Wednesday, Sept. 26, 42 A.D.
Of Mammoths, Mastodons, Bushes, And Gods
My newspaper reminded me the other day that mammoths and mastodons used to wander the area I now live in. In fact, the remains of 50 woolly mammoths and some 150 mastodons have been found in the region we humans now refer to as Ohio. Between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, the mastodons gnawed on the spruce forests while the mammoths grazed on grass. That's approximately 4000 years of gnawing and grazing - or about 100 times the length of time I've been here, nibbling Pop Tarts and writing. And now they're gone, leaving not a rack behind - just bones for us to puzzle over as we attempt to reconstruct the distant past.
Consider this entry one more bone of thought left for future explorers of a fossilized cyberspace to puzzle over as they attempt to understand what the hell happened to today's residents of this land....
As mentioned at the end of the last bone I tossed, I watched Bush's big speech to Congress last Thursday, just like millions of others. Like many, I thought it was a surprisingly well-delivered speech, that he rose to the occasion, etc., etc.
I just wish I could shake the feeling it left me with.
You know - the feeling that we're all on a magnificent, well-oiled, thunderously powerful train that's gaining speed despite all the innocent people camped out on the tracks up ahead.
And despite the fact that there's a bridge out just past them.
And Bush... well, Bush seems to be the wonderfully dressed engineer who's blowing his whistle and calling for us go even faster.
Somehow the fact that his calls for more speed are grammatically correct for once in his life fails to restore my confidence....
"All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol, singing 'God Bless America.'"
Well, no - not really. I, for one, wasn't touched. "God Bless America" has long annoyed me as an unfortunate, egocentric, primitively tribal attempt to invoke non-existent supernatural powers on our behalf. Watching more and more people say and sing those three little words in recent days has been like watching people running around begging the Easter Bunny to come help them after a horrible auto accident has occurred. It's worse than useless - these people threaten to inadvertently cause another horrible accident with their antics. If you reach them before I do, please tell them to knock it off.
"And you did more than sing; you acted, by delivering $40 billion to rebuild our communities and meet the needs of our military."
Bush meant this as high praise but I heard it as something else: "This new age could easily bankrupt us." That $40 billion was followed by $15 billion for the airline industry, after all, for a total of $55 billion. It sticks in my mind that the entire 10-year-long Vietnam War cost something on the order of $100 billion - and we're already over halfway there?? OK, one must adjust for inflation and the much larger size of the current US economy. FIne. The fact remains that we're merely two weeks into this and we've already spent about $200 for every man, woman, and child in the country. And there's no end in sight.
This is particularly stunning when one stops and remembers that a couple weeks ago, there was no money for prescription drug coverage for Grandma and Grandpa. There was no money to fix our crumbling schools, or fund drug treatment centers, or much of anything else. There's ALWAYS money for war, however. And it seems there's always money for capitalistic enterprises which are "too big for us to allow to fail." Funny how that works....
"And on behalf of the American people, I thank the world for its outpouring of support."
Bush went on to mention Britain, Germany, South Korea, Egypt, Australia, Africa, Latin America, Pakistan, Israel, India, El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, and Japan. He did not mention Canada, even though Canada was the only country which seems to have actually helped us on Sept. 11 by accepting all the international flights headed to the US which were diverted for security reasons. For all Canada knew, those flights might have been in the hands of other hijackers who might have thought Toronto or Ottawa a great second choice for attack after New York and Washington were denied them. I noticed Bush's oversight even as he spoke, and my Canadian friends have made it clear to me that they noticed it, too. On his behalf, I apologize. And I vow to continue to work towards the day when American weather forecasters realize that the weather doesn't magically end at the Canadian border. Maybe THEN people down here will start to remember that human life doesn't end at the Canadian border, either.
"Americans have known wars -- but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941."
Let's see... 136 years ago would be 1865. That takes us to about page 100 of Dee Brown's over 400-page Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a history of the Indian wars which lasted until 1890. James W. Loewen's book Lies My Teacher Told Me makes it painfully clear just how important those Indian wars were - and how they tend to be utterly ignored when Americans ponder the last 200 years.
I'm told that over $150 million was raised Friday night by the all-star telethon organized in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Maybe they can use thirty bucks of that to buy copies of these books and FedEx 'em to George before he makes any more mistakes based on his ignorance of history?
"Americans have many questions tonight. Americans are asking: Who attacked our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda."
Unfortunately, Bush and Co. have so far pretty much refused to share that evidence on the grounds that doing so would compromise US intelligence operations. That may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that Bush is basically asking me to trust him - and if there's one thing I've learned in my 30 years of reading the newspaper it's that presidents cannot be trusted. From JFK and his secret affairs with the molls of Mafia dons, to LBJ's distorted version of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, through Watergate, through Iran-Contra, down to "Read my lips - NO new taxes!" and "I did NOT have sex with that woman!" it's clear: Presidents lie - often and big time. If Bush wants my support for killing people, he's going to have to do a helluva lot better than "Trust me."
"Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime."
WAIT. Didn't Mario Cuomo tell me that there is no Mafia??
"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics -- a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.... Its [Islam's] teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. (Applause.) The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself."
Hmmmm - nothing quite like a VERY Christian US president standing up and lecturing people on the true meaning of another group's religious beliefs. Kinda like an Iranian ayatollah telling American Baptists what Jesus was really all about, isn't it? And I'm sure it's just about as effective.
For what it's worth, I think Bush was not merely acting presumptuously - I think he was wrong. The "peaceful teachings" of Islam do not explain how Mohammed and his sword-wielding armies established an empire extending from Spain to India. Those "peaceful teachings" do not explain why "non-extremist" countries like Saudi Arabia shun democracy, cut off the hands of thieves, behead women for adultery, refuse women the right to drive, and persecute writers like Salmon Rushdie who dare examine Islam from a rationalist perspective. I've actually read the Koran, and I can tell you that it says quite clearly that Muslims ought not to be friends with unbelievers - and by "unbelievers" it specifically includes those who believe in the trinity or the divinity of Jesus. While it would be wrong to condemn all Muslims for being murderous fanatics like Osama bin Laden, we do ourselves no favors by misrepresenting mainstream Islam as something Mr. Rogers might have invented.
"And tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban: Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al Qaeda who hide in your land. (Applause.) Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens, you have unjustly imprisoned. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and hand over every terrorist, and every person in their support structure, to appropriate authorities. (Applause.) Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps, so we can make sure they are no longer operating. These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion. (Applause.) The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."
This was perhaps the most stunning part of the speech for me. What I heard Bush saying was "I hereby commit the US to re-fight the Vietnam War in the mountains of Southwest Asia." The demands he placed on the Taliban he must know are ones they will never agree to. He might as well demand that pigs fly. Which means that he intends to fight the Taliban no matter what now. And his demonization of them in the preceding section (which I won't quote) was meant to enrage Americans and get them behind him. Not that it takes much to demonize the Taliban - they're bad guys, no doubt about it. But they were bad before Sept. 11, too, and yet Bush chose to focus on North Korea and other places despite the fact that North Korea, at least, seemed to be improving while the Taliban were getting worse.
No matter. The hard fact remains that he's now apparently committed the US to toppling the Taliban - and my sense is that people have little idea what that means.
Afghanistan is more than 6 times the size of Ohio. It has twice as many people. Unlike Ohio, it is nightmarishly mountainous, and those mountains are said to be full of old mines and tunnels. As was the case in Vietnam, our friends and enemies in the area resemble each other far more closely than our friends resemble us. As was the case in Vietnam, Afghanistan is a country of peasants and warriors living together in close proximity. If anyone thinks we can kill the warriors without killing a lot of innocent peasants in the process, please tell me how that's going to work, exactly. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (who even looks disconcertingly like Robert McNamara, the guy who held the same position during much of the Vietnam War) was on the news last night admitting that he and his war planners were having trouble coming up with a strategy - or finding anything in Afghanistan worth bombing.
Good luck, guys. You're going to need it.
"Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. (Applause.)"
OK. Rumsfeld says al Qaeda is active not just in Afghanistan but in 50-60 other countries. And then there are all the other terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbullah. Once we get done conducting a tunnel-by-tunnel search of the mountains of Afghanistan, we can just go right down the list, eh? Iraq. Sudan. Lebanon. Syria. Iran. Algeria....
There was a report this week that Colombian narco-rebels had plans to launch a terrorist attack on the US, too, so I guess you can throw Colombia and its jungles onto the list as well.
Does anyone really think the masses in these countries are going to let us just waltz in and take out the terrorists among them any more than we'd let the Russians come in and take out the KKK? Even if you're an American who hates the KKK as much as I do, the idea of allowing some know-it-all faraway superpower bomb Mississippi, say, and leave is not one you're likely to cheer. Why do we think the masses of other countries are going to act any differently?
Seems Bush and his successors are going to have to repudiate his words of Thursday night or we're in for years and years (if not decades) of bloody conflict.
"The civilized world is rallying to America's side. They understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens may be next."
Hmmmm. Funny how when Islamic fundamentalists from Chechnya were suspected of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow, the US government didn't rally to Russia's side. It urged restraint. If Russia or any other country drags its feet now in response to our requests for aid, let's not act all surprised and outraged - ok?
"Americans are asking: What is expected of us? I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children."
Oh, man... First he virtually commits us to a third world war, then he tells us we can win it by hugging our children?? Is he really an idiot or is he merely treating us as if we are??
In fairness, Bush did go on to request a few other things - patience, cooperation with the FBI, help for the victims of Sept. 11, NO bigoted attacks on innocent people, prayers - but, really... Wars take two things: Lots of money, and lots of bodies. The money, apparently, is going to come out of thin air - or the Social Security trust fund - while we continue to blow our refund checks. The bodies apparently are going to be provided solely by those who joined the armed forces in far different circumstances.
This is war on the cheap - sugarcoated war - and the longer we indulge in this fantasy, the harsher the return to reality is going to be.
"The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them. (Applause.)"
Bush has his God... Osama has his God.... What I'm hearing both say is "My God can beat your God up!" How helpful. How mature.
Forgive me for feeling as if I've suddenly been transported back to an ancient jungle where competing voodoo priests mutter their incantations while the drums of war grow louder....
"In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America."
If God actually existed or listened to presidents, this world would be a far different place, George. The fact that you and so many others don't realize this scares me far more than Osama does.
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(©Now by DJ Birtcher using his own brain, hands and keyboard to do the trick after prayer yet again failed to do a damn thing)