Friday, December 19, 2003

“A Mental Health Survey”

“Well, folks, as you know, we’ve been commissioned to conduct a mental health survey following reports of widespread depression and a rather disturbing rash of suicides among U.S. troops in Iraq. Congratulations on being selected to design and implement the survey. To kick things off, why don’t we just brainstorm on issues we might want to include in our survey. Dave?”

“Uh, Ed, could you give us some idea of the scope of the problem here? How many suicides are we talking about, anyway?’

“Good question, Dave. This seems to be the situation: Most of the suicides have actually taken place after the President declared an end to major combat operations on May 1. There have been seventeen suicides, officially, which is about three times the usual rate, but even that may be inaccurate. Dozens of other deaths are being investigated. Over five hundred soldiers were evacuated recently because of mental health concerns. Yes, Mark?”

“Do we have any preliminary data to work with, Ed?”

“We do have a starting point, Mark. Stars and Stripes did a survey of about 2,000 troops in Iraq, and nearly half said their morale was ‘low’ or ‘very low.’ A third also indicated that their mission was ‘not clearly defined’ or ‘not at all defined.’ Almost as many said the war in Iraq was ‘of little value’ or ‘of no value at all.’”

[Voice from audience] “Excuse me, but is it really that hard to figure out why the troops in Iraq are depressed? Aren’t the causes clear enough?”

“Would you please raise your hand, Lola, rather than shouting out like that?”

“I’ve been waving my hand. You just won’t call on me.”

“You’re imagining things, Lola. I’d like to have everyone’s input, even including yours.”

“What!? Why ‘even including mine’?”

“If you must know, Lola, questions have been raised about your loyalty. I had to assure my superiors that you would be a team player.”

“A ‘team player’? What’s that supposed to mean? I’m a psychologist, not a football player.”

“Lola, our mission is to help safeguard the mental health of troops who are defending our freedom and helping build a model for democracy in the Middle East. We have received a rather sizable grant, which will help sustain your employment, as well as mine, for the next several years. I hope I can assume that you will support our troops?”

“Of course I’ll support them. That’s my job as a psychologist—to support people in their struggle to become mature, responsible, autonomous human beings. But you’ve got troops who thought they were going overseas for a month, and they’re stuck there for at least a year. Attacks on our forces are averaging more than thirty a day. They’re hot, scared, bored, lonely, tired, angry, and homesick. They’ve been lied to by their President, exposed to radiation from their own munitions, turned into target practice every time they leave base, and spit on and shot at by people they thought they were liberating. They don’t see any end to the war in sight. Why wouldn’t they be depressed? If they were happy, I’d be really worried.”

“Yes, well, we’re all aware of your political agenda, Lola…”

“Mine! You mean if you go along with this invasion and occupation, you don’t have a political agenda? Depression and low morale are perfectly normal responses to being used, abused, screwed, and stewed. So why don’t we turn our efforts to where they might do some good, and check out the mental health of the people who put the troops there in the first place—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, that whole crew?”

“Are you out of your mind? You want to do a mental health study of the President and his closest advisors?”

“Of course. You know yourself that, from the standpoint of a mental health professional, these are people who look to be in serious trouble! They’re aggressive, secretive, paranoid, cast aside normal social constraints, demand their own way, are incapable of cooperating with others, and feel they have a divine mission to stamp out evil. If you had people like that living next door, you’d be scared out of your wits! These are people who went on for months, all over TV, claiming they had conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein had tons of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons he was ready to use on the U.S. Every piece of that was unreal! They claimed it was indisputable that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack of September 11. That was unreal! They claimed Jessica Lynch was a female Rambo. That was unreal! They claimed troops killed 54 Iraqi combatants in a major skirmish. That was unreal! What’s the mental health status of somebody who’s out of touch with reality and lives in denial?”

“Does anybody else have any suggestions on the survey…?”

“I wasn’t finished! What’s the mental health status of somebody responsible for starting a completely unnecessary war who has the blood of hundreds of U.S. soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians on his hands, and sleeps like a baby? Who has body bags flown in at night to remote portions of airfields, so the public won’t have images that make real the cost of the war? Who jets onto an aircraft carrier and declares ‘Mission accomplished,’ while Iraqi society collapses into chaos?”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I was afraid it would come to this. Please pardon the interruption [gives a signal] while the men in white coats escort her away.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Sunday, December 07, 2003

“Great Moments in History: The Gettysburg Address”

Note: A number of sentences and phrases below are taken from Charles Krauthammer’s column “Why Bush Stays Away,” in the December 8, 2003, issue of Time, in which he presents a pandering “explanation” of why President Bush avoids attending funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. They are put into a different historical context for the sake of instructive parody.

The White House, October, 1863 –


“Well, Charles, that about wraps it up. Mrs. Lincoln will be expecting me shortly. Is there anything else that needs attention before I leave for the day?

“Just this invitation, sir. It’s from the committee in charge of opening the new cemetery at Gettysburg next month. They’d like for you to deliver a speech at its dedication, if you’re available.”

“Of course I’m available. Almost four thousand of our Union soldiers died there, and the least I can do is acknowledge their sacrifice with my presence and a few words.”

“Sir, begging your pardon, but are you sure that’s wise?”

“What do you mean, Charles?”

“Permit me to speak bluntly, sir. During wartime, a President cannot take on the role of Mourner in Chief. It would be a strategic error to amplify and broadcast the pain of those losses by making a great public show of sorrow, presided over by the President himself.”

“Charles, these men were our sons and brothers. They died for something larger than themselves, and I, as President, represent that Union of souls for which they sacrificed their lives. Turning my back on them would be a shameful act.”

“Sir, these rebels have only one way of winning: by making our casualties so painful that we decide to give up. They know that our weakness is a profound concern for the individual. Despite what you feel in your heart, you, as Commander in Chief, must not permit yourself to show that you bleed. You are required to show, yes, a certain callousness.”

“I would have thought it an occasion to show a certain compassion.”

“If you do, sir, it will only encourage them to think their strategy is succeeding, and give them yet more incentive to keep killing our soldiers until it does.”

“Do you really think that will be the effect, Charles?”

“Yes, sir, I do. You care. Of course you care. But a steely callousness is what is called for here. That is what great Presidencies are made of.”

“So you think it best to decline the invitation?”

“I do, Mr. President. The world would little note nor long remember what you might say there, but it would never forget your resolve to prosecute this war while ignoring the suffering it entails.”

“Very well, then, Charles. Please write them that, because of prior commitments, I regret that I will be unable to attend. Suggest that they contact Secretary Stanton, to see if he can speak in my stead.”

“Yes sir. Shall I send it to their Washington office?”

“No, send it to their Gettysburg address.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

“Turning Those Numbers Around”

White House Press Office, December 2, 2003—

“Boss, I’ve got a great idea. You know how public support has been slipping for the war in Iraq…”

“Are you referring to the rebuilding of Iraq as a model democratic state, Ron? The war is over. We won. ‘Mission accomplished,’ as the President said.”

[Hastily] “Right, right. Anyway, you know how those poll numbers keep dropping…”

[Testily] “Ron, I can assure you, I am fully aware of the slippage to which you refer.”

“Well, this idea I have might be just the thing to turn those numbers around.”

[Skeptically] “Shoot.”

“Okay. You remember how there was a lot of opposition to the invasion of Iraq… sorry, the preemptive strike on terrorists…initially, but Colin Powell’s speech to the UN changed the picture almost overnight? He laid out that long rationale for the war, and people called his arguments ‘compelling’ and ‘irrefutable.’”

“I certainly do remember, Ron. How sweet it was, to have all of those liberal columnists writing about their conversion experiences the next day. Continue.”

[Warming up to his subject] “So what I was thinking was that we could take those arguments Powell made, compress each point into a thirty-second sound bite, and run a series of ads—just flat out blanket the air waves with the real reasons we’re in Iraq. He’s so dignified and solemn and… and… believable. We’ll remind people that there were convincing reasons for the war, and those reasons still hold good, even if the aftermath is a little rockier than anybody could have predicted.”

“Ron, I have to hand it to you. You may be on to something.”

[Swelling with pride] “I knew you’d like it, Boss. I went ahead and worked up some samples, so you could get a feel for what I had in mind. If you’ve got a few minutes, I can show them to you.”

“Very enterprising, Ron. Let’s take a look at what you have. What’s the first one?”

“The first one is about those documents that were hidden in that Iraqi scientist’s house in Baghdad. We were careful to get the part where Powell said they were ‘dramatic confirmation’ of our intelligence about hidden material.”

“Uh, that’s probably not a good one to use, Ron. Turns out those were just old and irrelevant files left over from a uranium enrichment program way back in the 80’s. The program was a flop, and everybody knew about it anyway.”

“Is that right? Okay, let’s scratch that one. The next one here is the satellite photos of those industrial sites where chemical and biological weapons were being produced, and of decontamination trucks associated with chemical weapons. Not only does this nail the Iraqis, but it shows we get good value from our high-dollar high tech intelligence effort.”

“Uh, that one’s a little iffy too, Ron. I’m afraid those decontamination vehicles turned out to be water trucks and fire trucks. Those sites he mentioned, as well as some others, have been visited over 500 times since we took control, and nobody has found any contraband, or any sign that stuff has been moved.”

“Gee, I’m sorry. How do you find out about all this stuff, Boss? Never mind, this next one’s really gonna get you. It’s about anthrax. Anthrax--that stuff scares me just thinking about it. Powell said the Iraqis could have produced up to 25,000 liters of anthrax. The clip I used includes the part where he says none of it has been ‘verifiably accounted for.’”

“The problem with that, Ron, is we still haven’t found any of it. The Iraqis claim they destroyed it. Three weeks before the invasion, they gave soil samples to the UN weapons inspectors from a site where they said the anthrax had been destroyed, along with a list of witnesses to the destruction. But the war began, unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—before those witnesses could be interviewed.”

“No sweat, Boss. There are still plenty more we can use. Here’s the part where he talks about those trucks used as mobile biological weapon labs.”

“Skip that one, Ron. It turns out those were actually used to pump hydrogen into weather balloons.”

[Doggedly] “Perfectly understandable. Anybody can make a mistake. How about this next clip, where he talks about that nerve agent, VX? The Iraqis made four tons of it. When Powell says that a single drop on your skin will kill you in minutes, and then looks directly at the camera and says ‘Four tons’ again, it’ll make your blood run cold.”

[Pause] “Uh, the thing is, Ron, that Powell didn’t tell quite the whole story there. Almost all of the VX was destroyed, under the supervision of UN weapons inspectors, during the 1990’s. So the ‘four tons’ is perhaps a trifle misleading. Weapons inspectors verified that VX actually had been dumped at the site where the Iraqis said they’d disposed of it, and any made before 1991 would have degraded into uselessness. Since we became masters of Iraq, we haven’t found a drop.”

[Discouraged] “This is a little harder than I thought, Boss. Do you want to see the rest of these?”

“I’m not sure. What’s next?”

“A really dramatic one. Here’s where he says that the weapons inspectors found a dozen chemical warheads that might be just ‘the tip of the iceberg.’”

[Embarrassed silence] “Um, one thing the general didn’t happen to mention, Ron, was that those warheads were all empty. They were still in their original crates, and dated back to the 1980’s. Evidently they were just some old things that got overlooked in a storage area somewhere. Since we took over the country, we haven’t found any other chemical warheads.”

“Is this all classified information, Boss? How do you know all this stuff?”

“No, no, it’s not classified. In fact, the Associated Press did a story summarizing all of it back in August. It was written by an AP correspondent named Charles Hanley, who was in Baghdad when Powell was giving his speech. I guess the story didn’t get much attention.”

“It sure didn’t! You’d think if Powell’s speech got such big media play that a follow-up story shredding his evidence would get at least as much attention.”

“Bless your na├»ve little heart, Ron. What else have you got?”

“Let’s see here. There’s stuff on Saddam’s revived nuclear program, some more stuff on the aluminum tubes to be used for enriching uranium, and some other stuff on Iraq’s efforts to buy magnets for uranium centrifuges…”

“None of that nuclear stuff panned out, Ron. None of it turned out to be true.”

[Dumbfounded] “So Powell’s whole speech was just… just… just….”

[Considering] “You know, Ron, I’m having second thoughts. You watch as much TV as anybody else, and if you didn’t know that Powell’s points were all so--shall we say ‘dubious’?--then neither does any other average American. Secretary Powell does have an imposing presence. Let’s run those suckers! Who’s going to know the difference?”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

“The Boy in a Bubble”

Like a lot of Americans, I’m a sucker for technology and strange diseases. So it’s fascinating to me that we have as our President a boy who lives in a bubble.

Because of my interest, Patty and I took a tour of the bubble last month when we were visiting friends who live near Washington. It’s a really popular tour, but we were lucky enough to get tickets. I say “we”; Patty wasn’t as thrilled as I was. As we were waiting for our tour group to get its turn, she said, “I don’t understand it. Why are we lining up with all these other people to see this guy? He’s sick. So why does that make him an eighth wonder of the world?”

“Patty,” I laughed, “this guy campaigned for the highest office in our democracy without ever setting foot outside this bubble. He came within half a million votes or so of being elected President. Now he’s ruling the globe from this bubble. Don’t you have any sense of history?”

She turned on me. “You act like you’re proud of it,” she said accusingly. “Suppose this disease doesn’t stop with him? Suppose it spreads?”

Well, what got into her? But before we could get into an argument, they announced our group was next, and we all surged ahead.

“Hello,” said our tour guide, stepping forward and reading from a script. “My name is fill in the blank—I’m sorry, my name is Lee—, and I’ll be your guide this afternoon. We have five minutes to examine the bubble and view the President. Feel free to ask any questions you would like during the tour, and I’ll do my best to get an approved answer for you.”

“Is it okay to touch the bubble?” a guy near the front asked.

The guide chuckled. “Touch it all you want,” he said. “It’s unbreakable.”

Everybody rushed to put their hands on it. The two women beside us oohed and aahed. “He looks so at home there,” said one. “So natural. Just like my husband, sitting in front of the TV, watching a ball game.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” said the other. “It’s funny. I kind of expected him to be real busy, with such a big government to run, and kind of worried-looking, with all those soldiers getting blown up and killed, and the government going so deep into debt.”

“Oh, no,” said the other. “I’ve read that he watches lots of sports on TV, works out for an hour or an hour and a half every day, and goes to bed at 9:30 every night.”

Women. They just don’t have any sense for the really interesting, technical stuff. “What’s the bubble made out of?” I called out.

I don’t think I was the first to ask; the guide was ready for that one. “It’s made from spun news,” he recited. “The spinning is state of the art, performed by public relations artisans using the most efficient party apparatus ever created. The spinning is nonstop, constantly renewing the surface of the dome. With extensive media cooperation, maintenance is around-the-clock.”

“How does he actually govern from the bubble?” asked someone.

“Most of the detailed work is actually done by his advisors, working in those two buildings connected to the bubble,” answered the guide. “He makes the major decisions, based on the information the advisors bring him.”

“Gosh, you can’t see anything inside those two buildings,” murmured one of the women beside us. “No windows, no cracks, and as black as the ace of spades. They give me the willies.”

The guide heard the first part of her remark. “Those buildings are impenetrable by any known ordinary means,” he said proudly. “They resist newshounds, court orders, the Freedom of Information Act, congressional oversight, and constitutional challenges. They’re the shape of the future.”

“What about the information his advisors bring him?” asked Patti.

“It undergoes an elaborate screening and filtering process,” the guide answered. “It has to pass the most rigid ideological scrutiny before it can be transmitted into the bubble.”

“Then he can’t be contaminated?” asked an elderly lady worriedly.

“It’s totally safe,” the guide reassured her. “Its ideological purity is close to 100%. The atmosphere inside the bubble is monitored constantly.”

“The bubble doesn’t look that strong,” said the guy up front. “How does it hold up when he travels?”

“First off, don’t worry about the strength of the bubble,” said the guide, rushing to reassure him. “It’s deceptive. It’s a lot stronger than it looks. And we don’t place it in harm’s way. He hardly ever gives a press conference, and most of his speeches are in front of carefully selected groups like right-wing think tanks and $2,000 a plate fundraising events. The risk that a well-lobbed question could penetrate the bubble in venues like that is almost nonexistent.”

“What about the trip to London he’s got coming up in November?” a tall African-American asked.

“We’ll be taking extra precautions then,” said the guide. “The bubble will be reinforced by a police cordon of over 5,000 officers. Organizers have canceled the open carriage ride down The Mall as well as plans for Bush to address Parliament. That way he won’t be exposed to the sight of protestors, or asked questions in Parliament.”

“Oh, look!” yelled out a woman excitedly. “He just switched to ESPN2!”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Friday, October 10, 2003

“Rush to Judgment”

Tampa Bay plays Indianapolis tonight on Monday night football, so of course when Weldon and I were having our morning health-food meal at the diner—two over easy, biscuits, hash browns, and sausage gravy—the topic was Rush Limbaugh.

“What do you think about Limbaugh’s comments about Donovan McNabb?” I asked.

He didn’t even pause to wipe the grease from his lips. “He panders to all the rotten little prejudices that infect American politics. Bashes the poor. Jeers at blacks and dark-skinned immigrants. Slanders Muslims. Ridicules women. Implies that they’re all inferior, and that, if they achieve anything, they get it because of special treatment. His remarks about McNabb were par for the course.”

“Is he really that bad, Weldon?” I asked.

“Have you ever actually listened to his show?” he said by way of reply.

I had to admit I hadn’t.

“You ought to try it sometime,” he said. “It would do you good. Like that dose of castor oil your mama gave you every once in a while. Not because you needed it, but just as a preventative. It’ll make you cringe. He badmouths anything that might indicate this country actually has a social conscience. Environmentalists, civil libertarians, people who work with immigrants or workers—he doesn’t go after them with a peashooter. He goes nuclear.”

“Why would anybody listen to something like that?”

“Because he’s so good at implying that people like him are really superior to all those others, and that there’s a leftist conspiracy to promote those inferior people and their inferior causes. His putdown of Donovan McNabb wasn’t some sudden aberration, some exception to his usual patter. And ESPN knew what it was getting when it signed him up. The problem for him this time is that he had an audience that knew he was full of baloney.”

“I read that he said on his radio show afterward that all the flack came because he was the guy who said it. That if it had been somebody else, nobody would have even noticed.”

“What a crock. He defames a decent human being and extraordinary athlete. Then, when he gets called on it, he’s the victim! Is that self-centered or what? He spews out half-truths, erroneous ‘facts,’ and free-floating opinions constantly, and his audience reacts as if he were preaching the Gospel. People defer to him so much he expects it as his due. Somebody finally stuck a pin in his balloon, and it’s about time.”

“Why in the world did ESPN hire him in the first place?” I asked.

“Let me paraphrase his putdown of one of the most respected quarterbacks in the NFL,” said Weldon. “I don’t think Limbaugh has been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little political concern on ESPN. I think the network has been very desirous that a right-wing commentator do well. They’re interested in right-wing politicians and right-wing commentators doing well. I think there’s a little hope invested in Limbaugh and he got a lot of credit for the performance of the conservative team that he really didn’t deserve. The attack on September 11 carried that team.”

“Do you really believe that, Weldon?”

“No, I think in some ways it’s as prejudiced as Limbaugh’s comments. First, because I doubt politics was a conscious factor at all in ESPN’s decision. TV is a greed machine. I think they crunched the numbers on the audience he might bring with him, and that was the bottom line. And second, Limbaugh is smart, he’s verbally adroit, and a master of stinging sarcasm. I can’t stomach his politics, but I will at least give the guy credit for being skillful at what he does. Too bad he couldn’t give McNabb the same respect.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Sunday, September 28, 2003

“With a Bible in His Hand”

My friend Ed Jonas was sitting in the Koffee Kup, looking at the paper, and just shaking his head when I walked over to his booth. “You’ve gotta hand it to the guy,” he said admiringly. “He pulls off one unbelievable stunt after the other.”

“What are you talking about, Ed?” I asked cautiously. Ed’s kind of unpredictable.

“El Presidente,” he said. “The Baghdad Bomber. The Friend of Enron and Enemy of Evil. The Gulf Crusader. The Long Range Warrior.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “What is it that our leader has done to evoke your admiration?”

“It’s not some single thing,” he said. “It’s one thing after another. Who would have believed he could pull off the things he’s done.”

“Such as?”

“Start with the election. Here’s a guy who hid out during the Viet Nam war, running against a guy who volunteered to go overseas, and it’s Bush the military goes nuts over. How can you figure that? Then he loses the election by half a million votes or so, but still winds up in the White House. Then half his administration is implicated in a sleazy corporate scandal, some crazies fly planes into the World Trade Center, and the scandal just disappears. He turns 9-1-1 and Iraq into giant erasers that wipe the American memory clean. He gives the rich a gigantic tax cut, the economy goes into the tank, he turns a budget surplus into huge deficits for as far as the mind can see, and he offers another giant tax cut for the rich as a solution. And it’s going to happen! It’s unbelievable!”

“That’s all yesterday’s news,” I said. “You’re taking the long way home again, old timer.”

“You asked me for examples,” he said somewhat testily. “I don’t recall that you laid out timelines for a response.”

He had me there. I held up my hands. “Take your time, Ed,” I said. “I don’t have to meet Patty for another hour.”

He took a swipe at me with his John Deere cap, temporarily exposing his bald spot. “Are you calling me longwinded, Ace?”

“No, no,” I said hastily. “Just eager to hear what you have to say.”

He gave me a shrewd glance. “You’re not as slick as you think you are, Ace. You’re trying to slide out of this by buttering me up.”

“Guilty,” I grinned. “But get on with it.”

“Okay,” he said. “Look, after 9-1-1, he swore we’d get bin Laden. Bin Laden is still running around loose, and somehow we’re hot after Saddam Hussein. Nobody even noticed. It’s the old bait-and-switch: get the customers into the store advertising some item, and then talk them into a higher-priced product once they’re there. He’s got half the American public believing that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on September 11, when there’s never been a shred of evidence that that’s the case. Then the polls showed Americans wanted UN support for going into a war. No way the Security Council would give the green light to this war, but he went in anyway. And the public bought it. He has the U.S. media routinely talking about “coalition forces,” when the clearest thing about this invasion is that there isn’t any coalition. The rest of the world didn’t want any part of it. The only two countries on the planet where this war gets at least 50% popular support are Israel and the U.S. Even Mexico and Canada held their noses to block the stench and said ‘No thanks.’ It’s Bush and Blair, with maybe 2,000 Australians. When it comes to putting bodies in the field, that’s the ‘coalition.’

“He and Rumsfeld claimed we were going to ‘liberate’ Iraq, and implied that most Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. Instead, they welcomed us with small arms and mortars. Now thousands of Iraqis living outside Iraq are streaming back into the country to defend it against an invasion of their homeland. Saddam Hussein was the most hated man in the Middle East, and Bush is managing to make him into a hero. He’s undermined the UN, alienated most of the rest of the planet, insulted our traditional allies, violated the UN Charter, and broken international law, and his approval ratings are off the chart!”

“It is pretty amazing when you think about it,” I admitted.

“It’s beyond amazing,” said Ed. “It’s like having an idiot savant Houdini for President, with a Bible in his hand.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, September 25, 2003

“Byrd as Cassandra”

Senator Robert Byrd must have the same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as the prophetess Cassandra. Her curse? She would foresee the future, cry out a warning, and then be scorned or ignored. Byrd’s speech to the Senate on February 12, when he castigated the Bush administration for its headlong rush to invade Iraq, is in retrospect an uncanny prophecy of the administration’s failures.

Byrd said, “We know who was behind the September 11 attacks on the United States. We know it was Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. We have dealt with al Qaeda and with the Taliban government that sheltered it. We have
routed them from Afghanistan and we are continuing to pursue them in hiding… So where does Iraq enter the equation? No one in the Administration has been able to produce any solid evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attack.”

Seven months after the war has been declared over, the Administration has never yet produced any such evidence. The reality is that there was no link.

Byrd warned that “Family members are being called to active military duty, with no idea of the duration of their stay or what horrors they may face. Communities are being left with less than adequate police and fire protection. Other essential services are also short-staffed. The mood of the nation is grim. The economy is stumbling.”

Was he right? Seven months later, we hear of a military stretched too thin with the large army of occupation needed in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. Morale is dropping as tours of duty are extended and then extended again. As for the economy, after two huge tax cuts for the rich—touted as “job creation measures”—unemployment is at a twenty-year high, with almost three million jobs lost since this administration came into office. Emergency forces trying to cope with Hurricane Isabel are understaffed because so many reservists are overseas.

“The war in Afghanistan has cost us $37 billion so far,” said Byrd, “yet there is evidence that terrorism may already be starting to regain its hold in that region. We have not found bin Laden, and unless we secure the peace in Afghanistan, the dark dens of terrorism may yet again flourish in that remote and devastated land. Pakistan as well is at risk of destabilizing forces. This Administration has not finished the first war against terrorism and yet it is eager to embark on another conflict with perils much greater than those in Afghanistan. Is our attention span that short?”

Was he right? Seven months later, Bin Laden is still unaccounted for. Pakistan is increasingly unstable; in the bombing of a mosque on July 4, almost fifty people were killed. Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed. Very little of the financial aid promised for rebuilding the country has been delivered. The country has a U.S.-installed leader, Hamid Karzai, but in reality most of the country is being ruled by warlords. Basic services are in chaos—water, sewage, food distribution, electricity, schools—and almost nothing works. Human rights abuses abound. On July 29, Human Rights Watch released a 102-page report describing abuses “ordered, committed or condoned by government personnel in Afghanistan—soldiers, police, military and intelligence officials, and government ministers. Worse, these violations have been carried out by people who would not have come to power without the intervention and support of the international community.” Is our attention span that short? Apparently so.

Senator Byrd questioned the harsh tone adopted by the administration. “Has our senselessly bellicose language and our callous disregard of the interests and opinions of other nations increased the global race to join the nuclear club and made proliferation an even more lucrative practice for nations which need the income?” he asked.

Seven months later, we know the answer to that question. North Korea and Iran have both intensified their nuclear programs.

Byrd went on to question the administration’s plans for post-war Iraq. “Have we not learned that after winning the war one must always secure the peace? …We hear little about the aftermath of war in Iraq,” he pointed out. “In the absence of plans, speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq's oil fields, becoming an occupying power which controls the price and supply of that nation's oil for the foreseeable future? To whom do we propose to hand the reigns of power after Saddam Hussein?”

Seven months later, we know that the administration’s plans for post-war Iraq were sketchy at best, and based on wrongheaded assumptions. The country is in virtual chaos. More of our soldiers have been killed since the war “ended” than during the war itself. As one Pfc. wrote to The Oregonian, “When the war had just ended, we were the liberators, and all the people loved us. Convoys were like one long parade. Somewhere down the line, we became an occupation force in their eyes. We don't feel like heroes anymore…. Soldiers are being attacked, injured and killed every day. The rules of engagement are crippling. We are outnumbered. We are exhausted. We are in over our heads.”

The troop commitment needed to maintain control of Iraq far exceeds pre-war administration estimates, soldiers and civilians are killing each other every day, and the timetable for our occupation, at a cost of at least a billion dollars per week, extends indefinitely into the future.

As for the “transition of power,” administration plans to install the embezzler Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles handpicked by Washington as the transitional figures for an “Iraqi government” have only fed anti-Americanism.

It is frustrating—no, it is far more than frustrating, it is heartrending that the venerable old senator could draw a dead-accurate vision of the future while speaking to a nearly-empty chamber. He deserves our respect and our attention; the administration—and his Senatorial colleagues—deserve our anger and contempt.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

“A Basic Lexicon”

Ambrose Bierce must be banging his brow against his coffin lid. The brazen cynicism of the Bush administration has driven language to depths only Bierce and Orwell have plumbed. And Bierce lies trapped in the dark, unable to pen new entries for his “Devil’s Dictionary.”

Out of sympathy for his plight, I have taken on the task of recording new meanings for old words, as used by the current administration. Although my notes cover the full range of the administration’s activities, today’s definitions are drawn only from its pronouncements on Iraq. With the following basic lexicon, the average reader should be able to translate almost all of the speeches on Iraq delivered by Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld, and Ms. Rice.

· Liberation – an unprovoked attack on a weaker state
· Liberated – occupied by hostile forces
· Freedom – an economic model imposed by force
· Terrorist – anyone opposing the current administration
· Link – the absence of any connection
· Weapons of mass destruction – figments of our imagination
· Cruel dictator – a discarded partner
· Threat – opportunity
· Coalition – the U.S. and Britain
· Sacrifice – a loss incurred by someone other than the speaker
· Iraqi self-government – a puppet regime

Take a standard administration speech such as the following –

“Saddam Hussein is a cruel dictator who committed atrocities against his own
people. His possession of weapons of mass destruction poses an immediate threat to the security of his neighbors and to the United States. He has links with al Qaeda and terrorist organizations around the globe. The coalition of the willing is determined to liberate Iraq, thus enabling the Iraqi people to enjoy freedom and democracy, and to rid the world of the threat of terrorism.”

A free translation, using the above lexicon, goes something like this –

“Saddam Hussein is a former client who is no longer useful to us. While it is true that we sold him chemical and biological weapons to use against Iran and the Kurds, we want to gloss over that fact and concentrate on how frightening such weapons are. Those weapons we sold him have all deteriorated or been destroyed now, but we wish to pretend they still exist, in order to justify an invasion. Hussein’s secular regime is despised by the religious fanatics of Al Qaeda, but we intend to suggest a connection between him and the attacks of September 11 as an additional pretext for our unjustified attack on a sovereign state. The U.S. and Britain are determined to plunder this oil-rich nation and install a puppet government which will okay the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry and the permanent basing of U.S. troops.”

After a little practice with the lexicon, almost anyone can convert administration doublespeak into something close to reality. Rest easy, Mr. Bierce.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Friday, September 12, 2003

“Questions from the Tar Baby”

Uncle Remus warned us of situations like this. But we didn’t catch the moral of the story, and now Iraq is the Tar Baby to end all Tar Babies. It was easy to get our hands on it, but things are getting sticky. Water and sewage systems don’t work. Electricity is on again, off again. Schools and hospitals and destroyed or overwhelmed. Every hotheaded kid in the Middle East wants to take a shot or throw a rock at our troops. The oil that was supposed to finance reconstruction is coming out in a trickle. We’ve spent $79,000,000,0000 so far, and Mr. Bush just asked for $87,000,000,000 more. Many now reckon the long-term cost will be at least $1,000,000,000,000. Plus a number of dead people. Mr. Bush says we’ll spend whatever it takes, make whatever sacrifice is needed. Easy for him to say.

So with a $1,000,000,000,000 bill coming due, with over three hundred of our friends and neighbors coming home in body bags, and with Iraq sliding into chaos, let’s look at what we’ve got for our money and sacrifice:

Biological weapons uncovered: 0
Chemical weapons uncovered: 0
Nuclear weapons uncovered: 0
Ties to Al Qaeda uncovered: 0

There. Do you feel safer now? Has it all been worth it?

It’s a mess of our own making, and true to those old American values of independence and self-reliance, the administration is now asking the U.N. to send troops and money to help control the Iraqi population and foot the bill for rebuilding the place. This is the same administration that has badmouthed and bypassed the U.N. whenever possible, has belittled allies like France and Germany as “old Europe,” and thoroughly enjoyed its spitefulness in things like renaming French fries “freedom fries.” We want a multinational force—but under U.S. control. We want Europe’s money to rebuild Iraq, but we want our colonial governor, Paul Bremer, and our handpicked Iraqi collaborators, to hold all the power. To sum it up: we insult them, ignore them, act on our own, then ask them to send money and troops while we hold on to control. Why aren’t they keen on a deal like that?

Where is all that money going to come from? Let’s see. Mr. Bush has pushed through two huge tax cuts, in which 42% of the cuts go to the top 1% income bracket. So who is left to pay for the lies, arrogance, poor planning, mismanagement, and cynical predatory policy? Can you figure it out?

If you reduce government income by cutting taxes, while at the same time you increase military spending at an incredible rate, something has to give. Could it be Social Security? Medicare? Education? The national parks? All of the above?

Who talked you into grabbing that Tar Baby in the first place?

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, August 28, 2003

“An Enron Education”

One of the claims made for George W. Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas was that he had galvanized the state’s educational system. Bush’s supporters pointed proudly to lowered dropout rates, improved attendance, and—the Holy Grail—higher test scores. The education issue helped make Bush more attractive to many voters, and he used the Texas model of tests and accountability as the backbone of his “No Child Left Behind” education legislation. He also rewarded Rod Paige, superintendent of the high-achieving Houston school system, by naming him U.S. Secretary of Education.

Now school districts all over the country are struggling to duplicate Texas’s feat and live the “Lake Woebegone Dream”—to reach that blessed radio land where “all the children are above average.” Schools face increasingly stiff penalties if they fail to measure up in attendance, dropout rate, and test scores. Here in West Virginia, the state just released a list of over three hundred of our schools which are “low performing”—including every high school in our region. Calhoun County High School, Gilmer County High School, Braxton County High School, Roane County High School, Ritchie County High School, and Wirt County High School—they’re all on the list..

The problem? Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. A belated audit has revealed that thousands of school dropouts in Texas were hidden by showing the students as having “transferred” to another school. Students who would lower test score averages were pushed out of the system. In Houston, twelve out of fourteen schools rated among the “best,” based on the data which they originally submitted, had to be reclassified with the “worst” once the audit was completed. Moreover, teachers claim that test scores were altered to show significant improvement. And subsequent testing has shown little if any narrowing of the gap between black and white students in math and science.

Paige did make improvements in aspects of the Houston school district. He improved the district’s self-image, raised teacher pay, and improved morale. He improved special education services. But the bottom-line measures—dropout rates, test scores, and attendance figures—were gussied up. The model we’re following, it turns out, isn’t a model of dramatically-improved teaching and learning. It’s a model of fabricated figures, falsification of records, and phony publicity. It’s to education what Enron was to the business world. Both served to promote the career of Mr. Bush. Both appeared to be spectacular successes. Both, in fact, were colossal frauds.

So why isn’t this a major news story? Trent Lott’s bumbling tribute to Strom Thurmond, or Bill Clinton’s reprehensible conduct with Monica Lewinsky, could draw headlines for weeks or even months. But those events are trifling compared with this story. Every public school in the country has the demands of “No Child Left Behind” hanging over it like the sword of Damocles.

Parents and teachers know that education builds skill by skill, concept by concept, and that the building takes time. But “No Child Left Behind” assumes that schools, with the same teachers and the same kids they had last year, will transform themselves in what, educationally, is the blink of an eye. Because Texas did it, under Mr. Bush. Just as Enron could regularly turn profits of 20% or more annually. A lot of people bought Enron stock. And voted for Mr. Bush as an “education President.” Welcome to the real world.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, August 21, 2003

“How to Bake a War” (An Heirloom Recipe from the Bush Family Album)

This recipe has been handed down from generation to generation in our family. I know you’re going to love it! And it’s so easy to make--almost foolproof. Even a dunce, if he follows the directions carefully, can whip up a war in only a few months. A steady diet of this tasty treat isn’t advisable, but as an occasional course, it promotes popularity and wins elections. Goes especially well with economic downturns. Not recommended for the thoughtful or tenderhearted.

Step 1: Assemble your main ingredients. Begin by demonizing the leader of the country you wish to attack. Stir constantly in the press and on TV talk shows until the desired image is firmly implanted. Important: You cannot compare him too often to Hitler! This strategy has consistently produced the desired results for us. (See “Manuel Noriega,” “Osama bin Laden,” and “Saddam Hussein.”) Ignore any references to the fact that previously your country curried favor with the demon; supplied him with money and arms; and cheerfully overlooked any corruption, massacres, or human rights abuses he might have been a party to.

Step 2: Portray the intended victim as a threat to the United States or vital U.S. interests.
Don’t be deterred by the fact that most of the nations you wish to attack will be far too distant and too weak for this to seem credible. References to classified “intelligence reports” purportedly documenting the threat may be introduced to the recipe at this point. Some variant of the formula “Release of this information could compromise ongoing diplomatic efforts as well as intelligence or law enforcement investigations or operations” has proven consistently effective. What can your opposition do? Since the supposed documentation is classified, this leaves the war’s opponents fumbling for answers. Highly recommended.

Step 3: If at all possible, provoke a “provocation.” Send warplanes into the victim’s air space. Seize upon affronts to U.S. citizens; exaggerate wildly if necessary. (See “Panama.”) If unable to secure the necessary provocation, stage one (see “Gulf of Tonkin”) or insist there is a link between the victim and an earlier attacker. (See “World Trade Center” and “Saddam Hussein.”)

Step 4: Reiterate frequently that you view war as a last resort, and that you will do everything possible to settle this matter diplomatically, while in fact doing everything possible to make diplomacy unworkable. Simultaneously, proceed full speed ahead with mobilization for your intended invasion. ("When I say I'm a patient man, I mean I'm a patient man and that we will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence.")

Step 5: Keep new justifications for the war in reserve, and introduce them to the mix promptly as opponents begin to undercut earlier justifications. This frustrates your opponents, who operate under the delusion that they can reason their way out of war. The resulting confusion works to your advantage; the public assumes that “Where there’s so much smoke, there must be a fire.” (Examples: “Saddam Hussein’s possesses huge stores of weapons of mass destruction which pose an immediate threat to the United States.” “We have to act before we have mushroom clouds floating over our cities.” “There are links between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist al-Qaeda network.” “He is a cruel dictator who has done terrible things to his own people.” “We are planting seeds of freedom and democracy in that part of the world.”)

Step 6: Disregard grassroots opposition and initial public distaste for war. History shows that, once our troops go into battle, the majority of the public will confuse supporting their sons and daughters with supporting the war.

Step 7: How a dish is presented is an important part of the total dining experience. Garnish with martial music, an abundance of flags, and red, white, and blue bunting.

Step 8: Push through the initial opposition and place troops under fire. Turn up the heat. At the point where our people are dying, anger and solidarity kick in, and your dish is nearly done.

Step 9: Do not leave troops in the oven too long. Public support can cool quickly, leading to deflated polls.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Monday, July 28, 2003

“It’s Not News”

“What do you have for a lead story tonight, Ace?”

“You’re gonna love this one, Chief. They didn’t find any stockpile of chemical weapons today in Iraq!”

“Are you out of your mind, Ace? If they found a stockpile, that would be news. All you’ve got is same-old, same-old. No stockpile yesterday, no stockpile the day before, no stockpile the day before that….”

“Well, what about this one, Chief? They didn’t find any nuclear weapons today, either.”

“Same problem, Ace. It’s not news.”

“No biological weapons… wait, Chief, before you jump in, remember that the administration was trying to claim that two trailers they found were ‘mobile biological warfare labs’? And there’s never been any real clincher on that? Turns out that British intelligence analysts think that’s a bunch of hooey. They say the trailers were used for the production of hydrogen to fill artillery balloons, which is what the Iraqis have been saying all along. And they ought to know. It also turns out that the Iraqi army's original system was sold to it by a British company, Marconi Command & Control.”

“Ace, you just don’t get it,” said my editor with exasperation. “Let me put it plain enough so that even you can understand it: if they don’t find something, it ain’t news.”

“But Chief,” I protested. “The Bush team sold the American public this war on the basis of huge Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction! Bush warned there were going to be mushroom clouds over our cities! They claimed they knew what the Iraqis had and where they had it! We invaded them, killed several thousand Iraqis, spent billions of dollars, and are occupying their country, all based on those claims! Bush declared the war over on May 1, and we’ve still got soldiers dying every day! And it was all lies!”

“Ace,” he said wearily, “when this administration lies, it’s not news.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, July 10, 2003

“The ‘L’ Word”

Several years ago George Bush got a good deal of mileage out of references to “the ‘L’ word.” The reference was to “liberal,” which presumably is a dirty word--on a par with the ‘F’ word, say.

Now Mr. Bush’s son, George W., is benefiting from a reluctance on the part of journalists and even opposition politicians to use another ‘L’ word: “Lie.” They studiously avoid using the ‘L’ word in describing the administration’s actions. “The administration .… a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.” “The administration …. the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons.” “The administration …. the nuclear threat.” Name any of the reasons given for going into this war, and you’ll find that it is based on an administration ‘L’ word. [Politicians and talking heads: Fill in the blanks with phrases such as “was apparently mistaken about,” “appears to have overstated,” etc.]

But Mr. Bush’s approval ratings continue to run over 50%. There’s a lesson to be learned here. We must be teaching our kids the wrong things. If you’re going to get ahead in this world, forget George Washington and the cherry tree. Study George Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The results should be something like this:

“Bobby, I saw your teacher at the grocery store, and she said you’re failing history and never turn in any homework.”

“Uh, maybe she thought you were somebody else, Mom.”

“Don’t try to pull that mistaken identity ploy on me, Bobby. I went to school with Mrs. Baxter. And you’ve been telling me every evening either that you don’t have any homework, or that you finished it in school.”

“Well, I may have inadvertently misrepresented things, Mom, but to say I never turn in any homework is an overstatement. I’m sure I turned in an assignment back in October.”

“She also said that you turned in a plagiarized report that was done by another student ten years ago.”

“I relied on a friend for that information, Mom. He’s always been dependable before.”

“And that special project you did on uranium from Niger?”

“That project did have a flawed origin, Mom. I relied on incomplete and perhaps inaccurate data.”

“What about when you said you were doing fine in all your classes?”

“That was based on faulty intelligence, Mom. The teachers were supplying me with outdated information.”

“And when you said that you deserved a raise in your allowance because you were working so hard?”

“There’s not a doubt in my mind I made the right decision, Mom. Not a doubt in my mind.”

“Thanks for explaining everything, son. As a reward for your performance, here’s the key to a new Corvette and a set of flag decals. Drive it with pride!”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Friday, April 04, 2003

“Our Own Worst Enemy”

Q. Where in the world did you get that bizarre story about the U.S. exposing its own troops to radioactive material?

A. It is pretty bizarre, isn’t it? The really bizarre thing is that it’s true, and nobody wants to talk about it.

Q. Do you expect us to believe some cock-and-bull story like that cooked up by the fringe elements of the protest movement?

A. The first “fringe element” that’s a source for the story is the Department of Defense. According to the Pentagon, 940,000 shells containing more than 320 TONS of depleted uranium were fired during Gulf War I. And it’s being used again, in Gulf War II, even as we speak.

Q. So? This stuff is “depleted.” That means its safe.

A. Wishful thinking. Depleted uranium is material left over from the production of enriched fuel for nuclear reactors, and it’s mostly made up of the uranium isotope U-238. It’s labeled “depleted” because it’s low in U-235, the fissionable material. But it’s still highly radioactive, and still very deadly.

Q. Why deadly? These aren’t atomic bombs you’re talking about.

A. Right, these aren’t atomic bombs. They’re the shell cases for things like antitank weapons. The military loves shells made out of depleted uranium because they’re so dense that they pack a tremendous wallop. They punch a hole in armor that conventional materials can’t begin to penetrate. Every tank round fired contains ten pounds of solid U-238 laced with plutonium, neptunium, and americium.

When these depleted uranium shells hit something and explode, 70% or more of the uranium is vaporized into tiny particles less than five microns in diameter. Those tiny particles go airborne, and can travel enormous distances. They can also be readily inhaled by human beings. The rest of the uranium becomes uranium fragments or uranium oxide dust. The dust can also be inhaled, or can enter the body through a cut or wound. The soluble part gets into your blood stream, and travels to your organs. The insoluble parts you inhale stay in your lungs.

Q. Why worry? The stuff has probably all blown away by now.

A. Blown where? This stuff doesn’t last forever, but in human terms, it’s close. It has a half-life of four and a half BILLION years. The Atomic Energy Authority of the UK estimated in 1991 that if particles from 8% of the DU exploded in the Gulf were inhaled, as many as 300,000 deaths would result. We have contaminated parts of the Iraqi landscape almost into eternity. It’s deadly for the Iraqi people living there, and most deadly for children. And it’s deadly for the U.S. troops there as well.

Q. Look, if this stuff were really as dangerous as you’re implying, lots of people would be getting sick from it.

A. Well, you hate to talk about the hell that individual people suffer through in terms of statistics, but the British Medical Journal published figures showing a sevenfold increase in the incidence of cancer in Southern Iraq when they compared 1989 pre-war figures with post-war figures from 1994.

The really scary part is that, generally, these aren’t dosages that sicken and kill you today, or within a week. The time frame is longer than that. But eventually, many people who were exposed will sicken and perhaps die. The time lapse helps hide what really happened. Consider this. We congratulated ourselves when Gulf War I ended, in the fall of 1991, on how few casualties we had suffered. A grand total of 760. Only 294 deaths, and the rest sick or wounded. But do you know the casualty total now from that war?

Q. Casualty total “now”?

A. “Now” because the damage is ongoing. Over 221,000 Gulf War I veterans have been awarded disability—a casualty rate of almost 30%! That’s according to a report issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs in September of 2002. Imagine. In eleven short years, thirty percent of young men and women who were carefully selected from the population as sound specimens, physically and mentally, have become disabled. And it doesn’t stop with them. Radioactivity affected many of them genetically. The chances that a male soldier who served in Gulf War I will father a child with a birth defect is almost twice the national average; for female soldiers, chances are almost three times the national average.

Q. What kind of illnesses factor into these casualties you’re talking about?

A. Cancers. Strange rashes and sores. Leukemia. Respiratory problems. Neurological disorders. Unexplained bleeding. Fibromyalgia. Eye cataracts. Birth defects. Typical consequences of radiation exposure. Of course nobody is claiming that depleted uranium caused ALL those casualties. We “destroyed” Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” in 1991 by blowing up chemical stockpiles, biological stores, and nuclear reactors in place. That released an incredible witches’ brew into the atmosphere. God only knows what people breathed in, what contaminated the water and soil.

Q. I don’t think you should bring this up when people here are already worrying about their family members serving in the Gulf. Now they’ll be scared that their family members will be contaminated and get sick even if they get return home safe and sound.

A. I’m sorry for any worry or pain people suffer from getting this information. But having the information may help people down the road understand what might otherwise be strange, baffling illnesses. If we’re going to eliminate these monstrous weapons, and save lives in the future, people have to know about the dangers they pose. How can we in good conscience ignore them?

A good deal of the information circulating now about DU weapons comes from the man who probably knows them best—Doug Rokke. He’s been a military man for over 35 years, he served in Vietnam as a bombardier, and—most importantly—he was Director of the Army’s Depleted Uranium Project. He’s traveling around the country trying to alert people to the danger of DU weapons.

In brief, here’s what he has to say: “The US Army made me their expert. I went into the project with the total intent to ensure they could use uranium munitions in war, because I'm a warrior. What I saw as director of the project, doing the research, and working with my own medical conditions and everybody else's, led me to one conclusion: uranium munitions must be banned from the planet, for eternity…”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, March 27, 2003

“Healing Our National Spirit”

Q. What do you think of the argument that it’s our patriotic duty to rally behind the troops and quit criticizing this war?

A. That argument is shallow, self-serving, and unpatriotic. If you can’t criticize your government when it goes from planning an unjust, immoral, illegal war to actually fighting an unjust, immoral, illegal war, then what kind of a democracy is this?

Q. Why do you think people make that argument?

A. Different reasons. For the administration, it’s a cynical attempt to use people’s love of their country to stifle questions and dissent. For the ignorant, who have only the most limited understanding of what it means to be a functioning citizen in a democratic society, that’s the extent of their understanding of what patriotism demands. The first is contemptible; the second is pitiful.

Q. Polls show a sharp increase in the numbers of people now supporting the President and the war.

A. I’ve cited polls when they showed the public was dubious about this war. But maybe it’s time to give up on polls, when the government’s propaganda machine dominates all the major media. If your conscience fluctuates with polls, it’s a pretty fickle thing.

Q. But don’t you think we need to show our support for our troops?

A. Depends on what kind of “support” you mean. If you mean we’re supposed to act like cheerleaders for an immoral invasion that devastates a country, and maims and kills thousands of women, children, and men, civilians as well as soldiers, no. If you mean that we hope those soldiers come home safely to their families, yes. People who can’t understand the distinction have a problem.

Q. What do you say to our soldiers and our families?

A. When I say goodbye to somebody I know who is going overseas, I shake his/her hand and say I hope they come back soon, safe and sound, and that they don’t hurt or kill anybody else while they’re over there.

I don’t know about your religion, but I grew up hearing sermon after sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan. I take that parable to mean that someone God chose to have born in Baghdad is just as much my neighbor as somebody God chose to have born in Big Springs, Mt. Zion, or Orma. The President and his advisors spend a lot of time telling us how Christian they are, but it’s a Christianity of convenience. They’re a pretty unbiblical lot.

Q. Should you be criticizing our leader in a time of war?

A. First of all, we wouldn’t even be having a war if Mr. Bush hadn’t done everything conceivable to drag a reluctant country into it, in the face of the opposition of almost all the rest of the civilized and uncivilized world. And second, this isn’t some medieval kingdom where leaders are exempt from criticism through the Divine Right of Kings.

I keep having to say this, but this country is supposed to be a democracy. In a democracy, citizens have not only the right but an obligation to speak. That obligation doesn’t disappear in wartime. In fact, it becomes even more important then. It’s ironic that one of the excuses the administration offers for this war is that we’re going to carry the torch of democracy to the Middle East. We need to get a little better at it at home instead of trying to impose it on somebody in our bombsights.

Q. Don’t you feel guilty about undermining the war effort?

A. Are you serious? The Bible says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We’ve squandered our treasure for decades on creating the most professional, best-trained, best-armed, best-funded military machine in human history. I think our treasure is in the wrong place. There’s no danger we’ll lose this war; there’s a real danger we’ll lose our soul.

It’s idolatry, and a sin against God and humanity, to ignore human needs and spend more on the military than every other country on the globe combined. That’s sickness of the soul. I’m not interested in “undermining” anything; I’m interested in healing our national spirit.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Sunday, February 23, 2003

“Why We Don’t Have More Town Meetings”

On Monday, Congressman James Moran held a town meeting in his district on the topic “Terrorism and the Possible Conflict in Iraq.” He invited two Pentagon representatives to join him in receiving public comments and answering questions.

The meeting drew such a large crowd that they filled the auditorium and spilled over into the school cafeteria, where hundreds who couldn’t fit into the auditorium watched the proceedings on closed circuit TV.

The town meeting took place in Alexandria, Virginia, which is an immediate neighbor of the Pentagon, and the home of more than 7,000 people employed by the Department of Defense. Nonetheless, speaker after speaker condemned the administration’s plans to invade Iraq, and not a single speaker defended the government’s policy.

At the end, obviously nettled, Congressman Moran (a Democrat) said that it was exactly because town meetings draw a large number of hostile questions like these that more such meetings aren’t held.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Friday, February 14, 2003

“An Answer to Colin Powell”

War with Iraq is inevitable-almost certainly within the next three weeks. Not because of anything Saddam Hussein has done, has not done, or might do, but because the Bush administration is hell-bent on having a war.

It was disheartening, after Colin Powell’s 90-minute speech laying out the administration’s case for attacking Iraq, that the few columnists who had raised some objections to the war—Richard Cohen and Mary McGrory being the most prominent—immediately announced their conversion to the pro-war cause. Their columns appeared the day after the speech, and would have had to have been written almost before Powell’s image faded from the screen. One might have hoped that, in a matter of such import, they would have taken time to investigate the claims made by Powell, and to reflect on the consequences. One would have hoped for greater clarity on their part, and more steadfastness. What their conversion demonstrates, however, is that the major media—like the administration—are now at almost total disconnect from the ordinary citizens of the United States.

Examples of that disconnect are everywhere. Congressional offices have been inundated with calls, letters, and e-mails—in many cases, we’re told, running upwards of 90% against the war. But where are the Congressional voices opposing the war? Robert Byrd, West Virginia’s little giant, made one of the great speeches in Senate history on Wednesday, and one of his bitter themes was the deadening silence in Congress. Polls show repeatedly that the public has not been persuaded that this war is justified. We are seeing some of the largest demonstrations for peace in U.S. history—not in the balmy stirrings of spring, but in the bitter cold of January and February—and they have gone almost unreported.

This isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Tony Blair’s eagerness to enter the fray is played up, while the British public’s skepticism is largely ignored. In country after country, opinion runs overwhelmingly against a U.S. attack, sometimes in the 80% to 90% disapproval range. Predictably, in both the U.S. and Britain, the governments are trumpeting new terrorist threats and trying to frighten people into believing that somehow this war is intended to protect them—a cover story for an unprecedented invasion of another nation.

The huge coverage of Powell’s address, and the failure to balance it with a response, typifies the administration’s effort to propagandize its own people. It is as if a prosecutor were given an hour and a half to lay out the case against a defendant, and then, with no opportunity for the defense to present its version of the situation, the case was sent straight to the jury. Is that fair? No. Is the system rigged? Yes. For whatever it is worth, it is in venues not under the control of the powerful—the Internet and the streets—that Colin Powell must be answered.

As a general, Powell was always an astute politician. As a politician, he is very much a general. He selected the most favorable terrain for this battle for support. Powell’s case was built principally around an attempt to persuade the U.N. that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, has concealed them, and has not cooperated with U.N. weapons inspectors. That is why the U.S. is going to attack him, he said, and the U.N. had best get behind the U.S., or risk being irrelevant.

But we need not, and should not, fight this battle on Powell’s chosen ground. First, we need to be clear on the only legitimate basis for a war: to defend oneself against the aggressor when one is attacked. That is the criterion in moral law as well as in international law. Iraq has not attacked the United States, and it is difficult to imagine a set of circumstances where it would be foolhardy enough to do so. The United States is the aggressor here, and the administration’s talk of “preemptive war” is simply a public relations ploy to mask the fact that they intend to launch a terrible war against a country that has done nothing—I repeat, nothing—to us.

In fact, the church to which Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney both claim allegiance, the United Methodist Church, has condemned plans for an attack on Iraq on just these grounds, saying that they are “without any justification according to the teachings of Christ.” The general secretary of the Board of Church and Society said, “The Methodist Church is not pacifist, but rejects war as a ‘usual means of national policy.’” He goes on to say that Methodist scriptural doctrine specifies that war is to be “a last resort, primarily a defensive thing. And so far as I know, Saddam Hussein has not mobilized military forces along the borders of the United States, nor along his own border to invade a neighboring country, nor have any of these countries pleaded for our assistance, nor does he have weapons of mass destruction targeted at the United States.” The church says that all attempts to discuss this matter with the White House have been ignored.

The attacks of September 11 were carried out by 19 men. Fourteen of them were from Saudi Arabia. None of them were from Iraq. Despite insinuations by the Bush administration, no link-I repeat, no link-has ever been found between Iraq and the September 11 attack.

That in itself should be enough of an answer to Mr. Powell: the war is unjustified and immoral. The United States has become the very things it accuses Iraq of being—a rogue nation, an aggressor, and an international menace.

This is the most basic and irrefutable objection to the administration’s war. But there are powerful secondary objections as well. One is that our own intelligence assessments say that Saddam Hussein is not a serious threat to the U.S., but that, if attacked, he may use any means at his disposal to strike back. So the administration is making assertions counter to our own intelligence assessments, and then deliberately choosing the most provocative and dangerous course.

Another is that the consequences of the invasion, in a volatile area of the globe, are so unpredictable. It’s like tossing a firecracker into a dynamite factory, and pretending you have everything under control. Will Israel become involved? Will nuclear arms be used by someone? Will the European powers sit on their hands while we take over control of a large share of the world’s oil production? Will the Iraqi people, with their water supply destroyed, their medical system destroyed, their housing destroyed, and their food distribution system destroyed, become an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe? Nobody knows. The one certainty is that we will have further enflamed the hatred of Muslims all over the globe, and made the world a more dangerous place for Americans.

Yet another objection is that we are simply asked to take on faith that the photographs and recordings Powell introduced are what he claims they are. And, given what is at stake-a war and occupation that may take the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them women and children, and that will, over the long haul, drain as much as $2 trillion from the U.S. economy-that is staking far too much on Powell’s credibility. As one foreign editor put it, you could not, in a court of law, convict a chicken thief on the kind of evidence Powell produced; and yet we have 150,000 U.S. troops in and around Iraq, ready to create an unthinkable nightmare, justified on just that basis.

It is worth remembering that back in 1990, the first Gulf War was spurred on by two dramatic stories-one, that Iraq had 265,000 soldiers and 1,500 tanks poised on its border with Saudi Arabia, ready to launch an attack; and two, that Iraqi soldiers had pulled babies out of their incubators in a hospital in Kuwait, and thrown them on the floor to die. Both stories were lies. The “incubator babies” story was created by a U.S. advertising firm, Hill & Knowlton, under contract to drum up war fever. The satellite photographs showing the Iraqi buildup on the Saudi border were fakes, a ruse discovered by a St. Petersburg, Florida, reporter, who ordered satellite photos of the same area taken at the same time by a commercial satellite, and found the area was devoid of Iraqi troops and tanks. The fake government satellite photos can’t be examined; they are still classified for “security reasons.” Did our government-in the person of Colin Powell, as it happens, and George W. Bush’s father-spread lies to justify a war? Yes. Would they do it again? They just did.

Almost the entire body of evidence and photos that Powell laid out in his U.N. speech has fallen apart under scrutiny. There is no Iraqi “poison factory and explosives training camp,” and no European terrorist network linked to Baghdad, despite Powell’s assertions. The location of the camp, as given by Powell, is inaccurate. The buildings in the photograph are located at Sargat, not Khurmal. Western journalists were given a tour of the camp on Saturday, after first being taken to Khurmal to show them that no such camp existed there. The New York Times reported: “They found a wholly unimpressive place-a small and largely undeveloped cluster of buildings…; the structures did not have plumbing and had only the limited electricity supplied by a generator.” Some “poison factory”: no chemicals, no equipment, not even running water.

The terrorist mastermind, who is alleged to have set up the factory and the network, is not even in Iraq. French intelligence and leaked British intelligence reports say that the man Powell referred to is “independent” of Al Qaeda and is “not under the control” of Saddam Hussein.

Powell also referred listeners to a British intelligence dossier released on February 3, Iraq-its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation. The material was presented as the culmination of an intensive intelligence effort. Powell praised the dossier as reinforcing American intelligence. It turns out, however, that the bulk of the dossier is material plagiarized from three articles, one written by an American graduate student, and that some of the material is years old, actually describing the buildup to the last Gulf War, more than ten years ago. Some of the material seems to have been copied straight from the Internet. Such changes as were made were clearly intended to present the Iraqi regime as more menacing and sinister than had appeared in the original.

Finally, with reference to the “weapons of mass destruction” Powell and Mr. Bush have constantly tried to terrify us with, one need only go back to the Pentagon’s own Persian Gulf War Illnesses Task Force Report of April, 2002, in which our government pooh-poohed the idea that Iraq’s chemical and biological warfare stocks could have caused any health damage to Gulf War veterans because Iraqi manufacturing techniques were so poor and the resulting toxins so ineffective. In the words of the report: “We believe Iraq was largely cooperative in its latest declarations because many of its residual munitions were of little use-other than bolstering the credibility of Iraq’s declaration-because of chemical agent degradation and leakage problems.”

As for Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability, the head of the International Atomic Energy, Mohammed ElBaradei of Egypt, in his recent report to the UN Security Council, said they had found no evidence of Iraqi concealment or restarting of the nuclear program that was under way before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and heaped praise on Iraq’s cooperation with nuclear inspectors. The claim that Saddam Hussein “recently” tried to get uranium from Africa appears to refer to an unfulfilled request from Iraq to Niger back in 1981-82!

So that convincing presentation by the distinguished graying Secretary of State turns out to be-mostly lies, half-lies, and damned lies. Nothing more than a propaganda effort to justify war, performed by one of the few administration figures who had any credibility remaining. He just lost it.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

“An Execution Buff”

Chief sent me to interview Jack Underville, the eastern panhandle senator who has just introduced a death penalty bill in the state legislature for the seventeenth straight year. I was eager to get a fix on a man so fixated. What follows is a transcript of our conversation:

Q. Seventeen years. That’s real devotion. You must be really passionate about this issue.

A. Oh, I am. I’ve been an execution buff since I was a boy.

Q. The President seems determined to have a war, no matter what anyone else wants, and you seem equally determined to execute people. Is this interest in killing people particularly deep in Republicans?

A. I want to make it clear that we are only interested in killing people legally; we are on record, in the strongest terms, against the illegal taking of human life. To be fair to the other party, they really deserve all the credit for getting us into Vietnam. And Democrats, for the most part, have given the President a blank check on Iraq.

Q. Let me go back to the distinction you were making between killing someone legally and illegally. Is it fair to compare it with killing a deer during hunting season, as opposed to poaching out of season?

A. Oh, I think that works fairly well. It’s the framework of law that makes us a civilized society.

Q. You have introduced a death penalty bill seventeen times. Has it always been the same bill, or have there been variations?

A. The basic bill has been the same, but the details have changed occasionally. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been calling for public executions. The public pays for them, and I think they deserve a show for their money. The people really need to see that they get good value for their tax dollars.

Q. What execution method do you favor?

A. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. A lot of people nowadays want lethal injections and such fancy, New Age stuff. I’d like to see us go back to the old drawn-and-quartered method. Hitch each of the prisoner’s limbs to a horse, point the four horses in four different directions, away from the prisoner, and give them all a slap on the rump. Just jerk the prisoner apart, with body parts flying every whichaway. Simple. Cheap. Effective.

Q. Does it bother you that the death penalty has absolutely no deterrent value, that numerous prisoners on death row have been found innocent of all charges by college students who investigated their cases, and that it’s almost always the poor who end up on death row?

A. No system is perfect. You have to take the good with the bad. At least eighty or ninety percent of those executed were guilty as charged.

Q. That seems easy enough to say if you happen to be white and well off. Do you have trouble identifying with the low-income occupants of the death house?

A. I don’t identify with them at all. You don’t see Republicans in the death house. Not our kind of neighborhood at all. I think you’ll find, if you check the statistics, that the vast majority of the condemned have no party affiliation at all.

Q. So politically this is a no-brainer?

A. Absolutely. It’s a win-win situation for both parties. You can slaughter prisoners left and right, and lose nary a vote.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Sunday, February 02, 2003

“Patty’s Stimulus Package”

Patty has been following the debate over the President’s economic stimulus package closely, and this morning she announced that we needed to make some changes in our household.

“Ace,” she said, “our budget is pretty tight. The credit card bill is in four figures, the bill for car insurance just came yesterday, and I’ve got a wisdom tooth that has to come out.”

“Ouch!” I said. “I don’t know how we’re going to swing all that right now.”

“No problem,” she said. “I’ve been watching how the administration thinks, and we should be okay if we just follow their lead.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “What’s first?”

“The first thing is to cut your income. They want to reduce government income by slicing taxes, so we need to reduce money coming into the house. Can you see if they’ll cut your wages back about 20%? That should help.”

“I think the boss would be willing to do that. What next?”

“We need to take 42% of that money we’re not getting anymore, and arrange for it to go to my Uncle George.”

“Your Uncle George! That old coot! He already owns a third of Calhoun County, and he’s a greedy, money-grabbing so-and-so. I know plenty of people who could use the money, but he’s not one of them! Why the devil would we give him a red cent?”

“Will you stop being difficult, Ace? That 42% break needs to go to the richest one per cent, and Uncle George is the only person we know in that category.”

“Patty, once you get into the details, this doesn’t sound so great.”

“Ace, if we’re going to do this right, we need to follow the administration’s lead. Are you in or out?”

“I guess I’m in. But are you sure you know what you’re doing, Patty?” I said grudgingly.

“I listened to the President’s State of the Union address, and I’ve been following all the White House press releases. I’m sure I’ve got the gist of it,” she said.

“You’re a heck of a lot better with figures than I am. Is there anything else?”

“One more thing. We need to increase spending. The government spent a ton of money on arms and security. Would you like any more rifles or shotguns to add to your collection?”

“Hot damn!” I said excitedly. “You mean I can buy that turkey gun I’ve been wanting?”

“Sure,” she said, “but that doesn’t cost nearly enough. What about that antique Ithaca single gauge of Tom’s you wanted to buy? And that laser pistol sight?”

“I’m out of here!” I shouted, racing for the door. Then I skidded to a stop. “I only have twenty bucks in my pocket,” I protested. “How am I supposed to pay for all that? ”

“No problem,” said Patty. “Borrow it from the kids.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, January 16, 2003

“Genesis and Dinosaurs”

My neighbor Lester was over in Burlington, Kentucky, this weekend, volunteering at Answers in Genesis’s creation museum and education center. I was eager to hear what progress they’re making. They believe that God created the universe in six days only 6,000 years ago, that pairs of dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, and that dinosaurs were probably around at the time of Jesus. According to a 1997 Gallup Poll, 47% of Americans believe in a literal reading of Genesis, so there’s a choir out there waiting to hear them preach.

“How’s the project coming along, Lester?” I asked.

“Just super!” he reported. “The 54-foot-long model of a sea bass that visitors will be able to walk through is all set up. And so is the 14-by-26-foot model of a human cell. And the seventy or so dinosaur models are all in place.”

“Help me out here, Lester,” I said. “What exactly do dinosaurs have to do with the Bible?”

“Everything,” he said. If God created all animals on the sixth day, then dinosaurs existed at the same time as every other creature. They were walking the earth the same time as all the Old Testament figures, probably up through the time of Jesus himself.”

“Gee,” I mused. “You’d think that if a 10,000 pound Tyrannosaurus rex were rambling around at the same time as King David, say, or Abraham, or Isaac, or Jeremiah, or any of those guys, somebody would have mentioned it.”

“The Bible isn’t exhaustive in the way it treats anything,” he said with exasperation. “There are obviously thousands of species—animals, trees, birds, insects—that didn’t happen to be included in the Biblical narratives.”

“Well, I can see how you could leave out a wood duck or a pintail, say, or maybe a chipmunk or a spittlebug, but some things are just hard to ignore. Don’t you think that a giant flesh-eating reptile twenty feet tall, with a four-foot skull, armed with daggerlike teeth half a foot long, would catch your attention? And maybe complicate your life a little? Or even a vegetarian like Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus? I mean, Diplodocus grew to be almost ninety feet long. Of course, it only weighed about twenty-five tons, which is light compared with Brachiosaurus’s fifty tons, but still, if one crossed your path, you’d think you might get excited enough to mention it.”

“They may have been so common that they weren’t worth mentioning,” he suggested.

“I can see how that could happen,” I agreed. “But sheep and goats and lambs and lions get mentioned frequently, and they were probably more common than dinosaurs. Although I wouldn’t think sheep and goats would stay all that common if there were many carnivorous dinosaurs around.”

“It may have been a matter of geography,” he suggested. “Dinosaurs may not have been in that particular region at that time.”

“I can see that,” I reflected. “It would be like polar bears. Or kangaroos. They weren’t in the Middle East, so they’re not mentioned in the Bible. So how did Noah gather all those species? Did he go to Australia for the dingoes and kangaroos and kiwis, to the Arctic for polar bears and seals and Arctic wolves, to North America for bison, to South America for anacondas, and to Asia for snow leopards? How long would you say it would take to gather a pair of every species that ever lived, haul them back home, and load them on a boat? Suppose my three sons and I set out to do that—and our job would be easier because a lot of species are extinct now. How long would that take? I mean, realistically, how many species could you travel with and feed at one time?”

Lester flushed. “ It probably went faster in those days,” he mumbled.

“That’s what I can’t figure. They did everything on foot. No trucks, no trains, no planes to speed up the gathering. Can you imagine being the son who gets the job of bringing in a pair of Allosaurus or Triceratops?”

“It was no doubt a difficult task,” he admitted.

“And how big was that ark?” I went on. “When you consider that some of these individuals weighed 100,000 pounds apiece, and then figure the food you’d have to lay in for them, it’d take a heck of a vessel to accommodate the lot. Plus they all ate different kinds of food, so you’d have to gather that from everywhere too.”

“The dimensions are given in cubits,” he said. “I’m not sure how long a cubit is.”

“Well, it varied,” I said, “depending on how long it was from somebody’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, but eighteen inches is a good ballpark figure.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “However big it was, it was big enough.”

“Say, did you read in the Parkersburg paper about that Marietta College professor who found those dinosaur droppings at a dig in Utah?” I asked. “The first specimen was about ten feet long! The main mass was five feet long, and then there was another five feet of ‘dribble.’”

“What’s your point?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I was just thinking how much work it was to take care of a few dairy cattle when we had a farm over in Gilmer County. Not just the feeding and milking, but mucking out the barn. Can you imagine cleaning up after a hundred thousand or so species on a boat?”

“You seem inclined to linger over details.”

“Somebody once said, ‘God is in the details,’ Lester,” I remarked. “By the way, Dr. Stone figured that the coprolite he found was shat about 150 million years ago.”

“Evidently he’s not a biblical scientist,” said Lester. “He appears to be unaware of the reliable, absolutely authoritative history that Genesis presents.”

“There does seem to be a bit of a gap between your version of dinosaurs and his, doesn’t there? You believe the oldest dinosaurs lived no more than 6,000 years ago, and he says his specimen came from a dinosaur 150 million years ago.”

“Ace,” he said, “if you can’t trust the Bible on biology and paleontology, how can you trust it on morality and salvation?”

Lester is not only a neighbor, but a friend and a thoroughly decent human being. His question came from the foundation of his faith, and I wanted to treat it carefully. For him, every word in the Bible is literal, historical, God-given truth, and thus cannot be wrong.

“Lester,” I began, “you read the Bible a lot more than I do, and you know that it contains passages that are self-contradictory and genealogies that vary from one place to another. If the Bible were literally, word-for-word true, those kinds of things couldn’t happen.”

He just looked at me, evidently concerned that my eternal soul was sliding down a greased pole to perdition.

“Think of all the ways people try to convey truths so profound that they are ultimately inexpressible,” I continued. “Through myth, through symbols, through visions. The imagination isn’t a lesser creature than the cold historical eye. You’re taking a work that combines a variety of literary forms—myth, song, chronicle, prayer, and vision literature—and assuming that it’s all historical narrative. That’s absurd! You can have your moral and religious truth while being open to whatever science learns about the universe!”

He turned a cold historical eye on me. “Ace,” he said, “I’ll pray for you. You read a myth for me.”


© Tony Russell, 2003

Saturday, January 11, 2003

“What Would Jesus Do?”

The great religious revivals of the Anglo-American past have focused on the downtrodden and despised. Out of each revival came a new emphasis on prison reform, as a reaction against the brutality and inhumanity of the penal system of the time. If you were a Quaker, for example, believing that “there is that of God in everyone” and that everyone has access to the Inner Light, then you actually believed that this thief, this drunkard, this drug addict, was—no less than you—a child of God, worthy of respect and love. If you were a follower of John and Charles Wesley, a “Methodist,” you believed that we were all sinners, and that no human being was beyond redemption.

All of which leads me to marvel at the “religious revival” of the last twenty years, which has been a willing partner of the most hateful and vindictive political ideologues in America’s conservative boom. Fundamentalist churches are the core supporters of the right wing agenda, including its emphasis on expanding the death penalty to cover more and more offenses, imprisoning as many people as possible, imprisoning them for longer and longer terms, and eliminating programs designed to educate them or help them in any way to improve their lot. It doesn’t seem to bother these Christians at all that prisoners, in massive numbers and on a routine basis, are being treated worse than dogs.

“What would Jesus do?” they frequently intone. I have to assume it’s strictly a rhetorical question rather than a felt demand on their lives. Do they honestly believe Christ is a cheerleader for the gas chamber and lethal injections? For life sentences for drug possession? For stun guns? For the Bush administration’s treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?

At Guantanamo the administration has thrown prisoners into a jail built from international shipping containers. Three sides of each cell are steel mesh. The cells are less than 7 foot by 8 foot, and more than half of each cell is taken up by a metal bed welded to the wall. Prisoners are kept in that space, in metal containers, in broiling tropical heat, for one hundred sixty seven and a half hours per week. Each week, a prisoner gets to leave that metal oven for two fifteen-minute periods. That’s his time to shower and exercise. Do you suppose that’s the kind of prison Jesus would have designed, given the chance?

January 15 will mark the first anniversary of their imprisonment, with no end in sight. They have never been charged with anything. They have never been allowed to see a lawyer. They have never been allowed contact with their families. Their imprisonment violates, among other things, the Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. That’s not the America I grew up in. It’s not the America of Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth or …. But I forget myself; we’re talking religion here, not our American heritage. Jesus didn’t sign the Geneva Convention or the Constitution, so let’s dismiss them as irrelevant here, and get back to the key question: What would Jesus do? Apparently their Jesus says, “Fry the sons-of-bitches,” or “Cage ‘em and throw away the key.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

“Wet My Dipstick”

“Are you coming to the rally on Sunday?” asked my co-worker, Mort Walker.

“I didn’t know anything about a rally, Mort,” I said. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a pro-war rally,” he said. “We’re tired of the administration’s pussyfooting around. Let’s get in there, grab ‘em by the gonads, and squeeze ‘til the oil runs out.”

“I don’t know, Mort,” I said. “The inspectors keep looking, and they can’t find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. It seems kind of hard to justify invading another country just because we want their oil.”

“What kind of wimp are you?” he scoffed. “Have you looked at the price on the pump in the last few weeks? It’s $1.55 per gallon and still climbing.”

“Mort,” I said hesitantly, “there are other things to consider. International law, for example. The immorality of an invasion. The deaths of thousands of people.”

“Oh sure,” he said. “Talk abstractions. You don’t have to pump gas into my SUV every evening. Then you’d know what real pain is.”

“Mort,” I said, “I share your pain. But it just seems cynical and wrong to pretend we’re trying to make the world a safer place when we’re willing to bribe, buy, bomb, or betray anything that keeps big oil companies from writing their own ticket.”

He looked at me angrily. “Ace,” he said, “I’m beginning to wonder about your loyalty.”

“What do you mean?” I said, taken aback.

“You know what I mean,” he said accusingly. “United we stand. The colors in this flag don’t run.”

He was starting to tick me off. “Will you stop talking like a bumper sticker,” I said. “According to the most recent polls, only 29% of the American people support a unilateral American invasion, while 63% favor a diplomatic solution. So if there’s anybody standing united, it’s the majority of the American people, and they’re united against the administration’s determination to start a war.”

“Bury your head in the sand,” he said. “Those people are a real threat to the U.S., and they need to be taken care of before it’s too late.”

“Mort,” I said, “answer me this. Why is it that North Korea gets the kid-gloves treatment, when they make no bones about their intentions to develop weapons of mass destruction, but 160,000 troops are on the way to bomb, invade, and militarily occupy Iraq, when there’s no evidence at all that they have such weapons?”

“Ace,” he said, “there’s not enough oil in Korea to wet my dipstick.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

“A Chinese Christmas”

A quick inventory of the presents under the tree is probably as good as any statistical analysis for telling us who’s the current leader in the global economy’s race to the bottom. This year it’s not even close. The clear winner: China! Come on down!

Our big-ticket item was the new Sylvania™ DVD player, a present for the whole family from Santa. It had “Made in China” stamped in bold letters on the carton. But the DVD player was just the start. My granddaughter’s teddy bear was also made in China. So too was her cute little Dirt Devil™ Junior Upright vacuum cleaner. And her “Alphabet Art Puzzle”™ with its scripted message from Melissa and Doug: “We care about your comments, please call us!” (To be scrupulously fair, the puzzle is marked “Made in Taiwan.”) And our new Rival™ toaster. And that pretty new dress for my daughter. And my new toothbrush. And the bag clips we used to close the snack mix.

So China was this year’s winner, hands down. According to a report just released, China’s exports were up a whopping 22 per cent for the first eleven months of 2002! The big loser seems to be Mexico. Two years ago, we were all humming “Feliz Navidad!” Many of the items under the tree then were made in Tijuana, Juarez, Mexicali, and Nogales. Literally thousands of U.S. manufacturers, over the past two decades, had closed down their U.S. plants and moved just across the border, where they could not only pay much lower wages and lower taxes, but they didn’t have to worry about unions, health and safety regulations, or environmental damage. Now, however, those same corporations are pulling up stakes in Mexico and moving to China. A starting machine operator in China makes less than $2 a day, while that Mexican operator made almost $8 a day. As a consequence, more than a quarter of a million Mexican factory workers have lost their jobs in the past two years. (Jobs originally lost, of course, by workers in the U.S. and Canada; it’s a slow-motion case of musical chairs.)

All of this has come about through the push for “free trade.” The worthless lot we call political leaders are owned by multinational corporations and investors. And the “New Democrats” are as bad as the Republicans. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were first-team cheerleaders for the globalization of trade.

“Free markets” is a pretty-sounding way of saying “capitalism with no holds barred.” The motives of the “free traders” are greed and power; their real agenda is tax cuts, union-busting, deregulation, and “tort reform” (since law suits are one of the few remaining means for holding them accountable). As long as they can keep us bamboozled with phony issues like gun control and military escapades like the invasions of Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, they can continue to play cowboy and ride tall in the saddle.

That “giant sucking sound” you hear? It’s not just my granddaughter’s vacuum cleaner.

© Tony Russell, 2003