Wednesday, March 6, 43 A.B.

Frothing At The Heart

I once contemplated writing a short story in which a priest was murdered with a radioactive crucifix.  The sicker the priest got, the tighter he clutched the very thing which was killing him....

It sometimes seems to me as if we're all acting exactly like that priest.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the continuing war between Israelis and Palestinians.  One side launches a murderous attack on the other, which triggers a murderous attack in response, which triggers a murderous attack  - on and on, bloodshed without end.  Instead of seeing the pointlessness of it all and trying something new, both sides angrily thump their chests and vow to launch even deadlier and more extensive murderous attacks.  It's like watching people trying to reach the sky by digging a hole.  When a hole dug with a shovel fails to put the sky within reach, they switch to a bigger shovel... then a backhoe... then a steam shovel....  Like the priest in my story, they're too busy clutching the thing they've always clutched to realize that it's that very thing which is killing them.

One can find much the same sort of tragedy unfolding now in those parts of India where Hindus and Muslims seem to be taking great pleasure in slaughtering each other despite the fact that a death toll of a million in the last 50 years has achieved very little, but it seems impolite to pick on foreigners when there's so much American inanity to choose from.

Take the so-called "War on Terror."  As near as I can tell, it has now pretty much boiled down to "Kill as many terrorists as possible!" - which seems a precise echo of the old "Kill as many communists as possible!" policy which worked so well in Vietnam.  The main difference seems to be that it isn't merely Vietnam we're talking about these days - or even Southeast Asia - but Afghanistan, and the Philippines, and Yemen, and Iraq, and the former Soviet republics, and, well, just about anywhere on earth a terrorist might be lurking.  Kill ‘em all.  And those who harbor them.  And those who sympathize with them.  And what the hell - North Korea, too, just because they might do something nasty someday.  Sometimes you really DO need to destroy a village in order to save it.  Right?


Almost 6 months from Sept. 11 and instead of coming to grips  with the Brave New World we find ourselves in, we've regressed to the 1960s....

Do YOU feel safer today as a result?  Why?  CBS News and others have made it clear that it's about as easy to smuggle bombs and other weapons onto a plane as it was last summer.  Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar remain at large despite much of the civilized world's best efforts to kill or capture them.  Many of our Afghan allies are little more than power-hungry warlords eager to call in U.S. airstrikes on each other to settle old scores - or perhaps merely to acquire a coveted flock of sheep.  No one has been apprehended yet for all those anthrax-laden letters sent last fall.  Exactly what is it we've accomplished again?

Sure, we've bombed the hell out of Afghanistan, but now Bush seems eager to move on and bomb the hell out of Iraq next (sometime within the next 18 months, if Newsweek can be believed) while leaving Afghanistan to try to do again what it hasn't been able to do in decades - rationally rule itself.  Bush has repeatedly declared that he's not into nation-building, which to my ears is a bit like hearing a child who's just battered a TV with a hammer proudly declare that he's not into electronics repair, but never mind.  Somebody had damn well better get into the nation-building business pretty quick or we're going to wear out our hammers dealing with the consequences.  Can't Bush see this?  No.  As someone once said, "To a boy with a hammer, the entire world looks like a nail."

Does the American public care?  Apparently not.  Having given Bush a license to hammer as hard and as long as he wants, Americans seem to have rapidly gone back to doing what they always do: Embracing hobbits, arguing about ball games, and tsk-tsking at freak shows starring people like Andrea Yates.  Having tuckered ourselves out waving our flags and singing "God Bless America," it seems we feel we've earned the right to slip into a nice warm tub of complacency with our "Friends" for the duration.

A series of recent incidents has snapped all this into sharp focus for me.

First there was the moment on "Jeopardy!" when not one of the three contestants would even dare try to guess the name of the leader of Pakistan.  That name has been in the news almost daily for months now.  The success of the "War on Terror" depends on few other people more.  These contestants aren't run of the mill folks such as one might find on "Wheel of Fortune" or "Hollywood Squares" but carefully culled Smart People.  None could come up with the name of General Musharraf.

Next there was that story about how the U.S. government thought that terrorists were about to smuggle a nuclear device into New York City last fall.  This is certainly within the realm of possibility.  Government officials (for whatever reason) thought it more than a mere possibility at the time.  Whatever they did in response, it did not involve telling the mayor, the governor, or local FBI officials - let alone the public.  This story - when it finally came out recently - got relatively little coverage and apparently has inspired even less discussion.  Why?  Have we really become so numb and fatalistic that we just don't care anymore?  Is anyone thinking, "Ya know, maybe now would be a good time to think about dispersing ourselves, our financial centers - stuff like that"?  Is anyone really working to make it harder to smuggle nuclear bombs into the country?  Or adding new layers of redundancy to our society?  Or figuring out what motivates people to want to nuke others in the first place?  Yes, we're told that Bush has a "shadow government" in place - but it apparently doesn't include the legislative or judicial branches of government.  Yes, we're told they've added radiation detectors to certain areas - but it seems we've worked harder as a nation in the past to prevent the Medfly from spreading.  As a society,  it seems we're more upset that former employees of Enron might have lost their pensions than that a single, well-placed bomb might constitute  "Game Over" as one official put it so eloquently in my newspaper. Hell, it seems that the Y2K problem generated far more coverage, action, and concern.  Certainly the recent Olympic gold medal figure skating controversy generated much more discussion....

Third and finally, there's the fact that ABC has been seriously considering replacing Ted Koppel's "Nightline" with David Letterman.  Even though "Nightline" is one of the most thoughtful and educational programs on TV.  Even though such programs are needed now more than ever.  Even though "Nightline" regularly draws more viewers than Letterman.  Even though Koppel says "Nightline" has made about a half billion dollars for ABC since it first went on the air some 22 years ago.  In the view of some network executives, it isn't making enough money.  And it isn't drawing enough of the "right" kind of viewers - those people between the ages of 18 and 45 with money to blow on the products the advertisers are pushing.  Now, I like Letterman as much as anybody, but just think about what's going on here: We're allegedly at war.  Our survival as a nation is possibly at stake.  And ABC is seriously thinking about dumping a program which might help us better face the challenges before us in exchange for a few more bucks.

If this is capitalism at its finest, perhaps we don't deserve to survive.

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(©Now by DJ Birtcher during that one moment of the day
when he wasn't feeling guilty about watching "Jeopardy!"
instead of studying the psychology of religious fanaticism)

Just To Make A Long, Unpleasant Rant Even Longer: There was a small article on page three of my newspaper today which I found interesting.  It was headlined "Victims-fund changes would give more money to families" and went like this -

"With so few takers for the federal Sept. 11 victims-compensation fund - 353 families have signed up - special master Kenneth Feinberg is expected to sweeten the pot when he unveils the final plan this week.

"The original proposal would have given the average victim's family $1.6 million, before subtractions for offsets such as life insurance, workers compensation and Social Security benefits.

"Attorneys and families who've met with Feinberg recently to plead for more money have said the new plan could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the average payments.

"In perhaps the most significant change, workers-compensation death benefits, which can reach nearly $1 million during a surviving spouse's lifetime, will not be subtracted from the award."

Why did I find this interesting?  Because a few weeks ago when this same newspaper reminded me that the U.S. had accidentally killed innocent people in Afghanistan, it also revealed that the CIA had slipped a few of those victim's families $1000 in hopes they'd call it even.

It would seem that one innocent American victim of terrorism is worth at least 1600 innocent victims of U.S. military action.

I suppose there's a worse message we could be sending the rest of the world, but I'm afraid it's awfully hard to imagine what it might be when one is chilled to the bone....