, they’ll have a choice of which history to reveal - his version or the other one. Good historians are usually pretty good researchers and I doubt that many will allow their personal political philosophies interfere with their objectivity. If he’s still around when it all gets written, I think Mr. Bush will be disappointed.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I don’t see any major discussion going on anywhere about what’s happening in North Dakota and seven other states - but it’s a scary happening and it needs to be talked about.

I first heard about this on the radio. I forget who - but I think it was one of the Air America crowd talking to someone in North Dakota who I think was an elected official. You’ll have to forgive me. I don’t listen that closely to the radio when I’m busy doing something else. Often it’s no more than background noise. But enough of the story caught my ear to pull up the web site that says what it’s all about. JAIL. No, not the hoosegow meaning of jail. It’s J.A.I.L - . Judicial Accountability Initiative Law. An idea that must be making the likes of Bill Frist and To DeLay salivate.

From my reading of this proposed amendment to the North Dakota Constitution, some group of nuts wants to do away with the independence of the judiciary by allowing anyone involved in a court case who doesn’t like the way a judge ruled or acted - like ruling against them- to file a complaint against that judge that will be reviewed by a special grand jury and if that grand jury finds that the complaint has merit - it can mark a "strike" against that judge. Three strikes and that judge is out!! Gone!! Removed from the bench. We the jury, answering to nobody, don’t like the way you’ve been judging, so your judging days are over.

I don’t know whether or not this will go anywhere. There’s opposition of course and here’s one example of back and forth dialog that I found on line.

I have to admit that while I called the people who are pushing this proposition a group of nuts, I had a moment of hesitation during which I thought about a couple of judges in my neck of the woods that I’d love to see removed by some kind of grand jury with that kind of power because I know they’ll never be removed by voting them out of office. In election after election, local newspapers publish the appraisals of multiple bar associations and add their own comments about "judges" who shouldn’t be cleaning the floors of courtrooms let alone sitting on benches. But year after year, dead heads with the right to vote keep punching O.K. next to names that appeal to them. There’s one local judicial wannabe who has actually changed his name to a good old fashioned Irish name because candidates with Irish names seem to get elected more often than those with names of other nationalities. But as I said, my hesitation was momentary. I do not think it’s a good idea to infringe in this way upon the independence of the judiciary.

The judges that they’re talking about in North Dakota aren’t the kind that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist and others like criticize with veiled threats of "consequences" for decisions that they don’t agree with. The DeLay- Frist crowd are after Federal judges who have lifetime appointments and could never be removed in the way that supporters of J.A.I.L. propose that elected judges be removed. But what is worrisome is the attempt to have non-judicial "oversight" over any branch of the judiciary. As I indicated, there are other states with similar proposals in the offing organized by the same group of nuts. The J.A.I.L. movement appears to be national with customization of proposals available for individual states and with constitutional amendment proposals for seven states listed on their web site. North Dakota would make eight. If any one of these should succeed, I can envision a full court press by the far right wing to exert these kinds of measures of control over judges nationally - and perhaps look for ways to extend it to the Federal bench.

The original idea for J.A.I.L. was put together in 1995 - and as you can see, it hasn’t taken hold anywhere in a ten year period and if I’d come across it when it first surfaced, I wouldn’t have worried too much about it ever getting beyond the idea stage. But these are different times. These are times when efforts are increasing to get "intelligent design" into school science programs - on a par with Evolution . These are times when there is a push to extend religious observance into the school day in other ways. And these are times when there is an ongoing effort to intertwine religion and politics.

A quick look at the J.A.I.L. web site reveals that it’s founder, Ron Branson, graduated from two Bible Institutes, is an ordained minister and co-founder of the "Granada Forum" - a right wing "patriot" group, known to host well known anti-Semitic lecturers such as " Eustace Mullins.

Connecting the dots between the J.A.I.L. organization and other movements determined to inject their personal philosophies into and gain a measure of control over our courts - and you have a scenario that I don’t think can be easily dismissed with laughter and a sad shake of the head. These people are serious and believe in the righteousness of their cause. They have very different ideas from what you and I believe - I assume all who read this blog are sane - about what kind of country this should be. And it’s not the one we know - or think we know.

If the idea to find a better way to deal with bad judges and obviously nutty judicial decisions than the methods that currently exist had been suggested by some other group or some other individual, I might have greeted it with a less jaundiced attitude. But this group and its founder sound positively scary.

I think it’s worth while keeping tabs on the J.A.I.L. site and see how many more of these petitions to amend state constitutions might be added. And it might be interesting to find out if Bill Frist and/or Tom DeLay or anyone else at the high end of the Republican party have an opinion on the merits of the idea. Because if they like it and would say so publicly, it could be great fodder for next year’s Congressional campaigns. Even if they wouldn’t voice an opinion - Democrats running in the seven states listed on the J.A.I.L. site - eight if you include North Dakota - should make it an issue and challenge their Republican opponents to take a stand - for or against the proposition.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sometimes I think that Congressional hearings are a waste of time. Not all of them of course, but many are little more than a way to provide Senators and Representatives with an opportunity to showboat. I guess they think hearings give them a better chance of getting on the evening newscast and being seen by millions - even if it’s only for a few seconds - rather than rely on the lesser number of late night viewers of CNN, willing to watch and listen to lone figures talking endlessly to a virtually empty chamber.

In the waste of time category, I would have to put most of the hearings about oil and gas prices that have become routine for the past few years. The prices go up. Politicians voice their displeasure and vow action. Hearings are held and nothing happens.

Yesterday’s hearing was a real doozy. Alaska’s "don’t mess with my $223 million bridge to nowhere" Ted Stevens - who has been in Congress way to long, wasn’t about to let his oil friends testify under oath. "No way. Bug off" or words to that effect in response to a request that they be sworn. After which, these bozos with their multi-million dollar salaries and multi-million dollar annual bonuses, defended their obscene profits of this past quarter - the largest ever earned by any company in the history of American business - and mouthed the same gobbledygook that we’ve heard year after year from oil "experts" about market forces and supply and demand and on an on.

To their credit, some Senators tried to probe for answers - but as is always the case, their questions arise from the premises that the oil industry establishes for them, the aforementioned influences and problems of market forces and increased demand and refinery capacity etc., - and so simple questions - the kinds that the poor suffering public would like asked, never are.

Here are some simple facts. There’s been no shortage of gas at the pumps. Whatever industry problems may exist, the gas has kept flowing. So my questions to the oil experts would be - other than the desire and ability to come up with any price you want to charge for your product - how much has the cost of producing the gasoline that we’ve been using this year increased? We know the price we have to pay for gasoline has gone up and up and up, so we have to assume that that is because the cost of bringing that gasoline to our pumps has increased. So how much have production costs gone up? From pumping it out of the ground, to transporting it to refineries, to producing various grades of gasoline and delivering to our gas stations. What were those individual costs before the price of gas began to soar and how much are they now? Are the workers in the Saudi oil fields being paid four or five or ten times more than they were a few months ago? Has drilling equipment increased a few hundred percent in price? Has the oil tanker industry raised its prices through the roof? Where oh where do these price increases come from??

Those are questions that the average motorist would understand - as they would any answers that aren’t clouded in gobbledygook They understand supply and demand affecting prices. They know why some fruits and vegetables cost more at certain times of the year. They understand it even more clearly when those fruits and vegetables are not always available in the stories. But if they were available year round - and in such abundant supply that not all could be sold before they rotted and had to be thrown away - and still they were priced higher at certain times of the year - shoppers would demand to know what was going on and demand that their elected representatives found out. And they wouldn’t accept gobbledygook for answers.

I’m not an advocate of imposing a windfall profits tax on the oil companies - mostly because I think the money would be swallowed up and not provide any kind of relief to the suffering drivers paying the high gas prices. What I am an advocate of is not wasting the time and energy of our elected officials going through meaningless motions at Congressional hearings that are guaranteed to accomplish nothing. It’s not just a waste of their time and our money. It’s an insult to the voting public. If our Senators and Representatives are not prepared to do something about these fat cat gougers - at least make them mouth t their gobbledygook under oath - then they shouldn't insult us by holding these "hearings" in the first place.

Advice for Tony Blair

According to conventional punditry, Tony Blair has lost much of his clout because 49 members of his own party joined with opposition M.P.’s to defeat his legislative proposal to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge. He had to settle for 28 days and some political observers are saying that this "stunning defeat" has reduced his influence to just about zero.

I have some advice for Tony that can turn the whole situation around in a heartbeat. If you get to a point where you’ve arrested someone for suspected terrorism, do what British legal authorities have been doing for centuries when they arrest someone. Charge them!!!

Maybe if you do it, you can pull a reverse lap dog maneuver and persuade your pal Dubya to come up with a limit on how long our terrorist suspects can be held without charge. So far, that "limit" seems to be forever. Maybe that’s why all those members of your own party voted against you. Maybe they looked at the cost of following the U.S. into Iraq - a move made over the objections of a majority of UK voters and which very likely was the reason for Labour’s substantial losses at the last election - and concluded that they didn’t want to follow Dubya’s lead and throw a long history of due process out the window in the name of "homeland security."

At least Tony didn’t try to emulate Cheney and ask Parliament to approve torturing suspects while they’re being held without charge. Maybe he figured they didn’t need that after one "terrorist suspect" was taken care of in a London underground station.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I am sick to death of reading outright lies and distortions by right wing newspaper columnists and listening to their broadcast counterparts spouting the same things to their adoring and close minded audiences.

There was a prime example in the Chicago Tribune the other day - a column by one Dennis Byrne, a locally based regular conservative Tribune columnist and titled "Wilson Also deserves some of the scrutiny." Wilson of course being Joseph Wilson, husband of outed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. It’s an article full of the administration’s talking points and in the style of the now well established knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of it’s actions or policies - don’t defend the criticisms - attack the critic!

One of things he said in the article was particularly annoying. It was that "The Senate report (http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/index.htm) confirms that his wife, the now famously uncloaked CIA officer Valerie Plame , called an intelligence meeting to suggest that ‘someone’ should go to Niger and oh, by the way, my husband would be a good someone." Emphasis added by me!!

What garbage.

I sent Mr.Byrne an e-mail:
You almost made it. Just a few words less and you would have qualified for graduation from the Rove School of Attack the Messenger with high honors. But you just had to put in 14 words about some silly alleged treasonous act. You don't see Tom DeLay bothering to pay homage to the rule of law mixed in with his attacks on Ronnie Earle. That's why he is where he is today!!

By the way, could you send me the secret password to find what you said about how Joe Wilson got sent to Niger at http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/index.htm I sure would appreciate it.
The "14 words" that I was referring to were just before his final paragraph and read" No one should get off the hook for exposing Plame as a CIA officer." Wasn’t that big of him?

I didn’t hear back from Mr. Byrne. I’ve written to him before and he didn’t respond. I guess I can’t blame him. How do you defend printing an outright distortion of facts? I was still irritated later in the day, so I sent the following e-mail to the Tribune. The opening line refers to idiots who constantly ask the Tribune to drop the "rantings" of Molly Ivins and they finally published a few letters from people who, like me, enjoy the heck out of her op-ed pieces.
I'm glad that you've seen fit to publish a few letters in support of Molly Ivins. It's interesting that those who complained about her columns never accused her of being untruthful - which may be because when Molly cites a fact, it can be checked and verified by anyone interested in doing so.

The same can't be said of some of your columnists with a different political slant. Take Dennis Byrne for example. On November 7, 2005, he wrote an "attack the messenger" article about Joseph Wilson in which he said that it was his wife, Valerie Plame who "called an intelligence meeting to suggest that someone should go to Niger to investigate - and oh, by the way, my husband would be a good someone." Byrne said that this revelation was confirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on Pre-War Intelligence Estimates on Iraq and he provided the web site where readers could go to verify his assertion.

Well I went to the web site and found the report and the appropriate reference on page 40 which reads as follows:

"On February 19, 2002 CPD hosted a meeting with the former ambassador, intelligence analysts from both the CIA and the INR and several individuals from the DO’s Africa and CPD divisions. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the merits of the former ambassador traveling to Niger. An INR’ analyst’s notes indicate that the meeting was ‘apparently convened by the former ambassador’s wife who had the idea to dispatch him to use his contacts to sort out the Iraq-Niger uranium issue.’ The former ambassador’s wife told committee staff that she only attended the meeting to introduce her husband and left after about three minutes. "

Apart from the fact that the CIA has maintained that Wilson was chosen for the trip by senior officials in the Directorate of Operations Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the CIA and not by his wife - the fact that an analyst from "INR" - the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence Research - someone who doesn't work at the CIA - thought that the meeting was "apparently convened by Valerie Plame" is hardly consistent with Byrne's statement that the Senate report confirms that it happened.

This same Senate Committee is now in the process of determining whether intelligence was manipulated to build support for a war that the administration had already decided to launch.

Isn't that something that Byrne is doing - "manipulating" words from the Senate Intelligence Committee report and presenting them as confirmed facts?

And "oh by the way" - wasn't Ambassador Joseph Wilson probably the most qualified person in America to go to Niger on this mission - whether he was married to Valerie Plame or not??
I don’t expect the Tribune to publish my letter but since I’m able to publish it here I’m satisfied.

For a "fair and balanced" (sorry about that Fox) report on what Byrne alleges, take a peek at this Washington Post story.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Regarding my comments of yesterday about France "doing the right thing," I suppose declaring a 12 day state of emergency is a positive move towards restoring order, but I’m not sure if the French authorities have come to any agreement about what the "right thing" is. I was surprised to learn that the imposition of curfews was something that had to be sanctioned at the national level, rather than at the local levels where the riots were taking place - but at least they are now going into effect - a first necessary step but days late in my estimation.

And while I wouldn’t argue with the assertion that Muslim immigrants and their French born descendants are at the low end of the French economic and social totem pole and may indeed be victims of discrimination and resistance to their full integration into French society, I was disappointed to hear this sort of thing coming from experts on French society and from some French officials - as though this kind of violence could be attributed solely to those kinds of complaints and that the way to deal with the rioting hordes is to address their alleged complaints!!

That would be like trying to calm a mad dog by offering him your leg to munch on.

In my view, France’s problem - like England’s , can be more directly attributable to its past immigration policies which allowed hordes of Muslims to enter the country from Africa and elsewhere, ultimately establishing the largest Muslim enclave in Europe - some five million people. They are only about a twelfth of the total French population, but they bring with them a culture that is totally foreign to the rest of France and one not easily integrated into the main stream of society. Integration of a foreign culture into a new society is not something easily accomplished and it is always a two way street. It can’t be accomplished by the prevailing authorities taking steps to "accommodate" the different population. The minority population has to make the effort to be "French": - if not more French than Muslim, then at least as French as Muslim.

I don’t know if the ominous inferences of the "Mideast On Target" newsletter ring true, that "Once begun, the disorder has been fed and organized by those who have an interest in undermining French national power, and are willing to use weapons and firebombs to promote their cause." But I am convinced that the French are dealing with something beyond reaction to real or perceived racial discrimination, chronic unemployment and sub-standard housing. "Experts" are insisting that the riots have nothing to do with Muslim extremism or the alleged "clash of cultures" between the Muslim world and the west. But there’s no question that the clash of cultures exists, has been simmering for a long time and is close to a boiling point - and while I hope I’m wrong, I am not at all sure that what is happening in France isn’t at least some small part of that. When you have this kind of violence night after night after night spreading across an entire country, I think you have to look a little deeper to find all of the so called root causes.

Need Our Healthcare Services? Only The Rich and Well Insured Need Apply

There are so many things that I need and want to write about when I sit down at my computer that it becomes a daily frustration - finding the time and the energy to do some of them justice. I want to talk about the outright lies that are being spewed out daily by right wing pundits of the airwaves and newspapers - and I’ve picked one out that maybe I’ll have time to refer to tomorrow or the next day. The North Dakota effort to get a three strike law (and you’re out) against judges whose decisions people don’t like - shades of Bill Frist and others - is something that I’m watching and will talk about soon . The obscene profits of oil companies and the ridiculous price of natural gas. And oh so many other things.

But for the moment, a very short comment about the need for us to catch up to the rest of the world and establish a national health plan. I’ve been hearing a radio commercial lately for some free standing medical facility that offers a specialized service. What it is isn’t important. I only listen subliminally to these things so I don’t remember what it was. What I do remember and what strikes me like a fork on a plate every time I hear it is who they are offering their services to. People who can afford them!! People who have insurance. But not Medicare or Medicaid patients - or HMO members. They’re very clear about that. "Sorry, no Medicare, Medicaid or HMO members." People without cash money or expensive insurance from private insurance companies are not welcome. Our services are for the other kind of people only.

If ever there was an example of what is wrong with our health care system and why we need a national health plan, this is the nearly perfect example. It’s all about profits. Millions of our health care dollars go to earn profits for those providing the care - and heaven knows how much more gets poured into advertising the services those who want to profit from our ill health.

It’s wrong. It’s cockeyed. And it’s time the Democratic party stood up and declare that a National Health Care Plan was a centerpiece of their platform for 2006 and 2008. Millions from the healthcare industry will pour into the coffers of the Republicans who would never adopt such a stance - but so what? Someone - some party has to take this on and refuse to back down - and let the American people decide. If the whole story can be told and get through the muck and mire that the healthcare and insurance and pharmaceutical industries will throw into the hopper to scare and confuse - I think the American people will make the decision that the rest of the civilized world has already made.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Thirty Seven years ago, a British M.P. by the name of Enoch Powell - a member of the Conservative party and of the then "Shadow Cabinet" headed by Edward Heath, gave a speech urging restrictions on immigration and attacking a Race Relations Bill that had been enacted in 1976. The restrictions that he urged - basically to stop all further immigration and to urge re-emigration of those already in the country - were against black citizens from British Commonwealth countries.

He was called a racist and other names and he was dismissed from the "Shadow Cabinet" where he had held the post of "Shadow Defence Minister." (British spelling). It didn’t bother Powell. He kept on defending his position with a lot of support from varied groups within the country. He also had a lot of other opinions that were not exactly main stream - and his life’s work - he died in 1998 - makes for an interesting study, but for the purposes of today’s comments, my interest is in what may have been an unintended prescient vision of things to come.

Powell’s concerns were that Britain would be "overrun" by black skinned citizens of the Commonwealth who would bring their own cultures with them and set up their own enclaves - and in this alone he foresaw a danger to the Kingdom. At the time he made his initial speech on the subject, which came to be known as the "Rivers of Blood" speech, he made no reference to Muslims because that wasn’t the problem that he foresaw, His concern was with color, not with religion - but his basic fears were of extraordinary changes to the nature of his country - to the British way of life and to British values. Little did he know that the problems he envisioned would come to pass but that they would come from immigrants and children of immigrants who would look more like him than the dark skinned Commonwealth immigrants that he feared, and they would come in waves of violence that he did not predict in any of his speeches.

What brings all this to mind is what is currently unfolding in France. I have lots of thoughts about this, but over the week-end I got an issue of the "Mideast On Target" newsletter that I found interesting enough to reproduce here. It’s a unique perspective on the French "Intifada" from an Israeli’s point of view, but it could just as easily apply to what has already happened in Britain and what is likely to happen in the future if that country’s leadership doesn’t take a continuing proactive stance against that possibility, perhaps even heeding the ancient recommendation of Enoch Powell to call a halt, if only temporary, to all immigration . And who better to comment on all of this than someone who has lived with decades of Muslim "Intifadas?"
The wave of violence that has struck France over the past week and a half has left thousands of vehicles, dozens of public institutions and the French policy of ignoring Islamic incitement in smoking ruins. The attacks, ostensibly triggered spontaneously by the accidental deaths of two teenagers fleeing the police, have been steadily escalating in intensity and coordination.

Blamed by many, including the editors of the New York Times, on poor employment, income and integration of Muslim immigrants to France over the past decades, the fact remains that this wave if destruction bears evidence of a deeper, more dangerous level of planning and organization.

It is difficult to believe that riots spontaneously erupted in numerous neighborhoods as the result of accidental deaths that could not be anticipated. More likely, the incitement and organization on the part of radical elements preceded the event, waiting patiently for the trigger that would provide the pretext for violence. Once begun, the disorder has been fed and organized by those who have an interest in undermining French national power, and are willing to use weapons and firebombs to promote their cause.

It is nothing short of miraculous that there have been no deaths until this point, but the stated goal of the rioters is to avenge the deaths of the two teenagers with at least an equal number of police fatalities.

It is interesting to note that Israel has undergone similar experiences, notably the Intifada of 1987-1993 and the recent terrorist war that erupted in the fall of 2000. In the first instance, the violence was triggered by a fatal automobile accident in Gaza; in the second, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was blamed as the causal factor. In both cases, years of violence followed, rapidly overshadowing the ostensible causes, which were, in any case, nothing more than facile excuses for violence that was long in planning and organization.

Throughout the years of violence in Israel, totaling more than a decade, the French government has unabashedly supported the Palestinians, excusing terrorism and calling on Israel to make concessions rather than respond vehemently to attacks on its citizens. Always portraying themselves as the voice of reason, French leaders have advocated a soft line against Palestinian violence, preferring to negotiate and appease rather than confront Palestinian and Islamic terrorism. Even if this method was detrimental to Israel, it was viewed as a means to keep terrorism where it belonged: far from France. Now that Islamic violence has come home to roost in Paris, the French leadership is singing a different tune. Rather than advocating negotiation and accommodation, French President Chirac is determined to show that, "The republic is completely determined to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear."

Before they decide on the messy path of violent response, however, we suggest that the French leadership try the approach that they have repeatedly recommended for Israel: negotiate with the terrorists with the explicit goal to withdraw from the disputed territory, remove non-Muslim French citizens from those areas, dismantle local municipalities, and allow the leaders of the uprising to establish their own independent state in the evacuated areas. If that doesn’t work, they can always contact the IDF to learn about Plan B.
Plan "B" of course is to fight terror with the only weapon that terrorists seem to understand. It’s getting to that point in France. The French occasionally surprise everyone and do the right thing. We’ll see if they do it this time.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

If you’re a Democrat or a "liberal" or just someone who has become disenchanted with President Bush, you may be heartened by recent polls putting his "approval" ratings at a low level and indicating that a majority of Americans no longer trust or believe him. Approving pundits on the left are trumpeting his fall from grace and postulating that if an election were held today he would lose big time. Kerry would swamp him. Maybe any other candidate too.

All that of course is fantasy politics. There will be no Presidential election until 2008 and Bush won’t be on the ticket, so there’s little to be hopeful about if you’re a Democrat or an independent and believe that the current administration is disastrous for our country. The only poll that means anything is the one we create with our votes which could - if current disenchantment with the President translates into disenchantment with his party - change the balance of power in next year’s elections. We’ll be voting for Senators and Representatives and technically, it could result in a Democratic majority for both house.

I’m not at all convinced that there’s a strong possibility of it happening - unless huge numbers of voters become miraculously mature at about the rate that our canine friends mature. There are a few events and situations that have occurred and continue to occur that lead me to believe that it’ll be tough to change the balance of power in Congress. The first thing that sticks in my mind and continues to bother me is the result of last year’s election for the US Senate in Illinois. Barack Obama was elected and is likely to hold his seat as long as he wants it. That’s how well regarded he is in my home state. But in that same election, crazy man Alan Keyes, imported by desperate Republicans for some comical stunt, garnered a vote of seven figures. In other words, the ideologically faithful were not and are not going to be swayed from their automatic support of anyone purporting to represent their ideology - no matter what. It doesn’t seem to happen on the Democratic side. When Dan Rostenkowski was under indictment in 1995, he lost the seat he had held for 36 years. There was no knee jerk support from Democratic voters. They voted for a Republican. He only survived one term but the lesson for the Democrats was clear. There may be Democratic voters driven by blind ideology - but not enough to assure election or re-election in the face of bad behavior and poor performance. In such situations - advantage Republicans.

There are vulnerable Republicans in the Senate and the House who voters should reject because of things they have said and done and issues that they have supported or defeated. But even if they distance themselves from the President, as many are already doing in preparation for their re-election bid, it is doubtful that very many of those "automatic" voters will be persuaded to actually look at who is running against their candidate and think about what he or she is saying. In other words, they’re going to vote for "their" gal or guy, no matter what. As some pundits have put it, there are really three major political parties, Republicans, Democrats and Incumbents - and members of that last group are hard to defeat - particularly if they’re Republicans.

You may think this is a silly thing, but I’ve been using the New York Times best seller list as a barometer of how I perceive the state of voter maturity. Week after week I open my Sunday paper to the book section and week after week I continue to see that fraudulent book title in the number one position. NATURAL CURES "THEY" DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, by Kevin Trudeau "They" being pharmaceutical companies. I’ve taken the pharmaceutical industry to task many a times on this blog, but I’ve never accused them of "hiding" cures to debilitating diseases just so they can keep selling us their expensive drugs. It is of course patent nonsense. It’s a myth on a par with the magical pill that you can dissolve in water to run your car that the petroleum industry has kept secret for years. Yet - and here’s my point about my doubts for changing things at the ballot box next year - people are continuing to buy this book. Conclusion? Americans can be sold any kind of lie and if it’s packaged properly, they’ll believe it - and we have seen how the Rove method of packaging lies and candidates has succeeded for the last five years.

Another thing that I use as a personal barometer is the snapshot that you occasionally see on news reports of "average" voters and their reasoning about candidates and issues. The PBS News Hour did one a week or so ago, visiting a small Indiana town where there was far more interest in local high school football than in the Harriet Miers fiasco or the travails of Lewis Libby. They asked one normal looking and sounding young mother how she felt about what was going on in the nation’s capital and her response was that the President and Vice-President hadn’t been indicted so she still had faith in them. Of course no president has ever been indicted and there’s doubt that it’s permissible and the only Vice-President who was ever indicted was Aaron Burr, charged with murdering Alexander Hamilton after killing him in their famed 1804 duel. But that didn’t bother the voter in this snapshot. The sitting pair hadn’t been indicted and that was enough for her.

If I’m a Democratic leader or member of Congress or a hopeful challenger, I wouldn’t put too much faith in what people have been telling pollsters lately. To have a chance of re-taking the House or Senate, Democrats have to come up with the kind of candidates and the kind campaign strategies that the Republicans used to wrest control away from them. Maybe not quite Rove style campaigning - but something close to it. And they need to start pretty soon, because if they have started, I sure haven’t noticed it.

And a Happy Guy Fawkes Day to all.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

On The Air

It seems like forever that people around the world have been able to tune in their short wave radios to broadcasts in their own language but not emanating from any local broadcast facility - and particularly not from any government controlled radio station. It was the BBC foreign language service, bringing uncensored and for the most part unslanted news and information . For millions of people under the influence of the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War, it was their lifeline to the free world and often to what was happening in their own country but going unreported locally. Now ten of those services are being closed down. It’s the end of an era.

People looking for broadcasts in Bulgarian, Croation Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai, will soon have to look elsewhere on the dial. The BBC says it has to "keep up with the times." Very few people are listening they say - an issue that was never important in the good old BBC days, which seem to be gone forever. There was a time when the BBC was the only broadcasting service in England, supported by license fees paid by individuals and funding from government sources . And with a non-commercial monopoly and no need to worry about ratings, the decision of what to broadcast had little to do with the size of the audience. That was never the primary issue. Today, with lots of commercial competition, it’s more likely an issue of budget constraints, preventing the institution from adding new programs without dropping old ones - and that’s what’s happening here.

The money that the BBC will save by scrapping these long term foreign language services, will be pumped into a new foreign language service - this one with pictures. They’re going head to head with Al-Jazeera - televising news programs to the Arab population of the Middle East - the population that the west needs to communicate with . It won’t be starting until 2007 - assuming that by that year there’ll be a large enough Arab audience willing to listen to anything the west has to say. The way things are going, I’m not so sure.

Still, the Brits are probably more suited to launch such a program than we are considering their burgeoning Muslim population. Maybe they can try it out on their home grown Arabs first and find out what works and what doesn’t. At the very least they should be able to do better than Al Hurra, the US backed version launched last year and not making any recognizable waves that I’ve been able to see.

It’s sad to see these kind of changes at this venerable old institution. There have been enough culture shocks in the old country over the past few years - bobbies wearing turbans, tea shops that don’t serve tea - and now, no more wonderful BBC foreign language broadcasts to Eastern Europe and other exotic lands. I wish the BBC success in this new venture - but I have to say that I will miss listening to What’s My Line in Thai on rainy Saturday nights.

And Politically

One of the problems facing Democrats is whether or not they should emulate the Republicans in order to start winning elections. By that I mean do what the Republicans have been doing with great success for the past few years - appeal to the basest instincts of the populace. By that I mean be more openly religious than Republican candidates. By that I mean do not openly support the rights of gays .By that I mean be at least non-committal on the question of abortion if not totally "pro life" whether that’s your true belief or not. By that I mean be bellicose when promising to combat terrorism and to "protect the American people." By that I mean, if necessary - in a tight race - direct belligerency against a distant Arab nation. As though that would "counter terrorism" and "protect the American people."

Or continue to be Democrats, speaking of Democratic beliefs and values and keep losing elections.

It’s been a problem facing the Conservatives in England, where Tony Blair and his Labour Party - the ostensible mirror image of our Democratic Party - have triumphed handily in the last three general elections. The news today is that the Conservatives have made their choice. They’re going to copy Labour. Suddenly, a young fellow who’s being spoken of as a Tony Blair "type" has emerged as a favorite to succeed Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party and the "shadow" Prime Minister. Thirty Nine year old David Cameron is described as being "smooth, savvy and oozing easy charm" - ostensibly characteristics of the current Prime Minister. He also has a pleasant countenance - a distinct departure from Conservative powerhouses of the past - from Margaret Thatcher back to Winston Churchill.

But this is a new day in a new England - an England that soon will cease to beam its version of the news around the globe in ten different languages. There will even be a version of a public primary between the two leading candidates for Howard’s job. Cameron doesn’t have it yet. He’s just the favorite to beat out David Davis, who used to be the favorite. The two will engage in a televised debate that the entire country will see - after which registered Conservative Party voters will pick a winner. This is something that never happened in the England that used to be - the one where the Bobbies of London all wore the traditional Bobby Helmets and tea was served everywhere.

Fortunately - or unfortunately - depending on which party’s philosophies and programs an Englishman favors, the best that David Cameron or David Davis can do is to hold a seat in Parliament - to continue to be M.P.’s from a single district. The attractiveness of the M.P. who happens to be the leader of his party doesn’t necessarily translate into victory for other members of his party. No candidate runs nationally. Tony Blair is the Prime Minister of all of England, but his election victories have all been confined to the town of Sedgefield in the County of Durham in the north of England.

No matter who emerges as the leader of the Conservatives and becomes the "shadow" Prime Minister, he’ll have to wait another four years or so before he can get a crack at casting off the "shadow" appellation and become the real Prime Minister. There’s no election scheduled before then. One can only hope that in the period of waiting, no one comes up with the bright idea of changing the British electoral system to one of having the Prime Minister elected nationally and having an election season that lasts two years instead of three weeks!! As a former Englishman, I can attest to the fact that the Brits can be persuaded to accept changes under the guise of "keeping up with the times" - but the quickest way to start a revolution would be to propose that they emulate American style politics and governance. Come to think of it, looking back at the last few years at home, I’m surprised that we haven’t risen in violent protest. But maybe we’ll do it in a non-violent way a year from now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

"I won't do anything off the cuff or not prepared."

"I've never gone about any business deal the wrong way or unprepared, and I'm not going to start now."

"It's going to be thorough and it will be done right and that way when it's done, I'll know that everything was put into it."

The words of who? A business executive negotiating a golden parachute? A business executive who’s been offered millions to leave his CEO post at a major corporation to jump to another major corporation? A potential candidate for political office who is being wooed by party members to run in a difficult race? An actor negotiating with a major studio for a major role in a major motion picture? A boxer negotiating for a crack at the title? Scooter Libby?

None of the above?

If you guessed none of the above, congratulations. If you guessed an athlete of some kind, kudos to you. If you guessed a baseball player - you merit a standing ovation. If you guessed Paul Konerko, you’ve put spyware in my computer that can read my mind and I’m going to track you down and deep fry your chips.

Just yesterday, the city of Chicago was unveiling a huge cake baked in honor of their local heroes - the Chicago White Sox. It was big enough to serve 2,000 people and fans were invited to show up and indulge in a slice. Yes, the celebration of the world series victory was still being enjoyed in the city from which the team gets it’s name. But while the season was over, another was well underway - the season that would determine who the fans of the Chicago White Sox would be cheering for next year!! Or the fans of the Houston Astros. Or the Los Angeles Angels. Or every other team in the American and National League. The game of baseball - our national pastime, is in temporary hiatus. The business of baseball is in full swing.

First baseman Paul Konerko made $8.75 million playing for the Chicago White Sox in 2005, but now he’s a "free agent" and he wants to "negotiate" The incentive for the team that won the World Series to come back intact and defend the title next year takes second place to the business of baseball. It’s not just the pampered and overpaid players. The team management has already cut some players loose and is considering buying off the contracts of others that they don’t think will help them next year or whose health is suspect. As more than one character in the "Godfather" series often said - it’s just business.

Next season, Chicago White Sox fans may be greeted by a Paul Konerko playing for a rival team - making more than $8.75 million and doing his best to make sure that his former employers do not repeat the previous year’s success. And the fans will boo him and cheer for whichever wandering mercenaries have been retained or recruited from far and wide to represent the city next year.

I’m always pleased when a local team wins anything, but maybe the foregoing is why I’m not really a fan. I just can’t drum up a feeling of undying loyalty to a Franchise!!

"Democrats have no convictions, they have no principles and they have no ideas."

No quiz this time. Those were the words of Senate Majority leader Bill Frist after Minority Leader Harry Reid called for and got a closed Senate meeting on the matter of intelligence leading to the Iraq invasion.

Frist said a lot of other things. He said the Senate had been hijacked. (By one of its own rules no less). He said the move was a personal affront to him - a violation of the Senate’s tradition of civility. That it was an affront to the United States of America, That it was a stunt and gutter politics He called it a "slap in the face." And he evoked the name of Tom Daschle, saying that he had never been "slapped in the face" by the former Minority leader.

I don’t blame Frist for being mad. He was out maneuvered by Reid and by the minority. And his feathers were ruffled by the underlying message that both sides can play the "nuclear option" game. Unless of course Frist tries to changeall Senate rules that afford power to the minority - the very essence of what the Senate is all about. And of course that would suppose confidence that Republicans would be in the majority forever!!

But Frist was the wrong person to express outrage. I know he’s the Senate leader and the appropriate person to respond to his opposite number. But he was talking about Reid breaking tradition!! He was talking about violating the tradition of civility. He should have thought about it for a minute and then a asked someone else in his party to respond to parliamentary coup. Someone with a lot cleaner hands than the muck and slime covering the appendages of Doctor William Frist.

You could almost overlook his idiotic comments on the floor of the Senate during the Schiavo fiasco which were roundly condemned by medical colleagues from coast to coast and from the length of the political spectrum. The Republicans were playing political games and he joined in with his newly discovered ability to diagnose the viability of a comatose patient by viewing a videotape.

You could overlook that because it was nothing compared to the cardinal sin with which had already been marked and which he would never be able to live down - the very sin of which he had the effrontery to stand in front of microphones and cameras and say that Harry Reid had committed. Reid had "slapped him in the face" with his lack of traditional civility and his breaking of tradition. Something Tom Daschle had never done to him. No - he did it to Tom Daschle.

Minority leader Daschle didn’t ever travel to the home state of any Senate Republican leader to campaign against his re-election. That would have been a break from the traditional civility of the Senate. That would have been a break from then tradition of the Senate leader of one party not campaigning against the re-election of the Senate leader of the other party. Something that’s never been done.

But Bill Frist traveled to South Dakota last year to campaign against the re-election of Tom Daschle - a total break from tradition. Not just a slap in the face to his Senatorial colleague. A knife in the back. From a doctor who swore an oath when he got his degree to "do no harm."

And now the good doctor wants us to believe that Harry Reid is engaging in "gutter politics" by evoking a rule of the Senate. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Frist got himself re-elected to the Senate in 2000 by the largest majority in the history of that state. I don’t know what those people down in Tennessee are smoking nowadays. You have to hope that they will have kicked the habit by the time next year’s elections roll around and be able to take a long hard look at this idiot and replace him with someone who actually understands the meaning of ethics and civility and tradition.. To say nothing of being able to put the interests of the people of the United States in front of the interests of his political party.