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