Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    April 2004
Last year the trade deficit of the United States was nearly five hundred billion dollars. Over the past fifteen years, the United States has built up three trillion dollars in foreign debt. This would not be possible were foreign countries not willing to lend us vast amounts of money. In fact, right now the United States is soaking up more than half the money available for loans worldwide. If the lending should stop or be seriously reduced, the U.S. economy would be plunged into a crisis more wrenching than any recession we've experience since the Second World War. Our foreign debt constitutes a great threat to national health. This being an election year, you would think a threat this large would be discussed, and that debates would break out over what to do about it. Yet, we scarcely hear it mentioned by the major politicians. The reason, I suspect, is that they are told by their advisors that the American people don't want to hear about anything complicated. But just because Americans won't pay attention to something doesn't make it go away. When the downturn comes, voices will shout, "Why weren't we told about this?' Truth is, you were told. But you didn't listen.


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The transformation of the Republican Party into an ideological machine has certainly been reported on over the past decades, but it is such a big story that the reportage, steady as it has been, still doesn't come up to the significance of the change. E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post in his discussion of the recent Republican primary in Pennsylvania (April 30, 2004) points out that moderates are rapidly being driven out of the Republican ranks, He quotes Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, which backed Pat Toomey during the campaign, as saying that the replacement of Arlen Specter with someone who thinks correctly was one of their goals. But the other, perhaps more important, was to send a message to people presumed to be like Specter. "It serves notice to Chafee, Snowe, Voinovich and others who have been problem children that they will be next,"  A sad feature of this movement is that the press, in its puppy-dog way, continues to describe these people as "conservatives." There's nothing conservative about them. They are the most radical group ever to take over a major party in this nation. And there seems to be no target venerable enough to deflect their attack, not even the Constitution of the United States.


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Charles Krauthammer in his column for April 30, 2004 (Washington Post) strongly implies that any opposition to the policies of the Israeli government rises from anti-Semitism. It's an argument I've seen elsewhere and one I fear will have a boomerang effect. If the Israeli government comes to be seen as representative of all Jews everywhere, the result may well be a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment. The falseness of the connection is shown clearly by the people of Israel themselves. I read several Israeli English-language newspapers and the criticism of the Israeli government I've seem in them is sharper than any I've seen elsewhere. If we follow Krauthammer's arguments then these critics, virtually all Jews, are themselves anti-Semites. It's an absurd position and one I think we should all be on guard against. Krauthammer is a good example of how ideological blindness can undermine one's own position.


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In his column for April 30, 2004 (New York Times), Bob Herbert speaks of President Bush's "'Top Gun' moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln." The anniversary of that highly publicized event has arrived and with it, much commentary about the president's announcement that the mission had been accomplished. There's now an irony in his statement which may be worth notice, but, as usual, the media ignore the more important feature of the occurrence. When it happened, press and television pundits were giddy in their admiration of a brilliant publicity coup. Over and over we were told that this would be campaign material for the ages. They neglected to mention that the people using it in their campaigns would be Democrats. Why did our journalists not see the obvious? From the moment the images first flashed on our screens, it was clear the president looked completely silly strutting around the carrier deck and preening himself in his flying togs. It was also clear that this silliness would eventually come to dominate remembrance of the event. A president cannot emulate the behavior of a teen age gang leader and expect it to stand him in good stead for very long. This is callowness with a vengeance. And it was wallowed in by both the press and Mr. Bush's PR team. Their behavior tells us much about the maturity in charge of our national direction.


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I presume the citizens of Canada are rising every morning now in terror. Bill O'Reilly has announced he may invoke a boycott against them. It seems that two American soldiers decided they were tired of soldiering and went to Canada instead. O'Reilly wants them arrested and returned to whatever mercies the U. S. Army may have planned for them. And if Canada doesn't do as O'Reilly dictates, then Canada is going down. It's a peculiar world when the fate of nations is decided by the host of a tabloid TV news show. But, then, perhaps, O'Reilly may not have quite the authority he says he has. I suppose it's still permissible to pray for a dollop of sanity.


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Now, according to an article in the Washington Post  (April 29, 2004), we're going to have the "Fallujah Protection Army," made up of about a thousand of Saddam's former soldiers who will take over from the Marines on the outskirts of Fallujah. The Marines are getting out (and who can blame them?). Still, one wonders what happened to all the ringing pronouncements -- "we gotta win this thing." The obvious outcome of the change would be that Fallujah would become a city where U. S. control does not exist and where forces hostile to the United States can gather and make their plans. Certainly, a thousand Iraqi soldiers can't stop them if a much larger force of Marines couldn't. Besides, why would the Iraqis want to stop them? They've got to live with these people after the Americans bug out. Might this be the beginning of an American withdrawal strategy? Turn city after city over to  "protection armies," stay as secure as possible for a while in well-defended garrisons, and gradually fade away, persistently pronouncing the grandeur of the new Iraqi democracy? Stranger things have happened in this very strange episode of American history.


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Two of the articles appearing on the front page of the New York Times  today (April 29, 2004) are connected in ways that may not be readily apparent. One, by Amy Harmon, discusses a social disorder known as Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that makes people incapable of reading other people's feelings. The result is a blunt, sometimes weird personality which undermines ordinary social interaction. The other, by Linda Greenhouse, reports on the appearance of Deputy Solicitor General Paul D. Clement before the Supreme Court to argue that the president has the authority to throw anyone into jail he pleases and to keep that person there forever without bringing any evidence against him. Mr. Clement seemed incapable of grasping that anyone might regard this as a violation of constitutional rights. His message was in line with a series of pronouncements by officials of the Bush administration to the effect that they can do anything they wish to anyone they wish and that nobody has the right to challenge them. The reason? They're acting out of national security. Asperger's Syndrome people feel they're merely being honest when they say hurtful, discourteous things to their companions. Bushites feel they're merely being patriotic when they destroy lives without having to offer evidence. Might there such a condition as Asperger's Syndrome with respect to civil rights? If there is, the Bushites have it to a degree heretofore unknown among people who claim to be defending American liberties.


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Should a candidate be responsible for the quality of the material his campaign uses? It's a question that must be asked about the commercials Mr. Bush comes on the TV and tells us he has approved. Some of these are the silliest concoctions I have ever seen in politics. In its editorial for April 28, 2004, The San Francisco Chronicle  denounces campaigns that descend to "the type of sound-bite triviality that keeps cable news shows rolling 24/7." And then it goes on to cite the Bush campaign's contention that Mr. Kerry voted against body armor for American troops. This is idiocy. No candidate votes against body armor. But when an appropriation for body armor is included in a bill involving billions of dollars, much of which is highly suspect, it's entirely appropriate to vote against the whole mess. The implication that Mr. Kerry doesn't care enough about American soldiers to want to protect them against hostile bullets is nuts. But, it's worse than that. It's an insult to the American people to assume that they  are so ignorant as to be swayed by such messages. One wonders when public pride will rise up against this kind of condescension?


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It would be interesting to get the parents of the men and women who have died in Iraq together in an auditorium and ask how many of them could identify Douglas J. Feith, Michael Maloof, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, Stephen A. Cambone, John R. Bolton, Stephen J. Hadley, and Lewis Libby. These are some of the principal figures within the Bush administration who manufactured the case for the war that killed their children. They did it by "connecting dots" that nobody else could connect and that, in the aftermath of the invasion don't appear to be linked. Out of these dots came a "network", which some have since admitted was not a network in the ordinary sense of the term, but a network nonetheless, that helped convince the principal policy makers that war with Iraq was an action they wanted. It's a curious definition of democracy  when men who remain nameless to the general public can initiate policies which kill the public's children. We have to admit that such a democracy is, at best, attenuated. If I were one of the parents in that room, I know what I would ask the eight men mentioned above. How many of their children have died in Iraq?


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Richard Cohen includes an interesting phrase in his column for April 27, 2004 (Washington Post). He says that when our heroes return from danger we welcome them home with "a spangle of kitsch." My dictionary defines "kitsch" as "sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste." I think Mr. Cohen is right to imply that in America we increasingly substitute soapy sentiment for sound judgment. Maybe this is a feature of TV culture -- anything for a quick tear and then on to the next "Oh my gosh!" I've noticed that when public officials speak of soldiers killed in Iraq it has become a requirement to say that we will never forget who they were or what they did. This is kitsch with a vengeance. I can't think of the name of a single soldier done to death in Iraq, and I doubt that I'm less attentive than the average American. The effect of being killed in Iraq is not that one will be remembered eternally by a grateful nation. It is, rather, that one will kiss no more girls, eat no more fried chicken, go to no more ball games. That's it. These people will be remembered by their families and friends. But they would have been remembered by them in any case.


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In his column for April 27, 2004 (New York Times), David Brooks chides the chattering classes of Washington for making judgments about the past  but failing to have the gumption to say what should be done about current problems, like Fallujah and Najaf. They should be contrasted with the Americans "out in the world" who have decided to get "serious" and are recommending stronger military action. I'd be grateful if people who speak of "in the world" and "out of the world" would draw some geographical lines so we could know where each of these places is. And, I'd also like an explanation of where the places that are "out of the world" actually exist. The "world," of course, is a good place, where people are serious. They listen to the president and support him without all this carping about his past actions. They know that the past is behind us and we need to get on with it. And what's the best way to get on with it? Send real American guys with guns to show these people they'd better get in line. The implication of his column is that Mr. Brooks would like American foreign policy to be made by half-drunken guys in a bar in Toledo. Maybe they would do better than Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld. I wish Mr. Brooks would tell us what world they're in.


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The most discouraging feature of American politics is that large numbers of people believe things that aren't true. A poll commissioned by an organization at the University of Maryland reported that as recently as March 2004, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein, when he was in power, gave substantial support to al Qaeda. This connection has been consistently refuted by knowledgeable reporters and by all the evidence they have gathered. If people believe something that evidence refutes, the belief has to come from somewhere. In this case, the most likely source is habits of mind that aren't affected by evidence. The thinking appears to go something like this: The world is divided between good people and bad people. Most of the good people are Americans but there are a few Englishmen and Australians thrown in. Most of the rest of the world is bad. It is inconceivable that bad people could be at odds with one another since their only motive is to be bad. Consequently, they must be in cahoots. It follows that Saddam had to support al Qaeda. One might argue that no mind could be so immature as to think this way. Yet, we have solid indications that not only is this the mode of thought for some, but that they make up perhaps half the American electorate. Certainly, the commercials now being run by the Bush campaign show that these are the kinds of minds that are being addressed. When politics becomes a matter of gathering up voters who don't care about evidence, then democracy is transformed into a process that is seldom analyzed in our schools and colleges.  It also becomes something that is increasingly hard to shove down the throat of the rest of the world.


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Cathy Young's review of Susan Jacoby's new book on American secularism (Boston Globe, April 26, 2004) reminds me of how much people love to fight over nothing. It's obvious that neither the people who say they believe in God nor the people who say they don't believe in God know what they're talking about. Neither side knows what it means by "God" and, certainly, neither knows what it means by "belief." If you ask them, in a pointed way, both will stammer into silence. This confusion pervades American discourse because we've never been willing to distinguish between religion and meditation on the nature of things. Joining a social group which seeks to spread its views about behavior is not the same thing as wondering about the source of being. It wouldn't be far off to say that the former, religion, is an enemy to the latter, which is commonly thought of as the search for God. In religion (as it's commonly defined), you don't need to search for anything because you've convinced yourself you have the answers. All you have to do is to follow group teaching and group thinking and everything will be okey-dokey. Some people are content to follow group thinking and some aren't. That's the opposition we should be examining, and not whether someone does, or does not, believe in God.


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You have to wonder just how scrambled the brains of foreign policy commentators can get. There is no such thing as "partial sovereignty," or "limited sovereignty," or, as William Safire puts it, "semi-sovereignty." Sovereignty is like virginity. You either have it or you don't. The idea that the United States has just recently begun to back away from its promise of sovereignty for Iraq on June 30th is foolish. Sovereignty has never been contemplated for Iraq on that date. In truth, one wonders whether the current American government wants Iraq ever to become a sovereign nation. If what we're planning is to take over a nation and run it, using bought native flunkeys to ease our burden, then we ought to have the fortitude to say so.


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William Safire says that in Fallujah obliteration is not an option (New York Times, April 26, 2004). Rather "the liberation should assert control neighborhood by neighborhood, with enough infantry power to make the battle of Fallujah as short and decisive as possible" (note the subject of the sentence). I wish somebody could tell me what the difference between these two tactics is. Given the way the U. S. military exercises its "infantry power" it's hard to see that much would be left of a neighborhood after it had been liberated. What Safire and the other tough guys of American foreign policy refuse to face is that the people now resisting us in Iraq are going to be a part of Iraq's future, no matter how often Mr. Bush denounces them as terrorists and thugs, or vows to strip evil from the heart of the Middle East. It is always a mistake to make devils of your enemy, rather than seeing them as people with interests different from your own.  As long as they are devils, unless you can kill every one of them, they will keep killing you, forever.


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In an article titled "Decision on Possible Attack on Iraqi Town Seems Near" New York Times  reporters describe the measures U. S. Marines are preparing for the city of Fallujah (April 25, 2004). Mr. Bush is quoted as saying, "No, they're trying to shake our will, but America will never be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers." I can almost hear Mexican authorities saying the same thing in 1836 as they prepared their assault on the Alamo. And, they were victorious, weren't they? A simple truth Mr. Bush and his advisors can't get through their heads is that when men fight to the death against a foreign invader, they become martyrs, no matter what their motives and no matter what the invaders call them.


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In her column describing "Bushworld" (New York Times,  April 25, 2004), Maureen Dowd has penned as scathing a criticism of a president and his advisors as I have seen. Here, for example, is one of her points: "In Bushworld, we can create an exciting Iraqi democracy as long as it doesn't control its own military, pass any laws or have any power." The question she faces, though, is so what? The relationship between Bushworld and the world ordinary Americans inhabit is  more than peculiar. Though Bushworld penetrates ordinary world in multiple ways, many of them, lethal, the citizens of ordinary world appear amazingly inattentive. I continue to hear people say that Mr. Bush seems like a nice guy. When asked what's nice about him, they respond with a blankness more blank than any blankness has ever been. It's as though a drug has been administered. If Maureen Dowd could tell us the source of that drug she would provide a service more profound than any revelation of presidential ineptitude.


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Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, has a web site titled "Informed Consent" which offers the best information I have seen about conditions in Iraq. One of his ongoing themes has been the influence of Ahmad Chalabi on U. S. policy. I suspect that when the history of the Bush administration is written, scholars will be astounded by the effect Chalabi has managed to have on American behavior. He is now a leading member of the Iraqi Governing Council, which Cole describes as a collection of war lords, corrupt expatriate politicians, and token independents. The skullduggery being practiced by members of the council to line their own pockets and to get cronies appointed to influential positions in the Iraqi bureaucracy is a story most Americans have no patience for. But, the manipulations of such people can lead us to slaughter, literally, as the casualty figures from Iraq indicate. We would do well to temper our innocent belief in American nobility and concentrate instead on the realities Mr Cole tries daily to bring to our attention.


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David Brooks has fallen into psychology -- and I use "fallen" advisedly (New York Times, April 24, 2004). Were I he, I'd climb out as soon as possible. He read an article in Slate and discovered that Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, was not the sort of loser/victim people have supposed. Instead, you know what was wrong with Harris? He suffered from a superiority complex. He was, according to the FBI, "irretrievable." Brooks employs the usual slam at Friedrich Nietzsche, the typical mark of a philosophical ignoramus, Nietzsche never called for "supermen" who would go round killing people just for the fun of it. There's nothing he would have found more disgusting.  But the conclusion Brooks draws from his deep lucubrations is more chilling than anything ever attributed to Nietzsche. What we've got to do about these people with superiority complexes, these  irretrievable folks, is "fight them to the death." Exactly how we're going to ferret them out, Brooks doesn't say. But if you're a kid with an attitude, watch out! Brooks and the FBI may stamp you as irretrievable. And then you know what they gotta do.


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The obvious is, at long last, beginning to dawn in the minds of Washington policy-makers. You can't have a foreign army roaming through your country at will, killing whom they choose to kill, being responsible to no one but themselves, and claim to be a sovereign nation. The question few were brave enough to ask: what if the Iraqis don't want us there after they become sovereign? is finally being forced down the throats of reluctant legislators. Nobody so far has offered an adequate answer. But, in hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marc Grossman, under-secretary of state for political affairs, let slip the Bush administration's plan. Sovereignty will be limited. In other words, it will be a sham. Everybody in the world will know it is a sham. In particular, the Iraqi people will know it is a sham. But President Bush will come on the TV and proclaim sovereignty, and point out that military assistance to Iraq will continue. The U. S. military will continue to rule the country. But some Americans will believe that Mr. Bush has fulfilled his promise to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people. The future of American democracy rides on just what percentage of us are that credulous.


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Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe (April 21, 2004) says that persons like herself who thought that Colin Powell could impose rationality on an otherwise fanatical foreign policy should now give up on him. Regardless of his personal views, he will endorse anything Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld decides to do. I have never had the same degree of faith in Mr. Powell that others seem to have had. It's up to each of us to decide where our ultimately loyalty lies. For me, whenever there a contest among team, nation and decency, faithfulness to the team lags well behind my support for the other two. But, clearly, that's not the case with Colin Powell. For him, team comes before anything else. It may be he's so struck by team loyalty that he thinks it's the same thing as loyalty to nation and decency. But, if that's what he thinks, he's wrong. He is not a man who can be counted on to stand up, by himself, for what he believes. That was evident long before Bob Woodward raised the issue of infighting among the leading Bushites.


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I doubt the average American knows what "fungible" means. So, it's unlikely most people will understand just how practical Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was being when he said, irritably, in response to a question about keeping military units in Iraq longer than planned,  "Oh, come on. People are fungible. You can have them here or there." If a thing is fungible, it means it can be traded for something else. And fungibility seems to be the principle the Bush administration has adopted with respect to Iraq. We are willing to spend American lives there just so long as the ratio of American deaths to the numbers of Iraqis we kill remains acceptably high. It seems to have run about 25:1 since we launched the invasion in March of 2003. The theory is that if we can keep the ratio up, after a while the other side will give in. That was also the theory in Vietnam, where the ratio was about 14:1. It didn't seem to work there. Whether it works in Iraq depends on one thing: will the people who knew and loved the twenty five we killed find a way to take at least one American life in revenge? If they do, I suppose the ratio could continue indefinitely. Using these numbers we could kill everybody in Iraq at a cost of only a million American lives. And certainly a million is fungible. But, then, there are those pesky people who keep coming across the borders. Our problem may be that there are just too many non-Americans in the world.


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Anne Applebaum (Washington Post, April 21, 2004) says Colin Powell should either support President Bush completely or resign. He shouldn't go on claiming to back the president's policies while he sends out subtle hints that he disagrees with them. That's trying to have it both ways. I suppose she's right. But her column raises a more important question she doesn't pursue. Where does the greater loyalty lie? To the president or to the nation? Obviously, any thinking person will disagree with a president on some points. Practicality requires putting minor differences out of mind. Yet when the disagreement involves the long term health of the nation, it seems fairly clear to me that loyalty to a president has to take a back seat. Where did the idea come from that the president is the nation, and that subduing oneself to him is an act of national fealty? We were supposed to have got rid of that when we got rid of monarchy. If Mr. Powell actually believes what he is commonly said to believe, he should not only resign, he should oppose. That's what genuine loyalty requires.


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Bill O'Reilly castigated a young Florida legislator, Jennifer Carroll (O'Reilly Factor, April 20, 2004) for making a tacky joke about Hilary Clinton, saying that the spirit of Lincoln told her that the best thing she could do for her country would be to go to the theatre. Then, about twenty minutes later on the same program, after he criticized Ariana Huffington for the people, including Molly Ivins, who had endorsed her new book, she responded that they were all Americans just like O'Reilly is. To which he instantly answered, yeah, so was Ted Bundy. He quickly recognized what he had done, and announced to the cameras it was just a joke. But, so was Ms. Carroll's comment a joke. What's the difference? If any, O'Reilly's is the more vulgar. But, then, I suspect, quick jokes like that show a person's genuine character about as accurately as anything. Actually, the remarks O'Reilly made about Ivins , when he was not joking, were far worse than the joke itself.


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Steven Weisman (New York Times, April 19, 2004) quotes Condi Rice as saying that Colin Powell and Dick Cheney are friendly. It’s a murky word. I’m reminded of all the times I’ve sat at a table with two other other men, both of whom would have gladly stuck a knife in the back of the other, who were joking, and laughing, and clapping one another on the shoulder. Deception about one’s genuine feelings towards enemies within an organization is a price of playing the game. It’s one of the less gratifying features of life in hierarchies.


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American history has been shaped for a long time by boogey words, that is terms that serve as unquestioned denunciation. Any association with them paints one as the wrong sort of person, however slight that association might be. For most of my life “communist” was the premier boogey word. Anybody who had anything to do with communism, or with a communist, was stained beyond retrieval. There was no possibility of asking why communism was bad. It just was bad, and there was nothing more to be said about it. We don’t have a word right now that functions popularly at quite that level. But there are some that are trying to rise to comparable heights, and the one I’ve heard most frequently is “elite.” If you want to show complete contempt for anything, whether a person, or a publication, or a position, or an institution, you simply use “elite” as an adjective in front of it. Bill O’Reilly, for example, on his TV show regularly denounces the “elite” media, and, of course, contrasts Fox News with them. He doesn’t say how or why these media are “elite.” They just are and consequently there’s no more to be said about them. I just heard Bob Woodward being interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes (April 18, 2004). Woodward mentioned how he once asked President Bush about the effect of failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and was told by the president that he had been hanging out too much with “elites.” The implication was that only elites would care about such things, and therefore that caring about them was a mark of degeneration. It’s curious how a word that once designated something positive has now been transmogrified into a characteristic of evil. Why are “elite” things bad? But, there, you see, you’re caught. Only an elitist would ask such a thing, and as soon as we know it’s an elitist asking we are relieved from any obligation to answer. The only proper response is a sneer.


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On Face the Nation (April 18, 2004), Condaleezza Rice was asked if sovereignty will be returned to Iraq on June 3oth regardless of the security situation. And she replied that it will, but that this does not mean that Iraq will be abandoned. The United States will continue to take care of security. And, then, we sat and waited for the obvious questions, which as usual did not come. What if the Iraqis don’t want us to? What if they tell us to get out? Why are obvious questions not asked when major reporters confront major figures from the administration? Is there agreement in advance that certain questions won’t be asked? And, if there is, what does that say about the independence of the press? Maybe we need a press conference with Bob Schieffer. It would be interesting to get his explanation about why Ms. Rice was not asked the questions everyone want to hear.


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In my simple moral thinking, a man who supports something he knows is bad for his country is worse than one who pushes a foolish policy because he’s demented enough to believe in it. Maureen Dowd in her column for April 18, 2004 (New York Times) in discussing Colin Powell and Dick Cheney comes close to agreeing with me. She says Powell should have made the case against war as forcefully as he could to Mr. Bush and, then, if the president persisted in his dreams of war, Powell should have stated his case publicly. Bob Woodward’s new book portrays Mr. Cheney as being virtually insane on the subject of Iraq and Dowd takes no second seat to Woodward when she mentions “Dick Cheney's nutty utopian dream of bombing the world into freedom.” Yet, Powell is the figure we really have to worry about. Crazy people we will have with us always. But when people who can see the truth turn against it for the sake of playing on the team, then we have really lost our way.


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Again, the issue of American memory arises. Cast your mind back to February of 2003, and recall how the United Nations was being characterized by leading members of the Bush administration and by Bush’s supporters. Scorn is the mildest term that can be applied to their attitude. The U.N. then was worthless, weak, cowardly, and worse than that really. Now. Bush and Blair appear together to announce that a U.N. envoy, Mr. Brahimi, will decide on the composition of an interim goverment which will replace the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the United States. If it were selected, as it was said to have been selected, to represent all the Iraqi people, why does it need to be replaced? And how, suddenly, has the U.N. been transformed from a body that had no say in the matter to one that will actually determine the government of Iraq? We all know the answer. Things have not gone as the U.S. administration said they were going to go, and now, thirteen months after the invasion, Bush needs the U.N. to help him escape. The question for the American electorate is whether that kind of initial behavior and the subsequent flip-flop can be stuffed into the past and forgotten. Should there not be some consequence? If a government can denounce something one year and embrace it the next, when that something has not changed its position, aren’t we pretty far down the road to the “Newspeak” that Mr. Orwell prophesied?


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It has become a media “fact” that before March 19, 2003, “everybody” believed that Iraq had large stockpiles of weapons that threatened countries outside its borders. I don’t guess I qualify as anybody, but, just for the fun of it, I want to say that I didn’t believe it. I thought the evidence against the weapons was quite strong. The first reason, of course, was that U.N. inspectors were searching avidly all over the country, and finding nothing. Furthermore, they were not being hampered by the Iraqi authorities. I remember asking myself, “If I were really trying to hide major weapon depots, couldn’t I find a plausible reason for at least slowing the inspectors down?” Second, although the U. S. goverment said it knew where the weapons were, it would not tell the inspectors. And the only reason given for not telling them was some mumbo-jumbo about protecting our sources of intelligence. Third, I couldn’t figure out where the weapons could have come from. The American public seemed unaware that weapons and delivery systems  of the sort and magnitude that were being talked about in the early months of 2003 cost vast amounts of money. We knew that the Iraqi economy was weak. And we also knew that Saddam was spending huge sums on palaces and personal security measures. How could he have afforded the complicated developmental systems that would have been required to stockpile weapons in the degree that was charged? Fourth, he had used no such weapons in the decade prior to the beginning of the war, nor had he tested them in ways anybody had detected. Fifth -- and this was for me the most telling point -- major figures in the Bush administration wanted the war so badly they would believe anything that helped them to have it. Willingness to believe spurious evidence in support of desire is, probably, the strongest characteristic of any group. Now, can I say I knew for sure that Saddam did not have the weapons he was charged with hoarding? Certainly not. But the evidence against them was substantial enough that there should have been far more scepticism than there seems to have been among American politicians.


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John Wayne is famous for having advised: “Never apologize; it’s a sign of weakness.” It’s a sentiment we would do well to recall in this era when expectations of apology are running amok. Christopher Dodd, the senator from Connecticut has felt required to apologize for, perhaps, offending somebody’s sensibilities by complimenting Robert Byrd. And why? Because Senator Byrd, long ago, cast some votes that today are considered incorrect. Byrd himself now considers them incorrect and has said he regrets them. But, even so, Dodd has to apologize. I wish John Wayne had added a corollary to his saying: “Never ask for an apology; that’s a sign of real weakness.”


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I’m not a big fan of Chris Matthews, but I have to admit that the interview  he conducted on Hardball (April 15, 2004) with Ted Koppel was one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve seen lately. The key moment came when Matthews asked Mr. Koppel whether the troops with whom he had been “embedded” had been given much training on the rationale for the war. Kopel didn’t equivocate; he said no. Soldiers, he said, are not much concerned with overarching political issues. They are far more interested in protecting each other. They are not paid to think. It was refreshing to hear simple truth on this point in the midst of rhetoric about how our troops are the best guides for shaping public opinion on U.S. policy in Iraq. One of the foulest things a politician can do is defend a decision to go to war on the basis that the soldiers know what they’re fighting for. There has never been an army in the history of the world in which a majority -- or even a sizable minority -- of its members were conversant with the foreign policy that committed them to battle. To the degree soldiers say anything about a justification for war, they say what they’ve been told. To ask them to risk their lives is hard. To ask them to defend the policy that takes their lives is merely vile.


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Sidney Blumenthal, writing in the Guardian (April 15, 2004), says that President Bush does not read the “Presidential Daily Briefs” that have figured so prominently in recent hearings of the 9/11 Commission. Instead, he has them summarized verbally by a staff officer. Reports of this sort reinvigorate a discussion that has consistently loomed in the background of the Bush administration. Early in his presidency, Mr. Bush was commonly described as being less than bright. But over the past two years, his supporters have countered that notion by insisting that the president is a “big picture” guy and not one to get tangled in details. Consequently, from a certain point of view, failure to read briefings prepared by intelligence officers is a strength of leadership. Like most people, I have to form my opinion of Mr. Bush’s mind by what I see on those infrequent occasions when he submits himself to the give and take of discussion. What I’ve been able to observe doesn’t speak to me of great mental agility. Among the men I’ve worked with closely enough to know their minds, their daily intellectual habits were far weaker than what they showed when they were on display. I hope that’s not the case with Mr. Bush because, if it is, our affairs are being directed by a simplicity that would terrify us if we could know it in its reality.


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My local paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, has unusually intelligent commentary for a small town journal. The lead editorial for April 15, 2004, is no exception. Titled “Uneven Performance,” it discusses President Bush’s recent press conference, and points out clearly what portion of the population Mr. Bush was addressing. The editors remark that David Brooks, speaking on PBS right after the event, hit the nail on the head by noting that the president wasn’t talking to the “elite”who watch C-Span and care about politics. The Times-Argus is, understandably, not in a position to spin out the implications of Mr. Brooks’s comment but since I’m not under the same restraints, I will. There’s an ever-strengthening message from the supporters of Mr. Bush that ignorance is the pathway to political virtue. Dumb people are good people, whereas intellectuals  (defined as anyone with the attention span to read an entire news article) don’t have their heads screwed on right. Appeals to the vanity of lazy-minded people are nothing new in America. Decades ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote an entire book on the subject. But I don’t think they have ever before been so blatantly pushed as they are by current political leaders.


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Harold Meyerson, in the Washington Post (April 14, 2004), says that Mr. Bush and his main advisors did have a plan for converting Iraq into a stable democracy. But it was a plan so simple as to bear no relation to reality. In saying so, Meyerson is pointing to an American political condition that probably affects our national wellbeing more than anything else. A good many American citizens find reality just too messy, too complex, too convoluted to be tolerated. They won’t stand for it anymore. Consequently, they turn to political leaders who tell them two things. First, the world is primarily an arena where good people struggle against evil people. Second, anybody who views the world differently is a waffling, indecisive, overly-intellectual weakling and not much of a patriot. To perceive the world in this way evidently has powerful appeal. Hence we have Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld directing our affairs. The world needs to shape up and get with the program. But, somehow, it’s hard to have faith that the world will get the message.


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Dick Polman of the Knight Ridder Service says that it won’t much matter politically that some of the president’s claims made during Tuesday night’s press conference (April 13, 2004) didn’t square with the facts. Polman may be right, but if he is the serious question becomes: why doesn’t it matter? The reason Polman offers is that most Americans don’t believe the president was insufficiently vigilant prior to September 11, 2001. Yet the false claims the president presumably made had to do with the period after the attacks. They were all about his decision to send an army to occupy Iraq.The implication in Polman’s article, which was echoed by many of the instant commentators who appeared on TV within minutes of the president’s remarks, is that the American people will believe any cliche if it is uttered with conviction. And, certainly, no one can accuse Mr. Bush of being short on ringing cliches. I may lose what little hair I have left if I hear the phrase “stay the course” one more time. The principal effect of the news conference may be to convince people that Mr. Bush’s thoughts are composed of such phrases, and of nothing else. Media performers appear to believe that a majority of the people find such talk deeply consoling. That, in turn, is a deeply condescending attitude and we can hope the pundits are as wrong about it as they have been about much else recently.


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Justice Scalia has written letters of apology to the reporters who had their recording devices seized by a U. S. Marshal during a speech Scalia gave recently in Mississippi. And he has said he intends to change his policy forbidding recording by reporters from the print media. That’s good to hear. But he also said that the action was not taken at his direction. The question then becomes, if the recorders were not seized because Justice Scalia wanted them seized, then who did decide to do it? Is this something U.S. Marshals can decide to do on their own, at their whim? Somehow, I doubt it. It’s likely someone higher up than a single marshal decided to take away the recorders. And the public ought to be told who that was.


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David Brooks is too intelligent to fail to see the distinction between striking at small radical groups who seek to kill Americans and invading a sovereign nation. Yet, in his column for April 13, 2004 (New York Times) he consistently speaks of these actions as though they were exactly the same. The Bush admininstration, of course, wants us to see them as being the same and that’s why over the past two years they have repeatedly insinuated that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were in some sort of alliance. And just because nobody can find evidence for it doesn’t really matter. It’s a sad thing to see a person as able as Mr Brooks betraying his own intellect in order to flack for a political party. The rewards of flackdom must be greater than those of us on the outside can understand.


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If the events in Bob Herbert’s column for April 12, 2004 (New York Times) are reported accurately -- and I have no reason to doubt them -- then conditions in the United States with respect to civil liberties are even worse than I thought. Here’s what apparently happened. Justice Antonin Scalia recently gave a speech at a high school near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Antoinette Konz, a 25 year old reporter for the Hattiesburg American attended in order to write an article on Justice Scalia’s remarks. She turned on her tape recorder in order to report accurately on what he said. And, then, a U.S. Marshal came, seized her recorder, and erased the contents before returning it to her. This action was not agreed to by Ms. Konz. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the law to know whether the marshal’s actions were illegal. But they were certainly in conflict with the spirit of the U.S. Constitution. And they were evidently carried out to accommodate a man who is supposed to protect the Constitution. Why was an occurrence of this sort only brought to light in an opinion column? Where is CBS, and ABC, and NBC? Where are the editors of the nation’s leading newspapers? Was this not news? And if it wasn’t, then what is news?


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I recall that when I was in the Army there was a powerful conceit at work which pervaded every social event. It went something like this: “Look at us. We’re so standard, we’re so regular, we’re so normal, we’re so essentially clean. Why won’t the world wise up and be like us? Then, everything would be wonderful” That attitude is alive and well in Iraq. Karl Vick of the Washington Post may be giving us a more accurate picture of what’s going on there than any other reporter. His article on Col. Peter Mansoor, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, who over the past year has been meeting with a group of tribal leaders in Baghdad, is a fine piece of reporting (April 12, 2004). Mansoor comes off as an earnest, idealistic young man, and his message to the leaders has been: give up what you’re used to, become like us, and everything will be fine. Mansoor wouldn’t acknowledge it in that boiled down form, of course, but that’s what it has been. Now, with the latest unrest, the talks have turned nasty, and Col. Mansoor’s take on the situation seems to be, “What’s wrong with these people?” What’s wrong with them, Col. Mansoor, is that they don’t want to be Americans. That’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it?


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The stars of the right-wing propaganda machine have fallen into schizophrenia. There are no more vehement critics of American popular culture. Every night on the O’Reilly Factor,  for example, there’s an attack on some aspect of American behavior. Songs are bad. Movies are bad. Clothing is bad. Advertising is bad. American parents are irresponsible. American teachers are incompetent. Yet, O’Reilly can shift seamlessly from these denunciations to pronouncements that America is right to send armies around the world to teach people how to behave. And his stance is echoed by most of his ideological compatriots. They are unable to grasp that unless we can arrive at a more solid comprehension of what we stand for -- educationally, politically, economically, environmentally, medically, judicially -- our ability to preach to the world, or to enforce our opinions at the point of a gun, is severely compromised.


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David Broder says of President Bush in his column for April 11, 2004 (Washington Post), “ It is an open secret in Washington that he is indifferent to much of the daily work of
the domestic departments. But it is striking that he seems equally passive on matters of national security, letting information filter up to him through the White House
bureaucracy. “ I don’t know why Mr. Broder thinks it’s striking. The president has never evinced any curiosity about how government actually works. He seems less concerned
with what the government does than he is with being the head of it. We might well wonder what “head” means when we take his attitude into account.


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Tom Friedman is a bright guy, but he seems almost as stuck on the notion that every reasonable person in the world wants to be like us as George Bush is. Here’s what he said on Easter Sunday (New York Times): “yes, we need all the Arab and Muslim support we can get to see Iraq through to some decent outcome. But the Arab-Muslim world needs a decent outcome in Iraq just as much — if not more.” The trouble , Mr. Friedman, is that not
every decent person sees American-style capitalist development as the only path to a honorable life. The struggle in the Middle East is constantly portrayed as a battle between Islamic fanaticism and American democracy. Why can’t the moderates there understand their own interests and get on our team?  The reason is that our definition of “democracy” is not what the people of the world read in their dictionaries. When they vote for us, they
don’t see themselves as voting for rule by the people for the people. Instead, they see themselves voting for the increasing power of American wealth. They may not love their own radicals, but they love American capitalists even less.


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Adam LeBor's biography of Slobodan Milosevic, as reviewed by Laura Secor in The Nation  (April 19, 2004), reminds us, yet again, what complete dweebs -- persons of essentially small mind and soul -- the possessors of political power can be. Truth is, we've been reminded so frequently we might well begin to suspect that dweebishness is the norm, rather than the exception, among national leaders. In America, we probably have been deluded by thoughts of Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln into believing that people who conduct great affairs must have great, or at least complicated, internal apparatus. But our notable statesmen are clearly exceptions in the ranks of political power. It takes little talent of any kind, except perhaps crass ambition, to preside over the obliteration of thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of fellow humans. The headlines coming at us everyday should make that clear.


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The linguist Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor,  April 8, 2004) has informed his followers that what's going on in Iraq is not an "uprising" as  inaccurately reported by the "elitist" press. Rather it is an 'insurgency." O'Reilly appears to find a tremendously significant distinction between these two terms, but exactly what it is he can't be bothered to say. My dictionary tells me that an "insurgent" is one who rises in revolt against established authority, and that an "uprising" is a rebellion. They sound fairly similar to me. Phony erudition is one of the hallmarks of O'Reilly's program. He seems confident that the audience on which his ratings depend is so steadily ignorant they will swallow any posturing with a pretense to learnedness.


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George Will agrees with Condaleezza Rice that government agencies have "a thickness, a viscosity that are normal aspects of bureaucracies." (Washington Post, April 9, 2004). But this "fudge" as Will calls it is not good for the nation in times of crisis. One wonders whether it's ever good for the nation, crisis or not. In any case, it's a fact, as anyone who has ever worked for the government knows. A key question in the coming election, says Will, is which candidate is likely to get the fudge flowing. And that would seem, in turn, to depend on which candidate knows what the fudge is doing. To understand the actual behavior of the government a president is said to preside over requires from him incessant investigation, reading and study. We do know, at least, the contempt one of the candidates has for that kind of work.


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The editors at the New York Times (April 9, 2004) concluded their assessment of Condaleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission with this comment: "The real challenge came after the Afghan invasion, when Mr. Bush had to decide what to do next - rethink the outdated world view his advisers had brought into office, or snap back into old reflexes and go after Iraq, the enemy of the last generation. It was then that he chose the wrong path." The key term here is "rethink" and in using it the editors must have decided to go into comedian mode. Do we have any evidence, from anywhere, that Mr. Bush has ever rethought anything? He takes pride in knowing what he knows, and that sentiment appears to exclude knowing anything else. What's the need for rethinking?


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Here's what Thomas Friedman  of the New York Times has to say about the current situation in Iraq (April 8, 2004): "We cannot want a decent Iraq more than the Iraqi silent majority. Because this is an urban war, and U.S. soldiers having to fight house to house inside Iraqi cities cannot win it. Only Iraqis can. If we try to fight this war ourselves, we will kill too many innocent Iraqis, blow up too many mosques and eventually turn the whole population against us - even if they know in their hearts that what we're trying to build is better than what the insurgents want." Sometimes Mr. Friedman is as lost in illusion as the Bush administration. The Iraqis do not know in their hearts that what we want is good for them. You can scarcely invade a country, kill ten thousand of its civilians, blow up hundreds of buildings, kick down thousands of doors, humiliate ten times as many as you kill, and have the people know in their hearts anything other than that they'll be more than happy to see you gone.


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Must the entire world come to live under American-style market capitalism? That's the question William Pfaff raises in his review of Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (New York Review, April 8, 2004). He faults Brzezinski for answering, yes. America must cooperatively lead the world in that direction or else it will descend into global chaos. This, Pfaff argues, is simply Bushism with a human face, and, therefore doesn't offer the contrast to current American policies the book's title seems to promise. Pfaff's resistance to the idea that the world must eventually become economically homogeneous is appealing, at least to anyone free of the delusion that capital development is the path to paradise. But since he insists on the right of the world to choose something other than unrestrainable capitalism, I wonder why he doesn't suggest the possibility that Americans too may have that right? Where is it ordained - outside the brains of Republican fanatics - that the United States must evolve into an endless shopping center from sea to shining sea? Is that the ultimate mode of life American imagination can conceive? If we were to summon the will to see ourselves as something other than servants of the dollar, might that not offer us a foreign policy different from the prognostications of either Bush or Brzezinski? Still, if we have to choose between them, Brzezinski's vision of respectful leadership is the course sane people will wish to adopt.


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Seemingly insignificant decisions can come to cast long shadows. I suspect that's going to be the case with Mr. Bush's determination to speak to the 9/11 Commission only if he's accompanied by Vice President Cheney. One wonders whether a political tone-deafness is coming to dominate this administration. Perhaps they have got away with so much for so long they really believe there's nothing they can't sell to the American people. Yet, it's hard to see how this particular action can be sold. Here's what Harold Meyerson, in the Washington Post (April 7, 2004) had to say about it at the conclusion of a column about the chaos in Iraq, "The only unequivocally good policy option before the American people is to dump the president who got us into this mess, who had no trouble sending our young people to Iraq but who cannot steel himself to face the Sept. 11 commission alone."  I've heard no explanation from either Bush or Cheney that has the power to wash away the contempt in that comment.


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One of the more interesting linguistic developments over the past year has been the march of the word "thug" straight into the core of American foreign policy discourse. It appears to be the case that any non-American who not only opposes the policies of the U. S. government but is also prepared to do something about them has become a thug. I'm not sure when the followers of Muqtada al Sadr, for example, all became thugs, but now, among the legion of ex-generals, ex-colonels, ex-lieutenant colonels, and ex-majors, who provide expert testimony on the cable news programs, to speak of them as thugs is a requirement as firm as loyalty to the constitution. They've got me so fascinated I decided to look up "thug" in the dictionary. I didn't find anything very surprising. A "thug" is a ruffian, or a hoodlum who's prepared to use violence to gain a personal advantage. There's nothing said about thugs sacrificing themselves for a cause, or of being loyal to an ideal that extends beyond the self. In truth, the latter would appear to be contrary to the nature of a thug. Yet our generals and our colonels are ready to apply the term overall to any non-American who won't get on the American team. We must all have noticed the propensity of military personnel to refer to those who oppose the United States as "bad guys." I think it would be just as well if they left it at that, instead of trying to draw into their description of opponents every term of opprobrium they can discover. The war on language is proceeding far more briskly than the war on terrorism, and I'd like it if we could find a way to slow it down a bit.


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David Brooks, in the New York Times (April 6, 2004), has a humorous column arguing that since we've become so intensely partisan in our political loyalties we need two different airlines. Left and right wingers shouldn't have to be bothered, during flight, by the scumminess of the other side. To give him credit, he makes the patrons of the two enterprises equally ignorant and ridiculous, which is not his practice in his non-humorous vein. It's encouraging to know that he can see his buddies as others see them. He reminds me that I have worked at the heart of extremely right-wing and extremely left-wing organizations. I confess that the effect was similar in both cases. Each induced nausea in about the same degree. The left-wingers were magnificently obnoxious because they preened themselves so fulsomely on their moral superiority it was hard to stay in the same room with them. By contrast, the right-wingers spent much of their time talking about killing people. I hope we have choices other than picking between them. But if we're forced, at least the difference is clear. On the one hand we get smugness, on the other, death.


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The lead editorial in the Washington Post, for April 5, 2004, calls for openness about the status of the war crimes tribunal being set up in Iraq, primarily to try Saddam Hussein and his closest associates. The sooner the rules for this court are established, and the sooner the trials get underway, the better it will be for the United States. The Post  pretends to be surprised that more information is not forthcoming from all those involved in constructing the tribunal. The simpleminded will say that Saddam is a bad man, so why not just establish his badness and then kill him? What's the problem? The problem is that in all his badness - and he undoubtedly did some bad things - Saddam had allies and others who were complicit in what he did. If he is afforded an adequate defense, all his associations while he was carrying out his badness will be revealed in open court. And the government of the United States, and in particular, the administration of George Bush, Senior, won't emerge from that revelation with pure hands. The trial of Saddam may well point towards other trials which the U.S, government does not want to see take place. It's a tricky business, and we can expect to see lots of maneuvering before any action gets underway. At the moment, the prospects for a so-called "fair" trial are not bright.


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Is Mr. Bush compassionate? That's the topic of an article in the April 4th Washington Post by Dana Milbank and Richard Morin. They report that belief in the president's compassion is subsiding among a considerable portion of the electorate. A majority used to think that Mr. Bush cared about all the American people. But now almost half see him as caring only about rich people. That's interesting, I suppose, but it doesn't dig into the issue of compassion, doesn't actually examine what compassion is. Throughout the article compassion is treated as a discrete emotion, which one has or doesn't have in varying degrees. There's no hint that it is a manifestation of a complex mental state which rises from a person's quality of mind. Compassion is primarily the ability to imaginatively project oneself into another person's situation, to feel as he or she feels. Without power of imagination, the concept of compassion becomes meaningless. And of all mental practices, imagination is the one Mr. Bush appears to engage in least frequently. He knows what he knows and that's good enough for him. It's not his business to spend time wondering about what other people know, or feel. As he says in one of campaign commercials, "I know exactly where I want to lead this country." It seems beyond him to conceive that some people might not want to go there. Given his habits of mind, compassion is not an emotion that can be usefully discussed with respect to Mr. Bush.


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In his column in the Boston Globe for April 2, 2004, H. D. S. Greenway makes a point which is being echoed by journalists across the nation: "today the administration is still in denial about the extent to which resistance to the Americans is becoming a popular uprising rather than the work of leftover Saddamists and foreign terrorists." It's surprising it has taken this long for commentators to catch on to a truth that any beginning students of psychology ought to have known from the beginning. People don't like to have foreign soldiers come into their country and tell them what to do. It's galling, and among some portions of the population that sense of humiliation will break out into violence. The Bush administration acts as though it thinks it can repeal not only former U. S policy but human nature as well.


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