Thursday, November 26, 2009

We Give Thanks

We Give Thanks

We give thanks for those who came before
We give thanks for those yet to come
for those who have served in war and
those who have served to make peace.
We give thanks to the farmers
the teachers
the iron workers
the skydivers
those in prison who have not abandoned hope
those who bring us our daily news
those who bring us into this world naked and bloody and
those who follow us out.
We give thanks to those who have led
this great nation in times of plenty and
in times of less
and to those who have yet to be called upon to lead
thanks for the future and the past
for that sparkling hybrid moment we call now
for all that has been,
and all that is yet to be.

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Thanksgiving day, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


If this country took the war on poverty half as seriously as it takes the war on terror, no child would go to bed hungry in America tonight.

Hungry and Poor in America: Let's Finish the Job Here

The local news was replete with images of First Lady Michelle Obama in the elegant, strapless designer gown she wore for this White House's first state dinner.

Don't get me wrong, I like to look at gowns by Naeem Khan as much as anyone, but as we edge closer to that holiday most often associated with abundance, and overindulgence, one can't help but be distracted by the equally stunning number of people who find themselves hungry and poor this Thanksgiving.

More than 12% of all Americans know what it means to be poor in America. While they're conspicuously absent from reality T.V. shows, from box office movies, and political party platforms, they are increasingly visible at food banks, and shelters.

Nearly 50% of children in the U.S. will be on food stamps at some point before they reach adulthood as reported in study published by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The research extends over a three decade period, and also shows that one in three white children, and 90% of African-American youngsters through age 20 will make use of federally subsidized food programs.

A staggering 50% of all Americans between 20 and 65 (4 out of every 10 adults in America) will use food stamps in their lifetimes. 85% of African-Americans will, at some point in their lives, need to use food stamps. African-Americans and Hispanics make up the leading groups of those experiencing the most egregious food deprivation.

In 2008 alone, according to Feeding America, the number of poor Americans grew to:

40 million, or 13% of all Americans
8 million families, or 10%,
22 million, or nearly 12%, of people between 18-64
14 million, or nearly 20%, of children under 18

Last year, too, 49 million people didn't have enough to eat (32 million adults and 17 million children). A disproportionate number of those are men, women, and children of color.

The number of households with inadequate food resources has increased by 3.5% from 2007-2008 alone.

Nearly 10% of households with seniors were food insecure.
3.6 million seniors, 65 and older, nearly one in ten, live in poverty

In 2002, 35 million people went hungry, a number that has increased by 50% in the past seven years.

Last year, 4% of all U.S. households, nearly 5 million Americans, accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or more times.

In 2008, too, more than 50% of all households experiencing hunger participated in one of the major federal food assistance programs, but that's not enough. Instead of the trillions of dollars this administration has committed to buying drones, building embassies in Iraq, and sending thousands of more servicemen and women into combat, we need to fight the war on poverty here at home.

An astonishing 40% of households headed by single women have food shortages.

Too often, politicians of both parties speak of the need to save the middle class, but nobody talks about the working poor. There is little mention of those who return from the battlefield only to struggle to keep their homes, their dignity, and find a way to feed their families.

Some might argue that Congress is making a good start by working to pass legislation that will enable more Americans to get affordable health insurance, but that's only a start. There is something desperately wrong with a country that provides bailouts for its banks, and its fortune 500 carpetbaggers, but cannot provide for its children and seniors.

If even half the resources the government has allocated for the war on terror were to be spent instead on a war on poverty, no child in America would go to bed hungry tonight.

And, when the president announced this week that he intends to "finish the job" in Afghanistan, clearly the job he needs to finish is here, and not in the Middle East.

"A Jane Goodall Thanksgiving" by Michael Winship

Courtesy of "Bill Moyers Journal," and Public Affairs Television:

A Jane Goodall Thanksgiving

By Michael Winship

Give thanks. Because this isn't one of those Thanksgiving lists of things for which we should be grateful -- although health, family, friends, laughter, etc., would certainly all be on mine.

And Jane Goodall.

Yes, that Jane Goodall, the woman we all grew up with watching those National Geographic specials on TV as she communed with the chimpanzees of Tanzania's Gombe National Park in East Africa. Everyone I know seems especially to remember those scenes of chimps ingeniously utilizing straw and blades of grass to poke around in mounds hunting for termites, proof that they know how to make and use tools. I still have trouble opening a can of tuna.

Goodall was interviewed by my colleague Bill Moyers for this week's edition of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS. She began her work in Africa in 1960 at the age of 26, spurred by the encouragement of her English mother and the great anthropologist Louis Leakey, as well as the African adventure books she read as a child. "I was in love with Tarzan," she told Moyers. "I was so jealous of that wimpy Jane. I knew I
would have been a better mate for Tarzan."

I'm especially thankful to Jane Goodall after reading the passage in Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" in which the erstwhile vice presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska writes that she doesn't "believe in the theory that human beings -- thinking, loving beings -- originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into
monkeys who eventually swung down from trees."

She could learn a thing or two from the chimps. Goodall sees our affinity with them as like "the bond between mother and child, which really for us and chimps and other primates is the root of all the expressions of social behavior you can sort of see mirrored in the mother/child relationship."

But chimpanzees can be violent, too, and Goodall says, "Some people have reached the conclusion that war and violence is inevitable in ourselves. I reach the conclusion that I do believe we have brought aggressive tendencies with us through our long human evolutionary past. I mean, you can't look around the world and not realize that we can be, and often are, extremely brutal and aggressive."

But, she adds, "Equally, we have inherited tendencies of love, compassion, and altruism, because they're there in the chimp. So, we've brought those with us. So, it's like each one of us has this dark side. And a more noble side. And I guess it's up to each one of us to push one down and develop the other."

Jane Goodall has never seen a conflict between religion and evolution. "I don't think that faith, whatever you're being faithful about, really can be scientifically explained," she said. "And I don't want to explain this whole life business. Truth, science. There's so much mystery. There's so much awe.

"I mean, what is it that makes the chimpanzees do these spectacular displays, rain dances -- I call them waterfall dances. At the foot of this waterfall, [they] sit in the spray and watch the water that's always coming and always going and always there. It's wonder. It's awe. And if they had the same kind of language that we have, I suspect that [they would turn it] into-- some kind of animistic religion."

In 1986, after two and a half decades of quiet research in the African forest, Goodall's career took a dramatic turn at a conference of scientists studying chimpanzees. During a session on conservation, she said that it was "shocking" to learn that across Africa, because of deforestation, the explosion of human population and commercial hunting of animals for food, the chimpanzee population had "plummeted from somewhere between one and two million at the turn of the last century to, at that time, about 400,000. So I came out - I couldn't go back to
that old, beautiful, wonderful life."

She now spends more than 300 days out of the year traveling, speaking out, rallying people to see ourselves as caretakers of the natural world, and inspiring us with word that all is not yet lost. Her Jane Goodall Institute works ceaselessly for the worldwide protection of habitat, and her program "Roots and Shoots" now has chapters in 114 countries, working to make young people more environmentally aware. "I could kill myself trying to save chimps and forests," she said to Bill Moyers. "But if we're not raising new generations to be better stewards than we've been, then we might as well give up."

The worldwide chimp population is down to fewer than 300,000 now, spread across isolated fragments of forest, Goodall says, in 21 African nations. Moyers asked, what do we lose if the last chimp goes? "We lose one window into learning about our long course of evolution," she replied.

"I've spent so long looking into these minds that are fascinating, because they're so like us. And yet they're in another world. And I think the magic is, I will never know what they're thinking... And so, it's like elephants and gorillas, and all the different animals that we are pushing toward extinction...

"There's a saying, 'We haven't inherited this planet from our parents,
we've borrowed it from our children.' When you borrow, you plan to pay
back. We've been stealing and stealing and stealing. And it's about time
we got together and started paying back."

That's as good a Thanksgiving wish as I can imagine.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local
airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at Additional
research provided by producer Candace White and associate producer Diane

Friday, November 20, 2009

"New York Is Tough Enough For Terrorist Trials," Michael Winship

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television:

New York's Tough Enough for Terrorist Trials

By Michael Winship

If you want to royally tick off New Yorkers, try telling us what to do.

That's probably why the police stopped trying to enforce the jaywalking laws here years ago (as opposed to Washington, DC, where I once got one too many tickets and was sent to pedestrian school).

And that's why in the weeks after 9/11, my favorite sign was the one that appeared in the windows of Italian-American neighborhoods near where I live downtown. In bright red, white and blue, it read: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. You got a problem with that?"

So imagine how pleased many of us were when told by conservatives - most of them from out-of-town -- that we should be very afraid that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of his Al Qaeda henchmen will be put on trial here in New York City, just blocks from the scene of their horrific crime, the World Trade Center.

My own unscientific survey indicates that most of us who live not far from Ground Zero and who were here on 9/11 see it as an appropriate and just venue and aren't afraid that the trial will result in terrorist retribution. And if for some reason it should, we will stand up in righteous, rational indignation, the way we New Yorkers do on an almost daily basis, whether the source of vexation is slight or extreme.

I immediately thought of the moment in Casablanca, when the supercilious Nazi, Major Strasser, asks Humphrey Bogart if he's one of those who can't imagine Germans occupying New York. Bogart replies, "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

The response of Arizona Republican Congressman John Shadegg was especially offensive. After noting that Mayor Mike Bloomberg had said that New Yorkers are tough and could handle the trial and its attendant commotion, Rep. Shadegg declared on the floor of the House, "Well, Mayor, how are you going to feel when it's your daughter that's kidnapped at school by a terrorist? How are you going to feel when it's some clerk -- some innocent clerk of the court -- whose daughter or son is kidnapped? Or the judge's wife? Or the jailer's little brother or little sister?"

Rep. Shadegg wound up apologizing, although he insisted the point survived his insensitivity - "I think it is important to note that this decision involves potential risk to innocent people," he said. But even Rupert Murdoch's right wing New York Post took offense, describing Shadegg's remarks as "the outrageously shameless use of Bloomberg's children as debating points."

Two local politicians who should know better did speak out in opposition to a federal trial here in Manhattan, but to a large degree their motives can be perceived as mercenary. Both men are or may be running for statewide office, and polling outside the city indicates that when it comes to a civilian trial, a sizable majority has bought into the fearmongering.

Former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became such a hero in New York as he walked the rubble-strewn streets on 9/11, and who has been bandied about the media as a potential candidate for governor or the US Senate, fell into conservative lockstep and told CBS News, "There is no reason to try them in a civilian court. Others are going to be tried in the military tribunal. And the reality is we've never done this before. And this is something that was pushed very, very hard by the left wing for President Obama to do."

Which is odd, because back in 2006, when a civilian jury sentenced 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to life without parole, Giuliani told Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" that while he would have preferred the death penalty, the verdict "does show that we have a legal system, that we follow it, that we respect it. And it is exactly what is missing in the parts of the world or a lot of the parts of the world that are breeding terrorism... it does say something pretty remarkable about us, doesn't it?"

What's more, when blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahmanm, the architect of the first Trade Center bombing in 1993, was convicted in New York federal court, Giuliani said, "It does demonstrate that we can give people a fair trial, that we are exactly what we say we are. We are a nation of law... I think he's going to be a symbol of American justice."

More baffling was New York's Democratic Governor David Paterson, who told The New York Times, "This is not a decision I would have made... We still have been unable to rebuild that site, and having those terrorists tried so close to the attack is going to be an encumbrance on all New Yorkers." But the governor's popularity is so low and election chances next year so slim he is desperate for the slightest grit of traction. A Siena College poll this week had 69% saying they would vote for someone else. At this point, he probably would allow himself to be pulled between two farm tractors if he thought it might help him carry upstate.

Paterson's position also seemed to puzzle US Attorney General Eric Holder - a New Yorker, by the way - who last week announced the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow conspirator here in the city. When told of Paterson's comments, he said to the New York Daily News, "It's a little inconsistent with what he told me last week."

Attorney General Holder, in this instance at least, has been the consistent one, unwavering over the rightness of his decision while admitting that it was a "tough call, and reasonable people can disagree with my conclusion."

On Wednesday he handled four hours of often harshly critical questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and then met with families of 9/11 victims. He countered the opposition's main objections. "We know that we can prosecute terrorists in our federal courts safely and securely because we have been doing it for years," Holder said, and the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) "establishes strict rules for the use of classified information at trial."
As for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - often identified simply as KSM -- and his track record of rabid histrionics, Holder said that the terrorist "will have no more of a platform to spew his hateful ideology in federal court than he would have in military commissions... "Judges in federal court have firm control over the conduct of defendants and other participants in their courtrooms, and when the 9/11 conspirators are brought to trial, I have every confidence that the presiding judge will ensure appropriate decorum. And if KSM makes the same statements he made in his military commission proceedings, I have every confidence the nation and the world will see him for the coward he is. I'm not scared of what KSM will have to say at trial -- and no one else needs to be either."

Which seems right to me and my friends who stood on our neighborhood streets and watched those towers burn and fall. You got a problem with that?

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An "Elegant President" in Cracker Country

Don't know if you happened to catch Frank Schaeffer on Rachel Maddow, but it was a riveting show. Given his own background as the son of a right-wing evangelist who recently converted, it would be wise to listen to Schaeffer pushing the panic button.

I confess, too, that I can't help thinking about what Sean Penn said when he learned that Barack Obama was elected. We have "an elegant president;" that was as good as it gets, as well as an interview Dick Cavett did, thirty years ago, with another elegant man---Jimi Hendrix.

On the show, Cavett spoke about "red necks," "white trash," and how difficult it was to be a gifted black musician in a devoutly racist country. Having had the good fortune to have met Jimi, I suspect that, apart from being an Obama supporter, he'd empathize with him, too.

Not as much has changed over the past few decades as we might like to think. Now there are those who say this president is taking us the wrong way down a one way street, that his vision is one that leads to bigger government, and less free enterprise.

And, there are others who think that Obama isn't heading in the direction of peace, disarmament, and transparency. They are disillusioned about this president's openness to hawkish generals when they thought that endgame was to get out of Iraq.

The best way not to get disillusioned is not to entertain illusions in the first place. Any president with a concrete plan for either disarmament, or imminent troop withdrawal would never have been elected.

George W. Bush is blamed for nearly thousands of American and Iraqi deaths in an eight year war, but it was George H.W. Bush who brought troops into Iraq in the first place. That Papa Bush rightly decided to shrug his shoulders, fold up his tent, declare victory in the Gulf, and go home doesn't mean that he wasn't responsible for the error that became a huge mistake.

Likewise, Lyndon B. Johnson is the president most often associated with the Vietnam War when it was his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who arranged for the first troops to be deployed there. Johnson took an initial commitment of 15,000 troops and raised nearly ten times. In his last speech to the American people, Kennedy acknowledged that he was "rethinking" his commitment of troops to Vietnam, and had plans for phased withdrawal, a plan, not coincidentally, sabotaged by his assassination.

That "war is a racket" we know, and have known for as long as Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler wrote back in 1932. Still, Americans feign surprise, and disillusionment, when a president is elected who continues the status quo. Where war is concerned, the status quo is our best cash crop.

Others, like myself, see a presidency that is barely one quarter of the way along and remain optimistic that Mr. Obama, like Mr. Kennedy before him, will rethink his military objectives, and will share JFK's vision of "complete and total disarmament."

Some may say we've drunk the Kool-Aid, and that may be fair. But, there is no denying the precariousness of the more than 100 new paramilitary groups which, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, have sprung up since Obama took office. The threats from these fringe groups, these leftover Birchers are real. Demands on the secret service, the president's bodyguards, have increased by 400%.

While no one is suggesting blind obedience, Frank Schaeffer is right that we need to support this president, and pray for his safety. Those, on the left, who have been going after him with a viscera matching their radical right counterparts would be well advised to lighten up, and recognize that discourse has been racheted up such that it now poses a clear and present danger. The Tea Party of today is just as scary as the John Birch Society in Jimi Hendrix's day.

This is a presidency under siege, and those who confuse verbal dysentery with dissent do a disservice to the framer's notion of free speech.

To maintain a healthy political climate, disagreement must be accompanied by deference, and deference isn't coming from the right, or the left frankly.

One may disagree with a president's policies, yet still support the president. One may abjure the influence of special interests, the banksters, and Wall Street, and still press for extended unemployment benefits, a higher living wage, and greater access to affordable housing. One doesn't have to throw out the baby with the bath water.

While Afghanistan is clearly a quagmire, and a McChrystal surge would be a huge mistake, to articulate foreign policy differences with anything less than respect is a disservice to the civil rights efforts of Malcolm X, and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Someday, what we now witness will be seen as nothing less than civil war, but it's about more than race, or party affiliation, it's a war between rich and poor. With our support of this president comes the implicit understanding that he was elected to represent the poor, and hungry. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

The only mandate that can work is one that mandates equal opportunity, and equal justice under the law. So far, I have heard no mention of that kind of mandate. If nothing else, this is one president who can be prevailed upon to listen.

Something is radically wrong when the rhetoric of the left can no longer be distinguished from that of the right. Anti-war posturing must not disintegrate into anti-Obama posturing.

And, more importantly, there is a racial component to the anti-Obama rhetoric that is especially troubling, one that must not be discounted, but addressed, or there will be a moral tsunami that will reverberate for generations.

The election of Barack Obama was not about seeing the world in black or white, but gray. The dream hasn't died. The dreamers have just woken up.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A frightening Incident

On my way home from work today, I stopped in to the local 7-11 to pick up a few things. It was late in the day and, as usual, there was only one cashier at the register.

In line in front of me was a young lady who I observed rushing into the store before I got there. She looked to be in her early 20's, a brunette.

Anyway, she bought a half dozen items or so, and stood at the counter with her purse open, her wallet, her keys, a cup of coffee slowly proceeding to put things away. She was oblivious to the fact that someone was behind her waiting patiently for what must have been about three minutes.

I proceeded to pull a few bills out of my wallet, and hand them to the cashier who gratefully accepted them. My change, if any, would have been a few pennies, so I was prepared to leave the store. The young "lady," in a manner of speaking, then confronts me: "You're in a hurry, are you?" she says. "Yes," I said, "I'd like to pay for these items, and get on with my day."

She exits the store. I exit, too, whereupon I notice that she gets in her car, and proceeds to block the entrance to the 7-11. She had a young man next to her who appeared to find the whole encounter amusing. "You better be careful, lady, or somebody might hurt you," she says and looks at me menacingly.

I get in my car quickly, and lock the door. My car window is down a bit, and she yells out, "You heard me, lady, somebody might hurt you." Her boyfriend started laughing. Obviously, I had no intention of getting out of my car to walk over to her car, and confront her. I recognized her accent which sounded a lot like my students in Los Angeles.

There is no way I would have gotten out of my car to approach her. The first thought that entered my mind when I saw her car parked there was---get in the car, lock the door, and don't respond. She might be packing.

No one had ever followed me from a store, and threatened me like that before.

A woman in her early 40's walked over to her car to find out what was going on, and the girl just started gesturing, and next thing I knew she drove up.

Funny thing is right down the street there was a sheriff parked in a car marked "Sheriff's Department." On my way to the store, I noticed him sitting there with his head neatly bowed into his lap evidently text messaging. On my way back, he was still sitting there, only now he appeared to be doing paperwork.

Given the incidence, albeit rare, of women being held up at gunpoint only blocks away from where this encounter occurred, I found it rather odd that there wouldn't be more surveillance. It's not as if there was no police car, and it's not as if there isn't any crime.

As I drove him, it occurred to me that I'm old enough to be this young woman's mother, and then some. It also occurred to me that if I had called local law enforcement, I would have been told "a threat is not a crime," and nothing would have been done.

What scared me most of all was how little it mattered to this person that the person she was threatening could have been her mother, her teacher, or her next door neighbor. The brutality, and enjoyment of brutality---brutality for brutality's sake sent shivers down my spine.

The only thing that distinguishes human beings from animals is conscience. This creature clearly doesn't have one. What can be more frightening than living in fear of one's children.

From Michael Winship

In a Chilly London November, War and Remembrance

By Michael Winship

In Great Britain, Remembrance Sunday falls on the second Sunday of November, the one closest to November 11th, the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Once, the world called November 11th Armistice Day. Now, here in the States at least, it is Veterans Day.

As coincidence and travel itineraries would have it, twice over the last four years I've been in London on Remembrance Sunday. This time, my girlfriend Pat and I were on our way home from Greece, stopping off for a couple of days to see old friends.

As we unpacked at the hotel, a recap of the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies was playing on TV - Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife laying a wreath at the Cenotaph (the UK equivalent of our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), a stirring parade of veterans along Whitehall, the military bands playing "Rule, Britannia," "God Save the Queen" and "O Valiant Hearts."

Remembrance Sunday fell just a couple of days after the horrendous shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 soldiers dead and 30 wounded, many of whom were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. From Greece, we had been watching the news reports on CNN with special interest. I'd been at Fort Hood several times - the huge military base is where my parents met during World War II; my father a medical supply mofficer, my mother a secretary from a nearby town. It was Camp Hood then.

Remembrance Sunday also fell less than a week after an Afghan policeman named Gulbadin, armed with a machine gun, shot five British soldiers dead at a police compound in Helmand province. The men had just returned from patrol and had put their rifles aside, preparing for a rest. The policeman opened fire from a rooftop.

The wantonness of the killings only further deteriorated the already plummeting British support for the country's involvement in the Afghan war, and anger worsened in the next few days after Prime Minister Brown accidentally botched a handwritten letter of condolence to the mother of Jamie Janes, a British soldier killed last month by an IED. He, too, was in Helmand province.

It seems Brown misspelled Janes' name in the letter. The mother, urged on, some say, by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid, The Sun (which recently switched its political allegiance from Brown's Labor Party to the Conservatives), bitterly attacked the prime minister for insensitivity.

In a subsequent phone call with Brown, which she recorded - perhaps with the assistance of The Sun - she chastised him for failing to adequately equip and protect British troops in Afghanistan. After several days of media-manufactured controversy, she accepted his apology.

Brown blamed the incident on his notoriously poor penmanship and inability to see - he is blind in one eye.

Metaphor, remembrance and coincidence were in abundance during our brief London stay. As it happened, the next night, we went to see a play called The War Horse. Written by Nick Stafford, and based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, the drama uses remarkable, life-size puppets of horses, beautifully crafted and each masterfully manipulated by teams of performers so skilled you sometimes forget that
what you're seeing isn't real.

The War Horse is the story of Joey, a horse that's half-thoroughbred and should be raised for riding in foxhunts by the landed gentry. But through fate and the cruel reality of rural life in southwest England's Devonshire, Joey is brought up as a farm horse, trained and loved by a teenager named Albert. When World War I begins, Albert's father sells the horse to the British cavalry. Albert runs away and joins the army to find him.

In the beginning, almost everyone is convinced that the war will be brief - "God help the Kaiser, because... we're gonna run him right out of Belgium, right back into Germany." But as a veteran British major tells a junior officer, "Every generation has to discover things for themselves, don't they? There's some things that can be understood through telling, but other things have to be experienced before they can be fully apprehended. War is one such thing."

Joey is ridden into senseless, deadly charges against German machine guns. Eventually, he and another horse end up on the other side of the enemy lines, and are forced to drag German hospital wagons and artillery as both armies fall into the trench warfare of mud and misery that will go on for more than four bloody years, killing between 15 and 16 million.

Our current reality, our deadly dilemma in Afghanistan as Barack Obama reportedly agonizes over the next steps there, were never far from mind, even as we lost ourselves in the story and stagecraft of the play. At one point, a young British recruit is given his grandfather's knife to carry, a souvenir of the Second Afghan War, he's told. At another, a German sergeant named Rudi talks with a group of fellow soldiers: "They're saying that because we attacked, we're paying for it. They're saying that we must get rid of the Kaiser and make a democracy. It would
be impossible for a democracy to start a war, continue a war against the will of its people. What do you think?"

In the penultimate scene, an injured Joey has been pulled from the barbed wire of no-man's-land by a British soldier and is about to be out of his misery by a doctor's bullet when Albert, temporarily made sightless by gas, hears him and they are reunited.

A happy ending of sorts, but what I was reminded of was another powerful metaphor, a painting by American artist John Singer Sargent that I saw a few years ago in London's Imperial War Museum.

During World War I, Sargent, master of the exquisite, artful society portrait, was commissioned by the British government to go the front and create a work that would celebrate the cooperative spirit of British and American soldiers pulling together in "The War to End All Wars."

Finding little to none of that alleged battlefield camaraderie, instead, he painted a massive canvas - 20 feet wide and more than seven feet high - depicting a group of soldiers felled by a mustard gas attack. In hues of yellow and brown, they stumble in a setting sun toward the hospital tents, eyes bandaged, each man in the line struggling to find his way, guided by a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him.

The blind leading the blind.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Monday, November 16, 2009

Double Crossed: War Vets Deported

Astonishingly, more than 30,000 foreign born detainees currently face deportation at some 350 facilities nationwide. Nearly half are legal residents who committed crimes that range from homicide to misdemeanor drug possession, and were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after serving their prison terms.

Reportedly, about 10% of those foreign born detainees, or 3,000, have served in the U.S. military. A large percentage have legal resident status. Some suffer from PTSD, but all who get in trouble with the law will be rounded up by ICE detained, and then deported.

More troubling is the incidence of those who come here as small children with their parents who are encouraged by recruiters to join the Army, lured by the illusion that their military service will serve as their application for citizenship. Imagine their horror when they find a deportation letter in their mailbox upon their return.

Given the need for warm bodies in combat zones, the military "falsely promises automatic U.S. citizenship," according to Associated Content , in return for service which consists of deployment to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. All too often, however, the service member is double crossed and, upon his return to the states, is scooped up, and carted back to the country of his birth.

Others, like Iraq vet Marine Corporal Phillipe Louis Jean, have also been threatened with deportation after they complete their tour of duty. The Marine was court-martialed for an infraction, adultery, not regarded as serious enough to disqualify him for military service, but one egregious enough to prevent him from ever obtaining American citizenship. What is more egregious here the obscene, and wanton exploitation of men in uniform, or their alleged infractions?

There are many who argue that it makes sense to deport anyone who commits a crime, regardless of their immigration status, but doing so renders the argument that prison is intended for rehabilitation obsolete.

Some even think that if someone is here illegally, they should be deported for jay walking. Too often, immigrants are used as human shields, and scapegoats for pre-existing larger social, and economic issues. Too often, nuance is lost as are important legal, and constitutional distinctions between undocumented immigrants and legal residents. Increasingly, those who serve our country, and are prepared to pay the ultimate price to defend us face harassment by ICE, detention, and deportation, not just veterans of Iraq either.

Many who have served this country honorably are now being held in immigration facilities thoughout the U.S. They are legal residents of a country that wants to cart them off in a crate with a "return to sender" label. Consider the irony, for a moment, in light of the organized crime families of the 1920's and 1930's. How many vets of World Wars I and II faced being deported back to Sicily because they were convicted of drug smuggling?

Keep in mind, too, that most of the 3,000 or so service members currently being held were convicted of drug possession, and will have served as much time in immigration detention centers as they did in prison.

A bill introduced by the House in July may soon be a paradigm for how to remedy this gross inequity. HR 2988 provides for the relief of Fernando Javier Cervantes and, if passed, would preclude his deportation. Mr. Cervantes emigrated legally from Mexico to the U.S., more than thirty years ago, at the age of seven, with his mother. He enlisted in the Army toward the end of the Vietnam War, and was honorably discharged.

Now, more than three decades later, Cervantes is a detainee at El Centro Processing Center where he is being held after serving three years for possession of methamphetamine. Most likely, he will spend an equal amount of time in detention as in prison and, barring intervention should the House bill pass, he will be deported back to Mexico, a country he has not seen since 1970.

Justice is clearly a precious commodity, one that is in short supply, and less demand, when American servicemen who participated in the heinous slaughter of two dozen men, women, and children civilians in Haditha, Iraq, back in November, 2005, have escaped prosecution while noncitizen servicemen, many of whom have legal immigration status, are being deported for misdemeanor drug possession.

Clearly, this isn't about illegal drugs, but a backlash against illegal immigration with the inescapable irony that military recruiters don't seem to care about the citizenship application status of their recruits when they need to fill their front lines.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Headline of the Year

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, but thanks to their recent headline, the Associated Press may be the first news organization to take first prize for headline of the year. About an hour ago, while munching some leftover chicken, a stunning headline streaked across my laptop: "Official: Obama wants his war options changed." At first, I thought --hmmmmm..... at least he isn't asking to have his diapers changed.

But, the breaking news is that the president has asked his national security team to change his war options. Maybe it's time for Mr. Obama to change his own war options.

After all, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue also happens to be commander-in-chief. Making decisions about troop incease, reduction, withdrawals, deployments, and timelines are part of the job description. Mr. Obama forgot more than I'll ever know about leadership, so why is he allowing himself to be led around by the nose by the Pentagon, and the Defense Department?

Since when is a president pulled between generals? Who cares what Stanley McChrystal wants? In the end, McChrystal will be a stale footnote in a high school history book, so whether Obama heeds the general's advice to increase troops in Afghanistan by another 40,000, or 100,000, or whether U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan,and former general Eikenberry wants a time out for Karzai, who cares?

For all of his clout, we didn't have a president McNamara, but Kennedy. McNamara was a guiding force, it's true, but JFK was prepared to pull the plug, McNamara or no McNamara, that's what presidents do.

Now, Mr. Obama is reportedly asking General McChrystal for another rewrite of the surge script for which McChrystal may even need to bring in a script doctor as Houdini would be hard pressed to tweak such a huge investment of American military in any way that doesn't lead to another disastrous misadventure.

And, while it's good that the president has moved away from a focus on benchmarks which, so far, have produced only hemorrhoids in Iraq to timelines instead, the term exit strategy isn't code for fleet enema. Had JFK lived long enough to see his timeline for withdrawal of troops from Vietnam enforced, hundreds of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives would have been saved. There's a president who may have asked his team what his options were, but decided to change them himself

Often during these strange and difficult times, I think of the great JFK line: "A mistake doesn't have to become an error unless you refuse to correct it." And, it's not too late to correct this one.

Instead of looking to his national security team, and generals for tips on how to proceed in Afghanistan, President Obama will be better off looking to himself, and the American people.

His judgment was his calling card during the 2008 presidential campaign. It was his good judgment that led Mr. Obama, as a young senator back in 2002, to speak eloquently in opposition to the war in Iraq. It didn't fail him then, and he must not allow it to fail him now either.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

"There are no eyes harder to catch than a barman's," Samuel Beckett

Monday, November 09, 2009

From Michael Winship

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television:

Don't Believe Everything the Oracle Tells You

By Michael Winship

ATHENS, GREECE - Last Sunday, we visited the ruins of ancient Delphi, two hours or so from here in the Greek capital, an extraordinary site at the base of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley, almost half a mile below. You could see the acres of olive trees there. The Ionian Sea shimmered on the horizon. Legend has it that Zeus released two eagles from the opposite ends of the earth. They met at Delphi, determining that it was the center, the so-called navel of the world.

Delphi and its temples were where the famous Oracle lived, uttering its often ambiguous and mysterious predictions through a priestess who spoke on its behalf - but, our guide claimed, only after inhaling sulfuric vapors from a hole in the earth and chewing laurel leaves to get into the proper psychotropic mood.

During the Persian Wars, the guide said, Athenians asked the Oracle how to protect themselves from being attacked by the enemy. The Oracle replied, "A wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured." Many of the Athenians figured that meant they should seek protection behind a formidable wooden barricade. Makes sense, but the Persians seized the city anyway. Such is the price of being logical - in my experience, it's
always a mistake to take a priestess imbibing laurel leaves and sulfur too literally.

Others, the guide continued, interpreted the oracular message in a different way; believing that "a wall of wood" was a reference to the mighty Athenian fleet of wooden ships. This time, they got it right - their navy went to sea and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.

All of which is a scenic route around to my reaction when reading last Tuesday night's election results back home. People were interpreting the Oracle of the Ballot Box in what seemed like very odd and exaggerated ways.

The Associated Press reported, "Independents who swept Barack Obama to a historic 2008 victory broke big for Republicans on Tuesday as the GOP wrested political control from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, a troubling sign for the president and his party heading into an important midterm election year."

And the lead sentence of the Los Angeles Times read, "By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections."

Without resorting to chomping on leaves and sniffing fumes, we should look at that a little more closely and not let the tide of the mainstream media and the 24-hour news cycle sweep us away. Were those GOP gains in Virginia and New Jersey really an indication that the entire nation's shifting away from the President? True, President Obama campaigned for both Democrats, but exit polls showed voters in both
states were more interested in local issues than him. What's more, in Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate, and in New Jersey, although for a while it seemed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine might rally, his dismal popularity numbers and a whopping state deficit and unemployment rate could not be surmounted.

And look at those two special races for House seats in the California 10th and northern New York State's 23rd - the Democrats picked up both, for a net gain in Congress of one. Upstate Democrat Bill Owens beat back an onslaught from right wingers and tea partiers - including Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Dick Armey - who spoke out on behalf of Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman and bullied Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race.

Owens is the first Democrat elected from that district in well over a century. In fact, as the Web site reported, with his victory, "The GOP lost its fifth consecutive competitive special election in Republican-friendly territory."

As for that independent vote that went for Barack Obama last year and seems to be shifting back to the right (in New Jersey and Virginia they went for the GOP candidate by a large margin), it may not be as monolithic a bloc as the media would have you believe.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly blog Political Animal noted a 2007study conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University:

"Strategists and the media variously describe independents as 'swing voters,' 'moderates' or 'centrists' who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label...

"The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics."

Bottom line: instant analysis of election results from a handful of races in an off year election is not very significant one way or the other. We'd be wise not to buy into the tub-thumping or doomsaying of pundits posing as priestesses claiming to speak for the Oracle. Or to be the Oracle.

From a distance here in Athens, perhaps the more balanced headline was the one that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday: "Election Results Give Both Sides Optimism." The paper could just as easily have written, "Election Results Give Both Sides Pessimism." Ask any Athenian with knowledge of history - you have to take your Oracles with a grain of salt.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Why I Defend Roman Polanski

Okay, so here we go.... I swore I'd never write about this, and haven't in the nearly 40 years since it happened, but since there's been so much attention focused on a similar crime committed more than 30 years ago by Roman Polanski, I thought it might be helpful to hear from someone who knows firsthand the difference between statutory rape, and rape as conversion of genitalia into lethal weapons.

In the fall of 1972, when I was in my first year of graduate school, I lived in Greenwich Village on LaGuardia Place. One evening, I went with a few friends to an bar on the upper west side of Manhattan. It was quite late--after midnight. I had a few drinks which, given my petite size, readily went to my head.

The waiter was a tall, slender fellow maybe five or six years older than I--in his late twenties. He was an attractive fellow, had auburn hair, and pronounced cheekbones. I recall flirting with him, and giving him my phone number.

Meanwhile, the radio station where I had a show for two years, an FM station in Buffalo, WBFO-FM, I think, anyway, I finally convinced the station to send me a tape of one of the shows I did on William Blake. It was the one where I read from "A Vision of the Last Judgment."

Concidentally, the tape arrived a few days before my waiter friend calls. We chat on the phone for a few minutes, and he invites me over. I tell him that I'd prefer to meet him in a public place, but then recall the tape---"Oh, wait," I say, "do you have a tape recorder? There's a tape I'd like to hear." Yes, yes... he assures me, he does.

He lives only about half a mile from me in Little Italy, as I recall--maybe Mulberry Street. In any case, he suggests coming over during the afternoon before he leaves for work. I tell him I need to check something out first--hang up, and think about it. I know where the dude works, I think, I know where he lives, it's broad daylight, and I have too much information on him. He'll never do anything to me, so I call him back and arrange to come over the next day.

When I get there, he was fine. We sit and chat in the livingroom. I ask him where the tape recorder is----"in the bedroom," he says. I laugh. Okay, I tell him, bring it the hell out here. "I can't," he says, "it's part of a console. Oh, come on," he adds, "anything I can do to you in there, I can do to you right here." Makes perfect sense, so I go in the bedroom, sit down on the bed.

He puts the tape of me reading "Vision of the Last Judgment" by Willliam Blake on, then comes and sits down on the bed. He starts kissing me, and fondling me. I say "Look, I'm not into playing games. I don't want to do this--I came here to listen to the tape. I thought that was understood," so he pushes me down forcefully, and starts unzipping my jeans. "hey," I said "I said stop, I mean stop."

He ingores me, and out of somewhere comes this insane and idiotic statement: "You can't rape me, I'm an existentialist." By this time, he has my pants off. He stops--sits back, and says: "What the fuck does that mean?"

I said, sheepishly, "It means that I have control of my vaginal muscles" demonstrating, with pride, my knowledge of what a sphincter muscle is, and how it's used....

"Okay," he says, then turns me over on my stomach, and pounds me---anally. I remember screaming, a bit, but mostly kicking him with the back of my feet and all my might.

"Hey," I say, "if you'd only slow down, I might enjoy this."

"You're not supposed to enjoy this," he says, so I take a deep breath---now it's time to think, no time for emotions: 1) I'm not a virgin, so he didn't take my virginity, and 2) I'm being forcibly raped--lord knows what the guy has in mind for me, and I don't want to find out as I lay there being sodomized while listening to a recording of myself reading from William Blake's "Vision of the Last Judgment." It was all terribly surreal, but I wouldn't allow myself to go there, but instead focused on two things: 1) what am I going to do to get out of there alive, and 2). What can I say to make him stop? I told him I was going to defecate. He said "It just feels that way." I say "No, trust me, I'm going to. Don't say you weren't warned," so he finishes up quickly, and I run to the bathroom.

Suffice it to say that what I saw in the bowl was not feces--it was blood--lots of blood. He tore me up, but there was no time to look as he charged in the bathroom, and into the shower. I had to flush the toilet fast before he saw anything.

He's in the shower, and I say: "Well, it's been fun, but I've gotta run. Got lots to do today."

He quickly takes his hand and holds the door shut. "Where the hell do you think you're going? " he says.

From the window in the shower which emits lots of sunlight, I can see that he has a prominent scar on the right side of his face.

"How did you get the scar?" I ask "From a fight," he says.

"Look," I say calmly as I can, "I'm not a transient. I live half a mile from here, and have friends and family nearby. What happened here is your word against mine. There's no evidence of a crime. If you put one hand on me, you will have committed a crime. If I disappear, it will be noticed. Don't do anyting stupid---I'm not going to the police. Trust me. By the time by the police are finished with me, it'll look like I raped you. Don't do anything stupid, just let me go. You did me a big favor. You may even have saved my life. It'll be a cold day in hell before I go to a stranger's house again."

He gulps hard, and looks at me quizzically: "You're sure you're not going to the police?"

I laugh "Like I said, by the time they get done with me, it'll look like I raped you. Just let me go."

And, he did. I walked up LaGuardia Place a half mile back to my furnished room. I told myself over and over again not to let this horrible act influence my feelings about sex, or men, and that what he did to me had nothing to do with sex, or men, that it was an act of violence that used the sex organs as a weapon. On the walk home, I told myself that a fraction of 1% of men would do that to women.

Still, I felt guilty because I was aroused by his smell. I felt like some kind of freak. I felt deeply ashamed that something like that could happen to me, and didn't talk about it, or tell anyone one for two decades or more.

I lied when I told my assailant that there was no evidence a crime had been committed. I didn't go to the police because, there was no concept of "date rape" then as there is now, and I would have been victimized all over again by scrutiny of my sex life.

Why do I tell the story now because there is a difference between statutory rape, or having sex with an underage girl, and rape---an act of violence that uses genitalia as a weapon. A man who wants to hurt a woman wouldn't anesthesize her by giving her qualudes and booze before the act. The only way I knew, for sure, that it was rape, and not my pushing him a bit over the line was when he said "you're not supposed to enjoy this." Somehow, I don't think Roman Polanski had the same thing in mind which is not to say that what he did wasn't rape---it was statutory rape, and if she said she didn't want it, he should have stopped, but I doubt if she, at any time, was in fear for her life. I was, and it was a valid fear.

To this day, I don't allow myself to think about what might have happened to me if I had cried, and reacted differently, instead of trying to argue my way out of. I know why Polanski's young victim, now a woman approaching fifty, wants the whole thing to go away, but I also know that were she torn apart the way I was, she might feel differently.

What Polanski did was a crime against the state of California, it was a felony, and running merely compounded it, but let's not confuse that with an act of violence against women.

The reason I tell this story now, nearly 40 years after the crime, is in the hopes that people will stop calling Polanski a "rapist" in much the same way that they would one who perpetrates an act which uses sex as a vehicle to do grave bodily harm.

Roman Polanski was charged with "unlawful sex with an underage girl," or statutory rape. He copped a plea of guilty to a greater charge of battery in order to get a lighter sentence. Do not confuse sex with a minor, violation of a statute with felonious rape with the intent to commit grave bodily harm. To do so is to trivialize what happened to me, and many other women who did not come forward because they didn't want to be victimized by the system, or their peers.

No one is saying Polanski should walk. If the judge had honored the plea deal, and the 42 day commitment he received had been allowed as the sentence, he might not have, but obviously Mr. Polanski had bad advice. He had a team of managers, lawyers, agents, and knowledgeable friends----someone encouraged him to make a dumb, but understandable move. I doubt if he would have received a fair trial then any more than he would today. Under our system of government, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. As a victim, I wasn't convinced that was true of me. I know it wasn't true of Polanski. He took the hit, and admitted culpability---paid out huge sums in civil settlement, and was about to be given a long prison sentence despite the wishes of the victim, and any back door plea deal. This is celebrity justice, meaning he would have been made an example solely because of his fame.

Most of those who call the loudest for Roman Polanski's head have never themselves experienced rape. If they had, they would defer to the wishes of the victim for she is the one who was violated. She wants it to be over. Let it be over.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Costco Republicans?

Worried about conservative Republicans, or the prospect of a third, Conservative Party? Forget about it, the force that wields the blade among the rightest of the right are not neo-cons, like Newt Gingrich, but career shoppers, Costco Republicans.

After last week's big losses for Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, one can't help but speculate about the impact the far right, bible belt conservatives will have on the landscape that is the Republican Party over the next eight years. Some see civil war already in the works with faux moderates being tackled by the nouveau neo-conservative movement.

The John Birch Society, which has been largely underground, will yet again take center stage as the tea baggers transform into the next candidates for state senate, and/or Congress.

But, no one seems to have factored in: Costco Republicans, those who think the Battle of the Bulge was a precursor to Weight Watchers, those for whom bigger is better when it comes to everything except, of course, a government. that is sensitive to the needs of its governed. And, given the discount wholesalers robust sales in October, Costco, and the ethos of "size counts," is definitely a force to be reckoned.

After all, when most businesses are hurting, Costco's sales were up 5% over last October's, their largest monthly profit increase in more than a year. If nothing else Republicans, whether they be moderates or to the right of Attila the Hun, all like to see bigger profits.

That's not all they like to see, but even Newt Gingrich, architect of the Republican coup of 1994, could not have predicted McMansions, Big Macs, and sports utility vehicles large enough to accommodate half the combat forces in Iraq.

Consider, too, the obscene growth of executive compensation in the past decade, and the wide girth of defense industry profits. Gluttony and usury have at least one common denominator--quantity.

Apart from the idea of buying en masse, what could have greater allure, for a Republican, than being a member of a club one has to pay to get into? Moreover one can easily distinguish Costco Republicans from their generic counterparts simply by asking to see their Costco cards.

Given her propensity for shooting moose, former governor of Alaska, and most likely Republican presidential pick for 2012, Sarah Palin must shop for her hunting supplies at Costco. More bang-bang for your buck, as they say. If not guns, then there's always that invincible apron, the kind that even blood won't stain.

One would think, by now, the American people would have learned to stay away from those who know the price of everything, but the cost of nothing. The same folks who have always increased their bottoms, and their bottom lines, from war are even more adept now that there is an information superhighway, and technology is outpacing human intelligence by a ratio of two to one.

If Democrats want to get ahead of the game, so to speak, they'd better get ready for some serious Target practice.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Black Ops. and the Massacre at Fort Hood

There are lots of places to start looking if we want clues as to what happened yesterday at an Army base at Fort Hood, Texas. One obvious clue is Virginia Tech. We know that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, among the perpetrators of the largest shooting at a military base in U.S. history, graduated from the college where another massacre took place.

There are striking similarities between the modus operandi in both cases: 32 people were gunned down at Virginia Tech with many wounded, both perpetrators were non-Caucasian, both appear to have had murder/suicide as part of their game plan. While Hassan was born in Arlington, his complaints about religious discrimination in the Army could only have made him feel like a pariah, or outsider. Indeed, both the Virginia Tech and now the Fort Hood shooters were outsiders doubtless angry about being on the outside.

It is entirely possible that Hassan took his cues from the massacre at his alma mater and there is little room for coincidence in the similarities between the two crime sprees.

But, ultimately, what happened at Fort Hood had little to do with the 2007 debacle at Virginia Tech. To really know what happened to Hassan, we will have to know why he was being deployed to Iraq, or Afghanistan later this month, and whether he was to work with those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as reported, or whether he was called upon instead to combine his considerable psychiatric expertise, eight years at Walter Reed, with his knowledge of Arabic to serve in an intelligence capacity.

Simply stated, was Dr. Hassan, a devout Muslim, being sent to Afghanistan to work with U.S. interrogators as a sort of liaision between the American military and Iraqi detainees? We know that Hassan didn't want to deploy, and that he felt strongly about it. What we don't know is why. For another clue, we might want to consider a soldier who was also a psychology major, fluent in Arabic, whose career ended in violence, Alyssa Peterson.

Peterson, a U.S. Army Specialist, received her Arabic language certification, and served with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. She was an enlistee, a career intelligence officer, whose concentration was interrogation techniques. She found herself part of black ops, expected to participate in a clandestine operation in what we now know to have been so-called "alternative enhanced interrogation techniques" which she refused to do.

While the Army has denied it, sources close to Peterson say she was so deeply despondent about what she witnessed at the detention camp in Iraq that, on September 15, 2003, she was found with a bullet wound to her head, a victim of what the Army euphemistically called "non-hostile weapon discharge."

Like Hassan, Peterson was deeply religious. She was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day saints. Within days of taking her life, she was placed on suicide watch after refusing to participate in interrogation sessions at the airbase on the Syrian-Iraqi border, interrogations which she believed involved the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

One must look to Alyssa Peterson only for clues not for answers. Answers won't come fast, and they won't come easily, but the place to start is what were Hassan's exact duties with the Army, why was he being sent to Iraq, what were his duties going to be in Iraq, and did his knowledge of Arabic, as well as his Islam faith have anything to do with the mission the Army had in mind for him?

Though, unlike Alyssa Peterson, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan was not a trained career intelligence officer who specialized in interrogations, could he have found himself in much the same circumstances as a young Christian enlistee before him?

And, as one of Middle Eastern descent who strongly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if called upon to participate in interrogation sessions, using what to him might constitute dubious interrogation techniques, what happened at Fort Hood today may well have been a deranged response to a righteous concern.

The Iraq war may someday come to be known as the longest covert war in history. Most wars have a secret component, but this war has been doused with secrecy. There are contract mercenaries fighting side by side with a volunteer civilian army, the press has been neutralized by the Pentagon, and the broadcast media chooses to cherry pick which videos to display that best spin their side of the story.

The decision to focus on the depraved acts of one individual, rather than systemic failure, will someday be seen as the most deadly decision of all.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Text and Drive?

Text and drive? If you live in England, and someone dies because you rear end them while texting, you will face jail time. In 2008, Great Britain issued a directive which clearly states that "prolonged texting" may be prosecuted as inflicting "death by dangerous driving."

Consider the wrenching, horrific case of a young Oxford woman, Victoria McBryde, an aspiring fashion designer who happened to find herself with a flat tire on a motorway outside London when along comes another young woman, about her own age, who is too busy texting about a celebrity encounter she just had to recognize that fiat was broken down, runs into her, kiling her instantly.

As the New York Times reports, the texter, Phillipa Curtis, exchanged more than 20 text messages with half a dozen friends within an hour of the crash. Under the 2008 directive, the defendant was sentenced to 20 months in a maximum security women's prison after having been convicted of "causing death while driving," but she will also face a lifetime of remorse.

Today, at a community college in Northern California, I asked a group of youngsters whose ages range from 18 to 24 how many of them text and drive. Two-thirds of their hands went up. I told Victoria McBryde's story. . Only two of the twenty students in the room said that what happened to this British girl, and/or others like her, would make them change their behavior..

One wonders if the U.S. were to pass similar legislation to the British, and give prison time for every traffic fatality that results from text messaging, if the response would be dramatically different? Human life appears to be dramatically cheaper here.

The British, after all, haven't sent nearly as many youngsters to meet their maker in Iraq and Afghanistan as we have. The British don't have drive-by shootings nor do they have anywhere near the amount of homicides we do.

While an overwhelming majority of Americans, a whopping 97% according to a recent poll, want to make text messaging while driving illegal, only a handful of states have banned cell phone use while driving, and those states, like California, are woefully delinquent in enforcing the ban.

While haunted today by the image of that 24 year old British girl whose life filled with beauty and promise whose shattered by a perverse lack of regard for the sanctity of human life, I was struck, too, by the photograph of her mother placing flowers in front of her cold marble grave. What must it be like to give birth to such promise only to have it cut down by such a random, senseless act.

The only thing more horrifying to was the icy cold glare in the eyes of those students who will continue to do as they wish thinking that they are somehow mysteriously exempted from accountability.

Who can blame them really when we've created a system in which truth and consequences are selectively applied, when two people may commit the same crime and one may escape punishment not because he's innocent, but because he can afford top drawer defense, a land where even the Statue of Liberty has her hand out not to the poor, the disenfranchised, but to the illusion of privilege which pervades every last sinew of our body politic.

For such a trifling thing as sending a text message, two young women's lives were ruined, and there will be many more unless, and until, legislative prohibitions against cell phone use of any kind are passed, and enforced.