Saturday, September 30, 2006

Valentines for the New United States of Torture

When I woke up this morning I felt like a part of me had died. Sort of like when JFK was assassinated. Or those jetliners flew into the World Trade Center. Or my parents passed away.

I was not quite awake and at first couldn't remember why I felt so empty. Then I sat up, carefully swung my legs out of the bed so as to not wake the DF&C, and did a few stretches.

It was only as I stood and shambled toward the bathroom that I remembered that my beloved country, the one that I have served in war and in peace, had undergone a startling name change -- the very first in its 230 years of existence.

It is now called the United States of Torture.
Am I being hyperbolic or hysterical? I don't think so.

Am I exaggerating the threat to my rights enshrined in the Orwellian terrorist torture-trial bill now awaiting President Bush's signature that triggered the name change? Absolutely not.

Am I being unrealistic in believing that the laws and powers memorialized in the Constitution have held us in good stead down through the years and are up to the challenge of beating back the threat of the Islamic jihad? No.

Knowing as I did that Bush and his neocon cabal were capable of doing great harm, did I ever think that these weasels would ram through -- and a spineless Senate would acquiesce to -- such obscene and constitutionally dubious legislation? I did not.

Can our civil liberties be restored once they are taken away? Fat chance.
That's all I've got to say, but here's a roundup of thoughts from others who also are filling a bit empty:

No one in the blogosphere as campaigned as passionately and intelligently against officially sanctioned torture than Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish:
"Late last night, before nodding off, I wondered, as I often do, whether I'd hyperbolized the threat from the looming detention-torture bill. 'Legalizing tyranny' is a very strong phrase and I don't want to cry wolf. In the sense that this president intends to seize random Americans and rush them into black sites and torture them at will, it's hyperbole. But in a deeper sense, I think it's completely accurate. The system we're talking about is to do with wartime. A president in the past has had the option of seizing enemy combatants on a battlefield and detaining them without charge as POWs. There's no threat to liberty there. What's new is that in this war, enemy combatants have been designated as such not just on the battlefield -- but anywhere in the world. What's new is that they are no longer entitled to POW status. What's new is that this war is for ever. . . .

"Put all that together and you really do have the danger of taking emergency measures for wartime and transforming a peace-time constitution into an essentially martial system, where every citizen or non-citizen can be apprehended at will and detained without charge. I repeat: this is a huge deal. It really should be a huge deal for conservatives who care about restraining government power. Its vulnerability to abuse is enormous; sanctioned torture, history tells us, never remains hermetically sealed. It always spreads. It eats away at decency and law and civility. If the president sincerely believes that torture is our most potent weapon in this war, and that habeas corpus is a quaint relic from the past, then we are in far greater peril than even the most dire pessimists believe."

Joe Gandelman sheds a tear at The Moderate Voice:
"Yesterday was a terrible, terrible day in American history. It was a day that may live on in infamy, a day that America, or at least an important part of her, died."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, quoted in a Cybercast News Service story:
"On every issue, there are big differences but the biggest difference is the disregard for our constitutional democracy, the disdain for checks and balances, the denial of accountability that marks this president and vice president, and that's really our entire system being put at risk. Maybe we can dig ourselves out of the hole on fiscal responsibility, energy and health care before it's too late, but we cannot afford to have our Constitution shredded and our country's commitment to freedom basically thrown out after centuries of setting the standard by which others are judged."
Christopher Mugel of Richmond, Virginia, in a letter to The New York Times:

"Terrorism poses a grave and different kind of threat to the Republic. Yet it is no more grave than, say, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

"No one has explained how it is different in ways that justify condoning torture, rewriting international law, discarding principles of due process and human decency, ceding judicial authority to the president, and putting our troops and reputation in further jeopardy.

"The president’s pre-election antiterrorism legislation will do these things. It is a measure of cravenness that members of both parties would vote for this bill for political expediency."

Bruce Ackerman, a Yale University law prof and civil libertarian, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece:
"The legislation . . . authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. . . . It also allows him to seize anybody who has 'purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.' This grants the president enormous power over citizens and legal residents. They can be designated as enemy combatants if they have contributed money to a Middle Eastern charity, and they can be held indefinitely in a military prison.

"Not to worry, say the bill's defenders. The president can't detain somebody who has given money innocently, just those who contributed to terrorists on purpose.

"But other provisions of the bill call even this limitation into question. What is worse, if the federal courts support the president's initial detention decision, ordinary Americans would be required to defend themselves before a military tribunal without the constitutional guarantees provided in criminal trials."

Jon Swift puts tongue in cheek at Jon Swift:
"Now let me just state at the outset that like President Bush I am opposed to torture except in certain circumstances when it's really, really necessary, which is why I am a member of Blogs Against Torture. I agree with the President that 'torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere.' But liberals have got us all so confused with their convoluted notions of what torture is so we need to get back to traditional torture values. If we let the liberals and activist judges define torture down, the next thing you know our secret prisons will be like country clubs and the terrorists will take over our country and impose their ideas of morality on us, which, except for the stuff about homosexuality and a few other things, we vehemently disagree with."
Jack Balkin, blogging at Balkinization:
"This bill is simply outrageous. I doubt whether many Democratic Senators or staffs have read the bill or understand what is in it. Instead, they seem to be scrambling over themselves to vote for it out of a fear that the American public will think them weak and soft on terror.

"The reason why the Democrats have not been doing very well on these issues, however, is that the public does not believe that they stand for anything other than echoing what the Republicans have been doing with a bit less conviction. If the Republicans are now the Party of Torture, the Democrats are now the Party of 'Torture? Yeah, I guess so.' Not exactly the moral high ground from which to seek office.

"The Democrats may think that if they let this pass, they are guaranteed to pick up more seats in the House and Senate. But they will actually win less seats this way. For they will have proved to the American people that they are spineless and opportunistic-- that, when faced with a genuine choice and a genuine challenge, they can keep neither our country nor our values safe."

And finally, Chris Floyd hyperventilates at Empire Burlesque:
"Who are these people? Who are these useless hanks of bone and fat that call themselves Senators of the United States? Let’s call them what they really are, let’s speak the truth about what they’ve done today with their votes on the bill to enshrine Bush's gulag of torture and endless detention into American law.

"Who are they? The murderers of democracy.

"S
old our liberty to keep their coddled, corrupt backsides squatting in the Beltway gravy a little longer.

"Who are they? The murderers of democracy.

"Cowards and slaves, giving up our most ancient freedoms to a dull-eyed, dim-witted pipsqueak and his cohort of bagmen, cranks and degenerate toadies. For make no mistake: despite all the lies and distorted media soundbites, the draconian strictures of this bill apply to American citizens as well as to all them devilish foreigners.

"Who are they? The murderers of democracy.

"Traitors to the nation, filthy time-servers and bootlickers, turning America into a rogue state, an open champion of torture, repression and terror.

"Who are they? The murderers of democracy.

"Threw our freedom on the ground and raped it, beat it, shot it, stuck their knives into it and set it on fire.

"Who are they? The murderers of democracy.

"If there was an ounce of moxie left in the American system, these white-collar criminals would be in shackles right now, arrested for high treason, for collusion with a tyrant who is gutting the constitution, pushing terrorism to new heights and waging an unholy, illegal war of aggression that’s killed tens of thousands of innocent people and bled our country dry.


"There is no honor in them. There is no decency, no morality, no honesty – nothing but fear, nothing but greed, nothing but base servility. Cringing, wretched little creatures, bowing to the will of a third-rate thug and his gang of moral perverts. This is their record. This is their doing. This is the shame they will have to live with. And this is the darkness, rank, fetid and smelling of blood, that now covers us all.
"

Torture II: Surf's Up


This is a waterboard and it is not used for cleaning dirty laundry. It is a torture device. Its use to extract information is entirely legal under a newly enacted law in the United States of Torture.

The photographs were taken by anthropologist Jonah Blank at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is now a museum that documents Khymer Rouge atrocities.

Explained Blank a few days before the new torture law was passed:
"Is waterboarding torture? Anybody who considers this practice to be 'torture lite' or merely a 'tough technique' might want to take a trip to Phnom Penh. The Khymer Rouge were adept at torture, and there was nothing 'lite' about their methods.

"The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented . . . many of the techniques came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where U.S. military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies -- the states where US military personnel might have faced torture--were not designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit confessions.

"Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever."

(Hat tip to David Corn at DavidCorn.Com)

Iraq: A State of Denial, A Disturbing Poll & More

Bob Woodward has fallen far from the days when he was half of the celebrated investigative reporting duo that broke the Watergate scandal. The Washington Post journo's recent fawning offerings on President Bush as incisive leader have disappointed. But Woodward has awoken from his slumber and sunk his teeth into something substantive -- the administration's dysfunctionality.

"State of Denial: Bush ar War, Part III," which will be published on Monday, says that:
* Bush’s top advisers are often at odds among themselves and sometimes are barely on speaking terms, but share a tendency to dismiss as too pessimistic assessments from American commanders and others about the situation in Iraq.

* The White House ignored an urgent warning in September 2003 from a top Iraq adviser who said that thousands of additional American troops were desperately needed to quell the insurgency there.
* Chief of Staff Andrew Card begged the president to shed Donald Rumsfeld after the 2004 election. He refused. Not even wife Laura could talk him into giving the defense secretary the heave-ho because such a move would be seen as an expression of doubt about the course of the war and expose the president to criticism.
More here on the book, and an analysis that notes Woodward comes awfully close to calling the president a liar in contrast to the flattering depictions in his first two books. Can you imagine? A liar?

POLL AXED
Remember when the benevolent U.S. was going to rescue the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship and they would throw flowers at the feet of their liberators? That was then and now is now -- and now is a disturbing (but not surprising) new poll that say six in 10 Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces.

The poll, done for the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy attitudes, also found that:
* Slightly more than half of Iraqis want their government to ask U.S. troops to leave within a year.

* An overwhelming majority have negative views of Osama bin Laden.

* Almost four in five say the U.S. military provokes more violence than it prevents.

More here.

THE MEAN STREETS OF BAGHDAD
Another chilling report from Zeyad at Healing Iraq on kidnap-murders of women, assassinations of leading surgeons and police offices sympathetic to Sunni political interests who tip people off as to when U.S. troops were going to make unannounced so militamen would have time to hide their weapons and hostages -- at police stations.

More here.

Iraq II: Excerpt du Jour on the War

The second of 20 excerpts from "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" by Thomas Ricks:
Anthony Zinni, recently retired from the Marine Corps, sat behind Cheney on the stage that dy as the speech was delivered . . . He had been a Bush-Cheney supporter in the 2000 campaign. But as he listened to the vice president in Nashville he nearly fell off of his chair: "In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence and never -- not once -- did it say, '[Saddam Hussein] has WMD.' " Since retiring he had retained all his top-secret clearances, he was still consulting with the CIA on Iraq, he had reviewed all the current intelligence -- and he had seen nothing to support Cheney's certitude. "It was never there, never there," he said later. These guys are going to war without the evidence to back them up, he thought to himself that day. His second chilling thought, he recalled, was that they didn't understand what they were getting into.

© 2006, Thomas E. Ricks. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Iraq: The Devolution Will Not Be Televised

The devolution of Iraq into anarchy continues apace as portions of the militia run by Moktada al-Sadr, the immensely powerful radical Shiite cleric, have broken away and become independent death squads.

The New York Times reports that:
"The question of how tightly Mr. Sadr holds the militia, one of the largest armed groups in Iraq, is of critical importance to American and Iraqi officials. Seeking to ease the sectarian violence raging across the country, they have pressed him to join the political process and curb his fighters, who see themselves as defenders of Shiism — and often as agents of vengeance against Sunnis."
The development is yet another damned-if you-do, damned-if-you don't situation stemming from a catastrophic three and a half year old war.

Sadr has taken a more active role in the government. That,of course, is a good thing. But this has resulted in the defection of as many as a third of his militiamen, who are selling their services as assassins and torturers to the highest bidders. That, of course, is a bad thing.

More here.

BASELESS SPECULATION
As I noted back in June, no matter when the U.S. draws down troop levels, it still will want to have a formidable presence in Iraq in the form of one or more large and permanent military bases, especially since it was reducing its presence in Saudi Arabia and had closed the massive Prince Sultan Air Base when it took Baghdad in 2003.
I wondered how the idea of permanent bases would go over with the radical Islamists who have emigrated to Iraq in the service of making it an Islamic republic, let alone Muslims who cannot wait for the U.S. presence to diminish.
Well, to my semi-surprise, the House voted this week to bar the construction of permanent bases precisely because of concerns in the Arab world that American forces will remain in Iraq indefinitely. The Senate is expected to follow suit.

More here.

POLICE ACADEMY -- NOT THE MOVIE
In yet another instance of the politically connected Parsons Company blowing a project in Iraq, it so botched construction of the $75 million Baghdad Police college that it poses health risks to recruits and may need to be partially demolished.
The college was hailed as crucial to U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqis to take control of the country's security, but is so poorly constructed that feces and urine rained from the ceilings in student barracks. Floors heaved inches off the ground and cracked apart. Water dripped so profusely in one room that it was dubbed "the rain forest."

Parsons had previously screwed up a $243 million health-care clinic network project and a $99 million prison project. More here and here.

INSURGENCY MISUNDERESTIMATED

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld lies even in the rare instances that he acknowledges problems with the Mess in Mesopotamia.

Says he in a new CNN documentary:
"Well, I think that anyone who looks at it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight has to say that there was not an anticipation that the level of insurgency would be anything approximating what it is."
There's a wee problem with that statement. Rumsfeld and his war planning minions were warned repeatedly and in the strongest terms that if they did not have enough troops and plan thoroughly for a post-war occupation, there would be a growing insurgency. The rest, as they say, is history: Rumsfeld sent the U.S. to war on the cheap and glossed over occupation planning.

More here.
WAR RAGES ON, MEDIA SNOOZES
MSNBC's Chris Matthews opined the other day that "I watch the news; I don't see the war any more."

Eric Boehlert, writing at Media Matters, says that:
"A review of network news logs proves Matthews was dead-on in his assessment; coverage is way down this month. Unfortunately, Matthews later misspoke when he suggested it's the American people who are bored with Iraq and that the press has simply responded to news consumers' lack of interest by cutting back on its war reporting. But there's no evidence that the American people are bored with the war. In fact, the issue of Iraq and the war was chosen by voters as "the most important issue facing this country today," according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll."
Boehlert notes that the cut and run comes at a terrific time for the White House as it attempts to shift voters' attention away from Iraq and move it over to the War on Terror. He notes that there was a similar retreat during the fall of the 2004 presidential campaign, and substantial coverage could have hurt to the Bush-Cheney ticket. Instead, the media focused on hurricane updates, Martha Stewart's legal woes, and the Laci Peterson trial.

Iraq II: Excerpt du Jour on the War

The first of 20 excerpts from "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" by Thomas Ricks:
Formal Pentagon consideration of Iraq began in November 2001 just after the fall of Kabul. . . . From the outset, there was tension between the uniformed military and and office of the secretary of defense over two related issues: whether to attack Iraq, and if so, how many troops to use. Gen. Jack Keane, the Army's number-two officer, told colleagues that he thought that the United States should put aside the Iraq question and keep its eye on the ball. He reocommended keeping two Army divisions -- perhaps twenty-five thousand troops -- on the Afghan-Pakistan border until bin Laden was captured and his organization there destroyed.

Caught between the Army's caution and Rumsfeld's impatience was the Central Command, commanded by [Army Gen. Tommy R.] Franks. Officials who served in that headquarters offer conflicting accounts of the role it played in the debate over the war plan, but there is general agreement that Franks became the fulcrum in the planning for the war. He could go either way -- he was a career Army officer -- but with the passage of time he sided with the Rumsfeld view. Franks was a cunning man, but not a deep thinker. He ran an extremely unhappy headquarters. He tended to berate subordinates, frequently shouting and cursing at them. Morale was poor, and people were tired, having worked nonstop since 9/11. "Central Command is two thousand indentured servants whose life is consumed by the whims of Tommy Franks," said one officer who worked closely with him. "Staff officers are conditioned like Pavlovian dogs. You can only resist for so long. It's like a prisoner-of-war camp -- after a while, you break." . . .

All military staffs feel burdened on the eve of war, but Centcom was in the unusual position of planning the invasion of Iraq just a few months after carrying out the invasion of Afghanistan. It wasn't a good way to go into a war, especially under a commander perceived by some as unreceptive to contrary views. The extreme fatigue and low morale at his headquarters may explain in part why Franks and his staff would spend over a year fighting out how to take down a reeling, hollow regime, and give almost no thought to how to replace it.
© 2006, Thomas E. Ricks. All rights reserved.

The United States of Torture

People have told me that I'm a pretty smart guy, but I'm having a hard time understanding why my beloved USofA would want to stand tall with nations like Egypt, Kazakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan that brutalize people in the name of justice.

The Torturer in Chief got his way and will soon be signing a draconian terrorist torture-trial bill into law. The president likes to say that he channels the wisdom of Jesus, himself a victim of unspeakable torture, so I guess I'll have to go back to the Bible and try to figure out where it says that torturing thine enemies, let alone a peace-preaching dude like JC, is okey-dokey.

* * * * *
I was so saddened the other day over John "I Once Was a Maverick" McCain's so-called compromise with the White House on the torture bill that I could not bring myself to blog on it.
Well, I've slept on it a bunch and I'm only slightly less sad -- and a whole lot angrier, but that is directed more at the Torturer in Chief than McCain himself, although I'm not letting him off of the hook, either.
Politics is a series of trade-offs, and I believe that McCain understood what has only become apparent to me after my long stew:
The Torturer in Chief nearly ruined McCain's political career by having Karl Rove float rumors during the 2000 presidential campaign that he was emotionally unstable.

The T in C could have gone to his dirty trick bag again, possibly dashing any hope that McCain could capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and as it is he will unmercilessly slam the Democrats who stood their ground and voted for upholding America's core values and against torture as being soft on terrorism.
* * * * *
I don't naturally gravitate to conservative Republicans, but I've long felt a fudamental decency in McCain that is all too rare on Capitol Hill.

Maybe spending six years in the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious North Vietnamese POW camp, after his Navy fighter jet was shot down, had a clarifying influence. (Although the guy was tortured while in captivity, for cryin' out loud!) Maybe being the son and grandson of respected Navy admirals and being the rare politician to have not one but two children in the military is a part of it.
But more than anything, I have admired McCain's willingness to stand up to this imperial presidency.

Until now.

Which is why, on the one hand, I find his capitulation on the torture bill and more recently the bill's habeas corpus provision is so troubling, but on the other hand acknowledge that McCain may understand better than anyone that he's the only Republican who may be able to prevent a hair-on-fire right-wing Christianist from seizing the party's presidential nomination and, God forbid, being elected.

For that reason -- and that reason alone, and presuming that my hunch is right -- I'll give John McCain some slack on this one. Meanwhile, the Torturer in Chief has now booked a one-way ticket to Hell.

Jesus told me so.

The Magical Musharraf Mystery Tour

Outtake from a new Three Stooges movie.
Has there ever been a stranger visit of a foreign dignitary to the U.S. than the just completed whirlwind tour of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf?

In between hob-nobbing with President Bush and other Washington glitterati, Musharraf stopped by the “Daily Show” and chatted up Jon Stewart (he was tres vivant) and in a “60 Minutes” interview dropped a nugget from his new book, which a gossip columnist of my acquaintance would call a memwow, as opposed to a memoir.
Two days after 9/11, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Musharraf that if he didn’t cooperate in finding Osama bin Laden, the U.S. would bomb his country back to the Stone Age.

Bush did his part by getting, uh . . . hopelessly confused.

The president noted early in the week that he was opposed to sending troops into Pakistan to hunt for OBL because it is a sovereign nation and the U.S. would have to be invited by Musharraf. (Never mind that Iraq was a sovereign nation and Saddam Hussein never rolled out the red carpet.)

The president then reversed field when later asked on the steps of the White House what he would do if OBL was found to be in Pakistan. He responded that he “absolutely” would order air strikes, which apparently meant that Pakistan had been stripped of its sovereignty in a few short days.

Musharraf said no way, Jose.

Meanwhile, berobed Afghan President Hamid Karzai looked on in apparent bemusement.

The president shook hands with both leaders during the photo op, but Karzai kept his distance from Musharraf because Afghanistan, which was nearly bombed back to the Stone Age first by the Soviets when it was a soverign nation and then by the U.S. when it wasn't, is mad at Pakistan.

Musharraf is heading back home with a wallet full of book royalties but not, as he had hoped, a bunch of American F-16 fighter planes.

It turns out that the U.S. was going to sell him the F-16s without an electronic warfare system that would allow pilots to detect any and all aircraft. The system that Musharraf's air force would get would allow only detection of non-NATO aircraft such as China and India.

Musharraf said no way, Jose.

Christopher Brauchli does a good job of making sense of all this at The Human Race and Other Sports. It's also a great looking blog.

Media: Quo Vadis David Broder?

Will Bunch and I have a lot in common. While Will has more hair than me and his desk is messier, the maestro of Attytood, one of the best newspaper blogs anywhere, and I share a quaintly old-fashioned work journalistic ethic: We research before we write, attempt to get all sides of a story, and when we're ready to put pen to paper, we write with, well . . . an attytood, as they say in Philadelphia.

Will, who sat near me in the Philadelphia Daily News newsroom before I got a brass parachute and took an early retirement, and I have something else in common:

We believe that David Broder, the so-called dean of American journalists and a man we both once admired, has lost his marbles and the quackery he's engaged in these days is all too typical of what passes for journalism in Washington.

This prompted Will to write an open letter to Broder. Herewith excerpts:
I am writing in response to your recent columns in The Washington Post embracing the make-believe "independence party" of an American political center that doesn't really much exist anymore -- except in your mind and the fantasies of a few like-minded D.C. pundit types . In one column, olumn, you managed to dismiss the ideas of millions of Americans who share little except great alarm at where America and its values have been heading the last six years, lumping them – us, actually – all together as simply "the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left."

I know you’ve heard back from a few of them. But you haven’t heard yet from someone like me. Like you, I am a newspaper reporter, and I share some of your core values, including a commitment to journalistic digging and hard work, and an unwillingness to accept the pat and partisan answers at face value.

And yet, I am also a blogger – professionally, and I guess by temperament. And when I see what is coming out of your hometown in 2006 -- ugly politics driven by fear, the chucking of the constitution and our deep-seated judicial principles such as the writ of habeas corpus – it can indeed make me very angry, so angry that there are times when, yes, I must sound “vituperative” on occasion.

I am writing to you to explain why that is.

Mad? Often. "Vituperative"? . . . sometimes, but "foul mouthed" never. . . .

[W]hat we used to call "a healthy dose of cynicism" eventually became toxic, for you and for so many of your "gang of 500" inside the Beltway. Somehow, exposing the lies of the system during the Watergate era, when you won a deserved Pulitzer, grew into benign acceptance that politics is pretty much a sport – a sport where, well, everybody lies.

And while you and your new lunch pals at the Palm knew you still had to expose the occasional lie, or at least get worked up about it, to maintain your journalistic credibility, you only went for the low-hanging fruit, the “objective lie,“ the DNA test on a blue dress from the Gap, not the elusive but ultimately false premises that would kill tens of thousands on a bloody war far from most Americans’ sight. Monica Lewinsky allowed you and your friends to prove that journalism was still about exposing . . . well, exposing something or other. . . .

[Y]our cynicism is degenerative disease, and it leads to paralysis. You were the dean overseeing the Great Game of American politics, and then some bad guys came along and changed all the rules, and you tried so very hard not to notice. Now that the unlawful nature of this presidency is becoming recognized by a majority, you are praying for a deus ex machina, this fictional “independence party” that will not just save America but most importantly save you, save you from having to make a choice.
More here.

Media II: Update on Newspapers & The Internet

Earlier this month, I blogged on a paradox near and dear to my ink-stained heart. Although newspapers are leading agents of change, they have been slow to embrace change themselves, notably with the Internet and blogosphere. I further noted that the websites of Philadelphia's two major newspapers are good examples of the change-averse culture that permeates their newsrooms.

Now comes Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing with a great idea:
Why not put online editors in charge of newsrooms? Why not make the person who is responsible for the 24/7 news product in charge of the entire news product?
More here.

Bleeding Phillies Red & Delaware Blue & Gold

When not wearing a hair shirt or flogging myself with a cat o' nine tails, I root for the Philadelphia Phillies.

An explanation is due non-baseball fans and Kiko's House visitors from foreign climes: The Phillies have lost 9,995 games, more than any franchise in any American sport, and have been to the World Series only four times in the club's 123-year history. They have won only a single World Championsip.

It gets worse: The 1961 Phillies hold the modern major league record of 23 consecutive defeats, while the 1964 Phillies suffered an historic late-season collapse, blowing a lead that stood at 6½ games with 12 games remaining and nearly sending my parents, both long-suffering fans, to the loony bin.

And still worse: Philadelphia has gone longer without a major professional sports team title than any other city with teams in the four major professional sports -- some 23 years.

The Phillies have not reached the playoffs since 1993, but may be on the verge of claiming the National League wild card spot, which is awarded the second-place team with the record in the league's three divisions at the end of the regular season on Sunday night.
The 2006 Phillies have Ryan Howard (photo) and several other stars, as well as a great intangible -- gutsiness -- that has enabled them to remain competitive. This despite the fact that their general manager and many fans all but wrote them off at mid-season.

What makes this fall different is that there is a feeling even among perennially pessimistic Phillies fans that the team can make the post season, and that takes gutsiness.

WHAT COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS ALL ABOUT
I will not be watching baseball on Saturday night. The DF&C and I will make the walk from Kiko's House to the University of Delaware football stadium where the Fighting Blue Hens take on the No. 1-ranked University of New Hampshire Wildcats before yet another sellout crowd.

This showdown is a bit of a role reversal. Delaware is more accustomed to being the top-ranked team nationally in its division, having won six national championships, most recently in 2003. But New Hampshire has built a potent offense around two of the finest players that I've ever seen in the flesh -- Quarterback Ricky Santos and wide receiver David Ball.

Ball has scored an extraordinary 50 touchdowns in his college career and is poised to break the college record of former San Francisco 49ers star Jerry Rice.
The Wildcats are the favorites, but the Hens also have that great intangible and an upset is possible.
The game will be televised on CN8 Television in the Mid-Atlantic region and ESPN2 is expected to cut away to Delaware Stadium if Ball breaks Rice's record.

Look for us: We're in Section C, Row EE.

Nice Photograph du Jour

Country Bumpkin, he of the Country guest blogs, photographed these exquisite cherry blossoms in his garden earlier this week. Alas, the fruit is too high for Mr. Bumpkin to reach, but the blackbirds feast on it. Yes, it's spring in New Zealand.

Do you have a nice photo that you'd like to submit? Please send it to
kikokimba@gmail.com as a pdf attachment. Please, no blood and guts.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Crime & Punishment: A Tale of Two Cities

An all too familiar (murder) scene in Philadelphia.
Earlier this week, Cashae Corley, a five year old riding in her mother's car in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, became the 287th murder victim of 2006 in Philadelphia. Eighty miles to the north, a homeless man in the Bronx became New York City's 409th murder victim.
That's one murder for every 5,200 residents in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, and one murder for every 19,000 residents in New York, a city of 8.1 million. This means that you're about four times more likely to end up in the morgue in the City of Brotherly Love than the Big Apple.

Why was New York -- which will end the year with about 550 murders, compared to 2,262 murders in 1990 -- named the safest big city in the U.S. last year by the FBI?

Why is Philadelphia -- which has had at least 300 murders a year every year but one since 1990, when 503 people were killed -- bucking the national trend of declining murder rates?

And considering that both cities have their share of big-city problems, not the least of which is poverty, why is there such an enormous difference in their murder rates?
Before I try to answer that, a few things need to be pointed out: Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, although I've drawn from the same source for the stats I use here to try to keep the playing field level. Murders tell only a part of any city's crime story, and crime overall in Philadelphia is lower than it was a decade ago. Finally, I worked as a journalist in Philadelphia for over two decades. During that time, I edited hundreds of crime stories, spoke with many police officers, criminologists and community leaders, went to crime scenes and have an intimate knowledge about the situation there. My heart also bleeds for a city that I love.

All that said, I believe there are three differences between the two cities that go a long way toward explaining the yawning murder rate discrepancy.
* The proliferation of guns in Philadelphia.

* Innovative policing in New York City.

* A unimaginative and risk averse political and civic culture in Philadelphia.
LAWYERS, GUNS & MONEY
New York City has some of the toughest local gun laws in the U.S. and enforces them.

Example: A sporting goods store in the Poconos region in Northeastern Pennsylvania was recently informed by the NYPD that a gun that it had sold a local man had been used in a crime in New York City. The store was warned that it might be prosecuted if other guns from the store turn up.
Philadelphia, by contrast, is awash in illegal guns and efforts to significantly toughen gun laws have been rebuffed by the Pennsylvania Legislature, most recently in a series of state House votes this week. State law forbids local jurisdictions from enacting their own gun laws, while guns can be purchased without a permit and do not have to be registered.
As political strategist James Carville famously remarked, everything between Philadelphia in the eastern part of the state and Pittsburgh in the western part "is Alabama without black people." That's an exaggeration, but it makes an important point:
Most of Pennsylvania is rural and pro-gun. Many voters would not stand for anything smelling of gun control even if it is a life-and-death issue in Philadelphia, which as far as they're concerned, isn't worth the powder to blow it up with.
A key to New York's success in getting guns off the street are aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics in which police officers stop and pat down people suspected of packing heat.
That isn't happening in Philadelphia and the police have only themselves to blame.

Even Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson has been quoted as saying more aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics would hurt police-community relations, which have been poor since forever because of a long-standing perception by blacks that they are singled out for harassment -- and worse.
History is not on the Philadelphia Police Department's side. It has been buffeted by brutality scandals for decades and the officially sanctioned thuggery when Frank Rizzo was police commissioner and later mayor is legendary. Black Philadelphians have long memories.

Nor is history on the side of the citizenry. Efforts to overhaul the department have been largely unsuccessful, there is no civilian oversight worth a damn and it has mattered little that the last several police commissioners, like Johnson, are black and presumably more sensitive to the black community. Same goes for the current mayor, John Street. More about him later.

FIXING BROKEN WINDOWS

In the early 1980s, I never would have taken my children into New York City. It was too dirty and too dangerous. By the mid-1990s, the city was cleaner and palpably safer and I didn't hesitate to take them to Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas pageant, Greenwich Village for music and a meal, and elsewhere in the city.
What happened? The largest and once the most dangerous city in America took a big bite out of crime by adopting an innovative zero-tolerance policing program called "Fixing Broken Windows."

In theory, when problems like windows broken by vandals and sidewalks littered by disrespectful citizens are dealt with when they are small and manageable, petty crime is discouraged. This, in turn, prevents major crime. In practice, this is pretty much what happened in New York in the 1990s.
When Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, he named William Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton had success with zero-tolerance policing as head of the Transit Police, which cracked down on fare-dodging, speeded up arrest procedures and in a key move, did background checks on everyone who was arrested. This would turn up outstanding warrants and other reasons to hold the perpetrator and not merely send him back out onto the street where he often would ended up getting back into trouble.

While Bratton put the zero-tolerance concept into play in the 35,000-officer NYPD, the city hired 5,000 new and better-educated police officers, the second major increase in the size of the force in five years. (Taxes also were increased.)

Meanwhile, there was a citywide crackdown on public drinking and urinating and other so-called nuisance crimes. Bratton pushed decision-making down to the precinct level where local commanders who knew their neighborhoods could better react to and deal with crime trends, which were noted with relentless efficiency by CompStat, a real-time police intelligence computer system. CompStat was integrated into the department and the statistics it endlessly cranks out were are public. (Go here and have a look for yourself.)
It took a few years for the zero-tolerance policy to begin to pay off, and some civil libertarians were and remain unhappy, but New York was well on its way to earning that safest big city moniker.
THE WORST RUN CITY IN AMERICA
E. Digby Baltzell is primarily remembered for two things. He coined the term WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and wrote a book titled "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia" that was published in 1979.
Using the history of the two cities, the University of Pennsylvania sociology prof (and WASP) argued that the "Boston Brahmin" elites formed a strong upper class that positively influenced every aspect of urban life from politics to the arts. In contrast, "Proper Philadelphians," while a tolerant bunch, abandoned the city early on, which became the worst run in America.
That began to change with the election of Richardson Dilworth, a liberal reformer, who in 1956 became the first Democratic mayor since the late 19th century. Dilworth pushed through the adoption of a modern city charter that consolidated city and county offices, introduced civil service examinations to replace a patronage-heavy system and launched an extensive urban renewal program. He also left the police department pretty much alone.

While Dilworth was the right mayor at the right time, the same cannot be said of most of his successors. James Tate was a mediocrity, Frank Rizzo was a disaster, and W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor and the first to drop a bomb on his own city, was incompetent.
In 1991, Philadelphians elected Ed Rendell, a former district attorney, who used the city's first (modest) economic boom in decades as a springboard to shake up the moribund tourist industry. He was less visionary when it came to the police department, which continued to bump along from scandal to scandal.
Rendell was succeeded by John Street, a onetime outsider who became an insider -- first as a city councilman from a grindingly poor North Philadelphia neighborhood and then as City Council president.
I admired Street as a rabble rousing community activist in the early 1980s who was determined to shake things up. But he has become a poster child for the concept of being part of the solution and then becoming part of the problem. He has been a terrible disappointment as mayor.

A major component of "the problem" continues to be a reform allergic police department with a weak commissioner that is endlessly struggling to modernize and has found that making peace with a minority community roiled by that out-of-control murder rate is a bridge too far.
Then there's that leadership vacuum that Baltzell wrote about. Philadelphia does not lack for do-good citizen groups, and most high-ranking executives of the major corporations with offices in the city end up serving on one ineffective board or another of one ineffective group or another.
An exception may be Zachary Stalberg (and I'm not writing this because he used to be my boss.) Stalberg bailed from the editorship of the Philadelphia Daily News to head up the Committee of 70, a good government group traditionally more concerned with little stuff like election day polling irregularities than big stuff like awakening Philadelphia from its long slumber. Stalberg has vowed to change that, and if anyone can, it's probably him.

Then there's the black community, which has been much too tolerant of incompetents like Mayor Goode (who was reelected after the bomb dropped at his direction burned down a West Philadelphia neighborhood), mediocrities like Police Commissioner Johnson, or officials soft on corruption like John Street because . . . well, you know, because they're black.

Additionally, the black community is less a community than a bunch of special interests that seldom speaks with one voice, and then often because the naughty white-run news media has said or written something unpleasant about a black person.
Speaking of the news media, it also has not exactly taken an aggressive leadership role regarding the murder epidemic.

The slogan "If It Bleeds It Leads" applies to the newscasts on local TV stations and, regrettably, the Daily News, as well. I recently asked former colleagues at the News and The Philadelphia Inquirer to suggest hard-hitting stories in their papers about the underlying reasons for the murder epidemic that might help to me in researching this piece.
Both drew blanks. Ahem.
THE BIG SUM-UP
Philadelphia certainly is no longer the worst run city in America. New Orleans earned that distinction long before Hurricane Katrina. Philadelphia's police department also isn't the worst. (Ditto New Orleans.)
Like I said, I love Philadelphia. But it is weighed down with problems beyond its control, problems that it allowed to get out of control and problems it does not have the political and civic willpower to bring under control.

In the meantime, its citizens continue to kill each other at an appalling rate.


(Photograph (c) 2006 Jim MacMillan)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Iraq War & A Tale of Three Foxes

Iraqi airfield remodeling during Desert Fox.
The much maligned man who led the U.S. for eight of the 12 years between the two Iraq wars is making the TV talk show rounds these days, including a stopover at CNN for the obligatory pillow fight with that ruff tuff Larry King and a harder hitting sitdown (*) with Fox News's Chris Wallace.

The Fox News tilt has gotten wide publicity because a second fox known as Bill Clinton wouldn't let Wallace pull the usual rabid dog trip on him. It also was an opportunity for everyone who still has a grudge against the former prez to air out the usual grievances. Or speculate on whether his roadshow hurts or helps wifey, or whether he will be able to redeem his legacy, or whether he can save the world, or . . .
Funny about the comparisons between the Clinton and Bush eras.

For me, Oval Office blowjobs and a shady Arkansas real estate deal just don't hold a candle to what has happened over the last six years, including an unprovoked war that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, a mockery of the separation of powers, abridging civil liberties, bleeding the middle class and pandering to the rich and religious right wing. Whew!
One of the grievances against Clinton is that he went easy on Saddam Hussein, and because of that the Bushies had no choice but to invade Iraq.
Well, this is just stone cold inaccurate and a third fox, a 1998 military operation against Iraq called Operation Desert Fox, puts the lie to that.

Desert Fox is easy to forget because the economy was humming along quite nicely at home and there was the distraction of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Desert Fox also is something that you want to forget if you're a Bush disciple because it gets in the way of the White House's bogus pretext for the 2003 invasion, which is looming large with the war and terrorism now receiving top billing by voters in recent public opinion polls.
Desert Fox, launched at the order of Clinton, was a reaction to a standoff with Saddam Hussein over weapons inspections.

It began on December 16, 1998, with over 200 cruise missile launches from Navy ships and B-52 bombers. On the second day, another 100 cruise missiles were launched, and on the third night, B-1 bombers made their first combat sorties. A total of 415 cruise missiles were used, more than employed during the entire 1991 Gulf war, and 91 sites were hit, including those presumed to be used for the production and storage of WMDs and the missiles that could deliver them.

The Clinton bashers poo-pooed Desert Fox and said it was merely a scheme to distract attention from forthcoming impeachment proceedings, and at the time the operation did seem to be an exercise in overkill.

But as Thomas Ricks states in his authoritative new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," the raids proved to be "surprisingly effective" and severely demoralized Saddam and destabilized his regime.

Writes Ricks:
"[Marine General Anthony Zinni, the chief of the U.S. Central Command] was amazed when Western intelligence assets in Baghdad reported that Desert Fox nearly knocked off Saddam Hussein's regime. His conclusion: Containment is clearly working, and Saddam Hussein was on the ropes. A U.S. military official, looking back on Desert Fox years later, confirmed that account. 'There were a lot of good reports coming out afterward on how he changed his command and control, very quickly. It was especially clear in areas involving internal control.' Interceptions of communications among Iraqi generals indicated 'palpable fear that he was going to lose control.' "
THE NEOCONS EAT CROW. NOT.
The relative success of Desert Fox, especially in the context of a three and a half year old 2nd Gulf war that has been a catastrophic failure, should be an opportunity for the neoconservative war architects and hard-core war supporters to eat crow.
Fat chance.
Richard Perle, a Bush administration insider and leading war cheerleader, deserves special scorn in this regard for arguing that Clinton administration softies were risk averse and had allowed Saddam to become more powerful through a policy too heavily weighted toward containment.

But as Ricks writes:
"Perle made those assertions in July 2003, just about the time they were becoming laughable to those who understood the situation on the ground in Iraq.

". . . [General] Zinni's conclusion was that U.S. policy on Iraq succeeded in the late nineties.

'Containment worked. Look at Saddam -- what did he have?' Zinni asked later. 'He didn't threaten anyone in the region. He had a deteriorated military. He wasn't a threat to the region.' What's more, he said, it wasn't a particularly costly effort. 'We contained , day-to-day, with fewer troops than go to work every day at the Pentagon.' "
Oh, and by the way, not a single American life was lost in Desert Fox.
__________

(
*) You can judge for yourself if Clinton got the better of Wallace. Here's a transcript of the Fox News fisticuffs.

Iraq II: Eek! There's a Second Intel Report on Iraq

Uh-oh. It turns out there's a second damning Iraq report out there and the Bush administration is trying to sit on it until after the November election.

TPM Muckraker broke the story based on remarks from Representative Jane Harriman, a California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence (sic) Committee and it quickly went from blog news to big news.

Says TPM Mucraker:
"Dr. Lawrence Korb, a former senior Defense Department official now with the liberal-progressive Center for American Progress, hasn't seen the report but has discussed it with those who have. 'It's a very bleak picture of what's going on in Iraq,' he said.

Harman called for the White House to share a classified version of the report with Congress -- and to release a declassified version of the document to the American public, prior to the November elections.

Democratic sources on the Hill confirmed that the report has been a topic of discussion, particularly because of concerns that its release was being 'intentionally slowed' by the administration.

I don't know about you, but I'm shocked! Just shocked!

Meanwhile, once again playing the American people for suckers, the White House released only a portion the first report, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, despite calls that the entire document be made public.

The estimate, the most authoritative document produced by the U.S. intelligence community, states the obvious:
"We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.

"The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.

"Al-Qa’ida, now merged with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s network, is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits and donors and to maintain its leadership role. . . .

"We judge that most jihadist groups — both well-known and newly formed — will use improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks focused primarily on soft targets to implement their asymmetric warfare strategy, and that they will attempt to conduct sustained terrorist attacks in urban environments. Fighters with experience in Iraq are a potential source of leadership for jihadists pursuing these tactics."

Iraq III: The Generals' Revolt Spreads

The extraordinary revolt of retired generals against Donald Rumsfeld that began last spring has spread to the inner sanctum of the Pentagon and one of the defense secretary's favored officers, General Peter J. Schoomaker, who is Army chief of staff.

As reported by The Los Angeles times, Schoomaker has thrown down the gauntlet:
In an unprecedented move following a series of cuts in the Army's funding requests by the White House and Congress, he withheld a required 2008 budget plan from Pentagon leaders last month after protesting to Rumsfeld that the Army simply could not maintain its current level of involvement in Iraq as well as other global commitments without significant troop withdrawals or billions in additional funding.

Now Schoomaker is now seeking $138.8 billion in 2008, nearly $25 billion above budget limits originally set by Rumsfeld. The Army's budget this year is $98.2 billion, making Schoomaker's request a huge 41 percent increase over current levels.
What makes the general's stand all the more extraordinary is that he has spoken out publicly about it, including a speech to the National Press Club in which he said "There is no sense in us submitting a budget that we cannot execute . . . a broken budget."
The Schoomaker-Rumsfeld showdown is in large part a result of the defense secretary's determination to wage the Iraq war on the cheap. That has had catastrophic results.
It also comes amidst bad news about the condition of the Army and services:

* There is a serious backlog at the Army's repair depots of several thousand Humvees, M1 tanks and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, and other vehicles because of a shortage of money.

* The Army is so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistant that only two or three of its 42 active-duty combat brigades are judged to be fully ready to deal with a crisis elsewhere.

'HE KNOWS EVERYTHING, EXCEPT HOW TO WIN'
Major General John Batiste retired from the Army last November after 31 years of service.

Here's why:
"I walked away from promotion and a promising future serving our country. I hung up my uniform because I came to the gut-wrenching realization that I could do more good for my soldiers and their families out of uniform. I am a West Point graduate, the son and son-in-law of veteran career soldiers, a two-time combat veteran with extensive service in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, and a life-long Republican.

"Bottom line, our nation is in peril, our Department of Defense’s leadership is extraordinarily bad, and our Congress is only today, more than five years into this war, beginning to exercise its oversight responsibilities. This is all about accountability and setting our nation on the path to victory. There is no substitute for victory and I believe we must complete what we started in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader. He knows everything, except how to win. He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of warfare. Secretary Rumsfeld ignored 12 years of U.S. Central Command deliberate planning and strategy, dismissed honest dissent, and browbeat subordinates to build 'his plan,' which did not address the hard work to crush the insurgency, secure a post-Saddam Iraq, build the peace, and set Iraq up for self-reliance. He refused to acknowledge and even ignored the potential for the insurgency, which was an absolute certainty. Bottom line, his plan allowed the insurgency to take root and metastasize to where it is today."

Iraq IV: And the Bad Taste Winner Is . . .

. . . Peter Roskam, the Republican candidate for a House seat from a suburban Chicago district, who said during a debate with Tammy Duckworth, his Democratic opponent, that she wanted America to "cut and run" from Iraq.
Duckworth is a former National Guard pilot who lost both her legs in Iraq last year when her helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Ouch! More here.

Iraq V: Quote du Jour on the War

E.J. Dionne, writing in The Washington Post:
"What could prove to be the most important factor in the 2006 elections is overlooked because it is unseen: The Republicans cannot try to curry favor with a "silent majority" that favors the Iraq war because a majority of Americans, both vocal and quiet, have come to see the war as a mistake.

"President Bush's defenders have cast opponents of the war as weak on terrorism. . . . . Vice President Cheney accused Democrats of 'resignation and defeatism.' But the charges have not taken hold, because most Americans don't agree with the premise linking the war on terror with the war in Iraq. . . .

"That is why news over the weekend of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is especially troublesome for Republican electoral chances. By finding that the war in Iraq has encouraged global terrorism and spawned a new generation of Islamic radicals, the report by 16 government intelligence services undercuts the administration's central argument that the Iraq war has made the United States safer.

"During the 2002 election campaign -- before the war had actually begun -- Democratic candidates all over the country fled the Iraq debate and feared raising any questions about Bush's national security choices. In 2006 it's the administration trying to keep Iraq out of the campaign and to move the public conversation to anything else as an alternative to an accounting for its war decisions that so many middle-of-the-road Americans now regret. There is no silent majority to bail the president out."

Guest Blog: The Country Way of All Flesh

Commentary and Photography by Country Bumpkin
It’s been a week to forget. This is another of those strange ways people use the English language, because they actually mean it’s been a week they will always remember.

Saddest of all, our cats Tiger (right in photo) and Lily have been put to sleep, and taken for burial in a pet cemetery. It began when Tiger, who had been losing condition for a while, became obviously unwell. On Friday we took him to the vet who ordered a round of tests, believing that perhaps his thyroid gland was running slow. The results on Saturday showed this was not the problem, and the vet began to speculate that perhaps he was suffering from organo-phosphate poisoning. Ye gods! We’ve never used these chemicals here, and we’re pretty sure neither cat has visited any of our neighbours who might have been killing insects, but this did nothing to diminish our feelings of guilt, of that I can assure you. And his condition continued to decline, until on Tuesday morning the vet said she had no choice but to recommend giving him an overdose of anaesthetic. We went to say goodbye to him, and it tore our hearts out. He was so pleased to see us, and we him, but it was perfectly obvious that the end of his life had been reached.

Meanwhile, we had watched for some weeks while Lily had been growing a stomach. An unspayed cat might have been pregnant, but not she. While she seemed otherwise well, we assumed it was the result of all the tidbits that my wife kept feeding her and her brother, but it reached the point on Saturday when this explanation would no longer suffice. We rushed her to the vet who diagnosed that Lily’s abdominal cavity was filling with fluid, and by Sunday morning the diagnosis was that she too might be suffering the effects of poison! She was put to sleep on Monday, a day before Tiger.

They lived with us for 10 years. We had got them from the Wellington Cats’ Protection League, who rescued them from a cruel start to their lives. They were darlings, though it took them years to accept us fully, but their existence in our country home was sublime even when they were pooping during the misery of winter in the gravel in the carport. There was nothing quite like coming home after a day away to be greeted by lifted tails and shouted greetings from the pair of them, quickly silenced when we refilled their food bowl.

We miss them and will for quite a while, and I daresay the savings we make in the cat food no longer needed from the supermarket will soon pay the $500 veterinary bills.

Less sad, but pretty traumatic also, last evening brought another drama. I was about to wash a few potatoes for dinner, and when I turned on the faucet there was a sudden rush of water down the wall above the kitchen bench. This was around 5 o’clock, but a few well-sequenced phone calls produced a couple of helpful insurance companies and an after-hours plumber, who had a new pipe into the wall in all of 20 minutes. This, you understand, was after I turned off the water main, and my wife started mopping.

We seem to have suffered no serious damage, except perhaps to the remote control for the heat pump which hangs on the wall just below the waterfall, so the insurance companies will probably report a profit again this year. The problem was the same one we had several times suffered in our city home, with piping made of neoprene fitted some time in the 80s, which has been failing in houses all around New Zealand from about 1995 onwards, continuing to this day. It is forbidden now to use it in new installations. The plumber told me that as far as he could tell, much of the piping in this house has already been renewed. We’ll no doubt find out if he’s right.

I reported last time that the installation of a new heating system had had a magical effect on the weather. The sun came out and temperatures rose, and I can now tell you that we saw our first blowfly of the season on 29 August. They’re a severe and irritating problem in the early summer, and come from miles around when they smell dinner on the stove. Presumably their eggs or larvae winter in the cowpats which litter the ground only a couple of blocks from here, and then burst into life along with nature’s more desirable manifestations like blossoms and baby lambs. But the monster flies disappear quite quickly, only to be replaced by small creatures who have a habit of landing on you and returning repetitively to the same spot when you shoo them away. They’re right little pains in the neck, but at least they don’t land on the food. Much.

The return of the sun brought our first colds of the season, perversely. There are stories that the population is suffering an epidemic of “90-day cough” but I’m able to report to you that our affliction was short-lived and disappeared completely. Those autumn flu shots really work, but in case the bird flu pandemic does eventuate we have our little stock of Tamilflu at the ready, and it’s good for 10 years before we have to buy more. Yet, the pandemic story seems to have died in the pages of the media, so maybe like other recent scares like SARS it will fizzle out to be replaced by something even more interesting.

We’ve been listening to live music again. Last week it was the Nairobi Trio, a New Zealand group who have been around for maybe 25 years, none of whose four players (don’t ask!) come from Nairobi, as far as I know. They play clever arrangements of jazz standards and their own pieces, using a violin and soprano saxophone to carry the tunes, and they’re quite wonderful. They played at the Martinborough Wine Centre against a background of not-so-whispered chatter and the clinking of bottles against glasses, but it all seemed fitting somehow.

The week before that it was the Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev. This astonishing man is small, of Asiatic appearance, and plays like an angel. How a Kazakh performer found his way to Greytown is one of life’s little mysteries, but he’s been here several times and is coming to our little community again in two or three weeks. His music stand looks like an oversize Palm Pilot, and he changes the page by pressing a pedal on the floor. When you realize the music stand could probably be used to play the music itself it makes you glad the middle man hasn’t been cut out.

One last drama to keep you on the edge of your seats.

I’m always banging on, as you know, about the way people use language sloppily, imprecisely and tortuously. This week my wife had a letter from our medical practice asking her to make an appointment to see the doctor about the results of her blood tests. She is tested regularly to monitor the effects of the immunosuppression medication she takes to prevent rejection of tissue in her corneal grafts.

Panic stations! Previously, these tests have always come back OK. The doctor was able to see her promptly, and recognizing the level of unease in the two of us announced that the practice nurse who had written the letter had been given clear instructions to include the information that the test results had come back normal.

Good grief!

Country Bumpkin is a bibliophile and man of the world who lives in New Zealand. His recent guest blogs include Country Images, Country Winter and Country Ice.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Swim in the Treacherous Waters of Feminism . . .

A Feminist Triumvirate: Fallaci, Valenti and Huffington
Three recent events -- the death of journalist provocateur Oriana Fallaci, the publication of Arianna Huffington's new book and the blogospheric kerfuffle over whether writer Jessica Valenti was intentionally showing off her bod in a group photograph with former President Clinton -- have prompted me to take a gingerly swim into the treacherous waters of feminism.
Let me say from the jump that most of my closest friends are women and my mother was one. I have been unhappy in marriage but lucky in love.

I read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin when most men wouldn't be caught dead doing so (although I have to say that Barnes is probably one of the most overrated writers in English literature, while Mademoiselle Nin was posthumously outted as a plagarist.)

I've gone out of my way to hire women and put extra effort into mentoring them when I was in supervisory positions in journalism, a profession that only recently has begun to level the playing field for women. Although I don't know the identities of most of the visitors to Kiko's House, I'm pretty sure the vast majority are men, and I'm working to try to bring more balance to my readership.
My belief that I've got the bona fides to qualify as a gal guy doesn't give me any particular insight to blog about feminism. All it does is guarantee that it will get me into trouble for any number of reasons, including the fact that all three of the feminists I focus on here are white heterosexuals and I'm being politically incorrect by not including a token black and/or lesbian. So sue me.
Face it, feminism is a third-rail issue and no matter what one says, they're going to catch grief from one quarter or another.
Orianna Fallaci was the first feminist writer with whom I could make popular political cause. She leaned hard to the left, was anti-establishmentarian and questioned authority in her wickedly iconoclastic intereviews with the high and mighty.

Age mellowed Fallaci -- but only to a point. Her career went into eclipse until the rude awakening of the 9/11 attacks. She emerged re-energized and wrote three books that not only attacked Islamic extremism but Islam itself. I didn't always agree with her in the 1960s or the 2000s, for that matter, but I always respected her. As the Belmont Club's Wretchard wrote upon her death at age 77:
"In her youth she did not bow to Hitler; and in her old age she hurled defiance at yet another tyranny. The darkness came and yet the darkness claimed her not."
Arianna Huffington is 55. For many years she was a Newt Gingrich Republican, a millionaire and a Washington, D.C., hostess with the mostess. Age has mellowed Huffington -- but only to a point. She still is filthy rich, but has morphed into a Bush-bashing liberal Democrat and runs The Huffington Post, a blog that seemed headed for the vanity blog graveyard when it was launched but now draws over two million visitors a day.

Huffington has written a new feminist treatise, "On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work and Life," in which she scolds women (with some self criticism) for internalizing their fears and being afraid of taking chances in the workplace in particular and life in general.
Although I once heard Fallaci speak and hope to meet Jessica Valenti some day, Huffington is the only one of the feminist triumvirate whom I've actually chatted up. She is a class act, funnier than a barrel of monkeys and would be one of the first people that I'd invited to a party.
Jessica Valenti is a 27 year old feminist writer, activist and academic who has gotten her ticket punched at Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Woman and the National Abortion Rights Action League, among other places. She is executive editor of Feministing, a very good blog about . . . well, it's pretty obvious what it's about.

Valenti was pretty much minding her own business until Ann Althouse, a law prof at the University of Wisconsin and equal opportunity wise ass, pounced on her earlier this month in a mostly tongue-in-cheek post at her eponymous blog. Althouse suggested that only Valenti of a group of a dozen or so bloggers standing with the former president had intentionally posed for the camera because she wanted to show off her physical assets.
This sent Valenti into a tiz. She harrumphed at Feministing that real feminists don't pose, which was certifiably silly and akin to saying that real men don't wear plaid. She was widely ridiculed for the statement and deservedly so.
You're probably wondering where the heck I'm headed at this point. Me too.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that all three of these women, all feminists but all distinctively themselves, are to be admired.

Fallaci and Huffington got around over the years, got written up in the Wikipedia, changed their minds about some things and learned to chill when the situation called for it. But they never lost the passion of their convictions.

Valenti is a work in progress and has yet to make the Wikipedia, but surely will. It is also unlikely that she will lose the passion of her convictions, but she has yet to learn when to chill. Whether she will be best remembered for sticking her chest out at a photo op or breaking new feminist ground remains to be seen.
Feminism came of age with the advent of the women's movement in the 1960s. We are now four decades on. But if you have the slightest doubt about whether the world still needs women like my feminist triumvirate, read the story below.