Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    May 2004
The New York Times editorial for Memorial Day (May 31, 2004) says that anyone who dies while serving in the armed forces deserves the gratitude of the nation and full honors regardless of whether the conflict in which he died made any sense or was consistent with the values of the nation. It's a consoling thought but I wonder if even the Times editors understand its underlying premises. It has to be based on the idea that soldiers can have no adequate grasp of the political issues they are sent to enforce. Once they become soldiers they are principally instruments and can no longer exist as thinking men and women. I don't know if that's the kind of army we want, or not. True, it's compliant to political leadership. But is expecting it to function in that way remarkably different from expecting soldiers to carry out unlawful orders? The latter is something we all say a soldier shouldn't do.


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A strain of what might be called "sub-commentary" that has emerged from the Iraq prison scandals is that we shouldn't be surprised at the events in Iraq because they are pretty well in line with the way prisoners are treated in the United States. Among ordinary citizens there appears to be little interest in what happens to men and women when prison doors close behind them. They are out of sight and out of mind, and that seems to be what's desired. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, is an exception to the rule. In his article for May 31, 2004, he points out that a federal law passed in 1996, insures that prison officials can get away with horrendous behavior as long as they don't inflict permanent physical injury on the people in their charge. The tactics we've seen employed at Abu Ghraib have been employed extensively here at home and since American prisoners are not protected by Geneva Conventions or any other international rules for decent behavior, what happens to them is okay.


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A segment of last night's 60 Minutes (May 30, 2004), reported by Leslie Stahl, dealt with why neither American consumers nor American car manufacturers are concerned with fuel efficiency. Ms. Stahl interviewed a man on the verge of purchasing a gas guzzling SUV who said he understood that high levels of energy consumption are causing problems worldwide but then  went on to remark that after all we're Americans so using a lot of fuel is what we do. He seemed to think there's something almost religious in our habits, that in some sense they have been ordained. I wonder how many share his beliefs? If Americans think they're so special as to have been exempted from the ordinary expectations of intelligent behavior, we're in for a long period of political strife. Increasingly, we will be seen as international outlaws. We can shrug off the charge for while, of course, and console ourselves with the delusion that no one but ourselves understands freedom. But, eventually, our unwillingness to share the problems of the human race will cause us immense misery.


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In a lengthy article in the Washington Post,  Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei point out that the ads President Bush is running are more negative about John Kerry and more distorted than any campaign messages have been in recent history. They quote Brown University professor Darrell West as saying the level of negative ads is already higher than the levels reached in 2000, 1996, and 1992, and since ads tend to get more negative as campaigns proceed, he assumes this will be the most negative campaign in the twentieth century. The nature of the ads is obvious to anyone who turns on a TV and has a functioning mind. So, the question remains: who is supposed to be influenced by them? A point the press regularly refuses to report --I suppose because it would be considered belittling to a certain portion of the electorate -- is the quality of mind that various campaign tactics address.. In the case of the Bush campaign, the answer is clear. They are going after ill-informed, unthoughtful people and the assumption is that persons of that character, who aren't offended by blatant untruths, constitute a majority of the voters. The genuine significance of this election may be the revelation of whether the United States has transformed itself into a dominion of the stupid.


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Mr. Bush continues to say that he will cut the deficit his policies have created in half over the next five years. I wonder what percentage of Americans understand that even if he's able to do what he says, the debt of the United States government will continue to rise at a ruinous rate. Much of the public seems unable to grasp that a deficit is not the debt but an addition to an accumulated debt that is already very high, Reality, though, is worse even than the situation the president's announced policies would produce. The budget that the House leaders pushed through on May 19th will not begin to do what the president has promised. For one thing, the tax cuts already in place are not included for years two through five. It seems we can't expect Mr. Ordinary American to tax his brain with such truths. That, at least, is what the Bush administration is counting on.


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A report by Donald J. Ryder, Provost Marshal of the Army, says that Iraqis were held in prison for months simply because they expressed displeasure over the occupation of their country.  (New York Times,  May 30, 2004). Yet, General Mark Kimmitt, the military spokesman in Iraq, says no one was held unjustly and that no one has either served his sentence or been found to be innocent. So, why, now, are great numbers being released? The Army won't say. It can't bothered to explain its procedures even as those procedures turn our foreign relations into a disaster. The army, at least, is following the lead of its commander in chief, who continues to claim the authority to imprison people without presenting any evidence against them or affording them the right to a basic legal defense.


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David Brock, former right-wing publicist who has now turned against his old associates and David Talbot, editor of the online magazine Salon, are, arguing that Armed Forces Radio should not broadcast Rush Limbaugh because he's prejudiced and bigoted. There's not much doubt that he's prejudiced and bigoted but I don't see that as a reason for banning him from the military airwaves. He is, after all, heard widely here in the United States. So, why shouldn't soldiers hear what we hear? Brock and Talbot are being naive about what attitudes we can expect soldiers to have. They are instruments of aggressive nationalism, which is the principal policy of the right wing. So, it's not likely that many of them will take up liberal or anti-war positions. That's just the nature of who they are. The notion that an army can or should reflect the sentiments of an entire people is unrealistic. We don't want the military directing our national affairs because we know they're not balanced in their views. And they will continue to lean rightward regardless of whether they're regaled by the fantasies of Rush Limbaugh.


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The defenders of Ahmad Chalabi are not going away. He was, after all, the point man for the neo-conservative phalanx, and if he is discredited then they will be considered even bigger fools than they're already thought to be. Michael Ledeen, writing in the online edition of The National Review (May 28, 2004) and using the take-no-prisoners rhetoric of the radical right, argues that the CIA and the State Department are setting Chalabi up as a scapegoat to cover their own failures. If Chalabi has ties to Iranian intelligence, so what? So do many other major figures in Iraq who enjoy American approval. In fact, says Ledeen, some kind of connection with Iran is required, if one wants to live. All this tells us that the battles within the U.S. government may be almost as fierce as the battles against foreign enemies. A couple of years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the CIA emerging as a champion of liberal values, but that's how it's now being painted by the super patriots who view liberal values as severely anti-American. The major media have yet to report adequately on the imperialist dreams of right-wingers in the Defense Department and their supporters.  They actually do want to rule the world.


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When Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield was arrested for having a fingerprint found at the site of the Madrid train bombing, the evidence was described by a U. S. official as being "absolutely incontrovertible." Then it turned out that the print came from somebody else. So what does "absolutely incontrovertible" mean? I have my own theory that when people use the adverb "absolutely" they are lying at least 69% of the time, but it's no more scientific than the fingerprint evidence used to throw Mr. Mayfield into jail. For years, the identification of fingerprints was considered the soundest way to prove criminal behavior. But now we are learning it's a very shaky business. There is no universal agreement for what constitutes a valid match, no statistical foundation for predicting the reliability of matches, no examination of how often mistakes are made. The only thing that seems to count in a fingerprint match is getting an expert to say that it exists. The flaws in the system are spelled out clearly by Jennifer Mnookin, a University of Virginia law professor, in the Washington Post (May 29, 2004). One might wonder why our legal system has been willing to accept uncritically evidence that's so highly suspect. But then one recalls that we throw more people in jail than any other nation. So, maybe that's the answer.


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The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported yesterday (May 27. 2004) that we now have about 2.1 million people in jail or prison. That's the highest incarceration rate in the world, by far. One would think it would be of concern to Americans but I guess it's not. We see relatively little reporting on it. I wonder what President Bush would say if he were asked why we have to have more people in jail than anybody else? But I wonder even more why he's never asked. Is there something about the American character that makes us more criminal than other people? Or is there something about our police and courts that makes them more eager to take away people's freedom than any other justice system in the world? It's a curious condition for a country that the president says regularly is more devoted to freedom than any other nation that has ever existed.


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You know what we have to do to counter the threat of a terrorist attack this summer? We have to "circle the wagons and put on a full-court press." This is it according to Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department employee who is now a professor at the University of Maryland (Associated Press, May 28, 2004). "Wow!" I thought to myself. "I wonder how we do that?" Meanwhile, Mr. Ashcroft wants me to be on the lookout for seven guys he says are likely to be terrorists. I checked in the Price Chopper yesterday and also at Legare's flower market, but I didn't see them. Still, I was at each place for only about thirty minutes, so who knows what was going on there the rest of the day? I, somehow, have the feeling that they're not in Montpelier, or Barre either. But, I guess that's exactly what they want me to think, isn't it? So, I'll keep on looking. But, gosh, the duties of patriotism are getting ever more exhausting. The thought of circling the wagons has got me worn out already.


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There have been many foolish stories bruited about Washington over the past two years, but probably the silliest is that the United States intends to return sovereignty to Iraq at the end of next month. There has never been an intention to do this and everybody who understands anything of what's going on in Iraq knows it. So why does the press play along with the story? Paul Hoagland (Washington Post, May 28, 2004) notes that the U.S. determination to retain "power in a rebellious country it spent American lives to occupy is one of those obvious power realities that diplomacy was invented to obscure." That may be so. But is it obvious that we have to swallow every pontification issued by government officials? The claim that we have a free press is undermined by affording credibility to such sham stories.


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An article in the Washington Post (May 28, 2004) tells how a woman returned home from her job in Baltimore to find her ten year old son decapitated and her two daughters slashed to death. The emphasis of journalism lately may have led some to believe that things like this happen only in benighted lands where members of the axis of evil are running amok. But if we paid closer attention to our domestic news, we would see we don't have to go abroad to find terrible deeds. Why do we have so much murder in the United States? That seems to me a bigger issue than Iraq. Yet the coverage it gets is as nothing compared to the attention lavished on the glories of international mayhem.


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\Now the press, led by the New York Times, has entered a period of soul-searching. Why did it not scrutinize government claims more carefully in the months before the invasion of Iraq? Explanations abound -- misplaced patriotism after the attacks of September 2001, intimidation by right-wingers, the desire to appear even-handed. All these may have played a role. Yet an influence that was probably stronger than any other is not being mentioned. The press likes war because war is a big, easy story. There are screaming headlines in war. There's the glory of steaming across the desert on the path to Baghdad. There are thousands of sob-stories about heroes who would rather be home playing baseball ripping themselves out of the arms of loving wives to go defend freedom on a foreign shore. Compared to these, the details of diplomacy are complex and boring. Who wants to read about them? If America is intellectually lazy, as many now say, why should the press be out of step?


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George Will (Washington Post,  May 27, 2004) points to Alexander Hamilton as the founding father whose lessons we are most in need of now. Hamilton, says Will, was willing to see the world as it was, and resisted being swept away by the poetry of democratic nationalism. This is the stance of the true conservative. Then Will, in a roundabout way, makes the point that should have been obvious to everyone but seems to have been missed by a majority of journalists: there's nothing conservative about the Bush administration. It is led by radical ideologues. We could transform American politics for the better if we would adopt one simple intellectual practice. When anyone speaks of the current Republican Party as being conservative, write him off as being an idiot. We might then begin to have an actual political discussion.


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On May 17, 2004, at Constitution Hall in Washington, Bill Cosby criticized segments of the poor black community for continued slovenly behavior, violence, and crime. His remarks have been controversial. It is not fair, say some, to chide people for behavior that rises from oppressive conditions. Others respond that regardless of how people are brought up, they have to take responsibility for their own actions. It's one more squabble  in the ongoing war over what causes what. Most people probably don't recognize that the official intellectual and academic position on the issue is wildly contradictory. It holds that we are both determined and free, and then toots along blithely arguing both sides of the question. We would do better to realize it's not a question that can be answered . Then, instead of fussing over who's to blame, we could concentrate our attention on how to make things better. And there, clarity is much easier to come by. When people have the opportunity for rewarding work, crime declines. When parents and other authority figures speak firmly to children about intelligent behavior we get a more polite and considerate population. These are the bulwarks of civilization, and without them, no amount of blaming will have the slightest effect.


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Seldom do I see an article I wish everyone in America would read. But one such appeared in this week's New Yorker (May 31, 2004). Jeffrey Goldberg's "Among the Settlers" is based on numerous interviews with people who live in the Gaza strip and in the West Bank. It shows indisputably that the range of opinion there about the Arab-Israeli conflict is bewildering. Yet, I suspect most of us knew that already. The two points Mr. Goldberg makes that I suspect we don't understand well in the United States are (1) the nature of fanaticism, and (2) the degree to which the Jewish settlements in nominally Palestinian territory have driven Israeli policy. There are many people in the greater Palestinian area who believe they are agents of Biblical prophesy. And with them, there appears to be no reasoning. They are on God's side and there's nothing else to be said. Though the Israeli government does not ostensibly think that way about itself, it has, nonetheless often been driven to act as though it did And, according to Mr. Goldberg, this means that the prospects for an end to the conflict are more bleak than most of us have realized.


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General Mark Kimmitt, the U. S. military spokesman in Iraq, has what must be the worst job in the world. But we can't be sure that he knows it. Everyday he trots out and says either false or fatuous things about the U. S. occupation. He is regularly shown to be wrong. Yet, as far as we can, tell it has no effect on him at all. His latest effort has been to deny that American airplanes blew up a house in western Iraq and killed many wedding guests. The Associated Press has produced persuasive evidence that a wedding was taking place there, and that many children were killed by the bombing. But Mark Kimmitt doesn't care. He continues to insist that the house was a terrorist headquarters and that no children were killed. This, I suppose, is his definition of loyalty -- to say anything his superiors tell him to say. It's hard to comprehend a mind that can perceive loyalty in that way. One thing we can be sure of, though: until we get rid of that notion of loyalty, the honor of the nation will continue to be stained.


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In an open letter to President Bush, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post (May 26, 2006) says of Mr. Bush's speech on Monday night, "Your words lacked the minimal dose of honesty a leader owes his nation in times of crisis." I'm afraid such a statement reflects Mr. Hoagland's inability to grasp Mr. Bush's thought processes. It is pointless to chide the president for not being honest because Mr. Bush defines honesty by what he says. He doesn't use the actual meaning of words to assist him in thinking through what he ought to want. Words for him are simply defined in terms of what he does in fact want. Hoagland goes on to speak of the lack of realism in both the speech and in the draft resolution the administration has submitted to the U. N. Security Council. Again, it's the same incomprehension. To speak of realism to Mr. Bush is like talking up compassion to a hawk. It's simply not pertinent.


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There seem to be two possible explanations for the nature of Mr. Bush's remarks last night (May 24, 2004) on the future of American involvement in Iraq. The first is that Mr. Bush and his advisors continue to have such a low opinion of the mind of the American electorate they believe it will always fall for empty abstractions, and plans that are no more than a description of the problem. The second is more terrible than the first. Mr. Bush actually believes he's saying something substantive when he speaks in this manner. I have tended to lean towards the former because the Bush administration has from its first day in office spoken to the American people as if they were a pack of pre-schoolers. But now, I begin to wonder. Maybe Mr. Bush's remarks were an example of the actual thought processes that go on within his administration. The events of the past year do lend credence to that interpretation.


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The noted psychologist Robert Jay Lifton says that to attribute the actions at Abu Ghraib prison to a few "bad apples," as administration officials continue to do, is "self-serving pseudomorality." (The Nation, May 31, 2004). In truth, the people who designed the war have created an "atrocity producing situation" in which human rights violations by U. S. soldiers are inevitable. It's a point that should be obvious to anyone who views the war impartially. But there's a further point Mr. Lifton implies but fails to make explicit. Whenever the affairs of nations are couched in mainly moral terms, somebody is on the verge of doing something really horrible. As soon as a nation begins to emphasize not its own interests but, rather, its duty to strike down evil, all restraints are lifted and the avenging nation is justified in doing anything to anybody. That's the message Mr. Bush has been sending to the soldiers and that's certainly the message they've received.


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When I was young, I was taken with T. S. Eliot's warning that one cannot spend his whole life making sure he votes for the right candidate. I still like the sound of it, but, given the way politics has pushed into life, voting for the right person has become more important than it once was. George W. Bush is the first president I've known who heads a movement that wants to transform the country into a place I could not cherish. There have been other presidents whose policies I didn't much like -- Richard Nixon, for example. Yet, I never saw Nixon as a person I needed to fear. I didn't think he wanted to do away with the nation I had always loved. With Bush, though, I sense that if he and his circle got their way, my country would be lost to me. How has it happened that we've become a people so intensely divided that one vision of our future is not just in contention with another but at war with it? I wish it hadn't happened but, somehow, it has. Now, voting, instead of being a mere exercise of opinion, has become a deadly somber business. I wish it weren't as important as it is. I wish we were squabbling about whether to pave a road or build a new airport. Yet, here we are, and I see no alternative to remaining a political animal in the coming decades.


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A mysterious aspect of public life is a strain of commentary some people consider clever. Admittedly, cleverness exists, more than most things, in the mind of the beholder. Still, cleverness, by definition, implies a nimble approach, a lightness of touch. Yet, truth is, many supposedly clever remarks outweigh lead. Here, for example, is Mickey Edwards, a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, who now teaches at Princeton and has a regular column in the Boston Globe (May 22, 2004):  "Word is that Kerry has settled on at least two Cabinet members: Kofi Annan at State; Dominique de Villepin at Defense. So far, however, it's all hush-hush." That's hilarious, isn't it? I hope none of Mr. Edwards's political compatriots choked or burst anything when they encountered the remark at breakfast, and, even more, that Mr. Edwards didn't strain his mental apparatus in coming up with it.


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Bill O'Reilly (The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News, May 21, 2004) has decided the prison scandal story in Iraq is getting too much attention. Americans have shown that they don't want to hear as much as they've been hearing about it. Cable news ratings have gone down since it became prominent (this, of course, is the ultimate disaster -- for cable news ratings to decline). Also, some critics are using the issue to criticize President Bush, and that's not appropriate in a time of war. In O'Reilly World, all the president has to do to place himself beyond criticism, at least with respect to foreign policy, is to launch a war.  Mr. O'Reilly is among the legion of right-wing commentators who believes that the purpose of the press is to support the nation, with the nation being identified with the government, that is, when it's in the hands of the Republicans. Bad news has to be mentioned, of course, because if it were completely ignored other, less patriotic, newscasters might seize an advantage.. But it needs to be downplayed just as quickly as possible so that everyone can get back to winning the war. One wonders if there is anything our government could do to non-Americans that O'Reilly wouldn't find a way either to rationalize or push in the background. I doubt very much there is.


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There's a great book to be written on the Bush administration's mostly covert attempt to destroy the ancient right of habeas corpus. That right, which emerged under English law, ordained that if the state seized someone, it had to bring him before a court and charge him with something specific, a charge that he could then defend himself against. The state was not authorized simply to stick him in a hole somewhere and keep him there indefinitely. But the Bush administration claims it does have that authority and the instrument being used to carry it out is the legal provision for detaining "material witnesses."  The purpose of that modification of habeas corpus is to ensure that someone who has important evidence about an upcoming case appear in court to testify. It is not supposed to be used to throw somebody in jail that the government doesn't like but has no evidence against. Yet, that's exactly how it is being used by the current administration. The detention of the Portland, Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield is an example. The government jailed him as a material witness and put out the story that his fingerprint had been found at the site of the Madrid train bombing. There was no such fingerprint. It now appears that Mr. Mayfield was targeted because he had defended an Islamic radical. If the government, without evidence, can put anyone in jail just because that person has done something the government finds disagreeable, then the freedom we are supposedly defending around the world is suppressed here at home.


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The Bridge is a bi-weekly community newspaper published in Montpelier by my friend Nat Frothingham. He just came back from a trip to England and while he was there, of course, he read the local newspapers. The picture of the world and of America he received was very different from the one he gets here at home. There's nothing surprising in that. Most people who think about such things know that the rest of the world does not see us as we see ourselves. Even so, I suspect many would be surprised to find just how strong the contrast is. It would be a good thing if everyone in the country could see the piece Nat put in The Bridge about his overseas reading. But even if others did see it they would probably figure that Montpelier is just as strange as Europe is and discount it for that reason.


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Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, said recently in a speech to broadcasters, "You do not want the government to write a red book on what you can say and not say." This was to explain why the FCC will not specify a list of words which, if uttered on the air, will bring down massive fines on the organizations responsible for them. You have to figure it out yourself and if you figure wrong then you lose a lot of money. The current crackdown by the FCC on profanity is bound to be both selective and arbitrary. And, therefore, it is also bound to be tyrannical. One of the hardest things for some Americans to grasp is that not all objectionable behavior can or should be illegal. It's a notion that comes from  people who can't imagine a social improvement devoid of killing, imprisonment, or fines. I confess, I don't like vulgar talk being spewed into public discourse. But I know that if we're going to make it less common, it will not be by government imposition. When the government begins to levy huge fines for language that every elementary school child hears everyday on his playground, the motive is not to enhance the use of language. It is rather, the desire for control, which is the greatest narcotic now being gobbled in Washington.


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Poor Ahmed Chalabi! He's no doubt sitting and grumbling to himself, "There's no honor among thieves.." The idea that the U. S. officials have turned against him just because they've lately discovered his genuine nature is magnificently silly. Anyone who has paid attention to him over the past ten years, while he's been raking in millions from the American taxpayers, knows who he is and how he could be expected to behave once he got himself installed in Iraq. He hasn't changed one whit. He was supposed to be the American puppet-leader of Iraq, doing the will of the U.S. government while proclaiming the glories of Iraqi sovereignty and democracy. And that's all he wants to do, even now. It's just that the U.S. government has found out that putting him into power would be harder than they thought. It's easier to stab him in the back or, as Jim Hoagland has suggested in the Washington Post (May 21, 2004), set him up for murder by proxy. And why should we care if a new proxy murders an old one? After all, our motives are pure.


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Much has been made over the past few weeks about the provision in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that no soldier is obliged to obey an unlawful order and that if he does he's responsible for criminal behavior. But what if you go to a war, behave honorably, and then decide that the whole thing is unlawful? What then? That's the situation facing Sergeant Camilo Mejia who is being tried by court martial for refusing to return to Iraq after he was home on leave (His trial got underway on May 19, 2004, at Ft. Stewart). He says he saw things there done routinely by American forces that no decent person can accept and that are clearly illegal under the terms of international agreements by which the United States is bound. In his mind, to go back and continue participating in them would be illegal. I know most people would say you can't have soldiers deciding whether a war is legal or not. That would introduce chaos. But, really, what's the difference between deciding that an individual order is illegal and that the overall conduct of the war is illegal? On the one hand you're required to refuse. On the other you're forbidden to refuse. It'll be interesting to see what sort of spin military prosecutors put on that distinction.


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Recently (May 14, 2004), William J. Bennett went out to Palm Springs to talk to the Claremont Institute President's Club. He employed his renowned intellect to inform the clubbers that though, regrettably, we are occasionally inhumane, our opponents are not even human. Consequently, it is time to "unleash our terrible swift sword" which we may have kept sheathed for too long. You might imagine that relatives of the twenty thousand people we've killed in Iraq would say, "Some sheath!" Mr. Bennett marches in the ranks of Americans who believe that our major national problem is an unwillingness to kill enough people. Given that the kill ratio in Iraq has been approximately 23:1, higher even than it was in Vietnam, you'd think that our resolution for killing would get higher marks than it does. The feature of the march-to-glory-through-killing guys I find most interesting is that they'll never tell us how many people we've got to kill. It's always just, "more," but how many more no one will say. I suppose the implication is, "as many as it takes." But if it takes millions, we need to start budgeting more for this than we do.


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We're slowly moving toward an explanation of what happened at Abu Ghraib and what seems to have happened all round the world. Since we're fighting not people but terror, the rules pertinent to the treatment of people no longer apply. If we can take somebody and move him outside the status of humanity and into the status of a servant of terror, there's nothing we can't do to him. In that case it would be ridiculous to be bothered by petty matters like the Geneva Conventions. What seems to have been forgotten is that everybody wants to be important. Since terror is far more important than ordinary enemies -- it has, after all, changed the world as we knew it forever -- then everybody wants to be in charge of terrorists instead of dealing with boring old prisoners. And, as we know, the wish is father to the fact. We can create terrorists just by the application of words, and then everybody can not only be important but have fun as well. If it just weren't for those silly pictures.


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A curious effect we've all been exposed to over the past fifteen months is the manner in which death supplies its own narcotic. Three years ago if an American soldier were killed his death would have been screamed forth in the headlines. It wasn't all that long ago that the killing of a dozen people in Israel would have been real news. Now, these are simply ho-hum items, just a part of the ongoing buzz. They show us that if we have accepted a 500% increase in the rate of death over the recent past, we'll probably accept a comparable increase in the near future. Writing in the Boston Globe (May 19, 2004), David F. D'Alessandro, CEO of John Handcock Financial Services, explains why. Neither his son nor Mr. Bush's daughters, all of whom are graduating from college this spring, are in any danger of getting blown up in Iraq or anywhere else. As long as the people who die remain essentially non-human in our psyches, then death is simply an item of mild passing interest which elicits hackneyed phrases (how terrible -- the best our nation has to offer -- the ultimate sacrifice -- we will never forget what they did). Having paid the tribute of rhetoric, the president and the CEOs return to their comfortable lives, their children continue to have fun, and the news reporters suck up the right cues about what's really important.


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Now comes Anne Applebaum (Washington Post, May 19, 2004) to say that the history presented in American textbooks is dopey. What a revelation! Why would Ms. Applebaum expect anything else? It's as though she thinks the schools are supposed to be engaged in education. It's a quaint view that has had little standing in American schooling for a long time. The schools are not designed to educate. They are supposed to prepare people to get the jobs the economic system provides and to shape themselves so that they'll be willing to labor in those jobs for most of their lives. What's education got to do with that? The problem, Ms. Applebaum, is not bad textbooks. They're just the effluvia of the problem. The problem is an attitude about what a human mind ought to be. Educated people could not support the policies currently being put to them by their supposed leaders. And their leaders know that. So why would they want searching, well-written textbooks or anything else that leads toward a critical mind?


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Nicholas Kristof (New York Times, May 19, 2004) says that tough-guy American policies -- isolation, sanctions, name-calling -- are keeping dictatorial regimes in power. This is particularly true in Iran, one of the most hopeful nations in the Middle East but also one of the most dangerous. Vigorous negotiations, involving the prospect of American investment, would move Iran towards a stable democracy faster than the saber-rattling rhetoric so beloved by Mr. Bush and his circle. That's doubtless true. Yet, Kristof's psychological analysis of Iran offers only part of the solution. He needs to turn his attention to the psychology of American leadership. If he did, he would see that the kind of negotiation he proposes -- genuine give and take -- is what the Bush administration most fears. Both he and we need to understand that this unease is personal. Whatever virtues Mr. Bush may possess, the ability to engage in back and forth is not one of them. Anyone who has watched one of his press conferences knows that he relies, almost exclusively, on the repetition of mantras. Some perceive this as strength and resolution. One can see it that way but he cannot, logically, call it discourse. It is folly to expect a group of men to adopt a policy at which they feel themselves to be inept. If Mr. Kristof wants real negotiations, he had best start working towards different negotiators.


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Gosh! Now David Brooks has become a historical philosopher (New York Times, May 18, 2004). He has discovered the pattern of America. We bumble into an idealistic project with no notion of what's going to be required. We discover that we don't really know what we're doing. But, then, we readjust and the outcome, though not exactly what we hoped, is better than it was before. What Mr. Brooks forgets to note, however, is that it's better only if you're still alive. The lives ground up in these idealistic bumblings don't much count at the level of the philosophy of history. He sees the pattern at work in Iraq and he's very hopeful. I'd like for him to sit down in a room with people who have no legs, or no arms, or dead and mangled sons and daughters, and tell them what a cheery story it really is. Then they could go away much happier.


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It may well be that when future historians come to tell the story of the CIA in the half-century after 1950, they'll discover that the agency's prime activity lay in nurturing terrorist organizations that later became vehement enemies of the United States. Certainly that was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, which grew to power in Egypt during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The U. S. government got out of sorts with Nasser because he wouldn't sign on in the struggle against the Soviet Union -- then the source of all evil. So Miles Copeland, a CIA agent in Cairo, began to visit mosques in the hope of organizing resistance to Nasser (what he really wanted to do was to find a Muslim Billy Graham). Out of those visits came a covert alliance with a group that had been a social welfare movement but was being transformed into an instrument of political terror. The outcome of the connection was the modern Brotherhood, which was instrumental in planning the first attack on the World Trade Center. The sad thing about CIA covert activity is that most of the time it's really covert. So we'll never know the full history of the spin-offs that came from CIA schemes. Even so, it's not fantastic to suppose that if there had been no CIA over the past fifty years, we would be more secure now than we are. Still, that's a fantastic supposition. An America without the CIA is not a thing either we or the world can imagine. You can read about these activities in Martin Lee's article in the June Harper's Magazine,  and in the book, Sleeping With the Enemy, by longtime CIA agent Robert Baer.


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I have been in the habit of thinking that the same sex marriage issue has been overblown. On the one hand, I had nothing against the practice. On the other, it seemed to me that people who wished to share their lives had ways to do it freely that weren't seriously impinged by inability to enter the traditional arrangement. But the pictures I saw on the national news last night (May 17, 2004), coming from towns in Massachusetts, have influenced my perspective. The joy on the faces of those who received their marriage certificates cannot be denied. Though I, in my hard-headedness, may think they didn't get all that much, that is, clearly, not the way they see it. Who am I -- or who is anyone else -- to denigrate the pleasure of newly married couples? I'm not going to do it. I wish them all happiness in their unions till death do them part.


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The current Harper's Magazine  (June 2004) has a spate of letters about Thomas Frank's article from April, which expressed mystification over the way middle Americans from rural regions continue to support Republicans even though Republican economic policies are taking them to the cleaners. The explanation in most of the letters is that liberals with their snooty, effete tone are more offensive to these people than economic manipulation is. The letter writers are mostly correct. People would rather be cheated than they would be scorned, and those are the only options they see. That's really all they mean when they say Republicans represent values. It's a devilish problem because anyone who opposes the policies of the current administration -- which actually have been unhealthy for the entire country -- gets associated with hoity-toity, super-sensitive, cry-baby attitudes which are very hard for most Americans to stomach. There seem to be no Harry Trumans in the land. I wish I had an answer. At the moment, there's a hope that the Bush circle will reveal itself to be so fanatical people will hold their noses and vote for anyone other than the president. It won't be a glorious outcome but, perhaps, it's as good as we can expect from politics.


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Who is Larry Wilkerson and what did he say? He's Colin Powell's chief of staff. And he said that the Bush administration's recently redrafted stance on Cuba is the "dumbest policy on the face of the Earth." And who was it that wrote the new policy which calls for even further isolation of Cuba? Colin Powell. The secretary of state's position within this administration is one of the strangest political phenomena we have seen in decades. Yet, incidents like this, which tell us something about it, fly under the radar of the major news organizations. It seems that the president can't get rid of Powell even if he wants to. And Powell, knowing that he is immune, continues to do and say subversive things while at the same time claiming to be completely loyal to his leader. Who knows? He may go down in history as the American Talleyrand. If John Kerry wins the election, Powell might stay right on in the State Department.


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The president's poll numbers continue to slide downward. The latest Zogby Poll (May 16, 2004) says that Bush's job approval rating is now 42%.. If the poll is only moderately accurate, this means that millions of people have changed their minds about President Bush over the past six months. Why? The president has done nothing to change anyone's mind. He is pursuing exactly the same policies in exactly the same way as he has all along. What's different about him? If you liked him before why wouldn't you like him now? A mind that has changed over the past half-year about President Bush is a terrifying thing to contemplate. Since it changes without reason, there's no telling what it might do. It might push us towards democracy; it might push us towards fascism. And, whichever way it pushed, there would be no way to explain it. Or, if there were, it wouldn't be an explanation that pertained to a thinking entity.


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Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have said repeatedly that the events at Abu Ghraib prison were un-American and don't reflect American values. They might find it instructive to trot over to Corriganville, Maryland and check out the attitudes about hometown boy Joseph Darby who revealed what was going on at the prison. His sister-in-law Maxine Carroll says she's worried about his safety when he comes home. She and her family have gone away to an undisclosed location. Evidently, some of Darby's neighbors haven't found his actions heroic. Do you suppose there could be a whole town right in the middle of America that could be un-American? What would account for that? It seems that "American" is what the president says is American. The feelings and actions of the people who live in America have little to do with it.


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I just watched the CBS news program Face the Nation, where Senators Carl Levin and Lindsey Graham were interviewed about the situation in the prisons in Iraq. You know what I learned? The people who have suffered most from what happened in the prisons are the majority of American soldiers and the American people. "Wow!" I thought to myself. Might not the guys who were stripped of their clothing, and bound to bars, and bitten by dogs, and hooded, and forced into contorted positions, and beaten, and handcuffed with others to form masses of flesh, qualify as being among the top sufferers? Even the people who are most avid to correct this situation show what our problem is with the rest of the world. Everything is about us. What happens to others doesn't matter, except as it may reflect on us. Even so, there's a feature of our international relations that canker them even more than our self-absorption. We are incapable of grasping that non-Americans are offended by our refusal to acknowledge their existence as actual human beings.. We seem to be in the grip not only of radical egotism but of pure failure of imagination. And it's the latter that hurts us even more than our childish narcissism.


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David Broder (Washington Post, May 16, 2004) says that John Kerry may be making a mistake by trying to challenge George Bush as a strong leader. Bush's connection with strong leadership is supposedly so firm in the public's mind that Kerry might be wise to avoid the topic altogether. This, I suppose, is an interesting feature of political strategy but in pursuing it as he does Broder ignores a far more intriguing question. What do the American people regard as strong leadership? Broder doesn't say so outright, yet the implication of his words is that, for most people, pigheadedness is the principal feature of leaderly strength. Can this be the case? Do we as a people believe that refusal to consider alternative points of view is what makes a great leader? Presumably, a leader is a person one would wish to follow. And, if we can believe Mr. Broder, we want to follow a man who never looks around enough to know actually where he's going.


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In her column for May 16, 2004 (New York Times), Maureen Dowd suggests that the president and his cabinet members may catch a showing of Troy while they're jetting about in their big airplanes. If the president did happen to see Troy, I wonder what he would make of it? In the film, Achilles is depicted as leaving his home to fight in a war he cares nothing about so that his name will go trumpeting down the ages. But does it trumpet in the ears of the president of the United States? Or, does he say, "Achilles who?" We are such an anti-literary and anti-historical society that, in our public discourse, we pay almost no attention to the materials that shaped the imagination of our political leaders. It would be informative to know whether Mr. Bush has ever gloried in Homer's grand tale, or whether he has a preferred translation. But that's not the sort of thing we talk about, is it? That would be silly, wouldn't it?


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It seems to be a coming thing in the Bush administration to boast of not reading the newspapers. One wonders when it will become a requirement. We have visions of a cowed undersecretary, dragged from a broom closet in disgrace, a copy of the Washington Post protruding from his briefcase. "Can this be treason?" an enraged commander in chief thunders. It's clear to anyone who watches that a trademark of the Bush administration in the histories of the future will be not only ignorance, but pride in ignorance. Knowing things is the mark of the weak little boy, whereas men who bestride the earth brush knowledge aside as they do all else. It's a comic book ideal, so maybe there is a little reading going on after all.


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Not only lying, but purely nonsensical lying, has become so commonplace from our government offices that scarcely anyone notices it any more. Here, for example, is a statement from the New York Times (May 15, 2004) in an article about the change of interrogation procedures in Iraq: "The senior Central Command official said the coercive practices were dropped because General Sanchez was not receiving requests to use most of them." So that was the reason! Publicity and pictures had nothing to do with it. It's such a completely silly statement you have to wonder about the brain of a person who would utter it. Might it have been a joke? There's no indication that it was. It seems to be the case that officials will say anything, no matter how foolish, if they think they can momentarily deflect searching questions. And the media, for the most part, let them get away with it. What do you want to bet that the New York Times will not vigorously pursue the question of whether interrogation techniques were dropped because nobody wanted to use them any longer?


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When I was a young army officer, I was told, repeatedly, "Never ask your men to do anything you're not willing to do yourself." It's a good principle and ought to apply up the line to the commander in chief himself.  It doesn't, however, seem to be honored any longer. Mr. Bush is said to have told the CIA that he doesn't want to know where "high-value" detainees are being held (Boston Globe, May 15, 2004). Why not? I can think of only one reason. He needs to distance himself from practices that he nonetheless wants employed. Then, if they become a public issue, he can toss a few "bad apples" in prison and retain his moral purity. Six years ago I wrote to Governor Bush suggesting that if he wanted Karla Faye Tucker killed he should, as an exemplar of civic virtue, drive over to the prison and stick the needle in her himself. He didn't take my advice, but he did send me a letter which ended by saying, "God bless Karla Faye Tucker." Indeed. And in the light of what our representatives have been doing in Iraq, God bless us all.


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The Bush administration is asking Congress for $25 billion that would go into a "contingent emergency reserve fund." That means the president could spend it pretty much any way he wished, with little public accountability or Congressional scrutiny. The president wants it appropriated this way so  he can have flexibility. This is money to tide the government over until next October, when the new budget will go into effect. Meanwhile, we continue to spend approximately $5 billion each month to keep armies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a curious situation when a government which assured the public that costs for its military operations would not approach what, in fact, they have already far surpassed, can ask for additional billions to be spent in unaccountable ways. The mantra, of course, is that we've got to support our troops. But guess what? Our troops are not getting rich off these billions. They're getting killed. Some, though, are getting rich and if Congress were performing its proper function, it would be asking, who?


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After months of uncertainty, high-ranking U. S. officials are saying that if the Iraqi government which takes charge on June 30th, wants the American forces to leave, then they will leave. But if they stay in the country, they will retain the right to do anything they want. Colin Powell emphasized both  points yesterday (May 14, 2004) in a meeting of foreign ministers. Is this a workable position? Put yourself in the place of the Iraqi governors. They can tell a foreign army to get out. But they can't stop a foreign army from doing what its wants to do if it stays. The pressure on the new officials to get rid of foreign forces will become so great they will either have to give into it or  persuade their guests to repress it. In either case, their position becomes tenuous. We can only wonder at the motives of men who would agree to step into a situation where their freedom seems to consist in picking among forms of suicide.


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It turns out that the CIA has been laboring for decades to devise techniques of torture that differ enough from old-fashioned methods that we could torture to our heart's content and still deny, to a backward-looking public, that we were doing it. What ingenious guys! It sends pride coursing through the veins  to think of them grinding steadily away on the public payroll. But now their techniques have been put on public display at Abu Ghraib prison and for some unaccountable reason the public doesn't like them. Ingratitude is getting more and more out of hand in this country. I guess it'll be back to the drawing boards. Perhaps some of the $25 billion now being requested by the administration can be devoted to research in this area. A patriot's work is never done.


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Jimmy Carter's op/ed piece in today's Washington Post (May 14, 2004) is the best summary I've seen of how our government's contempt for legal safeguards is undermining civil rights around the world. When the United States becomes not a champion of legal restraint but, rather, a denigrator, dismissing traditional ideals as weakness in the face of terror, dictatorial regimes are emboldened to follow the U. S. lead. Mr. Carter reminds us that often the most important effects of an action are not the ones addressed in newspaper headlines. The weakening of habeas corpus and the right to confront and refute one's accuser will be with us long after our adventure in Iraq has passed. There's nothing bold or resolute in slicing away legal rights. Actually, it's almost always a reflection of craven panic.


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The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram says that the very act of military occupation is a crime and that "the torture in Abu Ghraib refutes the claim that Western occupation is a way of promoting freedom and democracy, culture and humanitarianism." These are charges the Bush administration would forcefully reject. Yet the manner of doing it would, without doubt, strengthen belief in the charges everywhere outside the United States. Right now we have a double problem in our interaction with the international community. A majority of its citizens believe we are using our military forces recklessly and illegally. But, probably, an even larger majority detests the way our government tries to justify its actions. Self-proclamation of one's own nobility is ineffective in maintaining influence. Blowhardism is so ingrained in the American character we'll have a hard time learning that it's doing us no good. But there's no lesson that could better enhance our national health.


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An MSNBC poll asked me if I were voting today whether I would vote for Mr. Bush, or Mr. Kerry, or Mr. Nader. I clicked, mostly to discover how other people had answered, and found that among fellow clickers -- about 16,000 -- the breakdown was (as of May 13, 2004):

Bush 25%Kerry 70%Nader 5%    

The web site was quick to explain that this poll is not intended to be a scientific sample of national opinion. I'm sure it's not. People who are trying to handicap the election would be ill-advised to pay much attention to these numbers. Yet the numbers must tell us something that's worth consideration. The question is, what?

I guess we can assume that anyone visiting the MSNBC web site has a stronger interest in politics than the average American. We have to assume that clickers are people who have online access, still probably a minority of Americans. But can we assume that people who go to political web sites are better informed than people who don't? We can't be sure, but it seems almost reasonable. If we accepted the hypothesis, we would have to conclude that informed people do not want Mr. Bush to continue as president by a striking margin. Still, I don't know what we could do with such information, because a person who votes knowledgeably carries no more weight in an election than one who is ignorant. So, knowing the MSNBC numbers is probably useless. Still, they strike me as moderately interesting.


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We Americans have some curious abilities. We manage to elect to Congress the most shockable people in the nation. A goodly number of them trooped over to the Pentagon yesterday (May 12, 2004) to look at pictures from Iraq. And virtually all of them seem to have been shocked by what they saw. If I understand the word correctly, a "shocking" experience must have some element of surprise in it. I can't understand why anyone would be surprised to find that Iraqi prisoners have been mistreated. Have our members of Congress never read a text in political philosophy? Have they never seen an episode of the Jerry Springer Show? When one group of people is given power over another group, and there's no outside supervision or checking, the group with power behaves cruelly to the group with no power. That's elementary. Yet, still, it's shocking to our Congressmen and Senators. Is this demonical innocence or just plain old posturing?


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The novelist Kurt Vonnegut says that the most vocal Christians want the Ten Commandments posted up in public places but you never see them making the same case for the Sermon on the Mount (In These Times, May 10, 2004). He points to an interesting feature of politics nowadays. The people who vehemently describe themselves as being Christians are accepted by the media and the public as Christians regardless of whether their behavior has anything to do with Christianity. That's doubtless because "Christianity," like so many other words, has been emptied of meaning when it's plugged into political discourse. I heard a young woman on TV a couple nights ago say that she was going to vote for Mr. Bush, even though she disagreed with his policies, because he is a Christian. Mr. Kerry is also a Christian, so, presumably, the two candidates are equal in that respect. But, of course, they're not. Mr. Bush is more stentorian about his Christianity than Mr. Kerry is. That seems to be the only function Christianity plays in politics -- self-proclamation. If one is aggressive about his Christian identity, he gets the "Christian" vote, regardless of what he believes or how he behaves.


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Thomas Friedman, at long last, seems to have grasped the nature of the Bush administration. In a scathing column (New York Times,May 13, 2004) he says the Bush team is more interested in domestic political success and in appeasing its followers than it is in an intelligent policy for the Middle East. But, he ends by saying that Mr. Bush has a strong moral vision. What might he mean by that? I've been paying close attention lately when journalists and politicians use the words "moral" and "morality," trying to discover exactly what's being said. The conclusion I've reached is, nothing. The terms have become empty words, devoid of meaning, thrown in to stroke the public's self-congratulatory impulse. We Americans may not always have the facts, and our understanding of foreign subtleties may be less than perfect, but we always want to be good people. Who cares? What can "good" or "moral" mean when they're divorced from intelligent analysis and comprehension of reality? Our politics would take a stride toward health if we would ban the use of "moral" and "morality" for the next five years.


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It has become fashionable to excuse miserable behavior, at least partially, by saying that we don't know what we would have done had we been in the situation of the person in question. That's the thesis of Anne Applebaum's column this morning (May 12, 2004) in the Washington Post. Technically, she's right. No one can predict the future. Yet, it's a mistake to think that the pressure of events will usually overwhelm one's own sense of right and wrong. When people commit acts that are later painted as bad, it's not normally because they were thrown off keel by pressure. They didn't consider the acts bad when they did them and, chances are, they don't consider their acts bad in retrospect. They may say they do to avoid political and legal inconvenience. But the truth is the acts were, and are, fairly consistent with their mental makeup. We misunderstand this because we habitually assume that one is all one thing or all another. A person is either good or bad. That's nonsense. There's nothing inconsistent in a person's being a warm and loving father and a torturer. Torture comes about not because torturers are bad people in the ordinary sense of the term. It occurs because certain people, in the torturer's mind, have been placed outside humanity . It's really more of an intellectual problem than it is a moral one. In America we moralize far too much, and it fuzzes our brains.


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If the American public is to begin the trek towards facing reality, we have to recognize that a significant portion of our political leaders and journalists will justify anything done in the name of American power. That was demonstrated yesterday (May 11, 2004) when the senate was shown additional pictures of the events in Iraqi prisons. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma was outraged. But he was not outraged by what was done to the prisoners. Rather, his anger was directed at "humanitarian do-gooders crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations ...." Meanwhile, the vice president of the United States is worried that release of additional photographs might allow guilty parties to get off the hook. And, in his column this morning (May 12, 2004) in the New York Times, William Safire urges "idealists" in Iraq to "hold fast" until the current wave of "pessimism" passes. The United States was founded on the notion that political power needs to be restrained rather than unleashed. The voices who proclaim that America can do no wrong are undermining our traditions more surely than any "humanitarian" who ever crawled over anything. Whether the public will begin to perceive super patriotism as vile rather than noble is the central question facing not only this nation but the world.


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In a nuanced piece about why Donald Rumsfeld should resign -- not because he's a bad man but precisely because he's a good man -- George Will makes the argument that Americans must not flinch from the facts (Washington Post, May 11, 2004). It's a sensible statement but it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't point out that flinching from the facts has become a national pastime, from the most powerful political leaders to the average guy in a bar. Last Sunday, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Seymour Hersh was asked whether administration figures had tried to cover up the situation at Abu Ghraib prison. He replied that they hadn't tried to cover up because they hadn't wanted to know. The practice of the Bush administration has been not to know about realities that don't fit their self-image. In this, they are not atypical Americans. Self-knowledge is not an American ideal and until we embrace it more thoroughly than we have our politics will continue to be a mess.


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Now comes a Red Cross report which says that mistreatment of Iraqis by American forces has been widespread and routine (Associated Press and Washington Post, May 11, 2004). Yet, American politicians continue to gasp in surprise and to say the revelations are "unbelievable." What world have they been living in? One must assume that they never watch television, never survey the array of former military "experts" the cable news channels trot out to explain all things "professional." Ten minutes with a typical sampling of these people tells you that they come from a system in which the use of brutal physical force is viewed as the principal way of solving problems. For many of them it is a religion. Why would we expect, when they're turned loose, with no outside inspection or supervision, that they would do anything other than apply the dictates of their faith? Just because they're nice family men who come from nice American small towns, where "values" reign? The main political need of the American people is to open their minds to reality. A democracy that subsists on illusion can be as monstrous as any dictatorship. And our illusion about what the U. S. Army is has been worse than monstrous. Is it a collection of clean-cut Americans who have loved ones at home? Yes. Has it been trained to apply brutal physical force routinely? Yes, also. So that's what it does. Any surprise in that?


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Writing in the National Review (May 7, 2004), Victor David Hanson says that American weakness comes from an unwillingness to kill enough people to teach other countries they have been defeated and from being too queasy about humiliating them enough so that they'll really consider changing their ways. As he says, we worry more than we should about "a momentary lapse in humanism," referring, I suppose, to recent events in Iraqi prisons. I suspect, if you were one of the prisoners, you wouldn't have thought it was momentary enough, but, according to Mr. Hanson, that's exactly the sort of weak-kneed thinking that's bringing us into trouble. I see quite a few arguments to this effect, but what never seems to accompany them is what we most need to know. How many people do we have to kill to carry out this plan? And how much will it cost to kill them? It seems pretty clear that, up to a point, the more people you kill, the more the survivors hate you and will try to kill you in return. Hanson must believe that if you push on past that point and kill with sufficient ruthlessness the enemy will undergo a change of heart so that peace and stability will descend on those regions of the world that aren't behaving as we wish them to. That would be sweet. Yet, still, it would be good to have a number.


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James Q. Whitman, Yale law professor and the author of a book spelling out the differences between European and American prison systems, says that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq may tell us something about what's going on in prisons in the United States (Washington Post, May 10, 2004). After all, the attitudes we have seen exhibited in Iraq must have come from somewhere. The issue Mr. Whitman raises is the practice of degradation in managing prisoners? Is it effective? Americans say yes. Europeans say no. Since most prisoners are eventually released, you would think we would want them to learn improved behavior while they're in prison. It makes little sense for a prison to function as a university of bad behavior. Yet, the system we have in America models the worst behavior possible by teaching that it's appropriate for one set of humans to degrade another set on a daily basis. If you don't think that's what's going on in American prisons, you ought to visit one. I once spent most of a day in Raiford Prison in Florida. I found nothing there which could be called overt torture. But the entire system functioned to teach the prisoners that they are less than human. And, guess what? It works.


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As usual, William Safire gets things about half right in his column calling on Donald Rumsfeld not to resign (New York Times, May 10, 2004). I'm beginning to think of him as Mr. 50%. He's right to say that nothing would be served by Rumsfeld's resignation. But he's wrong to say it would strengthen the president's opponents. No one can present the president as he actually is better than Mr. Rumsfeld at the Defense Department. And nothing could be better for the opponents than for the country to come finally to perceive the reality of Mr. Bush. As for Safire's notion that Mr. Rumsfeld is a friend of civil liberties, we can write that off as delusion induced by self-congratulation. But we can also join Mr. Safire in congratulating Mr. Safire for standing up against Star Chamber proceedings after September 2001.


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Last night (May 8, 2003), Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political guru, went down to Lynchburg and told the graduates at Liberty University that character is what really counts in life. It was a thesis of such scintillating originality I would guess the graduates were left gasping. But the even more fascinating part of Mr. Rove's lesson was that character is either something you have or you don't have. It doesn't seem to be anything you can acquire. Mr. Rove, himself, showed that he had it at age nine by persisting in his Republicanism after he was beaten up by a Catholic girl who supported John F. Kennedy. It's too bad Mr. Kennedy isn't still around to add items to his profiles in courage. This was yet one more in the surge of "there are two kinds of people" theses which are sprouting all over America now. I can't be sure whether it's more thoroughly grounded than red versus blue, or hard versus soft, or good versus evil. But it does tell us quite a lot about how we think.


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You know who's the foremost political analyst in America? According to George Will (Washington Post, May 9, 2004) it's Michael Barone. And Mr. Barone has now written a book on the ancient theme: there are two kinds of people. In America, there are hard people, who support President Bush. And there are soft people who listen to a pack of liberal weenies. You can read about them in Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future.  I don't guess you can tell from the title which side Mr. Barone is on. Soft America depends on hard America because soft America is childish and weak whereas hard America is ready, at a moment's notice, to go anywhere in the world and kick ass, whether economically or militarily. Will doesn't say so but I guess we saw a portrait of hard America coming out in the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison last week. All this whining about a little vigorous interrogation shows just how deeply soft America has sunk its tentacles into our sensibility. Geographically, the blue states are soft and the red states are hard. So it's from the red states we can expect to find salvation in the future. There seems to be just one area where the hard/soft explanation doesn't apply, and that's in the arena of thought. If the colleges thirty years ago had been so hard as  to require their graduates actually to think, Mr. Bush and his most of his associates might all be working at Wal Mart.


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The Washington Post (May 8, 2004) says that Donald Rumsfeld's appearance before the Senate Armed Forces Committee was inadequate because he refuses to accept the fundamental nature of the problem concerning the persons the U. S. government decides to detain (that means put in jail). This is to ask Mr. Rumsfeld to do something he can scarcely do. He can't accept the fundamental nature of the problem, at least not publicly, because that problem is the mind of the president of the United States. When immature thoughts direct the affairs of a great nation, that nation will bumble into one foolish situation after another. Mr. Bush is incapable of seeing the connection between his black and white view of the world and the behavior of military guards in U. S. prisons. He has told them repeatedly that they are agents of purity in a war against total evil. Somebody, they don't know who, has put servants of that evil into their charge. These people are presumed guilty from the start, just by virtue of their having been incarcerated. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person could expect anything other than brutal treatment. Yet the president of the United States professes to be shocked. That's the fundamental problem.


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If you would like an example of complete muddle, peer into the mind of David Brooks (New York Times, May 8, 2004). He shows us once again that moderate skill in popular sociology is not the same thing as thought. He's pretty good at describing the difference between an all-you-can-eat meal at Shoney's and a hundred dollar layout in an snobbish Boston restaurant. But when it comes to analyzing the behavior of national governments and suggesting courses for them to follow, he's no better than the average ex-colonel. Now, he says we can no longer rely on "coalitions of the willing" (how could anyone ever have relied on anything with a name that silly?). Nor can we expect anything from the United Nations. Yet we've got to project our power into the world because a power vacuum is worse than imperial domination. So, what's to be done? We've must organize an alliance of democratic nations that will "harness" our military power. He doesn't say who's going to join this alliance, or why they would join. And he seems to have forgotten that the most likely candidates for membership are the democracies of Europe, which our government has spent the last two years scorning for their supposed corruption, naivete, and weakness. There's no reason to believe the United States has the skill to bring such an alliance into being or to believe that if it were miraculously formed it would work any better than the international organizations already available to us. Yet, this is the best thought Mr. Brooks has to offer in this moment of national crisis.


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A letter writer in my local paper (Times-Argus, May 8, 2004) says that our troops believe in what they are doing in Iraq and therefore that we should support them. And by supporting them he clearly means supporting the policies they are being used to carry out. It's an argument I have seen repeatedly and its persistence says something peculiar about the thinking of many Americans. They are unaware of the implications of their own positions. Think of it: a government is able to promote its policies among young soldiers by praising them as noble emissaries of all that is grand in political life. On the basis of winning over its own soldiers the government should then be exempt from criticism, because to criticize the government is to fail to support the soldiers. Who can believe such foolishness? Yet, there it is, over and again. If this principle were applied consistently, it would justify the actions of every army in history, including the legions of fervent German soldiers who fought bravely to carry  out the policies of Adolph Hitler.


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In an informative column in the Boston Globe (May 7, 2004), Derrick Jackson points out that if the $25 billion just requested by the administration for maintaining troops in Afghanistan and Iraq is included, the total supplemental funds appropriated for these purposes rise to $191 billion. That's a figure far beyond anything projected by major administrative figures. In fact, anyone who hinted the wars would cost that much was vigorously denounced by the president's spokesmen. I doubt the average American understands that these billion come on top of what is already a gigantic budget deficit. In a way, the president is lucky his request was made in the midst of the prisoner scandals. If the cost of the war received the publicity it deserves, citizens would begin better to understand just how thoroughly they have been misled. Many of us seem incapable of comprehending that these are real dollars which could be spent for other purposes. Or, that they are being spent by politicians who habitually denounce government spending as completely ineffectual and as an abuse of  taxpayers. There's abuse going on, it's true. We can hope that the media will come to spell it out more accurately than they have up till now.



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The editors at the New York Times have joined the chorus calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation or ouster (May 7, 2004). When a howling mob gets after a single person, I'm generally on the side of the person, regardless of how I felt about him before the gang-up began. I see no reason to change my habits with respect to Mr. Rumsfeld. The Times  says he has morphed from a man of complete confidence to a person of almost willful blindness. That's nonsense. He hasn't morphed at all. He's precisely the same man he was two years ago. He was a perfect member of the Bush team then. He's still a perfect member. No major figure of this administration has a deep understanding of human nature, and each considers himself to be immune to it. Is this arrogance? You could say so. Is this stupidity? You could say that also. But Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't reflect them any more than the president does. And he doesn't reflect them as much as Mr. Cheney. If the American people want somebody fired, they should fire the whole team. In the meanwhile, they should allow Mr. Rumsfeld to continue be the president's man as he has been up till now. If he were dismissed, we have no reason to think someone better would take his place.


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Rush Limbaugh has been criticized for saying that the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison don't depict anything worse than you might find at a fraternity hazing or a Britney Spears concert. He said this, I guess, in an attempt to downplay the charges of torture, abuse, mistreatment and so on. But you could look at the statement in another light. What if he's right? Then you could interpret the scenes as simply a transfer of American culture into Iraq. I'm pretty sure that's how many Iraqis will interpret them. We invaded Iraq for the purpose of teaching them how to be more like Americans. So, now we're doing it. What's wrong with that?


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When someone as habitually up with everything as Thomas Freidman has been, starts to see the dark side then things must be getting pretty bad. Here's what he says in today's column (New York Times,  May 6, 2004): "We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America and its president were more hated around the world than today." Mr. Friedman persists in believing that our current less-than-sterling reputation rises from a ham-handed, arrogant foreign policy. But I suspect that world-wide criticism of the United States runs deeper than that.  If we elect and continue to support an administrative team that the rest of the world views as being not just awkward, and not just arrogant, but viciously brutal, then what does that say about American institutions and the American people? It's a question we have to face if we wish to maintain "moral authority" in the world. I can imagine certain officials in the Defense Department sneering at the idea. How many guns and divisions does moral authority have? they might ask. It's power that runs the world, and moral authority is just so much sentimentality. The American people need to ask themselves if those are the beliefs we want in charge of our affairs. If we do, we had best stop wailing over the unfair views of the rest of the world and embrace our new status as power-based authoritarians.


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I recommend to everyone interested in American foreign policy Hendrik Hertzberg's review of Bob Woodward's now famous book, Plan of Attack (New Yorker, May 10, 2004). Nowhere have I seen the nature of Woodward's writing laid out more clearly. It has no emotive prose, no narrative ingenuity, no analytic power. What does it have? A great collection of information in the form of who said what about whom. The book is, says Hertzberg, akin to raw intelligence and, therefore, people can make of it what they will. What Hertzberg -- and most other people I have read --make of it is that with respect to war in Iraq the fix was in from the beginning. It would happen no matter what. All the talk about war as a last resort was nonsense. War was pretty nearly the first resort. The most interesting feature of this now widely accepted thesis is that it appears accompanied by a virtually complete forgetting of the statements Mr. Bush and his closest advisors issued during the buildup to war over the closing months of 2002. Time and again we were told that the question of war and peace was in the hands of Saddam Hussein. All he had to do to avoid war was comply with U.N. resolutions. The evidence now tells us that nothing Saddam did could  have headed off the attack. He was helpless and he probably knew it. The main lesson of the whole business for politicians seems to be that what they say doesn't matter. Few will remember what they said, and even fewer will hold them accountable for it.


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A headline in the Washington Post caught my attention: "At 72, acclaimed author John Updike still hasn't run out of things to write about." Wow! I said to myself. This is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen! A person that ancient! The condescension in American culture towards people who have managed to live past 65 is so pervasive scarcely anyone notices it. I doubt that the person who wrote that headline understood that he was being a complete snot. What is it that people under fifty think happens to a brain when it moves into its seventh decade? Is it supposed simply to die? Or to descend into anticipation of its nightly bowl of mush before being tucked into its senescent dreams? The sad truth, of course, is that many old people bring this on themselves by whining for special privileges they think they have earned merely by living. One sees them limping around on knees made bad not by activity but by the stomachs above them and congratulating themselves on their venerability. We have sick thoughts about old people in America and old people have them just as much as anyone else.


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Donald Rumsfeld has been quoted as saying it's "un-American" to abuse prisoners. So, I suppose, when Americans do it they transform themselves into something other than Americans. I wonder what that is? It's funny, the pictures of the former Americans who starred in the famous video from Abu Ghraib prison looked as American as apple pie to me. The question of who is, and who is not, an American may perplex the most astute minds. But a thing that shouldn't perplex anybody is the motive of those using the term "un-American." They're out to hoodwink you. It's good to see commentators picking up on the parent of such comments, the Bush team's attempt to persuade us that Americans have been lifted above human nature. Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post (May 5, 2004) has an excellent column pointing out that nobody is above human nature, not even Americans, and that's why we need rules like the Geneva Convention to protect everyone against human nature in its darkest moments. I don't suppose Mr. Rumsfeld is capable of taking Ms. Applebaum's point.


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Journalists regularly practice a form of analysis which is called pop sociology by those who consider themselves to be real social scientists. I can't say for sure whether pop sociology is less valid than the kind of sociology practiced by those with university appointments. I suspect it's not. Even so, I think we need to be as careful in receiving it as we are in imbibing the kind that comes from the dullest of professors. I was reminded of that need this morning while reading Nicholas Kristof's column about how popular America and Americans are in Iran (New York Times, May 5, 2004). Based on his chats with young Iranians, who like American films and American music, he has concluded that at last we have found a Middle Eastern country that really admires us and thinks we are doing the right thing in sending our armies into Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe. But if I were a policy-maker I wouldn't count on that kind of popularity to have much effect on politics. It's the kind of sentiment that can change overnight, based as it is on the essentially sexual dreams of young men who see themselves as driving around in flashy cars with pretty girls in Malibu. What we need to be concerned about, politically, is the guys who have the guns and can deploy them. And if they had time to sit with us in cafes, they might speak of different dreams than the ones Mr. Kristof has been encountering.


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George Will, likes to think of himself as a conservative rather than as a neo-conservative. I'm willing to grant him the distinction since he's the first pundit from the right-wing side who has frankly pointed out that Mr. Bush's manner of speaking and choice of words tells us something important about the president's quality of thought rather than being simply an endearingly boyish ineptitude. Mr. Bush's persistent use of bromides, heralded as a sign of his fortitude and conviction, is not a healthy procedure for meeting the complexities of Iraq. As Mr. Will says,"this administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think" (Washington Post,May 4, 2004). The American public has been sold a false argument about the qualities of mind necessary to make sound political decisions. It's true that a president does not need to be either a intellectual or a scholar. It's also true that many of the habits exhibited by college professors would serve us ill if they were raised to political responsibility. But that does not mean that a president doesn't need an agile mind, and doesn't need to be good at sorting out reality from ideology in contending arguments. A conservative, Will says, is a person who wants to force the realities of the world onto a public who likes to dwell with pipe dreams. We have seen little of such conservatism from this, so-called, highly conservative administration.


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Finally, a major publication has come forward with an intelligent commentary on the prisoner torture scandal in Iraq. Writing in the Washington Post  for May 4, 2004, Leonard S. Rubenstein, director of the Physicians for Human Rights, points out that the manner in which the Bush administration has decided to detain prisoners guarantees that they will be abused. The secrecy, the refusal to honor international standards of prisoner treatment, the phony making up of new categories in order to avoid prisoners being seen by outside authorities, all of these constitute a casebook for having your torture and covering it up too. Probably the principal tactic of the Bush administration -- and one the American people have been slow to pick up on -- has been the pretense that human nature has been revoked as far as American officialdom is concerned. The age-old warnings about unrestrained power simply don't pertain to actions performed by the servants of Bush. They can do no wrong because, by definition, they can do no wrong. Now a videotape from an Iraqi prison has punctured that balloon. Consequently, we face the task of making sure the Bushites don't manage to dump the whole business on the shoulders of a few misguided soldiers who were programmed to do what they did.


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Niall Ferguson is a scholar who believes that empire is the best way to run the world. If a nation manages to gain greater military power than anybody else, then that nation is required to shoulder the imperial burden. Who requires it isn't clear, but the requirement is. The trouble with the United States right now, according to Mr. Ferguson, is that though it has the military power necessary to be a first-rate empire, it doesn't have an appropriate appetite for long-term imperial ventures. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post (May 3, 2004), Ferguson tells us that the intention to withdraw from Iraq in only a few years is foolish. We should be prepared to maintain forces there and to limit Iraqi sovereignty for decades. Only then can we teach the Iraqis how to behave. Belief in imperialism requires a robust faith that one's own lessons are the lessons that have to be forced on the world. In the years just after the Second World War that notion wasn't in vogue but now it is making a comeback. Faith in one's own rectitude is, I suppose, an element of human nature. Yet, perhaps for that very reason, it needs to be more carefully scrutinized than Mr. Ferguson is capable of recognizing.


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Americans don't use torture, of course. That would not be in keeping with the principles of decency and democracy that we're teaching the Middle East. But we do use aggressive interrogation techniques, which include burying people in the sand up to their necks, beating them until they urinate blood, shooting them with rubber bullets, holding them for days in shipping containers sprinkled with dog feces, and shocking them with electric wands. The Iraqis are so stupid, some of them can't see the difference between vigorous questioning and torture. It's hard to know how to respond to such people. They are terrifically ungrateful to us for liberating them. Dan Senor, a Republican operative, who now draws a taxpayer-paid salary for telling us that things are, all in all, pretty good in Iraq, says that if some of these interrogation techniques have come close to the line, we're going to find out about them. One wonders why, if we're the ones employing them, we have to investigate in order to find out. One might begin to think that we don't know what we're doing. But in any case, Mr. Senor is quoted in the Washington Post (May 3, 2004)  to this effect: "We have to get to the bottom of it. We have to engage in a robust investigation, which we are doing .... But let's not express frustration with the entire military in the process."  Frustration is to be avoided at all costs. It might induce as much stress as being locked up in a filthy, sweltering shipping container for days on end.


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April was a bad month in Iraq, but according to William Safire (New York Times, May 3, 2004) things are looking up. And why? Because on June 30th, the Iraqis will be granted a "palpable but limited" sovereignty, and the occupiers will become "former occupiers." They'll still be there, of course, and still able to do anything they want, but since they'll be former occupiers things will be a lot better. I wonder if the Iraqis in their mosques are thanking God for palpable sovereignty. One might think they would have preferred ordinary old sovereignty, but in the world of Newspeak, that's not how things go. I wonder how many readers William Safire has and what they make of this language? Does it actually seem normal to them? My advice is, when you hear anyone talking about palpable but limited sovereignty and former occupiers who still occupy, put you hand on your wallet.


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The pious hypocrisy of the American media is apparently without bounds. I don't want to harp too much on the incident at Abu Ghraib, but I can't help indulging myself at least one more time. Virtually everything I've read this morning (May 2, 2004) has expressed horror at the way a few have dishonored the many.  Spencer Akerman on The New Republic web site is a good example. He speaks of the horrific images, and the 6 out of 130,000. Here's a suggestion for you, Spencer. Let your imagination wander over the scenes that weren't videotaped and you might come up with a different idea of what's really horrific. And try to envision -- no matter how hard it is for you -- that events of this sort might arise from the behavior of more than the six miserable soldiers who happened to get caught. If they're the ones actually responsible, what's your explanation for how such completely aberrant monsters just happened to get posted to that prison. I guess it's impossible for American journalists to entertain the possibility that there was nothing aberrant about them.


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In an interesting, and extensive, article in the Boston Globe (May 2, 2004), Colin Nickerson reports that intense opposition to the United States around the world is increasing rapidly. Yet at the same time hunger and admiration for American culture has never been greater. He implies that there's a paradox in this, but if he were to read his own article carefully, he'd find there's no paradox at all. The features of American culture most admired outside our borders are not in line with the policies of the American government. What people like about America is its open, tolerant, anything goes tone. Yet the current government is known to be tight, controlled, and highly moralistic. What foreigners are telling us, in a way, is that George Bush is the most anti-American figure they can imagine. Though we may not agree with them about him, it's a thought we would do well to keep in mind. It's clear that Mr. Bush and his followers have set themselves the goal of redirecting American policy, American behavior, American taste, American interaction with the rest of the world. The question for us in the coming election is whether we want to follow their lead to an America conceived in their image, or whether we want to let American ways continue to be open and bumptious. It's a fairly big decision.


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There are beginning to be encouraging signs that the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison may not be swept aside with the explanation of  a "few bad apples." For one thing, Janis Karpinski, the reserve general in charge of the prison, doesn't seem willing to lie down and let the army drive a truck over her reputation. She may be the best argument for women in the military I've seen. All she's saying is what any sane person ought to know, that there are "special" sections of prisons  where "special" officials, designated by the holy appellation of "intelligence" carry out "special" operations. She had no control over these specialties. Her arguments are backed by other evidence, including a report by Major General Antonio Tagabu, which says that reservist military police were urged by higher-ranking Army officers and by C.I.A. agents to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." That's military-speak for torture. Neal A. Puckett, Ms. Karpinski's lawyer, says she was going to be made a scapegoat for those who knew what was going on in "Cell Block IA." My question is, why don't we all know what's going on in the various Cell Blocks I-A, where special guys carry out their special stuff? Are we really such children as to swallow the tale that our military, when they are given complete control over people who have been designated by the highest officials in America as agents of evil, are not going to treat them like vermin? When a person becomes an American soldier are we supposed to believe that he has somehow been relieved of human nature and elevated to perfect moral purity?


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Sometimes it's useful to concentrate on a single fact and try to tease out its full meaning. Here's one that might repay scrutiny. During President Bush's term of office, 234 million acres of land have been removed from the oversight established by the Clean Water Act. These areas can now be used for factory-type feeding lots whose runoff smothers streams with animal waste. Why has this been done? Obviously, to stimulate economic activity. But don't we have the right to ask whether economic activity that poisons us is a good thing over the long run. It's good for the people who get rich doing it. They put their money in banks, go away from the areas poisoned, and live what we like to call the American dream. Meanwhile, the streams that helped them get rich remain filthy. The question facing us now is whether this version of the American dream is worth the miserable health it produces. And, I guess it is if your children are not the ones who will get sick from it. But, for the rest of us, the question probably ought to be more active than it is.


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