Thought for Today

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
--Joseph Stalin

Terri Schiavo

The grave conveys the ultimate privacy. All people of sensitivity must hope that Mrs. Schiavo's death will give her family some measure of peace. And, for all our sakes,we can only hope that her death will draw the curtain over the circus that Republican politicians and right-to-life extremists have convened in her name.

No such luck,I fear. My friend Gretchen sent me an e-mail this morning that explains why:

We in this country don't know how to die. (Now the pope's on a feeding tube...whatever happened to "Natural Law"?) We're supposed to die when the body fails, as humankind has died for millions of years. Is not the American way of death radically against natural law?

Everything these days is inflated. We have the very public dyings, dying as public spectacle, a last bit of attention-getting. We can't get enough suffering -- as long as it's someone else's. Then we can feel secure, if only for a moment. And why? We can't face death, our own death, the death of all of us. We're controlled by our fears, a fact that the administration and the religious right knows well. They play the American public like a tuba: blat! blat! blat!
And yet, as I brace myself for a weekend-long media orgy, I see a few blessings.

One is unverifiable: that Terri Schiavo, dead-in-all-but-name for 15 years, has finally had her soul liberated. Whatever's next for her spirit cannot be worse.

Two is that everyone now knows that you can easily become the plaything of the State if you do not have a living will.

Three is that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals not only delivered the final ruling in this case but put the matter in the bluntest possible language. Here is Judge Stanley Birch, appointed in 1990 by George H. Bush:

A popular epithet directed by some members of society, including some members of Congress, toward the judiciary involves the denunciation of "activist judges." Generally, the definition of an "activist judge" is one who decides the outcome of a controversy before him according to personal conviction, even one sincerely held, as opposed to the dictates of the law as constrained by legal precedent and, ultimately, our Constitution. In resolving the Schiavo controversy it is my judgment that, despite sincere and altruistic motivation, the legislative and executive branches of our government have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people -- our Constitution. Since I have sworn, as have they, to uphold and defend that Covenant, I must respectfully concur in the denial of the request for rehearing en banc."
"The legislative and executive branches of our government have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people -- our Constitution." Never thought you'd see a conservative Republican judge say that, did you?

Fourth: the dialogue that blogger Charles Lehardy and I had over the last few days. In a time of polarization, we had a real exchange. I'm heartened--well, a bit. Read on....

Terri Schiavo: Facts and Opinions

A few days ago, Loose Canon did the thing that drives me nuts on a regular basis. Instead of quoting a news source or expressing an opinion of her own, she adopted some thoughts about Terri Schiavo from a blog that had quoted, in turn, another blog. The item in question:

Relapsed Catholic, a good source of information and perspectives on Terri Schiavo, spotted this alarming thought from Another Think, a Christian blog:

"Men and women who are incapacitated, even when they face no immediate risk of dying, may now be declared unfit for further life-sustaining care. If an estranged husband can achieve this result over the objections of his wife's own parents, surely insurance companies, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, and other health-care funding agencies will realize that they might make use of this precedent as well, to cut off care for chronically ill patients when they have become a drain on our national healthcare resources." I was startled by this last, because, as those who have been following the Schiavo case well know, this has already occurred--in Texas, thanks to a law signed by then-Governor George Bush--in the Sun Hudson case (scroll down to "Where George Bush Really Stands," posted on March 21.) The first reports of the Hudson baby's killing were published a few days earlier. But outside of the Houston newspapers--and the liberal blogs that picked up the story--the Hudson killing got little attention. I doubted that Charles Lehardy, who writes Another Think, knew of it when he weighed in on the 23rd. So I wrote him.

Lehardy replied:

I was not aware of this case and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. One difference that I think significant is that a committee of doctors reviewed Sun Hudson's case and decided, apparently, that he had no hope of improvement. In the Schiavo case, her husband has allowed no independent and dispassionate review of her condition, which I think is dangerous. The suspicions that he is acting with haste have to do with his unwillingness to allow an independent review of her health and prognosis.

In Sun Hudson's case, the expense of longterm care was the reason for the original law and the use of the law to end his life. That's troubling, of course, but financial considerations always play some part in these health issues. Since we do not have a right to unlimited public-financed health care, we end up making hard, pragmatic choices. I wrote back:

A busy day keeps me from giving you the exact number of court-appointed doctors who weighed in on TS's condition over the years--but are you saying that those doctors are incapable of "independent and dispassionate review"? If so, what constitutes "independent and dispassionate review"?
Lehardy's response:

In the Schiavo case, Dr. Chandler--the key neurologist consulted by the court--is famous for his support of right-to-die politics, having chaired a committee that favors changing legislation, etc.

It strains my credulity that he could be called dispassionate. If the court had gone instead to the ethics committee of the local Florida hospital and approached doctors who are involved in the daily practice of medicine and not lecturing and politicking, that would, in my view, have met the test of objectivity. Once again, we were disagreeing because we weren't looking at the same facts. So I sent Lehardy the report of Jay Wolfson, TS's third court-appointed guardian. And directed him to pages l8-21, where we learn that the court, in response to a motion by TS's parents, ordered five doctors--five!--to examine TS. Two were chosen by her parents, two by her husband. The fifth was to be selected by agreement of the parents and husband, or, failing that, by the court. The findings: Michael Schiavo's doctor and the court-appointed doctor presented scientific evidence that supported the conclusion that TS had no significant brain function and that no treatment was likely to produce improvement. The parents' doctors presented "anecdotal" evidence which the court did not find convincing.

Lehardy's reply surprised me:

I read the entire Wolfson report last night and see that in fact you are correct and I was wrong. The impression I had received from reading about Schiavo was that the courts had not allowed a "dispassionate" review by doctors other than those appointed by Michael.

I'd be happy to offer a mea culpa about that erroneous assumption, but it isn't something I've said in public, nor does it go to the heart of my own objections about "pulling the tube." Nor is it particularly on point as to your original reference to the Sun Hudson case.

There are parallels between Schiavo and Hudson, but (and I'm no doctor) from the accounts of doctors in both cases, fetal dwarfism is nearly always fatal within days of birth, whereas PVS is not life-threatening in the normal sense of the phrase. In the case of Sun Hudson, the doctors claim that even with the ventilator, his lungs and heart would soon become so trapped by his small rib cage that he would die. In Schiavo's case, she is not in any immediate danger except for the lack of food and water. I was agog. In almost a year of dealing with Loose Canon, I cannot remember a time when she has said "you are correct and I was wrong." Oh, on occasion I present an avalanche of facts and get a statement of surrender, but it's always on the order of an annoyed, weary dismissal, as if to say: "Oh, Swami, you obsessed fool, you just won't quit this boring assault, but if I tell you I agree with you, you'll just have to...move on."

And yet here I was, in an exchange with someone who disagrees with me completely yet was willing to engage in an actual dialogue. So I pressed on:

"I am concerned--"puzzled" might be a better word--that you seem to be saying that it's okay to pull the plug if a) death is inevitable and b) "the expense of long term care" is prohibitive. The rich and vegetative may live but the poor and doomed must die? Help me here, please...
Lehardy's reply:

I do believe it is ok to pull the plug when death is inevitable. The medical standard for this uses the word "futility," I believe. But I didn't say it was "okay" that money plays a role in making these decisions. That's your word. I merely acknowledged that this is reality.

The poor never have it as good as the wealthy. The per-capita spending on healthcare in America is obscene when compared with genuinely poor parts of the world: Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, etc. As a good liberal, Jesse, I'm quite certain you have eschewed personal health insurance and are donating that money to the work of AIDS relief in Africa, right? :) Well, no. I have health insurance for Mrs. Uptown, the Golden Child and myself, to the tune of $1,300 a month (it would be even higher if I'd signed up for dental and optical coverage). And on top of that ridiculous gouging, I give to organizations working with AIDS patients in Africa. But that's a private matter--no need to toot my horn here. Beyond that, Lehardy's response suggests a whole new area of conversation about personal choice and what the Republicans and their pro-life supporters seem to believe is an absolute right to life--unless the patient is poor. As Jon Stewart says, "In America, you're not dead until you're broke."

But as the Sufis (and others) say, "The guest is God." And so I'd like to end this with Charles Lehardy having the last word. It's been a pleasure to have a civilized conversation with someone on the other side of these issues. Proves that it can be done. Maybe it will encourage others to reach across the line.

If you want to read Charles Lehardy on a regular basis, he's at Another Think. I'm bookmarking his site. I encourage you to do the same. And now, to Charles:

I've enjoyed our conversation, Jesse, and look forward to others. We get the impression these days that civility is disappearing, which is a shame. We can learn a lot more from dialogue than diatribe.
The Beauty Part

"I hoped my intimate relationship with death, beginning with the death of my father, through the deaths of so many of the patients I cared for, would somehow lessen the fear, allow me to face the unknown with the sense that others I had known had passed before me, and all I knew would go after. The unknown would then be understood not as a terror but as a comfort, because it held within it the possibility that I would be reunited with those I loved who were gone, in some form and in some dimension, and that I might be linked, like my father, through memory with those I would leave behind."

That is Dr. Jerome Groopman, one of America's best AIDS researchers, in The Measure of Our Days. The book tells the stories of eight patients sentenced to death by AIDS and cancer. But it is even better as an instruction manual: how to live, how to die. While the rest of the country is hypnotized by the morons on cable TV, you could do a good thing for yourself and your loved ones--you could read this book.

Thought for Today

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
--George Orwell

Movies for the New Millennium: 'Billy & Bronto'

I was thinking about that Creationist Theme Park soon to open in the midwest. And of all the Americans who don't want Darwin to darken their kids' classrooms. And it occurred to me that maybe I'm making a mistake in believing we're talking about a very small number of wingnuts here.

What if it turns out that the country really is populated by a majority of people who really believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that no one is born gay and that, with the right therapy, Terri Schiavo might have danced again?

In that case, there's a fortune in giving these people the kind of entertainment that supports their view of the world.

Okay. This is a rough draft idea. But read it with an open mind (before you write and tell me how fabulous it is).

The film is called "Bronto and Billy."

Billy is a cowboy. A young Bruce Willis. Tough. Funny. Sexy. Broke. Doesn't have a shekl to his name. (Yes, shekl. This is set 6,000 years ago.)

Billy enters a rodeo. The first prize: You get the animal you rode. Billy hopes to win the prize brontosaurus. (Remember, this is 6,000 years ago.)

Ride 'em, Jewboy! Billy lasts the required 8 seconds. Nobody else does as well. He gets the dino. They ride off into the West.

Bad guys galore. Billy smites them (this is before guns, remember) and rides off on Bronto.

Bronto is mad fun. He splashes lake water on Billy. He flips Billy into the water with his tail.

But then Bronto gets sick. Billy goes to town for a doctor. But all the local healer can suggest is prayer and leaches.

Bronto is desperately ill. Billy cradles his big head in his hands. He prays for a miracle. Ann Coulter appears (we want recognizable celebrities in this movie.) She takes Bronto's giant paw in her hand and commands God to transfer his sickness into her body.

Fire! Thunder! When the smoke clears....

Ah, but I'm not like those right wing meanies who spoiled "Million Dollar Baby" for you. This is as much as you'll ever read for free. The rest? Depends on a producer with imagination. Or maybe just greed.

From the Mailbag: 'I'm Scared'

Tim, a concerned reader, weighs in on the article about censoring professors:

I just read Jacqueline Marcus' article, and it confirmed something I've been feeling (and fearing) with increasing dismay. The particular strain of conservatism that's currently in power is far different from those of the recent past, in that it's clearly anti-knowledge & anti-reason.

In the past, conservatism had a long & honorable intellectual tradition, one that respected learning & questioning. I might not have agreed with the conclusions or viewpoints of many conservative thinkers, but it was clear that they were indeed THINKING.

I don't get that impression today.

What impression do I get? I see more & more people who not only scorn & dismiss learning, but proclaim their pride at doing so. I see more & more people who don't read a book, who don't even read intellectually challenging material by classic conservatives. They're apparently content to let others do their thinking for them, and to let those people provide short, succinct sound bites that pass for argument.

I see more & more people who dread & fear thought, art, nuance, complexity, uncertainty, mystery. More, they dread & fear anyone who raises such topics. And what they dread & fear, they attack & do their best to destroy. I am truly worried about the direction our culture is taking. Ignorance is wisdom, apparently -- Orwell saw that coming, sure enough!

So what do we do? How do we oppose what looks like a coming Dark Age? It might be a short one, but even a few years can do a horrendous amount of damage, e.g., the reign of the Taliban. And what if it's a long one? I'm actually afraid that I'll live to see libraries & museums burned in the near future. And perhaps people, as well. Radiant Church of Surprise, Arizona: Part 3

A few days ago, in response to a reader who worked in a crisis center and got calls from troubled people who said they could only speak to Christians, I wrote:

Some questions: There are "human" problems and "Christian" problems? Are infidelity, alcoholism and depression "different" for Christians? And beyond "Christ is the Answer," are there "Christian" solutions to these problems that mere humans might test-drive?
Two fresh questions have occurred to me: Why are Christians calling a hot line anyway? I mean, if Jesus is The Answer, then what questions remain?

The Beauty Part

"I hear all the people of the world/In one bird's lonely cry/See them trying every way they know how/To make their spirit fly." As a kid, the woman who wrote those lines used to put her thumb out, hitch a ride and end up "two or three states away." She was tossed out of high school. She became a drifter, and, as drifters will, she ended up in Los Angeles. Occasionally she slept behind the HOLLYWOOD sign. Mostly she hung out in Venice. She waited tables. She sang in clubs. And she wrote. One song was called "Chuck E.'s in Love." A few years later, she recorded music even more beautiful, just not as popular. Consider Rickie Lee Jones.

Thought for Today

How old are you, small Vietnamese boy?
Six fingers. Six years.
Why did you carry water to the wounded soldier, now dead?
Your father.
Your father was enemy of free world.
You also now are enemy of free world.
Who told you to carry water to your father?
Your mother!
Your mother is also enemy of free world.
You go into ditch with your mother.
American politician has said,
"It is better to kill you as a boy in the elephant grass of Vietnam
Than to have to kill you as a man in the rye grass in the USA."
You understand.
It is easier to die
Where you know the names of the birds, the trees, and the grass
Than in a stranger country.
You will be number 128 in the body count for today. High body count will make the Commander-in-Chief of free world much encouraged.
Good-bye, small six-year-old Vietnamese boy, enemy of free world.
--Eugene McCarthy, "My Lai Conversation" (For those too young to remember, Senator McCarthy ran for President so forcefully against Lyndon Johnson in l968 that the President decided not to run for re-election. The Senator celebrates his 89th birthday today.)

Will Jesus Be Bigger Than Trump?

"Revelations" will soon be on NBC. It's just the start of religious drama on TV. By fall, God--well, the Christian one--will be getting more airtime than Donald Trump. Needless to say, I am hoping all these shows fail. Not because I am a mean-spirited atheist, but because I have a bit more respect for God than these TV programmers and their sponsors.

My bet: Given a choice between Cleavage and Calvinism, guys will choose Cleavage. And women are going to have a hard time developing fantasies about the square-jawed preacher come to save them from Hell. Newsflash: At least in our fantasies, the Vegas pole-dancer and the Fabio knock-off are a lot more attractive than Preacherman and the Choir Singer.

Here's one show that seems like a lock to tank:

In "Book of Daniel," actor Aidan Quinn plays a pill-popping Episcopal priest who has the ability to talk about his drug addiction with a hip, modern-day Jesus. The show is still a work in progress, but for now Mr. Quinn's character also is dealing with a daughter arrested for selling marijuana, a brother-in-law who embezzles money from the church and is found murdered, and a gay son.
How hip will that Jesus be? Will he have a family? A hot-tub? A Tommy Hilfiger robe?

The Danger of Teaching Philosophy

Jacqueline Marcus has written a terrifying, must-read piece about the danger to free thought in colleges. Called "Targeted by Conservatives for Teaching Philosophy," it shows how conservative kids may--if legislation passes--be able to file lawsuits against professors who don't give "equal time" to conservative ideas. As she reminds us:

Socrates was accused by the mob for being unpatriotic because he didn't believe war with Sparta and the poorly planned Sicilian invasion were good ideas. As it turned out, he was right and they were wrong. Athens was demolished. He was promptly executed on trumped up charges, "Corrupting the Youth" and "Atheism" (gee, that sounds familiar!). In other words, Socrates was found guilty for being a critic of society, which made him an "enemy of the state."
Radiant Church of Surprise, Arizona: Part 2

Interesting email from a reader:

I live in a very small community which is very "born again." I volunteer on a crisis hot line. I quite often get phone calls from people who want to know if I'm Christian because they can only talk to people who "understand" them and can give them a Christian perspective. We also have a lot of callers who want a "Christian" therapist.

One woman now recognizes my voice, since I told her that I am not a Christian (Normally we do not share that sort of thing about ourselves but if a caller asks me point blank I'm not going to lie), and will kindly tell me she'll call on the next shift but she can't see a point in talking to me.

I've also spoken with callers who have been told to drop family members who do not fit their church's idea of being a proper Christian, because being exposed to "those" people is harmful. Some questions: There are "human" problems and "Christian" problems? Are infidelity, alcoholism and depression "different" for Christians? And beyond "Christ is the Answer," are there "Christian" solutions to these problems that mere humans might test-drive?

Should Robert and Mary Lou Menard Go to Heaven?

Just when you think you'll never find another heartwarming story, here come Robert and Mary Lou Menard:

When a college-aged Barbara Menard told her parents she was gay, they didn't want to tell her they already knew. But she was their 12th child, and if there's one thing about which Robert and Mary Lou Menard are experts, it's their own children.

They wanted instead to tell her they loved her, and nothing could change that.

Barbara says now, "They were waiting for me to tell them."

This from practicing Catholics, catechism teachers, readers of the Scripture. In fact, those Scriptures tell them to love that daughter. And that's what separates the Menards from so many in the hierarchy of their faith - and from others who use holy texts to condemn homosexuality and thwart the drive toward civil unions or gay marriages in Connecticut. What follows? A terrific love story. With this climax:

A couple of years ago, the Menards celebrated their 50th anniversary with a Catholic Mass, and Barbara and her 8-month-pregnant partner carried the bread and the wine for Communion. And the roof of the church held firm.
Bet: Barbara and her partner stay together a lot longer than many of the heterosexual marriages celebrated at that church.

Thought for Today

There used to be all those talk shows back in the '50s and '60s, when I was on television a great deal. People would talk about many important things, and you had some very good talkers. They're not allowed on now. Or they're set loose in the Fox Zoo, in which you have a number of people who pretend to be journalists but are really like animals. Each one has his own noise--there's the donkey who brays, there's the pig who squeals. Each one is a different animal in a zoo, making a characteristic noise. The result is chaos, which is what is intended. They don't want the people to know anything, and the people don't.
--Gore Vidal, in a cogent and frightening "must-read" interview

Terri Schiavo: Who Gained What?

Spent an outrageous percentage of the weekend sacked out. As did Mrs. Uptown. Looking back, we agreed: We felt "beat up" by last week's Republican assault on the law and the courts and the sanctity of marriage. And, over the weekend, when we thought the Schiavo circus was winding down, there was fresh outrage aplenty.

By now, you all have heard that Tom DeLay pulled the plug on his own father after the old man fell into a--where have you heard this phrase before?--persistent vegetative state.

But did you know that Terri's father also pulled the plug on a parent? From The Guardian:

....given the vehemence with which he has been fighting to prolong Terri's life, it is a little surprising to learn that Robert decided to turn off the life-support system for his mother. She was 79 at the time, and had been ill with pneumonia for a week, when her kidneys gave out. "I can remember like yesterday the doctors said she had a good life. I asked, 'If you put her on a ventilator does she have a chance of surviving, of coming out of this thing?'" Robert says. "I was very angry with God because I didn't want to make those decisions."
And did you know that Tom ("I love the American family") DeLay hasn't spoken to his mother in seven years?

For all of Tom DeLay's public espousal of Christian values, particularly his deep commitment to family, he privately has nursed a terrible estrangement from his own mother and three siblings. After the 1988 death of his father and the rise of his career in Washington, DeLay cut off contact with all three siblings, and seven years ago he stopped attending DeLay family gatherings. He has not seen or talked to his mother, Maxine, in two years, even though she lives about 10 miles away from Sugar Land; nor did he invite any of them to his daughter's 1999 wedding or even mention his mother in the published wedding announcement.

All through his roomy home are many photographs of his wife, his daughter and his in-laws -- but not a single one of the DeLays. Throughout our conversations, this rift is the only subject that he adamantly will not discuss. And did you know--same source--that DeLay's business ethics may leave something to be desired?

DeLay, while still in the state legislature, had signed a deal to buy out a small exterminator, Robert Bartnett, for about $40,000, but only paid him an initial $8,000, Bartnett recalls. DeLay claimed he stopped paying because Bartnett sold him a failing business. "When I was able to go look at his records," Bartnett says, "I learned that a great number of customers had quit because they didn't feel they were being serviced properly." The court ordered DeLay to pay Bartnett the $32,000 he was owed.
Whew. Nasty stuff. And if we would never have known any of it if these guys had kept their yaps shut. So when all is said and done, what was gained here? A Bush aide leaked that the President hadn't really wanted to fly back to DC from Crawford to sign the "Save Terri" bill. And Republican members of Congress who are now willing to speak up for Terri are harder to find than Democrats with a spine. Why is this? The polls.

The polls are just devastating for the President and Congress. 75% oppose Congress's involvement in the Schiavo case. 70% oppose the President's intervention. 65% think the President's motivation was politics, not values.

So here is the conundrum. Guys don't want the in-laws mucking about in their marriage. Nobody sane wants the government legislating his/her personal behavior. And if you can read, you know that most of the "activist judges" in this case are, in fact, Conservative Republicans.

Who, then, beat the drums for the "Save Terri" movement? A handful of people. What used to be called "the lunatic fringe"--folks at the extreme edge of Christian evangelism. Standing with them has now been shown to be deadly for a politician--but why is it these are the only citizens the President and his minions have time for?

A Good Surprise--or a Scary One?

There was a huge piece yesterday in the New York Times Magazine about Radiant, an evangelical church in Surprise, Arizona. It's more of a community center than a church. Or it's a church that serves also as a community center. The models for this are the churches of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen.

The Krispy Creme budget is $16,000. There's a barista serving Starbucks-quality drinks. Lee McFarland, the preacher, dresses like Jimmy Buffett. It looks very casual....but it's very thought-out.

I was lulled by the piece until I hit two passages. One was about a community that segregates itself--that becomes a kind of cult:

When you ask people how Radiant has changed their lives, they will almost invariably talk about how it helped open their hearts. But there's a kind of narrowing going on here as well, which became clear a few minutes later, when Tom flipped to another passage from a recent sermon. "'Some seed fell among the thorny weeds, and the weeds grew up with them and choked the good plants,'" he read, quoting Luke 8:7. Then he added his exegesis: "We've had friends who were not Christian, and for me they were like the thorny weeds," he said. "We've had to commit ourselves to friends who could help us grow spiritually."

The following night I heard this same message, communicated more explicitly, at Radiant's youth service. "If I asked how many of you have close friends who are unbelievers, a lot of you would probably raise your hands," the pastor told the crowd of about 150 teenagers, most of whom looked dressed for a rock concert. "I'll tell you right now, if one of you is a believer and the other is not, your relationship is doomed." The other, of course, is about homosexuals--who are definitely not welcome:

Even when he tackles a subject like homosexuality, an issue about which the Assemblies is unambiguous in its condemnation, he frames his message as one of compassion, entitling the sermon "What to Say to a Gay Friend." This happens to be something McFarland has personal experience with. His younger brother, who lives in Southern California, is gay. When I asked McFarland to repeat the gist of his sermon about homosexuality, he told me it was the same speech he's given to his brother at least 20 times: "I don't believe you were born gay. I was your brother; I grew up with you. I was there. I see that you got involved with a tennis pro who was gay when you were 18, and that's when everything switched."
I urge you to take half an hour and read this article. Then please tell me: Is this the next stage in the evolution--okay, wrong word--of evangelical churches? Or is this a social corporation that looks like a church but is really something else entirely?

The Car in the Road

One more time, the botched rescue of the Italian journalist:
One of the things that we keep hearing is that she was fired on on the road to the airport, which is a notoriously dangerous road. In fact, it's often described as the most dangerous road in the world. So this is treated as a fairly common and understandable incident that there would be a shooting like this on that road. And I was on that road myself, and it is a really treacherous place with explosions going off all the time and a lot of checkpoints.

What Giuliana told me that I had not realized before is that she wasn't on that road at all. She was on a completely different road that I actually didn't know existed. It's a secured road that you can only enter through the Green Zone and is reserved exclusively for ambassadors and top military officials. So, when Calipari, the Italian security intelligence officer, released her from captivity, they drove directly to the Green Zone, went through the elaborate checkpoint process which everyone must go through to enter the Green Zone, which involves checking in obviously with U.S. forces, and then they drove onto this secured road.

And what Giuliana Sgrena really stressed with me was that she -- the bullet that injured her so badly and that killed Calipari, came from behind, entered the back seat of the car. And the only person who was not severely injured in the car was the driver, and she said that this is because the shots weren't coming from the front or even from the side. They were coming from behind, i.e. they were driving away. So, the idea that this was an act of self-defense, I think becomes much more questionable. And that detail may explain why there's some reticence to give up the vehicle for inspection. Changes everything, doesn't it?


Ok. We're off to Burger King for breakfast. You could have:

The Enormous Omelet Sandwich. It carries 730 calories and 47 grams of fat and comes with two eggs, sausage, three strips of bacon and two slices of melted American cheese on a bun. It's heftier than a Whopper hamburger, which weighs in at 700 calories and 42 grams of fat.
Or you could order the other new Burger King breakfast:

The Western Omelet Croissanwich. It's a lighter pick with 320 calories and 17 grams of fat. It has fire-grilled onions, ham and melted American cheese inside a folded egg on a croissant.
Which would you choose? Or rather, do you want your heart attack/stroke sooner--or later?

Thought for Today

We have a president who believes he's doing the right thing. He's perfectly serene. He's not reachable. We can't reach him. He's surrounded by 1,500 body bags. It's okay because he sees that he's on a crusade. His mission is to bring peace to the Middle East.
--Seymour Hersh

Swami Asks God for Some Miracles

So much to say. Starting with: Have you noticed there's no news coming out of Iraq now? None. No news is never good news, not with this government.

So much to say: Like: How many hospitals does the company launched by Bill Frist's family own in Texas? And how many of those hospitals were among the health care facilities that turned away the African-American baby that the State of Texas killed last week?

So much to say. Like: Did you know that George Greer--the judge who has consistently ruled against Terri Schiavo's parents--is "Southern Baptist, a Republican member of the religious right, who recently quit his church after his pastor suggested 'it might be easier for all of us.'"

But it's Good Friday. And Purim. And the last thing the four of you who have showed up today want to hear is how a howling minority of Christian fanatics has taken over every part of our national culture that Big Business hasn't already cornered.

So... in the spirit of the season... let's ask God for some Miracles.

Ah... but which God? The vengeful one or the all-loving one? Let's hedge our bets and ask both.

Dear Vengeful God, Please Make These Miracles...

Restore Terri Schiavo to a full, robust life. In exchange, please take O'Reilly. Hannity. Scarborough. Matthews. And there surely is someone on CNN who pandered to the wingnuts who ought be evaporated, just as a warning to the others.

The wingnuts: Could you appear to them in a cloud? With thunder? Could you tell them what you really want from your children and give them...oh...30 seconds....to get with the program?

The Bush Administration: Could they be strapped into iPods that play the screams of prisoners in Abu Ghraib?

Factory owners and utility executives: Could you make them--with their families--move no more than one mile directly downwind from their plants until they decide there should be tighter pollution regulations?

Gays and Women and Minorities: Put them in charge for awhile. Just for yuks.

Adulterers: Could you stone a few?

Dear Merciful and Loving God, Grant Us These Miracles...

Recognize gay people as full and equal citizens of the United States, with full and equal rights in civil law.

While we convert to solar and wind power, arrange it so half of America's drivers use hybrid cars, saving 50 billion or more gallons of gas a year, half the annual production of oil in the U.S.

Burn down Abu Ghraib and apologize to Iraqis if our President won't.

Extend the government employees' healthcare plan to all citizens, so that we can all get the healthcare we need to enjoy "the culture of life," no matter our ability to pay.

Normalize relations with Cuba.

But you get the idea, God. I mean, you wrote the book. You sent your Son with the lessons. And Buddha. And Muhammad. And all the other seers who preach spirituality but not religion.

Bread-and-Butter Note

Just in case you're reading this, God, thanks for taking the time. (And I know you noticed, but I have to say it: Aren't you proud of me for not asking for anything for myself and my little clan?) I hope--if you're the Vengeful God--that you find some quality butt to kick this weekend. And--if you're the Merciful God--that your mercy flows to the many who are hurting. And--to both Gods--I'm your humble servant. Really. Love you, man.

The Beauty Part

Christopher Reeve, in the last piece he wrote:

I don't want to sound too noble, but I really have been able to say, All right, I've had some setbacks, but look at the other people who have benefited. I recommend you do the same thing because being fearless is not always going to get you exactly where you expect to go. It might take you in a completely different direction. It might not give you what you want, but it can satisfy you to know you did something for the world, for the planet, or even just for your family or your neighbours. And that's enough.

There are lots of ways of being fearless. I highly recommend it. To a large extent, the key to fearlessness is the "no matter what." Keep that in mind. It's truly amazing what we can do by allowing the spirit and mind to flourish. Our capabilities go way beyond our understanding. Trust in that and go forward. Get past the clutter, the noise inside you that says, "I can't, I can't, I'm not good enough, I don't feel like it, I'm sick, I don't want to." That is just like static on a radio. Just clear the channel, find good reception, and you'll be amazed by what you can do. Thought for Today

And you fall and pray, when you hear that sound
As we're walking back to the burial mound
And you shake your head and you turn it around
And you see the flames from the burning ground
And you get down on your knees and pray
--Van Morrison, "Burning Ground"

Fake Martyrs, Real Heroes

During his very small (two cities) "North American Tour" last week, Van Morrison staged a brilliant piece of theater--he grabbed the microphone, stand and all, and dragged it across the stage as if it were a cross. A gesture totally in keeping with decades of live performances, just one more variation on the theme of Van as an artist who gives his music to a greedy, ungrateful audience--Van as martyr.

There are many martyrs in America today. We don't know their names because they died and their survivors or followers brought them to our attention. They nominate themselves--they're zealots for publicity. Tom DeLay. Bill Frist. The Bushes--yes, these men have martyred themselves this week in Defense of Life.

And what stopped them from prevailing? Not the Lord's Will. The courts. The rule of law. The balance--and separation--of powers that we all once considered our civilization's crowning glory.

You may not like the decision that court after court has handed down in the Terri Schiavo mess. But you have to be grateful that a handful of judges remembered what they represent and who they work for. In the secular country this is supposed to be, they're the closest we have to priests.

The Resurrection of Oscar Romero

This is the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was killed at the moment in the Holy Thursday mass when the priest presents his offerings to God.

Romero forgot to write a book about the purpose-driven Catholic or build a church with great angles for TV cameras, so he isn't as well known as he should be. Let's use some of today's blog to correct that. Some history:

In February 1977, Romero became the Archbishop of San Salvador. Shortly afterwards, his friend, the first priest Romero had ordained, was murdered at the government's hands, assassinated for his service of the poor. A crowd of 100,000 drew together in a square in shock and horror to mourn the death of Romero's friend, the dead priest servant of the poor. To the crowd, Romero gave a vow: "Whoever touches one of my priests, is touching me. And they will have to deal with me!"

A swelling wave of approval echoed in the applause that rolled through the crowd, and the magnitude of the injustice against his people fired Romero's imagination. As one who was there observed, "Thousands of people were applauding him, and you could see him grow stronger. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people."

On March 23, 1980, Romero in a broadcast heard across the nation appealed to the men of El Salvador's armed forces to mutiny: "Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression." The next day, Oscar Romero was killed by a professional assassin. "I do not believe in death without resurrection," he said. "If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people." Who then began a civil war...

Three Words Together

Philyss Seidenfeld thought she smelled smoke. Firefighters came. They found nothing. A few hours later, the house burned. Four of her children died. Two are in critical condition, as is Philyss. From The New York Times:

Yesterday afternoon, Leslie Zoldan, Natan's daily baby-sitter, called Ms. Seidenfeld an exemplary mother who was raising seven children, six of her own and her stepsister's daughter, Adira. "She did everything for these kids, all before herself."

Ms. Zoldan painted a picture of Natan, who was the youngest victim and had Down syndrome. On Monday night, she said she put him on a treadmill to play. "He was so happy, showing off to his mom," she said. "He was one of these special, special little boys."

She told this story about his mother: "One day she comes over to me, and I thought she won the lottery. 'He put three words together,' she said to me. 'He put three words together.'"

He used to fetch the phone for her whenever it rang. "If someone hurt themselves, he'd go over and hug them, without even being asked," she said. "He would have made a difference in people's lives." On a day when you might think Terri Schiavo is the only suffering soul on the planet--and she's not, she's so not--I find this story a useful reminder that there's plenty of sorrow to go around. And that we all, even the ones with Down syndrome, have our gifts...

This Is Terri's Brain

Not to drag this on forever, but for those who haven't seen it elsewhere, here is the CAT scan of Terri Schiavo's brain.

And Speaking of Brain Traumas...

Just in case you thought your government actually cared about brain trauma, consider this update on wounded veterans:

According to doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., 60 percent of the wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq have traumatic brain injuries.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has recently completely zeroed out funding for the Federal TBI Act, which provides exactly this kind of help. Teach Your Children Well

As the twig is bent.

We've come a long way from the Civil Rights protests.

Because We Can't Handle the Truth

Remember the dispute over how many bullets were fired into the car carrying the freed Italian journalist to the Baghdad airport? And how we were going to Italian investigators our fullest cooperation. Well, read Army Times (that's OUR Army paper):

The U.S. military command in Iraq has blocked two Italian policemen from examining the car in which an Italian intelligence agent was shot to death in Baghdad.
I guess that means we'll never know. Or does it merely confirm our darkest suspicions?

The Beauty Part

There are writers and painters and photographers who do great work--and go home at night to peaceful lives. She seemed to lack that dividing line. Her photographs ask us: Who are we to say those retarded women are unhappy? That the transvestite suffers more than we do? These are jolting questions--questions that might, if we were willing to consider them, bring us to the kind of understanding that she seemed to grasp instinctively. Yes, Diane Arbus.

Thought for Today

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--ALWAYS.

Terri Schiavo: Not Nearly the End

Don't mistake the countdown for Terri as the Final Countdown. Somebody's gonna pay when she goes--and if the White House has its way, it's going to be "activist courts." Translation: courts that don't rule the way the White House wants. Expect a round of horrific candidates. The question: Will the Democrats discover their spine and fight confirmation?

The crazy thing about all of this is that the polls couldn't be clearer. Americans don't want the government in their private lives. They don't want one-off laws. They rather like the idea of separation of powers--it has, after all, worked well for us until now.

Me? I'd settle for a tiny bit of consistency. That African-American baby who had the plug pulled last week? This tragedy might have been avoided--oh, if Mom had money. No, what I meant to say: This tragedy might have been avoided if the mother had had any pre-natal testing. But then what? The same people who wrote the law that caused the hospital to pull the plug on her kid hate abortion--in their dream world, that poor mother carries the fetus to term. And then, six months later, they kill the baby. Someone smarter than your Swami will have to explain how that works.

The Error of My Ways

A reader sends email to set me straight:

Can you not admit that people can change and see the light? Just because W made a mistake and signed that bill that allows doctors to pull the plug on terminal patients over the expressed wishes of the guardians if they can't pay for treatment? Surely the Lord has touched his heart. He has said that he's only doing God's work and I believe him.

He is a kinder, gentler President now. He can be forgiven for trying to cut Medicaid and disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. He saw the light and only cut food stamps! Well that was only because even Congress couldn't quite swallow the Medicaid cuts! I am sure that his "culture of life" values are changing him as I write this.

I'm sure George and Congress have asked forgiveness for that bankruptcy law they passed a couple of weeks ago too. You know the one... where families that suffer catastrophic illnesses and go bankrupt have no chance of getting out from under the debt... like Terri's parents, except the ones without right wing funding.

I was really moved by Congressman Sennsenbrenner's defense of the "most vulnerable members of our society." I'm sure that those boys will turn around to help Terri grow a new cerebrum using stem cells in short order.

Really Swami... your cynicism is appalling! I'm surprised at you! The Liar's Club

Today we induct two new members. First, Michelle Malkin, a Japanese-American who is best known for a book defending the government's internment camps for Japanese citizens during World War II. Today she opines about Terri Schiavo:

Imagine how the poll results might have turned out if ABC News had made clear to participants that Terri is not terminally ill. Not in excruciating pain. Capable of saying "Mommy" and "Help me." And of "getting the feeling she's falling" or getting "excited," in her husband's own testimony, when her head is not held properly.
Michelle: Can we see the footage? It would be worth a thousand of your words.

Moving on: We expect Bush & Cheney to lie about the Social Security "crisis." Manufacturing crises is what these guys do--rather like Siegfried & Roy getting you to look left while they get an elephant to appear on your right, But John McCain? Didn't we used to think he was a straight shooter? Not after this:

Some of our friends, who are opposing this idea, say, 'Oh, you don't have to worry until 2042.' We wait until 2042, when we stop paying people Social Security?
John: And the economic numbers-crunching that says SS goes broke in 2042? Love to see it.

Regulation: We Don't Because We Don't Have To

The Bush policy on appointments is so disgusting it's a miracle the White House doesn't appoint Vito Corleone as Head of Prisons. The general idea: Find a guy who is an enemy of the public interest, and put him in charge--the way Bush's Interior Secretary Gale Norton has named Matthew J. Hogan to be acting director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Who is this guy?

Hogan was formerly the chief lobbyist for Safari Club International (SCI), an extreme trophy hunting organization that advocates the killing of rare species around the world. The Arizona-based SCI has made a name for itself as one of the most extreme and elite trophy hunting organizations, representing some 40,000 wealthy trophy collectors, fostering and promoting competitive trophy hunting of exotic animals on five continents. SCI members shoot prescribed lists of animals to win so-called Grand Slam and Inner Circle titles. There's the Africa Big Five (leopard, elephant, lion, rhino, and buffalo), the North American Twenty Nine (all species of bear, bison, sheep, moose, caribou, and deer), Big Cats of the World, Antlered Game of the Americas, and many other contests.
There's much more. Appalling, all of it.

Do Holocaust Deniers Deserve Equal Time?

So C-Span was going to have Deborah Lipstadt--one of the best-credentialed Holocaust scholars--on to talk about her new book. But the network wanted "balance" so C-Span invited Holocaust denier David Irving to appear. With that, Lipstadt bailed.

It took just two days to get a letter of protest signed by 200 U.S. historians. Their letter condemns the C-Span plan to feature David Irving.

Good for Lipstadt. Good for the historians. And shame on C-Span. I'm all for "balance," but I'm unaware that there are two opinions about the Holocaust. Still, live and learn--if any of you have proof the Holocaust didn't happen, I'd run it. And so, I gather, would C-Span.

Faces of the Fallen

Will you be in Washington, DC before September 5? Faces of the Fallen--an art exhibit honoring 1,000 Americans who died in Afghanistan and Iraq--will be on display at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial. (And, yes, I will be talking about the war again soon.)

The Beauty Part

Is there anyone who needs more sadness? Who craves another too-sensitive-to-live Irish singer-songwriter? Who wants to hear yet another home-recorded CD with a cello player to underscore the sadness? Not me. I've already got the full set: every Leonard Cohen CD, Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, etc. And if I want to forsake gloomy art for gloomy life, cable news is waiting, just across the room, eager for me to switch it on and sadden my soul. Yet there I was, strolling down Madison Avenue on my way to the gym, with Damien Rice on the iPod, tears streaming down my cheeks. And I'm here to tell you--the last thing I felt was gloom. Consider Damien Rice.

Thought for Today

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Old Business

Yesterday's blog triggered a storm of mail and message board posts. Let me answer everyone right here.

Will Swami Become Like "Them"?

I get the question--the right wing specializes in "personal" attacks, and I've said I'm going to be a lot blunter from now on--but does anyone seriously think I'm going to adopt "their" methods? Do you see me lying? Misrepresenting? Shading the facts to suit the argument? Please, God, anything but that. Favor: If you ever catch me cutting a corner, holler!

Is Violence the Answer?

A friend writes: "Do you honestly want to smack them as hard as you can to get their respect? and the results you desire? Have we all now begun to think that violence IS the answer? Never let up exposing untruth and the horror that untruth begets. But people are weak, misled, ignorant in so many ways - just like you and me. It is sufficient to accurately label the policies, to expose the actions that are hurting or even killing others."

Dear friend, I agree with you on so much--but no longer about this. Yes, the American people are "weak, misled, ignorant." But the people who are misleading them are not any of the above. They have unclean hands. Their agenda is to rule by dividing us, by lying to us, by winning any way they need to. And in the name of Jesus, no less! I used to give them the benefit of the doubt. No more.

Prove that Terri's Husband Doesn't Just Want to 'Move On'

This demand came from someone who has, I suspect, been watching TV and the right wing media. Ok, let's go through it. Remember that Michael and Terri were married in 1984. Now let's look at a timeline:

February 25, 1990: Terri Schiavo suffers cardiac arrest, apparently caused by a potassium imbalance and leading to brain damage due to lack of oxygen.

June 18, 1990: Court appoints Michael Schiavo as guardian; Terri Schiavo's parents do not object.

June 30, 1990: Terri Schiavo is transferred to Bayfront Hospital for further rehabilitation efforts.

September 1990: Terri Schiavo's family brings her home, but three weeks later they return her to the College Park facility because the family is "overwhelmed by Terri's care needs."

November 1990: Michael Schiavo takes Terri Schiavo to California for experimental "brain stimulator" treatment, an experimental "thalamic stimulator implant" in her brain.

May 1992: Terri Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, and Michael Schiavo stop living together.

August 1992: Terri Schiavo is awarded $250,000 in an out-of-court medical malpractice settlement with one of her physicians.

November 1992: The jury in the medical malpractice trial against another of Terri's physicians awards more than one million dollars. In the end, after attorneys' fees and other expenses, Michael Schiavo received about $300,000 and about $750,000 was put in a trust fund specifically for Terri Schiavo's medical care.

February 14, 1993: Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers have a falling-out over the course of therapy for Terri Schiavo; Michael Schiavo claims that the Schindlers demand that he share the malpractice money with them.

July 29, 1993: Schindlers attempt to remove Michael Schiavo as Terri Schiavo's guardian; the court later dismisses the suit.

There's much more, but you can see the pattern: The husband seeks aggressive therapy for his wife. He seems in no rush to "move in." A 2003 interview with Larry King might suggest Michael's commitment to Terri. Let's start with Michael's 1993 break with the family:

SCHIAVO: Her father and mother came into the room. And they closed the door. And they asked the big question, How much money am I going to get? And I told them I wasn't going to get any money.

KING: Out of the malpractice?

SCHIAVO: Out of the malpractice suit. Then he argued with me for a little while. And then he pointed at Terri in the wheelchair and says, How much am I going to get from her money? And I said, you have to go talk to the courts about that...From there, it blew up. He wanted to go out in the hall and have a fist fight. It was crazy. It was ludicrous.

KING: Did this shock you?

SCHIAVO: No, because he's always wanted the money. He always wanted money out of this. He even testified in the first trial that he was angry that he didn't get any money.

Here's Michael talking about his beyond-the-limit effort to find a fruitful treatment for Terri:

SCHIAVO: We heard of this doctor in California here that was doing experimental surgery, implanting stimulators in people's brains in hopes to stimulate any activity...Now, we were told with this, too, when this doctor looked at the CAT scans, that it was probably not going to work because there's just no brain left. But I did it anyway, because I loved Terri. And I wanted to bring my wife back. I wanted to have my wife back....So I flew her out to California by myself, with a nurse. And I spent a month there. They inserted the stimulator.

KING: Didn't work?

SCHIAVO: No, it eventually didn't work, no. The protocol for the stimulator was three months. I kept it on her for a year.

KING: A year. Not, as suggested, three months. Now we turn to the now-famous videotape that alledgedly shows Terri far from brain-dead:

SCHIAVO: Now, you've got to remember here, too, when the Schindlers show their little snippets of Terri, there's four and a half hours of tape. OK?

KING: This is edited?

SCHIAVO: This is edited. This is a tape where they snuck in against a court order after the judge said, do not photograph her.

KING: But she looks like--right, she's not in a coma.

SCHIAVO: Right. But you're missing half--you're missing three-quarters of the other tape where her mother does the same thing, and she does nothing. Now, Terri makes the same noises for the last 14 years. She's made the same facial expressions. She blinks her eyes. She has normal sleep/wake cycles. Now, the nurses have even testified in the trial that Terri makes those noises when nobody's in the room.

And, finally, the idea that Michael wants to collect the insurance money and move on to his replacement for Terri:

SCHIAVO: There's no money. There's no insurance. There's probably about $50,000 left in her estate. I will not receive a penny from this. Now, it's funny about that, because you know, back about two years, the Schindlers offered me $700,000 to walk away.

KING: They have that kind of money?

SCHIAVO: They get money from the right-wing activists. The right wing--the right-to-life groups.

KING: The right-to-life group was willing to pay you $700,000 to walk away?

SCHIAVO: Right. And two years ago, I offered what was left of Terri's money to charity three times, and the Schindlers refused to do that.

New Business: Where Did Terri's Parents Get the Money for Lawyers?

Did the right wing--as Michael Schiavo told Larry King--really fund Terri's parents? Just today we get some facts:

The Philanthropy Roundtable is a collection of foundations that have funded conservative causes ranging from abolition of Social Security to anti-tax crusades and United Nations conspiracy theories. The Roundtable members' founders include scions of America's wealthiest families, including Richard Mellon Scaife (heir to the Mellon industrial, oil and banking fortune), Harry Bradley (electronics), Joseph Coors (beer), and the Smith Richardson family (pharmaceutical products).

I found a Web site called mediatransparency.com which tracks funding for these foundations. Using just that Web site and the Schindlers' own site, terrisfight.org, I learned of a network of funding connections between some of the Philanthropy Roundtable's members and various organizations behind the Schindlers, their lawyers and supporters, and the lawyers who represented Gov. Bush in Bush v. Schiavo. There's much more in that link. None of that information appears in this response by Terri's parents. They say:

Indeed, the Schindlers have fought for more than a decade with little more than their own resources and some local help. After the first trial in 2000, "Professionals For Excellence", a local organization of conservative professionals, offered some help, and since then have occasionally contributed the expertise of their members in publicity, legal opinions, and other organizational assistance. According to Bob, Pat Anderson, their lead attorney, has worked on Terri's case largely pro bono with some occasional grants from legal foundations.
Hmmm. According to the bioethics.net link:

Pat Anderson "was paid directly" by the anti-abortion Life Legal Defense Foundation, which "has already spent over $300,000 on this case," according to the foundation's Web site.
That "pro bono"--it just might pay very well.

The Liar's Club

We inaugurate a New Feature today--a hall of shame, for world-class liars, wherever we find them. It is with pride that I induct Tom DeLay. It's for everything he's done to waste a week of our lives (and lower our already modest knowledge of medicine). Call him the Liar King for this:

She talks and she laughs and she expresses likes and discomforts. It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care and therapy that patients require.
And then we move on to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan talking about President Bush and that awkward bill he signed in Texas:

The legislation he signed is consistent with his views. You know, this is a complex case and I don't think such uninformed accusations offer any constructive ways to address this matter...[P]rior to the passage of the '99 legislation that he signed, there were no protections... The legislation was there to help ensure that actions were being taken that were in accordance with the wishes of the patient or the patient's family.
Here are the facts:

McClellan's statement grossly distorts the nature of the law. The law does not ensure that actions are taken "in accordance with the wishes of the patient or the patient's family." In fact it codifies and legalizes the ability of doctors to stop treatment even if it goes against the explicit directive of the patient or the patient's family.

Check out Section 166.046, Subsection (e): If the patient or the person responsible for the health care decisions of the patient is requesting life-sustaining treatment that the attending physician has decided and the review process has affirmed is inappropriate treatment, the patient shall be given available life-sustaining treatment pending transfer under Subsection (d). The patient is responsible for any costs incurred in transferring the patient to another facility. The physician and the health care facility are not obligated to provide life-sustaining treatment after the 10th day after the written decision required under Subsection (b) is provided to the patient or the person responsible for the health care decisions of the patient... Almost beats Tom DeLay. But so few really can be that disgusting.

Case Studies in Dying

E-mail from a friend of a decade:

When I faced the plug, I held my father's eye open in front of my mother--his wife of 60 years--and seven of his children and said, "Show me you want to live; because if you don't, I'm setting you free." No sign came and I pulled the plug. It was a blessing to see him at peace.
E-mail from a friend of 30 years:

My sister died of ALS in December 2003. The good/bad part of ALS is that your mind stays perfectly clear (while your body is killing itself). She did have a feeding tube as her swallowing became more difficult so that her nutrition would be taken care of and she could, slowly, eat just what gave her pleasure. As she neared what she knew was the end, she willfully, purposely, and with equanimity chose to refuse food and water so that her last days/weeks would occur before her life became fully unbearable.

This process took almost two weeks, but during that time she was peaceful, her two daughters were with her 24/7, she had the chance to say goodbye to all of her friends, she had planned her funeral and burial, she was ready to leave this earth. Thanks, dear friends. May we have the courage and clarity to die this well.

Now We know Who's in Charge

An email from Gretchen Robinson:

It is now clear to all, except perhaps to those blinded by their own zealotry, who runs this country and who really holds the reins of power in the US. This is the moment in history when we see what has been carefully kept hidden from the American public: the identity of those who actually control and run this nation.

Congress meets in extraordinary session in order to interfere in a personal family tragedy involving one single individual. The legal and marital rights of a husband to speak for his wife's wishes (in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years) are totally ignored. Even the president, supposedly the most powerful man in the world, flies home from his Texas hide-out, excuse me, ranch to dance to the tune of the Religious Right. These are Religious Supremacists and they seek total control the United States.

As we see these puppetmasters even pull the strings of the president. Blinded by their zeal and ideology, to them the Constitution apparently counts for nothing. Despite the Supreme Court of the United States declining to get involved, these extremists now fasten on the Federal Judiciary. These "puppetmasters" either imagine, or know, that these judges will decide against common sense, common law, legal precedent, and have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube re-inserted.

Uncounted civilians killed in Iraq. American soldiers, 1500 and counting, have been killed in that same insidious war. And here in the United States, the blitzkreig against the Constitution and the Bill or Rights proceeds to a new level. The Religious Right has been waiting for this moment and this case to come to a head. It has created this 'crisis' in order to further its power.

As citizens, do we now abdicate what remaining power we have to keep this country a democracy, or do we take responsibility for this country's future? This is a defining moment: The country holds its breath in a way not experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Do we stand up and refuse this power grab by forces, which since the last lamented election, feel they have free rein to take this country into dangerous, uncharted territory?

In Europe, most of the population is leery of the joining of religious and political powers, having an ample history of political and religious domination and hundred of years of religious wars of unprecedented cruelty and killing. Do we have to go through this in the United States or can we learn from European history that church and state must be kept separate? Strange. None of that was on the ballot. But that has become the question. Thanks for nailing it, Gretchen.

The Last Word

Of course. Get Your War On just had to weigh in on Terri Schiavo. Oh, it's in terrible taste. But it's not wrong.

Thought for Today

President Bush, politicians in Washington: Please, please, please save my little girl.
--Mary Schindler, Terri Schiavo's mother

Terri Schiavo: Words Can't Hurt Her

When it comes to words and ideas, I care--a lot--about precision. (Indeed, if you want a quick and useful lesson in grammar and usage, you might look at my new article, Hopefully...(Not), just published today.) So to those readers who were offended by Friday's Swami, a word of explanation is in order.

I described Terri Schiavo as a "gorp" on purpose. Yes, it is a cruel term. That was the point--to cut through the crap that the right wing is slinging. Like, just to start close to home, Loose Canon, who described Schiavo as "brain-damaged" and said her husband was "in a rush to move on." No, Schiavo is not "brain-damaged"--she is, more correctly, "cortex-challenged." That is, she lacks function in the part of the brain that coordinates sensory and motor information. Prick her, she reacts, but the "she" who reacts will never be the "she" who once was Terri Schiavo. If we were speaking honestly, we might almost describe her in the impersonal, as "it." Because unless you believe in miracles, Terri Schiavo will never regain personhood; her soul is being imprisoned in a life form that, long ago, lost almost every known meaning of "life." As for her husband being "in a rush to move on," LC is just plain factually wrong. In this, she is completely consistent with other right wing pundits, who either don't know the facts and don't want to or who know the facts but find them inconvenient and thus disposable.

The other tough word I used, in reference to the conservative pundit (and former Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan, is "dingbat." Again, I chose it deliberately. I used to like her writing. My stepson and her son went to the same school in New York; we once wrote opposing pieces for the school magazine. We were friendly, in that New York way. So it pains me to say I have noticed a disquieting deterioration of her critical faculties in the last few years. And I'm not the only one. "Dingbat" is cruel, but again, it's not inaccurate.

I think what surprised readers is that I'd take aim at people, not just their ideas. Well, I've resisted "personal attacks" for almost a year. But while I was on sabbatical in February, I decided I was making a mistake about that. I revere Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh, but if you want to put me in a boxcar or jail me for thinking wrong or make me feel like an enemy in my own country, I'm no longer turning the other cheek. These rightists are bullies who dump all over facts and reason and then criticize progressives for their table manners. And this technique works--they have gone a long way to turn our country into a sad parody of itself.

When I was a child, Mother Uptown taught me how to deal with a bully: You march up to one, haul back--and hit him in the face. As hard as you can. One, because most bullies are cowards; you'll get instant respect. And two, because force is sometimes the only language that a bully understands.

So that there are no surprises from here on, let me put it out there loud and clear. Liars and lazy thinkers and pundits who think punditry means linking to other pundits are going to be called by their rightful names in this space. You want a piece of me? That's only fair--come ahead. But have your facts ready. And link to real news sources. Because otherwise I'm going to hit you again and again. It's the least I can do for the tens of millions of Americans who are, each day, losing their basic freedoms.

The Passion of Terri Schiavo

In a country that valued fairness, the drama surrounding Terri Schiavo would be private. Her husband, who is her legal guardian, would prevail. If her parents challenged his decision, they would turn to a court, and the court would decide. But we're not living in a fair country any more. The law is valuable to this Administration and its supporters only when judges vote with them; at other times, "activist courts" are as evil as Saddam.

The first thing you do when you are waging war against law and reason is to ratchet up the language. Here--and this is just a sample of the rhetoric that's flying now is--is from The Florida Catholic:

And so, Holy Week, the annual remembrance of Jesus' passion and death, begins with the passion of Terri Schiavo. Barring some miracle, Terri's agony has already begun. This week in recalling Jesus' passover from death to life we celebrate the fact that the misterium iniquitatis is overcome through the misterium crucis (mystery of the cross). From the cross Jesus cried out and his cry is echoed today by all those held captive to a world of pain and sin. As Terri shares in his passion, she will share in his resurrection. Like Jesus did, Terri Schiavo cries out, though with muted voice: "I thirst!"
Too elevated for you? Try Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council:

Today it's Terri, tomorrow it's another disabled person. We've tolerated abortion in this country for the last 30 years, and now we're talking about eliminating those who cannot speak for themselves.
Where is this going? Saving Terri Schiavo is only the beginning, it seems. Abortion is next. And then? Well, consider the words of Randall Terry, former leader of Operation Rescue--and now the spokesman for Terri Schiavo's parents:

Yes, hate is good ... if a Christian voted for Clinton, he sinned against God. It's that simple. Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country...
There it is, right out in the open. The kind of country they want is everything our Founding Fathers labored to avoid. It's the old USSR, just with crosses. And isn't it amazing that the Republicans--who told us all along they want less government--have not said one word to condemn this creep. LC, want to be the first? Or should we take your silence as--gasp--approval?

The Role of the Mainstream Media

Disgusting, as we now expect. I'm all for presenting both sides. But when one side uses facts and the other side just wants to win....well, one example says it all:

I had FOX on in the background about 3:45 pm EST and the announcer said he was going "live" to an exclusive interview with Terri Schiavo's sister. Instead, it was Michael's sister explaining how peaceful Terri was and that removing the tube was a humane act that was going on in hospices all over America. As she was saying this, the announcer cut away and said, "Sorry, folks, that was not Terri's sister."
A Few Facts You May Not Know

1) The bill passed by Congress and signed by the President applies ONLY to Terri Schiavo.

2) The President's decision to cut short his vacation and rush back to Washington made no medical difference to Terri Schiavo:

White House officials acknowledged that the final bill could have been flown to Mr. Bush in Texas, a round trip of six or seven hours that probably would have made no difference in whether Ms. Schiavo lives. Doctors say she can survive for up to two weeks without the liquid meals that have sustained her for 15 years.
Where George Bush Really Stands

Just last week, the Houston Chronicle reports, Texas pulled the plug on an indigent African-American baby who seemed considerably more "alive" than Terri Schiavo. Who signed that bill? Then-Governor George Bush. Read on:

The 17-pound, nearly 6-month-old boy wiggled with eyes open, his mother said, and smacked his lips. Then at 2 p.m. Tuesday, a medical staffer at Texas Children's Hospital gently removed the breathing tube that had kept Sun Hudson alive since his birth Sept. 25. Cradled by his mother, he took a few breaths, and died.

"I talked to him, I told him that I loved him. Inside of me, my son is still alive," Wanda Hudson told reporters afterward. "This hospital was considered a miracle hospital. When it came to my son, they gave up in six months. ... They made a terrible mistake." How does this Texas law work? Hospitals can stop life-sustaining care--no matter what the patient's family wants. It just takes a doctor's recommendation and approval by a hospital's ethics committee. The family then has 10 days to find a facility that will take the patient. For a poor patient with little or no insurance, this is, in essence, a death sentence.

Interesting tidbit: For the last month, the hospital has refused to honor media requests to see this baby, even though media companies had the mother's permission. Compare this with the media that comes out of Terri Schiavo's hospital room....

You have to think: If Terri Schiavo were black and poor...would any of these politicians give a damn?

Politics--That's All This Is. Politics

This "story of the week" didn't just happen. It was planned--and spun. From The Washington Post:

In a memo distributed only to Republican senators, the Schiavo case was characterized as "a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.

An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats." In short, politicians who used to rail against government intrusions in our lives are now more intrusive than the liberals they condemn. Loose Canon tells us that the lesson of the Schiavo case is to "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid--For Yourself." I am. Tom "Show Me the Money" Delay is too ethically challenged to have any say about my personal life. And yet, with the President's blessing, he does.

For our own safety--to say nothing of whatever peace is in store for Terri Schiavo--we can only pray for a quick and merciful death. And, please God, not on this Friday or Sunday.

Thought for Today

Foghorns blowing in the night
Salt sea air in the morning breeze
Driving cars all along the coastline
This must be what it's all about
This must be what paradise is like
--Van Morrison

New Hope for the Dead: Terri Schiavo and Congress

Now that Scott Peterson will die and Robert Blake walks and the Michael Jackson trial is starting to drone on and steroids were a one-day news event, Congress decided to convene a new circus--Terri Schiavo and her husband would be invited to testify.

The logic: If summoned to appear before Congress, her feeding tube couldn't be disconnected. No matter that the woman was a total gorp, in a vegetative state--her head still jerked and bobbed, and to the white men who make up most of Congress, that's a form of communication. (If you drank as much as many of them do, you'd see their point.) It was going to be quite the spectacle: the hospital bed wheeled in, tubes connected to every orifice, nurses and doctors at the ready, just in case.

As I write, a Florida judge saw through the Congressional stunt and declared that Schiavo could be unhooked from her feeding tubes. Which happened on Friday afternoon. Barring 11th hour legal miracles, Schiavo will soon go to that place where there's no media or politics.

Forgive the dark thoughts that follow--but I thought the Congressional invitation to testify was great. Not like that dingbat Peggy Noonan, who urges Republican leaders to act like silent film heroes:

You have to pull out all the stops. You have to run over your chairmen if they're being obstructionist for this niggling reason and that. Run over their egos, run past their fatigue. You have to win on this. If you don't, you can't imagine how much you're going to lose. And from people who have faith in you.

Bill Frist and Tom DeLay and Jim Sensenbrenner and Denny Hastert and all the rest would be better off risking looking ridiculous and flying down to Florida, standing outside Terri Schiavo's room and physically restraining the poor harassed staff who may be told soon to remove her feeding tube, than standing by in Washington, helpless and tied in legislative knots, and doing nothing. No, unlike Peggy ("The dolphin following Elian was Jesus") Noonan, I wanted the Schiavo story to last for days and days so we could all see the lengths that Congress will go to defend the sanctity of human life. But--of course--only at two stages: the fetus and the deathbed. The intervening years? You're on your own. Well, not really. The government is sitting on you, tightening the screws--cutting aid to kids, to schools, to the sick, piling more tax burden on workers--just to see how much adversity you really can surmount. It's the Lesson of Job, dealt to you by that smiling millionaire of a President and a bunch of rich white guys who wouldn't know hardship if it walked up to them and introduced itself.

It's the second anniversary of the start of the war. People are still dying and we are being bled poor because these clowns had no time to ask questions. But Terri Schiavo--for her, they have infinite time and interest. Great. At last people would have Congress serve us a reality TV show. It wouldn't wake Americans up for long, but it just might have given them a little jolt.

What I would have loved: for the second coming of Christ to coincide with this congressional freakshow. Yes, I wanted Jesus to stroll in, beard and robe and sandals, and I wanted Him to lean over Terri Schiavo and touch her arm and kiss her brow. And I wanted her to blink, and sit up, and then I wanted her to see her husband and climb off that hospital bed, pull out those tubes, and run into his arms. Take that, American Idol! Talk to the hand, Fear Factor! Back off, Jerry Falwell and Bill Frist and James Dobson and the rest of the pious know-it-alls.

A miracle. A genuine miracle. That's what I wanted. Because without one, it sure looked to me--and, I imagine, every sane person on the planet--that people who couldn't care less about kids dying in Humvees would move heaven and earth to re-animate Terri Schiavo's dead-in-every-way-but-one body.

And these pro-lifers call me and my "ilk" ghoulish and uncaring!

Want to see similar sentiments expressed with more....uh...gusto? Check out The Rude Pundit.

Da Vinci Code: One Catholic Vote for 'Prudence'

Hark! A Brazilian bishop sees no harm in Dan Brown's mega-bestseller.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Archbishop of Genoa, has called Dan Brown's thriller "shameful."

But Monsignor Jose Maria Pinheiro - nominated to be bishop of Sao Paulo by Pope John Paul II two weeks ago - urged readers to use "prudence."

He said Cardinal Bertone's views on the best-seller were "personal" and not official church views.

I would recommend prudence," said Monsignor Pinheiro. "I don't know if people are capable of distinguishing the elements of fiction from those of reality. It is important to talk to young people about it so that they can differentiate, but I don't think it's necessary to ban its reading." Ah. A voice of reason. Maybe this brouhaha will pass, and the conversation can move on to something....real. Too bad. I was rather liking the Church going wild over...a book. If I hadn't read the stupid thing, I almost would have thought it contained a real threat to the Church--like, say, Galileo.

The Fox Daily Horror: John Gibson

John Gibson--who, like everyone on Fox, is all-wise--now tells us that "the basic idea of marriage is to raise kids. And you know what that means: NO GAYS:

Why? Because marriage is something men and women do. They don't always do it well - you only have to look at the divorce rate, or the number of pregnant women killed by their spouse to realize that. But, nonetheless, for all its imperfections, for all the gory fun of divorce court, it is something that men and women do.....

Gays can't have kids - other than going to the abandoned kids store and getting one or two, or borrowing sperm from someone with more sperm than brains - so by definition they're out of the marriage game. "The abandoned kid's store" --- truly, it is to puke. Please, God, if you can engineer reincarnation for only one person, let it be John Gibson. And, please, when you bring him back....make him gay, let him fall in love, let him want kids. And one more thing: Because you'll have made gay marriage legal by then, let him be born in some Arab country where they'll know what to do with him. Just as he, now, seems to know what to do with gay men and women who love one another.

The Beauty Part

Do click to see this amazing Crucifixion, by Francisco de Zurburan. Date: 1627. I look at it almost every time I got to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you're in the city anytime soon....

Thought for Today

If you ask, 'Do I believe and am I fiercely protective of Judaism?' Yes. But I think everybody's got to celebrate in their own ways. I've always believed that God will, No. 1, look at you based on what you did, not whether you followed a set of ceremonies laid down by somebody else.
--Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York

The Catholic Church: One Mo' Time

Loose Canon writes:

Swami and others of his ilk know that to undermine the authority of the Church it is important to attack the very notion that truth exists and that it is unchangeable.
Passing over the question of my "ilk"--with a three-year-old in the house, that crew now seems to be limited to Kipper, Dora, Charlie Brown and, on infrequent occasions, The Wiggles and Elmo--let's dive into the assumption of that sentence: Swami wants to "undermine the authority" of the Church.

Swami has his delusions, but this ain't one of them.

First, because the Church is big and Swami is just a small voice in the Internet wilderness--remember, in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

Second, the Church does a terrific job of undermining its authority all by itself. (In this race to lose audience and credibility, the Church is in a tough field--the George Bush presidency, American corporations and Mainstream Media are serious competitors.) Here's how that works: A bunch of old, unmarried men with almost no experience in what most of us know as Real Life hands down edicts that even well-intentioned Catholics can't follow.

Abortion is just one example. What would you do if you were in the situation described in Casti Connubii: Encyclical Letter authorized by Pope Pius XI, December 31, 1930:

...however much we may pity the mother whose health and even life is gravely imperiled in the performance of the duty allotted to her by nature, nevertheless what could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing with here. Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, it is against the precept of God and the law of nature: "Thou shalt not kill." The life of each is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it. It is of no use to appeal to the right of taking away life for here it is a question of the innocent, whereas that right has regard only to the guilty; nor is there here question of defense by bloodshed against an unjust aggressor (for who would call an innocent child an unjust aggressor?); again there is no question here of what is called the "law of extreme necessity" which could never extend to the direct killing of the innocent. Upright and skillful doctors strive most praiseworthily to guard and preserve the lives of both mother and child; on the contrary, those show themselves most unworthy of the noble medical profession who encompass the death of one or the other, through a pretense at practicing medicine or through motives of misguided pity.
Got that? The fetus endangers the mother's life. So the mother--let's say she has four kids already--must die. Raise your hands if you'd follow that edict.

Right. And you'd be in good company. As Prochoicetalk.com notes:

A Papal decree in 1884 prohibited craniotomies. This is an operation that kills the fetus by dismantling its skull. The procedure was occasionally needed in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. In 1886, a second decree extended the prohibition to all operations that directly killed the fetus, even if done to save the woman's life. The effects of these decrees would often be the death of both the woman and the fetus. These rules are still in place today, although they are ignored by most North American physicians--Catholic and non-Catholic.
Ignore the rules! Now that--right there--is what undermines the authority of the Church. Because (to state the obvious) authority can only be undermined by people who once accepted that authority. And Jesse has never been and is not now a Catholic.

A Catholic to Admire

Swami is a huge fan of Catholics who practice the gospel of love and care. Like Mark P. Shea, author of "By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition" and "Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did," and, most immediately, an essay called Toying with Evil: May a Catholic Advocate Torture?:

By no means, ever, at any time, in any circumstance, in any world, may we commit grave sin that good may come of it. Romans 3:8 makes this abundantly clear, as does the entire Catholic moral tradition. And that goes a fortiori for calls to use "whatever means necessary." We cannot torture people for the Greater Good. We cannot-even for a noble end-cut off the fingers of their children while they watch. We cannot subject them to unmedicated dentistry for the purpose of, we hope, gaining vital intelligence. We cannot rape their wives before their eyes because you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. We cannot stick needles under inmates' fingernails, attach electrodes to sensitive body parts, or beat prisoners senseless because we're good guys who mean well. We cannot turn blowtorches on a prisoner's back, suspend him from hooks until he passes out from screaming, castrate, gouge eyes, or employ many other devices wrought by the fertile imagination of fallen man-even if 20 of the finest ethicists money can buy say it will all work out well in the end. Those who embrace such an ethic are, according to the word of Almighty God, "justly condemned."
Catholics can't endorse torture? This could be very inconvenient for Loose Canon's my-President-right-or-wrong view of the war. Hey! Just a minute! If LC supports the war that the Pope has condemned, is she undermining the authority of her Church? This Jew says: You betcha.


Mt Kilimanjaro isn't 1,934 feet as the Guardian--a Brit paper of notable integrity--reported. It's 19,934.

Sex and Da Vinci

Our pal Gretchen sends along a more reasoned critique--by Mark Burrows, who directs the Program in Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Andover Newton Theological School--of "The Da Vinci Code" than the Vatican is likely to offer. Along the way, Burrows suggests an interesting explanation for the book's great appeal for women:

Dan Brown's ambitions as a cultural commentator are not always convincing. Not every reader will warm to the suggestion voiced by one of the characters that we should embrace "orgasm as prayer" and that men's sexual climax is "a moment of clarity during which God [can] be glimpsed." In another scene, the novel scolds men for resisting this liberated view of sex, as Langdon reminisces about a lecture he'd recently given to undergraduates: "The next time you find yourself with a woman, look in your heart and see if you can approach sex as a mystical, spiritual act. Challenge yourself to find the spark of divinity that man can only achieve through the sacred feminine." To which the narrator adds: "The women smiled knowingly, nodding." Brown clearly intends this as a compliment to women. But the casting of females as sexual partners whose primary role is to help men achieve enlightenment seems an ill-conceived way of honoring "the sacred feminine." Feminists will not be impressed.

Brown is surely onto something in mingling religion and the erotic, the mysterious and the pleasurable. Such a combination strikes a chord among those who have rarely heard ministers say much on the subject or who assume that Christianity is either opposed to sexual enjoyment or unequipped to deal with it. Brown woos readers who hunger for passion and meaning, enticing them with a vision that unites sexuality and spirituality. It's certainly a package that sells.

In any case, many women--and, according to Brown's claim on his Web site, particularly nuns--purport to find this novel profoundly meaningful. Readers have warmed to the author's efforts to envision a religion more deeply committed to women's experience and leadership than the one they have encountered in church. Mary Magdalene, he contends, was a leader in the early church-a fact that the church quickly acted to suppress. The real story that Christianity has covered up is not about Jesus at all but about this woman and her (female) descendants. According to the novel, men rewrote the narrative to defend patriarchy and deny the truth of this matriarchal lineage. For many people, apparently, such claims are entirely plausible. Men! Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em. But they can, perhaps, be trained...

The Beauty Part

In honor of the Irish: It's #19 on the Rolling Stone list of all-time greats, but you may never have heard of it--it was recorded in 1968. It's hard to describe: A visionary meditation that's both timeless and prescient, a mystical space shot hurled aloft on butterfly wings and anchored by a voice that starts in Ireland, transits to Mississippi and ultimately resides in that place called Genius. Can't guess? "Astral Weeks," by Van Morrison.

Thought for Today

Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.
--James Madison

Can the Vatican Crack the Da Vinci Code?

Oooo. They're really mad in Rome. A novelist says Jesus wasn't chaste. Indeed, He might have had a wife and kids. Okay, it's a novel. But millions of copies have been sold, many to people who read only one book a year--and this was it. And now Tom Hanks will star in the movie.

People are sheep. One day they believe in a venerable set of miracles, the next they fall for a robe-and-sandals version of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Keep that irreverence going, and soon...

So the Vatican reached out--to an Archbishop who might be the next Pope--for damage control:

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa and a possible successor to the Pope, has been appointed by the Vatican to rebut what the Catholic church calls the "shameful and unfounded errors" contained within The Da Vinci Code. He is organizing a series of public debates focusing on the conspiracy theories and what the Vatican sees as the blurring of fact and fiction at the heart of the thriller, the first of which will be held in Genoa tomorrow.

According to David Barratt, a writer on religion and expert on The Da Vinci Code, "Members of the Catholic church are particularly upset by what they see as the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus may have had sex--but there is absolutely no reason theologically why Jesus could not have been married and had a family. They are also upset at the way the Catholic church and the Vatican are characterized as having plotted to cover up the 'truth' about Christianity, and they are understandably upset at the characterization of Opus Dei.

Barrett is dismissive of the bestseller. "It's basically a hack thriller, a typical airport book," he says. "The Catholic church are overreacting: ultimately, it's only a novel and the controversy will eventually die down. On the other hand, the book raises some serious questions about the origins of Christianity. Even though it makes many glaring historical errors, the fact remains that early Christianity did take many variant forms, including Gnostic Christianity, and there are genuine issues to be examined. But such examinations should be undertaken by competent theologians and historians, not hack thriller writers who are very poor at their research." Hack thriller writer? Poor at research? Oh, Dan, please shoot back--we want more of this feud.

Who Cares More About You, the White House or Your Governor?

If the White House has its way, we'll all have the kind of lung problems usually found only in coal miners. (And they'll call it "Clean Skies," or some other Big Lie.) Your governor cares--he has to. But now the Washingtonians are stepping on the governors. As, for example, in Wisconsin:

A newly announced federal order to reduce mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants will require weakening more stringent state controls that were enacted in Wisconsin only last year, a state official says.

"It's a little frustrating," said Lloyd Eagan, bureau director for the air management program at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The Bush administration ordered Tuesday that power plants cut mercury pollution from smokestacks by nearly half within 15 years, but the worst polluters will be able to buy pollution "credits" from plants that give off less mercury than allowed.

By contrast, the state rule, effective last Oct. 1, required the state's four major power plants to cut mercury emissions in two phases - by 40 percent by 2010 and by 75 percent by 2015. Good News: Evangelicals Notice the Weather

Here's something I didn't expect--Evangelicals warm up to the environment:

A core group of influential evangelical leaders has put its considerable political power behind a cause that has barely registered on the evangelical agenda, fighting global warming. These church leaders, scientists, writers and heads of international aid agencies argue that global warming is an urgent threat, a cause of poverty and a Christian issue because the Bible mandates stewardship of God's creation.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group of 51 church denominations, said he had become passionate about global warming because of his experience scuba diving and observing the effects of rising ocean temperatures and pollution on coral reefs.

"The question is, will evangelicals make a difference?" Mr. Haggard said. "And the answer is, the Senate thinks so. We do represent 30 million people, and we can mobilize them if we have to." Do it, Rev. Haggard. Do it!

And Not a Minute Too Soon

Global warming can't be proved? Hey, President Bush, check this out:

Africa's tallest mountain, with its white peak, is one of the most instantly recognizable sights in the world. But as this aerial photograph shows, Kilimanjaro's trademark snowy cap, at 5,895 metres (1,934 ft), is now all but gone --- 15 years before scientists predicted it would melt through global warming.
The Beauty Part

The movie was made in winter. And on the river. Jean Vigo was already suffering from tuberculosis. Now he got so sick he sometimes had to direct from a cot. His illness worsened when he finished the film, and, again, when it was released. For the studio had hated the movie, re-cut it, added a popular song to the soundtrack, changed the title and slammed it into theaters--as an entertainment "inspired by" the song.

With that, 34 days after he handed his film over to the studio, Jean Vigo died. His distraught wife tried to join him in death by jumping out a window. Luckily, friends grabbed her in mid-stride. But she had it right: Jean Vigo's death in 1934 was a tragedy. He had directed only a few films. He had just made a great movie. More were surely ordained. But there it was. Death. At 29.

The film in question is now on almost every critic's list of the "best 100 movies of all time." And not near the bottom--I've never seen it ranked lower than #15. Know it? L'Atalante.

Thought for Today

To the intelligent man or woman, life appears infinitely mysterious. But the stupid have an answer for every question.
--Edward Abbey

'Non-Negotiable' Christian Values -- Sez Who?

Rick Warren is all over the news this week--thanks to the Atlanta hostage who read to her captor from his "Purpose-Driven Life." The escaped convict/killer realized he had a destiny to preach the Gospel in jail. And he let her go.

Imagine if that guy had taken Loose Canon hostage--she'd have filled his head with such wildly self-contradictory theology he'd have turned his gun on himself and blasted himself to...well, Hell, I guess. Would have saved the state of Georgia the expense of an execution. Damn!

I'm thinking, of course, of the latest-in-an-endless-series-of-LC-jawdroppers--which started with a comparison that a sharp website noted between Rick Warren's pre-election ideas and those of a Conservative Catholic Group.

"For those of us who accept the Bible as God's Word ... there are five issues that are non-negotiable," wrote Warren, a Southern Baptist, to fellow pastors across the country. "To me, they're not even debatable, because God's Word is clear on these issues."
Turns out that Catholic Answers previously used the same language--and the same list of "non-negotiable" issues: "Abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia."

The questions before us are on two levels.

One: Did Rick Warren have the benefit of the Catholic list when he wrote his? Or is there another source? Or did Warren (and, perhaps, the Catholics) channel God's directives?

Two: What are the Biblical citations for these "non-negotiable" directives?

We'll never get credible answers to those first questions. But LC thoughtfully explains the Bible for us:

Warren and Catholic Answers are both derivative--in arriving at their assessments of the positions of the candidates, they draw from the same non-negotiable deposit of Christian truth.
"Christian truth." That jumps over the Old Testament. (Just as well--did you know that if you are gored by an ox, you're supposed to stone the ox?) So let's look only at the New Testament.

Abortion: Religious Tolerance--two words rarely used in sequence by LC--offers an astonishing chronicle of the Catholic Church's surprisingly liberal view of abortion:

St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in Western Europe, and returned to the Aristotelian concept of "delayed ensoulment." He wrote that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed (or, more accurately, only a vegetable or animal soul is terminated). He wrote extensively on sexual matters, teaching that the original sin of Adam and Eve are passed to each successive generation through the pleasure generated during sexual intercourse. This passed into the church's canon law. Only abortion of a more fully developed "fetus animatus" (animated fetus) was punished as murder.

St. Jerome wrote in a letter to Aglasia: "The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.

Theodore, who organized the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7 years to a lifetime of penance; abortion required only 120 days.

Pope Innocent III (?-1216) wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not "animated."

Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of "quickening" - when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an "animated" fetus as murder.

Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty. Pope Gregory XIV revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the "quickening" test, which he said happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).

Pope Pius IX reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the distinction between the "fetus animatus" and "fetus inanimatus" in 1869. Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 and to refer simply to "the fetus." The tolerant approach to abortion which had prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries ended. The church requires excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. In short, until 1869, it was possible for a "good" Catholic to abort a pregnancy.

Stem-cell harvesting: Those words, of course, do not appear in the Bible. But if you Google "Bible +stem cells," you learn--from a Christian site called Got Questions?--that "research on adult stem cells is a legitimate field of study, well within the will of God." Warren's imprecision makes it unclear if he opposes all stem-cell research using adult stem cells and embryos--or just research that uses embryos. LC is likewise silent on this point.

Homosexual marriage: Gays are bad. Or are they? As Paul writes in Romans 1:26-27: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence [sic] of their error which was meet."

John Morgan--he doesn't list his credentials--says:

If one reads the text carefully, it seems that Paul may be criticizing heterosexuals who dabble in homosexual acts. The text seems to imply that it is wrong for heterosexuals to indulge in homosexual acts because such activities would require them to change their natural use to that which is against their nature. This would seem not to apply to homosexuals since they find homosexuality normal [innate; ingrained, customary, agreeable to the world of nature] to their being.

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, theologian and scholar, agrees that this is more of a correct evaluation of the Pauline passage. Paul does not condemn homosexuals. He condemns heterosexuals who attempt to mimic homosexual behaviors. Jesus, by the way, never mentioned homosexuals. If they were an abomination, you'd think he would have remembered to say something.

Human cloning: Way beyond the imagination of the authors of the Bible.

Euthanasia: Family.org, the website of Focus on the Family, has some citations:

Q. Do the acts of assisted suicide and euthanasia deny God the opportunity to demonstrate His healing power?

A. Yes. Matthew 8:16 "And when evening had come, they brought to Him (Jesus) many who were demon-possessed; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill." And James 5:16 "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much."

Of course, as LC well knows, her church couldn't be clearer on this one: Only God has the right to set the hour of our death. That makes the death penalty--which LC supports--an equal sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

But wait! The Pope has also condemned our invasion of Iraq as unjust and illegitimate. (Even the "eye for an eye" types will have to twist the Bible to justify this war.) Where's Rick Warren on the war?

And as for "non-negotiable," my sense of Jesus is that his big message was "Do unto others" and "the least of these." The issues Rick Warren and his Catholic allies mention--they're small potatoes, if that. Feeding the poor, healing the sick, loving thy neighbor--those were major for Jesus.

But, of course, Christ's agenda is terribly inconvenient for conservative Christians and those who worship the Golden Calf that is American business and the military. A social policy that actually helps the little guy? If a guy in a beard and a robe showed up and preached that Gospel, he'd be arrested, committed, drugged and warehoused.

Sorry, kids. When this period of insanity we're living through finally sputters to an ignominious end, people will look back on statements like those five "non-negotiables" and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Halliburton in Iraq: Playing Us for Fools

In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Schnayerson exposes the criminal--oops, legally criminal--gouging of your tax dollars by Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR, in Iraq. Here's just a sample:

[James] Warren and [David] Wilson were two of the hundreds of truckers who signed on for Iraq duty with KBR in the fall of 2003. Patriotism was one draw, adventure another. And the money wasn't bad: with premiums for working in Iraq, combat duty in a convoy, and overtime, a driver could earn about $8,000 a month. Like their fellow civilian recruits, they started in Houston with a three-week orientation. For Warren, 48, a Nebraska-born ex-navy man who drives his own rig, the doubts began there.

"Things didn't seem right to me from the first day in Houston," Warren recalls, speaking to Vanity Fair by cell phone from his truck on an all-night drive through half a dozen southwestern states. "The amount of money being spent on these drivers, recruiting them! Every job I've ever had, I stayed at a Motel 6 or Days Inn. These were $200-a-night hotels. And they didn't even put two people in a room with two beds." His KBR recruiter kept saying, "We're spending about $10,000 on each of you in orientation." Warren says, "So taxpayers were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars before KBR even found out if I was a felon or not."

The honeymoon ended in Iraq, when Warren and some of the other recruits were shuttled to the U.S. military base known as Camp Cedar, south of Baghdad. Now they were put in big tents, with 50 to 60 people to a tent. And yet, for KBR's managers, Warren noted, the perks kept on coming.

"My first day at Camp Cedar, I noticed flatbed trucks were bringing brand-new S.U.V.'s, like Toyota Land Cruisers, Hummers, 4Runners--some of the most expensive S.U.V.'s that money can buy. I saw hundreds of them going to Iraq." The S.U.V.'s weren't hauling anything, Warren says. They were just for KBR personnel to ride in from base to base. They had power windows and CD players. "You don't have CD players in a car in wartime," Warren says wonderingly. On such delicate vehicles, desert conditions were brutal. "Within 90 days," he says, "they were completely trashed." There's much more. And it will make you ask, depending on your ethics, "Man, how can I get in on this?" or "Shouldn't people be arrested for this?"

Do We Have $82 Billion More to Waste?

Unless Congress comes to its senses, it will vote $82 billion more for military operations in Iraq. You don't have to sit back and let it happen. You may not stop this funding, but you can help show that there's real opposition to it.Click here to tell Congress: "Don't Pass a Morally Bankrupt Budget!"

The Beauty Part

Rome. Easter Week. The year: 1639 or 1790, it's all the same. The Matins service at the Vatican. 3 AM. Twenty-seven candles are lit. One at a time, they're extinguished. One candle left. The Pope kneels before the altar and starts to pray. Music begins. It's a piece so glorious that, for 350 years, the Church only allowed it to be played, during Holy Week, in Rome--the Allegri "Miserere."

Thought for Today

Ma: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? They could kill ya and I'd never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?
Tom Joad: Maybe it's like Casey says. A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then ...
Ma: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: I'll be all around in the dark--I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look--wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be there in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be there in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they built--I'll be there, too.
-- The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, published on this day in 1939.

The Real 'March Madness'-- The War That Won't End

I was in the tub with Little Uptown (and if that makes you want to call the cops, why don't you try something else first? Get some Brillo, cut open your head and do serious scouring of your mind). She was playing with rubber ducks. I was reading The New Yorker. (It's what I do when I'm not at fancy East Side parties, laughing at the rubes in the red states.)

Specifically, I was reading Calvin Trillin's piece about a reservist from Ohio who was killed in Iraq. Here is how it starts:

This happened on Interstate 78, in New Jersey, in November of 2003: While listening to a story on NPR's "Morning Edition" about a National Guardsman who'd been killed in Iraq, I found myself in tears. At the time, I was driving from Manhattan to visit my younger daughter and her new baby, Tobias, who was then about three months old. Because my daughter's husband had to be away from early morning until late in the evening on Tuesdays, I'd been going to New Jersey once a week to keep her company and do a bit of babysitting; we called the arrangement Tuesdays with Toby. The birth of a grandchild is an event that tends to push emotions toward the surface, and that may have been particularly true in my case. My wife had died in September of 2001. The delight I took in Toby's arrival--and in the arrival of my older daughter's baby, Isabelle Alice, who'd been born in the spring of 2002--was sometimes difficult to uncouple from the way I felt about my wife's not having lived to enjoy her grandchildren. So you could say that my emotional defenses were not fully in place. Still, I was astonished that my response to a story about a young man I'd never heard of, a thirty-year-old helicopter pilot from northern Illinois named Brian Slavenas, was to weep.
When not at those aforementioned East Side parties, I obsess about The War. Or I used to. It's gone on for so long now, it's so hidden from our daily lives, that I only obsess about it in random moments. Then I'm mostly angry. But reading Trillin's piece, the freshness--the novelty, the shock, the horror--of each death returned to me. And, like Trillin, I wept for Brian Slavenas, a much better guy than Bush and his crew could ever hope to be. (I turned away, so Little Uptown wouldn't see me crying. That is, after all, what a Good Parent does.)

This morning, Mrs. Uptown sent me Children of the Fallen, a Newsweek report about American kids who lost a parent in Iraq. Another weeper.

I also read about the depleted uranium scandal and its implications for our soldiers in Iraq:

Preventive Psychiatry E-Newsletter charged that the reason Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi stepped down earlier this month was the growing scandal surrounding the use of uranium munitions in the Iraq War.

Writing in Preventive Psychiatry E-Newsletter No. 169, Arthur N. Bernklau, executive director of Veterans for Constitutional Law in New York, stated, "The real reason for Mr. Principi's departure was really never given, however a special report published by eminent scientist Leuren Moret naming depleted uranium as the definitive cause of the 'Gulf War Syndrome' has fed a growing scandal about the continued use of uranium munitions by the US Military."

Bernklau continued, "This malady (from uranium munitions), that thousands of our military have suffered and died from, has finally been identified as the cause of this sickness, eliminating the guessing. The terrible truth is now being revealed."

He added, "Out of the 580,400 soldiers who served in GW1 (the first Gulf War), of them, 11,000 are now dead! By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on Permanent Medical Disability. This astounding number of 'Disabled Vets' means that a decade later, 56% of those soldiers who served have some form of permanent medical problems!" The disability rate for the wars of the last century was 5 percent; it was higher, 10 percent, in Viet Nam. And then--can you take just one more?--I read 'That's me, a marine, a murderer of civilians,' an interview (published in the Italian newspaper that the journalist we shot wrote for, just a day before she was shot) with U.S. Marine Jimmy Massey about his time in Iraq.

"You are now a member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War?"

"Yes, I went to Iraq initially with the idea that weapons of mass destruction had to be eliminated. But soon my experience as a Marine made me understand that the reality was something quite different. We were 'cowboy murderers.' We killed innocent civilians."

"You admit having killed innocent civilians?"

"Sure, and lots of them."

"How did it happen?"

"Near my base in the south of Baghdad, our whole platoon attacked a group of civilians engaged in a peaceful demonstration. Why? Because we heard gunshots. It was a blood bath. The pretense that those civilians were engaged in 'terrorist activities' didn't work for me. That's what our military intelligence wanted us to believe....We killed more than 30 people. That was the first time that I had to face up to the horror that my hands were soiled with the blood of civilians. We laid down cluster bombs on them. The people fled, and when they arrived at the control points we had set up with armed convoys, I was supposed to shoot the ones that looked like they belonged to 'terrorist groups.' Those were the directions military intelligence gave us."

"And that's what you all did?"

"We ended up massacring innocent civilians - men, women, and children. When our platoon took over a radio station, we went ahead and put out propaganda to the population urging them to go on with their daily routine, keep the schools open, etc. But we knew that our orders were to 'search and destroy.' That meant carrying out armed assaults on schools, in hospitals, anywhere that 'terrorists' could hide. In reality these were traps set up by military intelligence. We ourselves were supposed to overlook the taking of civilian lives that were part of these missions." It's stupid to wonder why it seems it's only the anti-war crowd that sheds tears for all of these people--the dead reservists, the certain-to-be-ill soldiers, the parentless kids, the guys who killed civilians. The thing is, we know why it's this way: The others just don't give a damn. Or, to be generous, they care more about "freedom." Give them an abstraction on the march over an inconvenient human being, every time.

It's been said too often, but on a day when I'm wrought up, I'll inflict it on you again: "Freedom" and "democracy" were not the reasons we started this war. They're the fourth or fifth fallback reason--you'll look in vain in Bush, Cheney and Powell's pre-war speeches for any hint of this high-minded goal. They lied their way into the war, and when their lies were exposed, they reached into the Abstraction Jar for a reason no one could disagree with. Clever. But liars so often are....

You're supposed to be too busy making ends meet to care, or remember. And you can count on the conservative bloggers--no names, please--never to remind you that whatever good comes out of this war, it started as a crime. (But you can count on me to remind you, more often than you'd like.)

Defending the Obvious

As long as we're speaking about conservative bloggers, let me pick one more bone with Loose Canon. I try not to do this--it's not like anything you say makes a dent on a locked mind--but occasionally the provocation is just so great you have to respond, if only to register that someone around here is paying attention.

This time, LC made me crazy with a few words: "the Enlightenment; an ill-named period of history."

Gee, I've been writing professionally for 40 years. Never had to "defend" the Enlightenment. Never thought I'd have to. But ever since The Full Employment for Conservative Media Act, I find myself standing up for ideas that used to be Received Truths--evolution, the round earth, three square meals for the aged.

As I read about the Enlightenment, I see why it bugs LC. It dealt a blow to the Catholic church and the divine right of royals. It promoted logic, which led to science, which led to humanism. It reminded the middle classes that they were supporting an aristocracy that did nothing for them. It led to the greatest explosion in creative thinking and the arts since the birth of Christ. And there's one more thing:

Many of the most distinguished leaders of the American revolution--Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Paine--were powerfully influenced by English and--to a lesser extent--French Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional churches which still supported and defended monarchies all over Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France--a natural ally because it was a traditional enemy of England--absorbing the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment, though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion, what has been called our "civil religion."

This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Yes, the part about "all men being equal" is an Enlightenment idea. (The Bible, as you'll recall, permitted slaves.) And that idea is fundamental to our democracy. So the question that comes to mind for LC, who dismisses this remarkable period in a casual phrase, is this:

LC, why do you hate America?

The Beauty Part

The best movie I've seen all year? (Okay, it's only March.) No cussing. No sex. No violence. On the surface, no plot. But wow--what a wallop! I beg you to run to Off the Map.

Thought for Today

Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Suffer the Children

Children are "collateral damage" in war. They run onto a street, and a jittery soldier fires off a burst before he realizes what he's shooting. Or a house gets bombed, and kids die in the rubble. Or a bus blows up.

Children as targets? That's different. That's a guerilla tactic, a terrorist's way of looking at war. Kill a kid, you demoralize his neighborhood. And make his people furious, so eager to retaliate that they make bad decisions, and then you kill more of them.

Children as terrorists who deserve to be targeted? I've read accounts of children soldiers in Africa. I believe the Vietcong used the occasional kid. But in Iraq? Nothing I'm aware of.

So why were kids imprisoned in Abu Ghraib? The BBC reports:

Children as young as 11 years old were held at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison at the centre of the US prisoner abuse scandal, official documents reveal.

Brig Gen Janis Karpinski, formerly in charge of the jail, gave details of young people and women held there. Her assertion was among documents obtained via legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Pentagon has admitted juveniles were among the detainees, but said no child was subject to any abuse.

In one case, witness statements among the released documents allege that four drunken Americans took a 17-year-old female prisoner from her cell and forced her to expose her breasts and kissed her.

In another documented incident, troops are alleged to have smeared mud on the detained 17-year-old son of an Iraqi general and forced his father to watch him shiver in the cold.

Karpinski said she thought one boy "looked like he was eight years old". "He told me he was almost 12," she said. "He told me his brother was there with him, but he really wanted to see his mother, could he please call his mother. He was crying."

She said the military began holding children and women at Abu Ghraib from mid-2003. She did not say what the youngsters had been locked up for. She didn't say, and no one asked, and you can be damned sure no one's going to follow up. But a small question for those who think we brought "democracy" to Iraq because there was an election--when those kids are able to vote, do you think they'll cast their ballot for whatever stooge the Americans think is worthy of public office?

The Purpose Driven Baptist--or Catholic?

Rick Warren--the author of the mega-bestseller The Purpose Driven Life--is not a Catholic. Indeed, he's a Baptist--light years from Catholic. And a very successful Baptist, as his bio indicates:

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. He and his wife, Kay, began the church in their home in January 1980, with one family.

Now, with 16,000 in attendance each weekend, and over 50,000 names on the church roll, Saddleback is one of America's largest and best-known churches. It's been named the fastest growing Baptist church in history, and the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. So how did he come to take a position on the election that is so close to a Catholic view that an uncharitable person--not me, of course, but someone--might say he just...plain...copied it?

Here's the story, according to EthicsDaily.com, the publication of the Baptist Center for Ethics:

Rick Warren tacitly endorsed George Bush six days before the 2004 presidential election, claiming that the Bible was on his side and that the two major candidates could not "have more opposite views."

"For those of who accept the Bible as God's Word ... there are five issues that are non-negotiable," wrote Warren, a Southern Baptist, to fellow pastors across the country. "To me, they're not even debatable, because God's Word is clear on these issues."

Abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia were non-negotiable issues about which Warren said the Bible was clear.

Aside from advancing the agenda of the religious right, where did Warren get the phrase "non-negotiable?" And how did he decide to shrink the Bible's moral agenda to five issues? Would you be surprised to learn that Warren's language and list are identical to Catholic Answers, a right wing organization? The story continues:

On Aug. 26, Catholic Answers put out a press release that said over a million Catholics would read a full-page ad in USAToday that told them how to vote on "five non-negotiable" issues.

The press release said, "The issues Catholics are forbidden to vote in favor of are abortion, homosexual marriage, embryonic stem-cell search, human cloning and euthanasia." Reading this, I don't see plagiarism. Or even a mind-meld between Right-thinking Christians who differ on religious doctrine but walk in lockstep on social policy. I see the same old thing that confronts us every day: the deification of George W. Bush.

Every morning, the White House chooses its talking points, and they sent them out to the faithful, and, by noon, you hear those points on Right-thinking radio and television, and soon enough the ministers do their part. This used to astound me--I actually wondered: How do they all get the same ideas at the same time? Now I'm sort of grateful it works this way: If you read one of these folks, you've read them all.

But What If They Vote Against Us?

Lebanon's a splendid example of "freedom on the march." Or it was a week ago, when Lebanese demonstrated against the Syrian occupation. But then came a much larger demonstration that was pro-Syrian. The White House couldn't figure out what to say.

But John Gibson of Fox News knew what we might want to do next:

Gibson offered up his chilling answer as to what should happen if "the terrorists" (those Lebanese, including some members of Hezbollah, who want Syrian troops to stay) get the most votes in Lebanon.

"Well, fine. At least we'd know; at least we'd know we tried. And if we have to bomb a democracy back to the Stone Age because it was sticking with its roots and sending terrorists to attack us, we could bomb it back to the Stone Age with a clean conscience," he said.

Gibson said that democracy may not be perfect and that even Osama bin Laden might win an election somewhere.

"In fact, in two or three countries we call friends, I think he'd take the top spot in a landslide," Gibson said. "We would just have to console ourselves that democracy has given us a clear picture of exactly where our enemies stand. And we can use that picture in our targeting computers." Let's hope we drop leaflets on them first. Maybe they have a picture of George Bush on them--and a clear, no nonsense message: "Vote for me. Or die."

They're Coming Back to Church (and not for the refreshments)

Remember last fall, when the United Church of Christ (UCC) wanted to run 30-second commercials preaching openness and toleranced? CBS and NBC rejected the ads. But maybe there is no such thing as bad publicity--church attendance is way up. A report from the Missoula, Montana newspaper:

At University Congregational Church, a "progressive" Christian church in Missoula's University district, Sunday's pews are fuller than they have been in decades. Here, the faithful find refuge from the faith-based prejudices that choked their television sets and newspapers during the campaign season. President Bush, following the bent of his party's right wing on issues from stem cell research to abortion to gay marriage, seems to have unwittingly unleashed a quiet but growing opposition.

As it turns out, liberals who may despise Bush continue to give Christ the benefit of the doubt. They're self-described progressive Christians, they don't accept the Bush=God's will equation pushed by the president's more theologically rabid supporters, and they appear to be startled from slumber. Perhaps the most striking difference between progressive believers and their socially conservative counterparts is that they don't see a direct relationship between sexual orientation and religion. In other words, they don't see being gay and being Christian as mutually exclusive identities.

Bonnie Buckingham has attended University Congregational Church, the local affiliate of the United Church of Christ (UCC), for 10 years, and she's seen recent attendance spike. "The election was sort of a wake-up call to a lot of people," she says. "It makes you stop and think, 'This isn't the country that I thought I was living in. This isn't the neighborhood that I thought I was living in.' And I think a lot of people, that really made them stop and question and say, 'What is going on? What do we do at this point?'"

Faced with a sense of increasingly federalized morals and an apparent narrowing of officially sanctioned religious diversity, a lot of people have apparently decided to go back to church. So if you see new people at church this weekend, ask them: "Did George send you?"

Thought for Today

The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.
--Albert Einstein, in an essay called The World As I See It

No Pictures, Please!

Okay, we know that we're not allowed to see caskets, because caskets have dead people in them, and we're not supposed to think of the Supreme Sacrifice our soldiers are asked to make, because then no one will enlist and we'll have to go to a draft, and if we go to a draft, every mother who loves her kid will be in the streets demanding an early end to the war, and it will be really hard to say that, oh, 500,000 women marching on Washington all hate America, and then the war will have to end, which is a terrible thing, because the companies really raking it in these days--besides Apple (oh, that iPod!)--are the suppliers of guns and planes and unarmored vehicles, and they matter so much more than all of us combined, and...

But did you know that we're not allowed to see the injured, either? From The Progress Report:

It's common knowledge that the Bush administration has banned photographs of caskets of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, but Salon reports the Bush administration appears to be pursuing a similar strategy with the wounded, "who are far more numerous." According to Salon, the Bush administration continues to engage in a concerted effort to hide dead and wounded soldiers from the American public. Flights carrying injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan only arrive in the United States in the dead of night, under the cover of darkness. Soldiers are then taken to Walter Reed or Bethesda Navel Medical Center in ambulances or "unmarked black vans." Photographs are prohibited. The wounded soldiers are then unloaded at back entrances, not the common entrances closest to the emergency rooms. The result is that images of wounded soldiers continue to be "extremely scarce."

Helping People Who Shouldn't Have to Ask for Help

Why do we need to help the families of our war dead and wounded? Isn't that what a government is for? Ooops: that old liberal thinking is hard to erase. Welcome to the world in which our soldiers and their families are our responsibility.

If you're feeling flush this tax season, here's a way to help.

There Must Be a Song by Dave Matthews That Would Be a Perfect Title for This

So the bathroom in the tour bus was filled with 800 pounds of what they call in the press "human waste." (Squeamish? Turn back now.) So the bus driver decided to empty it....while crossing a bridge.

It wasn't a concrete roadway. It was a grated surface. That is: open.

What was underneath the bridge when the driver...let go? Oh, go on: click.

The Beauty Part

On this day in l948, Zelda Fitzgerald--the doomed wife of F. Scott--died in a fire at a North Carolina mental hospital. Scott and Zelda: a pair for myth and media. But two of their friends were a far more interesting couple. Just as bright and beautiful. But much more acquainted with Real Life. Meet Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Thought for Today

There is something insane about a lack of doubt.
--Tilda Swinton

The Crusades Don't Get a 'Bum Rap,' They Were Genocide

It's Little Uptown's third birthday, and there's chaos around me. On a calmer day, I'd use this event to note improvements on the planet since her birth--and, being me, to express my deep concerns about the environmental and cultural health of the country.

But although I do my best not to respond to every jaw-dropper that Loose Canon serves up, I feel I have to say something about one of her comments yesterday, in which, yet again, she went goo-goo-eyed for the Crusades. Describing herself as "one who loves the romance and heroism (on both sides) of the Crusades," she concludes that "The Crusades always get a bum rap."

I understand the allure of Other Times, Other Places. Indeed, I often see myself in the Himalayas, in a mountain village that has an uncanny resemblance to the Shangri-la of "Lost Horizon." The air is clear and crisp, children roll hoops in the village, holy men walk among us, we eat rice and vegetables and drink beer we brew ourselves, and modern civilization is so far away there's not a wireless "hot spot" for a thousand miles. It's a pretty great fantasy--but that's what I fear it is. A fantasy. Leonard Cohen sings, "Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows." I suspect the flip side is just as true: Even heaven is blessed with sorrow.

Well, to each her own, as Mother Uptown used to say. But, LC, the Crusades? I mean: really.

Consider, for a moment, what life was like in the 11th and 12th centuries. The streets were toilets. Men (and women) stank like badgers. Most people had no last names. Few ever saw any of the world beyond their village. Women bred until they died. Children mostly just died. You know the painting of The Harvesters, by Peter Breugel the Elder. That was idealized when he painted it in 1565. In 1100, life was far less pleasant.

Let's really puncture the bubble--let's do a quick history of The Crusades. The official call came in 1095, when Pope Urban II became concerned over Muslim rule of the Holy Land. Muslim control seemed to be weakening; the Turks had overrun Jerusalem. And Christians were not faring well:

There was talk in Christendom about relics in the Holy Land having been profaned and of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem having been mistreated or sold into slavery.

Pope Urban II responded to the call for help from the emperor at Constantinople and organized what was to become known as the First Crusade. Urban II said Christ would lead any army that went to rescue the Holy Land. He promised a cancellation of debts, exemption from taxes and eternal life to all participants. Those who died in the crusade, he announced, would go to heaven. He described going on the Crusade as a religious duty, and in preparing for the Crusade he ordered all feuding to stop and threatened to excommunicate those who did not. He hoped that warring for the cause of Christianity abroad would be a substitute for warring at home. Gee, doesn't that sound familiar? On the Islamic side, terrorists are told they go directly to Heaven and score 77 virgins. On the American side, we see how a foreign adventure diverts our attention from troubles right here at home. Ain't History grand?

And, of course, there's the vigilante element:

In 1095, an unofficial Crusade was led by a radical monk named Peter the Hermit. He preached the Crusades to the poor peasant fanatics, and collected a small army to pilgrimage to the Holy Lands ahead of the main army. Needless to say, Peter's Quest was doomed. They behaved poorly along the route, thieving food and ransacking homes for supplies. The worst was the persecution of the Jews before even leaving Europe.
The Pope's motives were expressed in high-minded rhetoric. But you know how it is. High motives never quite reach the guys in the field--the knights had their own priorities:

From five to ten thousand knights, mostly from France, volunteered for the First Crusade, along with twenty-five to fifty thousand additional soldiers. French and German nobility were in a mood for conquests and loot. For the knights the Crusade was an opportunity to emulate the great deeds of Charlemagne....

Crusaders passing through some European towns sought contributions from Jews. Jews were attacked and murdered. At Metz (in France) in early May some Jews who refused to be baptized were murdered. At Speyer (along the Rhine River) thirteen Jews were killed. There a Catholic bishop, John, gathered the Jews under his protection, and it is said that anyone he could catch who had killed Jews he punished by having their hands cut off. Later that month at Worms (also on the Rhine) perhaps 500 or more Jews were killed after crusaders broke into the Episcopal palace where the Jews had taken refuge. Another massacre occurred along the Rhine at Mainz. And more were killed at Cologne.

The cry of the crusaders on their way to combat Islam and liberate the Holy Land was "God wills it!" The knight crusaders were more successful than the peasant armies at arriving in the Holy Land, and there the knights conquered. They seized gold, silver, horses and mules and invaded houses in search of loot. Convinced that they were fighting the devil they cut down all before them. Any Muslim who did not flee Jerusalem was among those who might be cut down. In the Holy Land were many Jews. Christian knights, exuberant in victory and in their sense of power, and entertaining the belief that the Jews had killed Christ, exercised a collective punishment and massacred Jews. Jews who took refuge in Jerusalem's main synagogue were burned to death. And some crusaders were sickened and shamed by the brutality. And there was just plain crazy stuff:

Some asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that a she goat was not less filled by the same Spirit. These they made their guides on this holy journey to Jerusalem; these they worshipped excessively; and most of the people following them, like beasts, believed with their whole minds that this was the true course.
The golden goose, perhaps? But the most demented of all was The Children's Crusade:

During the crusade against heretics in southern France and northern Italy, children whose emotions were fired by the cause of Christianity and the preaching against heretics decided to do their bit by trying to retake the Holy Land. In 1212, thousands of children, with a sprinkling of adults and a few clerics, started for Jerusalem. They were deficient in money and organization but they believed that as children they were favored by God and could work miracles that adults could not.

The Children's Crusade did not have the blessing of the Church and technically was not a Church crusade. But neither ecclesiastical nor secular authorities bothered to disperse the children, except for the king of France, Philip Augustus, who, persuaded a large group of them to return home.

Children left the Rhineland in early July, 1212, and crossed the Alps. About 7,000 of them arrived at the port city of Genoa in late August -- thousands having died along the way. And at Genoa the miracle they expected failed to happen: God did not part the sea for them or allow them to walk on water as they had expected. In November, exhausted and disappointed, many went back home. Two merchants from Marseilles provided seven ships for the remaining children. Two of these ships were wrecked off the coast of Sardinia, and the children aboard the other five ships were sold on slave markets in North Africa and Egypt.

In the wake of the failures of the Children's crusade, people came to decide that the whole enterprise was the work of the devil. Success was still the work of God and the devil was still responsible for failures. But Pope Innocent III would summon Europe to another crusade, saying of the children, "They put us to shame. While they rush to recover the Holy Land, we sleep." And then they started slaughtering Muslims all over again.

Maybe I read the wrong sources. (I tried to read the Catholic Encyclopedia version of The Crusades, but it was so dully factual, so lacking in anything like a point-of-view, I gave up.) Maybe there is a heroic version of these events, with clean-shaven knights who save damsels and want to advance the cause of Christ without slaughtering anyone along the way. If so, perhaps LC could offer a source or two. Failing that, I fear The Crusades will remain, for me, the kind of historical event we know too much about--state-sponsored genocide for reasons that couldn't be less "holy."

The Beauty Part

There was, in America, a time when every Northern Italian restaurant played the same music at night. You know what I mean--the Gipsy Kings. And you remember their signature song, the loud, attention-seeking "Bamboleo." And you remember how sick of them you became after your twentieth or twenty-fifth Groundhog Night encounter with their music. Well, if you're ready for a beautiful antitode, consider Radio Tarifa.

Thought for Today

I told Lou Reed, "Lou, all this stuff is going on...all these noises, voices in my head all the time!" I was talking for like 2 hours, and he says, "You know what? When you hear the voices, you just say that's not me. Just step back and say, 'That's not really me--that's somebody else!'"
--Van Morrison, in a rambling monologue at a 1996 concert in New York

When Is Jesus Coming to Your High School?

Forget a religious statement as banal as the Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn. Jesus himself is on the march--the faithful are striding along the sidewalks of our high schools looking for lost souls. But his representatives are careful. They don't actually step on school property. (So much for the constitutional issue.) Still, you have to wonder if the locals would be as welcoming of the...oh....Fair Play For Islam Committee.

Here's a triumphal report from Kristene O'Dell on the Operation Rescue/Operation Save America website:

God's Word was proclaimed at North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville, NC. There are 2,800 students at North Mecklenburg. Flip and crew had 1,400 pieces of literature to start with and only 200 when it was all said and done. Today, the message was "Abortion is Murder - Homosexuality is Sin - Islam is a Lie, What do these Three Have in Common" (This is the title of the brochure that was handed out). They had several signs and banners proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. Those were the only signs posted. They went with Jesus in their hearts and smiles on their faces to proclaim the "good news" to the students of North Mecklenburg.
You may want to express your views--cheers or jeers--to the school principal. His name is Jimmy Poole. Phone: 980-343-3840. Fax: 980-343-3845. If you do make contact, I'd love to hear about it.

If There's a Hell Below, Credit Card Executives Are Gonna Go

So the Bankruptcy bill has moved through the Senate and is ready for the public. It goes without saying that only the so-called liberal media has cared about this bill--perhaps because it's the most obvious rich-get-richer scheme yet proposed by an administration that spends almost every waking hour sucking up to People Unlike Us.

You've got huge medical bills, and you need to declare bankruptcy? Too bad. Divorce leave you with nothing but bills? Tough luck. Credit card debt driving you to suicide? Pull the trigger.

Who's behind this wretched bill? The credit card companies. They play a cruel game on their cardholders, as this Washington Post story shows:

Credit card use continues to grow, with an average of 6.3 bank credit cards and 6.3 store credit cards for every household, according to Cardweb.com Inc., which monitors the industry. Fifteen years ago, the averages were 3.4 bank credit cards and 4.1 retail credit cards per household.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the large increase in cards, there is a "fee feeding frenzy," among credit card issuers, said Robert McKinley, Cardweb's president and chief executive. "The whole mentality has really changed over the last several years," with the industry imposing fees and increasing interest rates if a single payment is late.

Penalty interest rates usually are about 30 percent, with some as high as 40 percent, while late fees now often are $39 a month, and over-limit fees, about $35, McKinley said. "If you drag that out for a year, it could be very damaging," he said. "Late and over-limit fees alone can easily rack up $900 in fees, and a 30 percent interest rate on a $3,000 balance can add another $1,000, so you could go from $2,000 to $5,000 in just one year if you fail to make payments."

According to R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, a California credit card consulting firm, banks collected $14.8 billion in penalty fees last year, or 10.9 percent of revenue, up from $10.7 billion, or 9 percent of revenue, in 2002, the first year the firm began to track penalty fees.

The way the fees are now imposed, "people would be better off if they stopped paying" once they get in over their heads, said T. Bentley Leonard, a North Carolina bankruptcy attorney. Once you stop paying, creditors write off the debt and sell it to a debt collector. "They may harass you, but your balance doesn't keep rising. That's the irony." Who opposed this bill? A handful of not-yet-totally-demoralized Democrats. And some Christian lawyers:

A national group of Christian lawyers is appealing to church leaders to join them in lobbying against the bankruptcy reform bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ia.

The lawyers say the legislation runs contrary to the forgiveness of debt and charity required by the Bible. "As Christian attorneys, we strongly believe that it was never God's intention to create a society where indebtedness was a crime or a badge of dishonor," Christian members of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys wrote in a letter sent Feb. 26 to hundreds of church leaders across the nation.

The lawyers note that in the Old Testament, God did not outlaw borrowing and lending, but provided that loans would become discharged every seven years.

In response, Grassley said Congress could not be bound by biblical mandates because "the Constitution does not provide for a theocracy."

"I can't listen to Christian lawyers because I would be imposing the Bible on a diverse population," Grassley said. "I'll bet those lawyers wouldn't want us to impose the principles of forgiving debt every seven years. If that were the law, nobody would loan them money." Just so. Shove the Bible everywhere: Stone the homos, kill the killers, smite the infidels. But let one dollar escape the grimy paw of the moneylender, and suddenly the lawmakers get prissy about the Constitution. Who heads the Consistency Department for Grassley?

But let's get practical: People who live on credit cards--and I have been among them--shouldn't have credit cards. Because all they are doing is ruining themselves. And helping their oppressors--oops, I mean the government--shove them into a poverty spiral from which they'll be lucky to emerge. Paul Krugman hits the key notes:

If there was any doubt that the purpose of this government is to turn America into two nations--a small nation of the rich and free, a large one of the indebted and unfree--the bankruptcy bill dispels it.

Warren Buffett recently made headlines by saying America is more likely to turn into a "sharecroppers' society" than an "ownership society." But I think the right term is a "debt peonage" society - after the system, prevalent in the post-Civil War South, in which debtors were forced to work for their creditors. The bankruptcy bill won't get us back to those bad old days all by itself, but it's a significant step in that direction. Forget "miles" and "points." They are the lures of Satan. The only card that makes sense is American Express. You pay it in full each month, or they take it away. Simple. And you get to live below your expectations, an automatic lesson in humility.

The Italian Job: Death in Iran (Part 2)

Do you read "Baghdad Burning," a terrific blog by an Iraqi woman who lives in Baghdad? She calls herself "Riverbend." Here she is on the ransomed Italian journalist's botched ride to the airpoprt:

The irony of the situation lay in the fact that Sgrena was probably safer with her abductors than she was with American troops. It didn't come as a surprise to hear her car was fired at. Was it done on purpose? It's hard to tell. I can't think why they would want to execute Giuliana Sgrena and her entourage, but then on the other hand, I can't think how it could have possibly happened that they managed to fire that many rounds at a car carrying Italian intelligence officers and a journalist (usually they save those rounds for Iraqi families in cars).

I don't understand why Americans are so shocked with this incident. Where is the shock? That Sgrena's car was under fire? That Americans killed an Italian security agent? After everything that occurred in Iraq--Abu Ghraib, beatings, torture, people detained for months and months, the stealing, the rape... is this latest so very shocking? Or is it shocking because the victims weren't Iraqi?

I'm really glad she's home safe but at the same time, the whole situation is somewhat painful. It hurts because thousands of Iraqis have died at American checkpoints or face to face with a tank or Apache and beyond the occasional subtitle on some obscure news channel, no one knows about it and no one cares. It just hurts a little bit. Letter from Baghdad: "Are you Safe?"

A friend has a relative who's a news producer at one of the three big TV networks. In recent months, she's been on assignment in Baghdad. A family member wrote to her to ask: "Are you safe?" A few days ago, the producer responded:

There is no such word as "SAFE" here...... what a mess Mr. Bush has created..these poor people...they thought they were getting freedom, clean streets, shiny new everything...that American dream they read about somewhere..... hahahaha...

The place is no longer Baghdad or Iraq.....it's the moon...inhabited by military types, contractors, private security types, mercenaries, journalists, wannabees and instant Iraq experts.....

The whole place is divided and subdivided into compounds, checkpoints and what have you.... once there was a 5000 year old civilization here....Garden of Eden and all that....never mind...it's just too too sad... The Beauty Part

He was black. He was gay. He was man. He was woman. He was Sylvester, the disco god(dess) who may best be remembered for "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real." He had an astonishingly interesting life, and if you're looking for a riveting biography--or have a friend/relative who's a bigot with a birthday approaching--The Fabulous Sylvester is the book you want to read next.

Thought for Today

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
--Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago"

A Fatal 'Accident' in Iraq

Just last week, I wrote about Brian Williams and his harrowing account of the Baghdad road to the airport. He's luckier than he knows--if you believe official accounts of last weekend's tragedy, NBC's new anchorman could easily have come home in a coffin.

Last Friday, as the story's been told in the American press, Italy ransomed Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist who had been held captive in Iraq for about a month. And after Nicola Calipari secured her release, he drove with her to the Baghdad Airport. They failed to stop at an American checkpoint. Soldiers fired at the car to stop it, in case the driver was a suicide bomber. Calipari threw his body over Ms. Sgrena to protect her--and died almost instantly when he was shot in the head.

Needless to say, there are other versions of what happened. From an English paper, The Independent:

The story began early on Friday afternoon when Mr Calipari and his team of military intelligence agents arrived in Baghdad from Abu Dhabi. After weeks of haggling, the ransom for Ms Sgrena had finally been agreed: at least $6 million, according to the Italian press, and perhaps as much as $8 million, had been handed over. The time and place for the release was settled.

Italy is well aware that its habit of paying large sums to secure the release of its nationals is disapproved of by the Americans and British. All negotiations are therefore carried on in secret. But at Baghdad airport Mr. Calipari explained at the US headquarters what his team had come to do. It was arranged that an American colonel would be on hand at the airport when Ms. Sgrena arrived for her flight back to Italy. By the time the team had rented a four-wheel drive it was already 5pm.

At 8.20pm, Mr. Calipari's team reached the rendezvous on the outskirts of Baghdad. The vehicle they were looking for was there. Ms. Sgrena's abductors had left her blindfolded in the back of the car. "I'm a friend of Pier and Gabriele," Mr. Calipari said, naming Ms. Sgrena's partner and editor. The 57-year-old journalist was a bundle of tension as they got her into their vehicle and left for the airport.

[...]They passed two American checkpoints along the airport road without incident and were 700 metres or so from the airport building. The road narrowed to a single, one-way lane and took a 90-degree turn. The car was going slowly now, approaching the end of the journey.

"At last I felt safe," Ms. Sgrena said. "We had nearly arrived in an area under American control, an area more or less friendly, even if it was still unsettled."

Then, turning the corner, they found their progress blocked by an American tank. They were blinded by a powerful light. "Without any warning, any signal, we were bombarded with a shower of bullets," Ms. Sgrena said. "The tank was firing on us, our car was riddled with bullets. Nicola tried to protect me, then his body slumped on top of mine, I heard his death rattle, then I felt a pain but I couldn't tell where I had been hit. Those who had fired came up to the car, but before I was taken to the American hospital there was an interminable wait, it's hard to know how long I was lying there wounded but perhaps it was 20 minutes."

Was Ms. Sgrena, correspondent of the communist daily Il Manifesto, who has repeatedly demanded an end to the occupation, the true target? She couldn't rule it out, she said. "Everybody knows that the Americans are opposed to hostage negotiations. So I don't see why we must exclude the possibility that I was their target. The Americans don't approve, and so they try to frustrate the negotiations every way they can." Let's go to the videotape. News clips show the 90° turn between concrete barriers. No driver could speed through that turn--if you don't slow to a crawl, you crack up the car.

The American press insists there was a checkpoint ahead. The foreign reports I've read do not say this.

All reports I've seen indicate the airport was quiet, that all planes had left. Which raises the question: What, exactly, were the "suicide bombers" going to blow up?

This Christian Science Monitor piece shows how it easy it is for nervous Iraqis to look like terrorists and nervous soldiers to use their weapons too quickly:

You're driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road - but that's a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don't think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn't even know it was a checkpoint.
We've all heard those stories. And we all know how, in a war zone, facts can be hard to pin down. But how do you go from "warning shots" to a tank? How do you go from "disabling a vehicle" to shooting hundreds of rounds at it? (Maybe that's why we've seen no pictures of the car.)

Did we want to kill an Italian communist whose newspaper opposes the war? Did we want to show Italy that we won't tolerate paying ransom for hostages?

It's easy, depending on your politics, to have quick answers to those questions--and you can tell the amateur journalists and the lazy pundits by their speed and certainty about this story.

Me, I'm certain about only two things. One is American insensitivity--like this, from Edward Luttwak, an American military commentator:

Interviewed yesterday in La Repubblica, Luttwak said Mr Calipari's death was "the sort of thing that happens all the time in a war" and he advised Italy to "take an aspirin and go to bed, you'll feel better in the morning."
The other? That our "investigation" will be a whitewash. Because they all are, aren't they?

Want To See What a Coffin Looks Like? Go On, Peek--Even Though the President Doesn't Want You To

Oh, there's one other thing I know: If Nicola Calipari were American, you'd never see his coffin. We just...don't...do...that.

For a "forbidden" look at death and some trenchant commenary, I turn to Tom Watson:

His [Capilari's] body is lying in state at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Rome, where visitors have been paying their respects, and a state funeral was planned for Monday. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said he would award Calipari, a married father of two, the gold medal of valor for his heroism. In war zones, horrendous mistakes among jittery, scared, and heavily-armed troops will always lead to mistaken death and injury. It is part of the cost of war that our society has decided to accept, following the path laid out by our national leadership. What we don't have to accept is the national silence that greets the dead from an administration that doesn't want photographs taken of the coffins arriving Stateside. Why don't we mourn as a nation? The reason is simple and shocking and damning: because our leaders don't care.
Who Needs Death? We've Got Eternal Life in the USA

Stand straight. Look proud. Doubts vanish. Just wear the T-shirt.

My Soldier (3)

From another woman--why are they all women?--who adopted a soldier at Christmas:
I am a 52-year old mother of three sons. The older two are married with children, too old to be drafted should it come to that. My third precious son is 10 and I am terrified that this insanity in Iraq will still be going on when he is deemed old enough to serve his country by ruining his life. I am old enough to still remember the lessons of Vietnam, but then I was sober back then, unlike our illustrious commander-in-chief.

Anyway, hoping to do a small part in the Support our troops/bring them home movement, my youngest son and I adopted two soldiers. One package we put together went to Iraq, the other "west," according to the postman. We discussed the possibilities of "west," giving my son a wider world view of where our men and women serve. We discussed whether he might be one of the ones serving the tsunami survivors, or whether he is in Korea, under that particular threat.

We have never heard from our soldier in Iraq, and I wonder about that in the hours between darkness and daylight when I lie in bed awake, appreciating my bed and my home and the sacrifices made by so many. We have gotten one letter from our soldier out west--it turns out he is in Korea, but is reluctant to say much about his duty, other than it is nerve-rattling in its own way. I suspect we don't know a fraction of how nerve-rattling...

I appreciate the opportunity to give even a small portion of my life to these men, and I still hope to hear, some day, from my Iraqi-stationed soldier. Not because I want thanks for anything I did, but because I want him to be alive.

The most interesting aspect, to me, of adopting a soldier was the reaction of so many from my church. In our Sharing of Joys and Concerns moment one Sunday, I mentioned the website and offered to give it to anyone interested in joining the adoption opportunity. Not only did none of my hawkish friends take me up on it, they were later, after services, downright rude in saying that anyone who didn't "believe in the war" the way I obviously don't, didn't need to pretend to support the troops by sending packages to them.

Rather than deciding I need another church (it did make me wonder), I decided to stay put and be an educational opportunity for them. Because there are three very vocal vets from the Vietnam era (two from "Special Ops"--remember the M*A*S*H* CIA-type boobs?), I figure one little middle-aged liberal grandma needs to speak out occasionally, too. I sure hope this woman's church isn't getting federal funds for "faith-based" initiatives. I can only imagine the sour faces as they dole out thin soup to the poor.

The Beauty Part

Is he the greatest writer in the world? I think so. Did he write the greatest love story of the last century? (No, not Brad and Jenifer!) Was he 77 yesterday? Yes, the book is "Love in the Time of Cholera." And the writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Thought for Today

I feel out of place a lot these days. Like everyone around me is operating on a different plane of reality. People go about, business as usual, with their "Support Our Troops" magnets on their gas-guzzling SUVs. I want to stop them and show them William's photo. I want to tell them what he gave up and I want to ask them, "WHY?" I want to ask them what they've given up. America is not "getting" it. Do they know that this boy and thousands like him have lost their lives, their health, their sanity? How many more new graves will be here next year? And the year after that?
--Annette Pritchard, whose nephew PFC William C. Ramirez, age 19, was killed in Baghdad on February 11, 2004. She's quoted on Military Families Speak Out, a website that sees no conflict between "support our troops" and "bring them home now."

1,500 Dead

Because I recently spoke at a corporate event, I got to hear Brian Williams--the new Tom Brokaw--talk at great length about his recent trip to Baghdad. Or rather, his trip to the Baghdad Airport from the Green Zone. The single most dangerous few miles in his life, he said. Followed by a takeoff with the pilots putting the plane into an evasive movement so intense it was like an out-of-control amusement park ride.

Then Williams said something I've heard Important White Men say a hundred times: "You know, the men and women we have over there--they're the best we've got."

And I thought: Would you just listen to yourself? You've just described a situation that's so totally out of control you don't dare leave the Green Zone and are likely to be killed getting to the airport. Then you praise troops who can't do one damn thing to stop this carnage.

So why can't you suggest--even between the lines, so you can deny that was your real meaning--that maybe we can find something more sensible for "the best we've got" to do than dodging road-kill-stuffed-with-explosives in inadequately armored Humvees?

Or is that what makes them "the best we've got" their willingness to get blown up by a faceless enemy?

Or do you really believe, Brian, on the evidence you've seen, that we're going to "win" in Iraq?

And, if so, would you venture a guess as to the total number of American casualties along the way?

I'd really like somebody to suggest a number. Because if my friends and I are weeping about 1,500 dead and so many more maimed in body and spirit, we'd like to explore ways to protect our tear ducts as the number grows to 10,000 or 20,000 American dead.

"Freedom's on the march." Maybe. But this we know we for sure: Freedom's a step behind Death.

The Next Pope: I'll Bet $200 on the African

You can bet on just about anything these days. A website I've discovered allows you to bet on Robert Blake's murder trial and Dan Rather's replacement. But the bet that got my attention in my capacity as spiritual blogger is Who Will Replace the Ailing Pope?

Crass? Hey, this is America--somewhere, there are people laying bets that John Paul II will meet his maker on Easter Sunday.

Morbid? If so, there are many who are ghoulish; a Google search reveals plenty of articles in which noted Catholics handicap leading candidates for the Papacy. And the gambling site does give the ailing Pope his due: "There is no quit in the man."

If BetOnline.com has done good homework--and, face it, the site stands to lose a bundle if some 2200-to-1 candidate is chosen--the two top contenders are Dionigi Tettamanzi (+275) and Francis Arinze (+300).

Some background on Dionigi Tettamanzi, the Archbishop of Milan. He's old--71. Traditional. Safe. You have to believe he's skilled in Vatican politics.

In l999 The Daily Catholic wrote:

At 65 he remains strongly involved in the Church and popular with his flock in the northern see of Genoa... Because of his lack of curial and international experience, he is not considered a serious candidate for the next papal election.
Clearly, if BetOnline.com is any guide, he used the last few years well.

On the other hand, consider Francis Arinze, the African:

He spent his early years in the countryside outside the Catholic faith; that he loves tennis and football; that he hangs African masks on his apartment walls; that he thinks Muslims, Buddhists and Jews can go to heaven; and that he stopped taking sugar in his tea during the Biafran war.

Cardinal Arinze was first touted as papabile--"popeable"--by another Vatican analyst, Peter Hebblethwaite, in 1992. Since then he has stayed on the notional shortlist of successors, seldom putting a foot wrong in the writings, speeches and diplomacy by which cardinals are evaluated.

Any open backing for a candidacy is frowned upon in as much as it anticipates the incumbent's death. However, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a confidant of John Paul and the Vatican's theological watchdog, came close when he said electing an African pope "would be a positive sign for the whole of Christendom."

If it turns out to be Cardinal Arinze, it will compel universal recognition that two thirds of Catholics live below the equator, and that Europeans no longer dominate the church.

[...]Cardinal Arinze presided over a boom in the numbers working for the church, and annoyed some by insisting his priests could only drive modest cars. John Paul was so impressed when he visited in 1982 that he summoned him to Rome to manage the Vatican's relations with other faiths.

Shuttling to synagogues, mosques and temples, he forged ties with other religions while maintaining the Pope's strict line on doctrine.

[...]If "handling" communism was the Vatican's 20th-century challenge, Islam is widely thought to be this century's, and one which Cardinal Arinze is equipped to face. Some Catholics may find what I've quoted--and what I'm about to say--blasphemy. Me, I call it realism: The Church has a marketing problem. "Growth" is not a question in America and Europe; in our country and Europe, the Church's challenge is simply to slow the exodus of the faithful. But Africa is still very much a fresh market. And blunting Islam's advances there is indeed the challenge of the new century.

So the question is: Do the Cardinals who will choose the new Pope feel the Church is in crisis? If so, the 73-year-old African candidate gets the nod. If not, a European who has no visible genius will do just fine.

One favor: If you bet--and if you win--would you give 10% to a charity in my honor? Thanks.

The Beauty Part

A monster of a car--an old Mercury with a sleek V-8 under the hood. A VFW hall you almost can't see through the foggy night. Women in cotton dresses, men in jeans. Beer in bottles. And on stage, a powerhouse band, playing tight songs about loose females. A crazy fiddler gives the boogie some Cajun twang. The drum sounds hollow as a barrel. The bass player drives the beat like a steam engine. And above it, a singer who delivers lyrics that are family-friendly only because they're too slurred to hear. That's what you picture as you listen to Lafayette Marquis, by C.C. Adcock, and if you think dirty dancing is a form of prayer, this one's for you.

Thought for Today

The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press--in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of LIBERAL excess during the past years.
--Adolph Hitler; taken from "The Speeches of Adolph Hitler, 1922-1939," Vol. 1, Michael Hakeem, Ph.D. (London, Oxford University Press, 1942), pp. 871-872.

Ten Commandments on Trial

As an Issue, the death penalty is small spuds to the Right--but allowing the 10 Commandments to be displayed on government property is a big big deal. In the Right's dream world, you'd genuflect on the steps before a boulder that says, among other worthy sentiments "Thou shalt not kill," and then you'd walk inside and vote to execute some psychopath who committed a brutal murder.

(Just to make sure we're all wide-awake here--"brutal murder"? You hear those words on every newscast, read them in every editorial. But aren't all murders brutal? Is there such a thing as a "kind" murder or a "thoughtful" murder? I make this point only because I believe our ears have been assaulted by empty phrases for so many years that even extraordinary events become....cliches. And when that happens, intelligent discourse becomes very unlikely.)

I was particularly struck by this passage in The New York Times account of the Supreme Court's discussions on the 10 Commandments:

Would it be permissible for the Texas Legislature to post the Ten Commandments, not in a park, but in the halls of the Capitol, Justice O'Connor asked Erwin Chemerinsky, who was representing the Austin man who challenged the display.

No, replied Mr. Chemerinsky, a professor at Duke University Law School, because that would be a sign of government endorsement of religion.

But the Supreme Court itself has upheld the practice of beginning a legislative session with a prayer, Justice O'Connor pointed out.

"It can't be that just because a prayer is permissible, everything becomes permissible," Mr. Chemerinsky replied, adding that a legislature could not mount a large Latin cross on the top of a state capitol.

"It's so hard to draw the line!" Justice O'Connor exclaimed. And I thought: Yes, it is, once you have erased the line long enough to uphold "the practice of beginning a legislative session with a prayer." This is a problem of the Court's own making. Now the Justices are slogging religious issues out on a case-by-case basis. Had they held the line earlier, they wouldn't have such trouble finding it now.

Why Was This 'Terrorist' Acquitted?

From The New York Times:

After a trial that lasted for several months, an Indonesian court today acquitted the radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir of the most serious terrorism charges in connection with the bombings in Bali and of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, and convicted him of only one count of criminal conspiracy.

The United States and Australia, which had pressured Indonesia to prosecute Mr. Bashir for more than two years, expressed disappointment with the sentence.

But the prosecution's case against Mr. Bashir was hampered because the Bush Administration has refused to make available to the Indonesians two key Al Qaeda members who are in American custody, Riudan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, and Omar al-Faruq.

Both men, who are Indonesian nationals, have given their American interrogators strong evidence directly linking Mr. Bashir and Jemaah Islamiyah to terrorist activities, American and Australian officials have said. But the Americans will not allow Indonesian officials to interrogate either man. My question: If we want other countries to prosecute suspected terrorists based on testimony we have gathered from captured Al Qaeda members, why don't we allow those Al Qaeda members to testify?

Suggested answer: Is it possible we tortured Riudan Isamuddin and Omar al-Faruq? Is it possible that this torture left marks--physical and/or psychological--that would be immediately obvious if they were allowed to testify? Is it possible that, once out of sight of their American jailers, their stories might change dramatically?

Or is there a better reason for our refusal to produce witnesses to support prosecutions we say we want to win?

How Do They Know When a Pope is Dead?

No, that headline isn't the lead-in to a joke. It's a real question--and the Church, which has apparently thought of everything, has a remarkable answer:

First the old pope must be declared dead - after all, you can't elect a new pope while the old one is still alive. In a ceremony performed by the pope's Camerlengo (chamberlain), the pope's name (the name he was baptized with, not his chosen papal name) is called three times, and at each calling his head is struck with a small silver hammer to check that he is indeed dead.
'Million Dollar Baby' (For the Last Time)

It was nice to read Loose Canon's admission of error in her blogging on the movie, but I don't for a minute believe her when she says she now agrees with me. She couldn't disagree more. What you may have read as a concession was really a dismissal--the equivalent of a chastised child putting her hands over her ears and saying "I can't hear you." But better that, I guess, than getting attacked Ann Coulter-style for my looks, my college or my ancestry.

I don't want to let the moment pass without sharing a delicious exchange between Clint Eastwood and Bill O'Reilly. Bill is a Catholic and "pro-life"--you'd expect him to rip Clint a new one. And Clint--well, LC's friends swear his film is an ode to mercy-killing. So why does fearless, no-spin O'Reilly suck up to Eastwood? And why does Eastwood--oh, it's so delicious, just read it:

O'REILLY: So it was a surrogate father attached to a young woman who is striving. So to you, it was a more relationship film. That was a primary focus of the film.

EASTWOOD: Exactly.

O'REILLY: And then it gets blown up into an issue film, the euthanasia. Did that surprise you?

EASTWOOD: Well, I don't - it could be blown up, but I didn't see what the blow-up is. It's - it wasn't that - it isn't a message for anything. But nowadays - in the old days, it was everybody was talking about the knee- jerk liberals. Now we have sort of the knee-jerk conservative group that has - tries to politicize everything. But it wasn't a political film. It's merely a relationship film, adventure. It doesn't make a statement for or against anything. It just happens to be the way the story comes out.

O'EILLY: Well, you also did it fair and balanced. I mean, you had the priest in a key part of the film, advising against this in a very, very articulate way. That's what - I said, look, he presented both sides of it. And that's all you can do for the audience. You weren't trying to brainwash anybody in my estimation.

EASTWOOD: No, actually, the priest is right. When he says it, he says to him, he says, you do this thing, you'll be lost somewhere deep within, inside you forever. And he's absolutely right. Amazing, huh? Eastwood agrees with the priest--and not at all in the way that LC agrees with me. Of the many morals you could take from this episode, I'll buy the lesson they teach in Journalism 101: You can't beat primary sources.

'My Soldier' (2)

Our pal Kathy writes: "The soldier I adopted is a 22-year old from Iowa who is driving a truck in Mosul. I'm a big Civil War buff and she wants to teach high school history, so we've been writing pretty consistently since Christmas. I got a letter yesterday that brought me to tears."

Her soldier writes:

Things here are extremely tiring and I'm beginning to get a little burnt out. I really need a break. Guess I'll have to wait about eight more months. I have a convoy in a few hours. I just wanted to get this letter out to you.

My days here are different each day. Our missions are at crazy times -- usually 2-3 am -- and they last approximately 10 hours. Then it starts all over again. My body is hurting very bad -- I never get a good amount of sleep, let alone sleep at the same time each day. We never eat/do anything in routine. Sleep, eat, shower when we get the chance. I don't have a negative attitude, but I am starting to get exhausted in every way possible.

But I am proud to be here, and I truly love my life. I feel good about being here and I honestly feel we are doing the best thing for these people. I believe we are doing a very great thing. That's enough to keep me going. Kathy adds:

I didn't and don't support the war. But I sure as hell support her and all of her brothers/sisters in arms. How can you not? But every time I hear of a roadside bomb in Mosul, my heart stops. How do these families live with this? Still, I consider her a gift, my soldier in Iraq, and if I can bring her any joy at all, well, that keeps me going.
Thank you, dear Kathy. And the rest of you who adopted soldiers--any word back? Please let me know.

Thought for Today

May the bad not kill the good,
Nor the good kill the bad
I am a poet, without any bias,
I say without doubt or hesitation
There are no good assassins.
--Pablo Neruda

America Rejoins the Human Race (Briefly)

Damn! The United States was the world leader in a category dear to many American hearts--and here we go, throwing it all away.

That's right--according to Amnesty International, the United States, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia account for more than 80% of the world's executions. And when it comes to juvenile offenders:

Since 2000, only four countries--the U.S., the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and Iran--are known to have executed juvenile offenders. Further narrowing this list, Pakistan recently abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders and the DRC has established a moratorium on executions.

Wow! Right up there with Iran, Pakistan and the Congo! What heady company! In fact, we rule in that competition. Again, from Amnesty International:

In the past five years, the United States has executed 13 juvenile offenders. Eight of these executions took place in the state of Texas. The rest of the world combined carried out five such executions. The United States accounts for four of the last five known juvenile offender executions in the last two years.
George Bush wasn't Governor when these killers were executed--and future Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonsales wasn't the death penalty adviser to Bush's successor--but you know he had to be smiling in the White House as Texas eliminated these drains on the budget of his home state. Hey, you want lower taxes? Kill 'em all!

But now comes the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling that killers who committed their crimes before they were 18 can't be executed.

Stop the presses! America--still up there in the overall death-by-government stats--makes a rare move toward the Christian values it says it espouses. Could civilization be in sight at last? Can it be that the American people are losing their taste for executions in general?

Yes, according to one survey:

A five-year decline in death sentences, a 40% drop in executions, a shrinking death row population, and waning public support for capital punishment have marked a significant turn around in the use of the death penalty.
That ultimate step lies ahead. For now, let us celebrate--with the Rude Pundit--an unexpected victory for sanity:

We live now in this world of Bush where every day we are confronted with the myriad ways in which this administration and its hellish minions attempt to strip rights, dignity, and humanity in favor of a world of unchecked corporate greed-seeking and governmental repression in the guise of parental protectiveness. So it's always blindsiding to hear news that affirms something akin to human dignity. Let us mark the day, because there are precious few.
Think of it: Rude Pundit, Swami Uptown and the Pope all on the same side! Maybe, with his last few breaths, His Holiness will repeat his long-held view:

The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who had done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.
Oh, somewhere out there--maybe even one blog over--some Bible-thumper will invoke the "eye for an eye" argument. But it's a rare subject on which the Bible has only one opinion. Consider Cain and Abel. God punished Cain for killing his brother--by banishing him. And (Genesis 4:1- 16). God also "put a mark on him to prevent him from being killed by anyone who would meet him." Why? Because God wanted Cain to live with the knowledge of what he'd done.

"Surviving victims" want "closure"--you hear that a lot. Sad but true: They'll never have it. A murder can't be "cured," it can only be endured. You don't "get over" the killing of a loved one, you live with it. And the smart survivors know this. They want what can never happen--for the clock to be turned back--but they don't want revenge. Listen to Jennifer Bishop, whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 1990:

Our sister Nancy and her husband Richard were a young couple expecting their first child when they were shot to death in their home. They loved and valued life; our sister was carrying life within her when she died a terrifying and brutal death. Her last act as she was dying was to write a message of love in her blood. We can't imagine making the death of another human being her memorial.
You see? It doesn't matter how horrific the crime was. It can never be undone. And it can never be adequately punished, for the simplest of reasons: The victims were taken by surprise but, in the death chamber, the killer never is. As Albert Camus puts it:

Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.
State-sanctioned murder. Revenge killing. A very small step away from the "honor killings" we decry in the Arab world. Thrilling that the Supreme Court--for once--lifted us up and reminded us of the pointlessness of executing men and women who had a way to kill but not the means to comprehend the moral abyss into which they had condemned themselves.

'My Soldier'

Some of you may remember, before Christmas, that this blog partnered with a St. Louis country music DJ named Cornbread to send holiday packages to soldiers stationed in Iraq.

My pal Rachel sent a package to a lucky soldier--Rachel is 110% heart; you totally want to be on her gift list--and now he has responded. Here's his email:

Thank you so much for your kindness and thoughts. I don't know if you know how much it means to me to receive the care package from you! I really liked the package and it really lifted my spirits.

Well, a little about me. I am 27 years old and will be turning 28 on April 25. I went to Louisiana Tech University where I received a degree in forestry. I worked in North Carolina for a while then moved back to Louisiana. I enjoy the outdoors (hunting, fishing, camping, etc.).

It can get very lonely over here so you have to do what you can to keep yourself in touch with people from the States. I keep little pictures of the people who have affected my life in my pocket in a little ziplock bag. If you could can you send me a picture, because you sure touched me.

It is a real awesome feeling to receive something from someone who I haven't talked to. It really shows how people in the U.S. stick together. Thank you so much for being a patriot! I really must go but I would like to keep in touch. I know he'll hear from Rachel. And I'd like to hear from any of you who adopted a soldier. There's just never enough good news....

The Beauty Part

He lived a thousand years ago. He was as funny as Seinfeld. His verses have made him the most beloved poet in India. He was beyond blunt: "The Yogi comes along in his famous orange/But if inside he is colorless, then what?" Whatever your faith, you should experience Kabir.

Thought for Today

Ah, don't say you agree with me. When people agree with me, I always feel that I must be wrong.
--Oscar Wilde

'Million Dollar Baby'--A Fighter Charges 'Foul'

Yesterday's exchange about "Million Dollar Baby" turned out to be a mismatch. Not because the fighters weren't in the same intellectual weight class--I'll pay Loose Canon the compliment of assuming that we're worthy opponents. But she has done her readers and herself a disservice. Her argument--such as it is; she mostly quotes the opinions of others--is flawed by such serious factual errors that, in fairness, we really ought to have a rematch in which, with no one in her corner feeding her misinformation, we simply slug it out, writer to writer.

Let's do The Corrections, point by point.

LC: "'Million Dollar Baby' is Hollywood's revenge for not feeling able to give the Oscar for Best Picture to 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'"

As a former gossip columnist, LC displays a distressing lack of knowledge about Hollywood here. Common sense tells us that shorthand is absurd--there is no more "Hollywood" than there is "Washington" or "New York." Unless, perhaps, we're talking about money. There, the fact is that giant corporations--generally considered to be conservative enterprises--own film studios. Rupert Murdoch loved Michael Moore's movie? Sez who? And Sumner Redstone? Though he describes himself as "a liberal Democrat," Redstone supported George Bush: "From a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal."

As for Moore, he made a widely-reported decision not to compete in the Best Documentary category. Having won at Cannes, he took the risk of pushing his film for Best Picture--an award never before given to a documentary. The Academy turned out to be more "traditional" than "liberal"--for Best Picture, the members wanted a character-based narrative. If they were the ideological liberals that LC believes they are, wouldn't they have adjusted their standards to slip Moore into the running? Why didn't they?

LC: "It's not even filling movie houses."

None of the movies nominated for Best Picture has passed the $100 million mark in domestic gross earnings--that's unusual. But money isn't the point. Is LC arguing that commercial success is a mark of quality? "Deep Throat" grossed $500 million three decades ago, the equivalent of a billion dollars today. By LC's revenue standards, it deserved at least a nomination.

LC quotes Charlotte Allen--author of 'The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus' and a former Beliefnet editor Beliefnet: "The cinema elite would find irresistible this oh-so-serious Clint Eastwooder doubly politically correct whammy of female boxing and plug for euthanasia."

In The Washington Monthly--which couldn't be more liberal--an editor condemns female boxing. And I'm unaware of a "politically correct" endorsement of euthanasia. Source, please?

LC quotes Charlotte Allen again: "For 1999, Hollywood handed a 'Best Actor' award to Michael Caine for playing a friendly neighborhood abortionist in The Cider House Rules, another picture that hardly anyone wanted to see either before or after the Academy Awards show but that pushed a cause dear to West Coast liberals' hearts. That's the way Hollywood is."

100% wrong. Here's how Hollywood is. In 1999, Michael Caine--one of the best-loved actors on two continents--had made more than a hundred movies. He was 63 years old. The other nominees for Best Supporting Actor were:

  • Tom Cruise in "Magnolia" (a smallish role in an art film no one saw)
  • Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile" (does anyone know who he is?)
  • Jude Law in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (a young actor just starting out)
  • Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" (a kid)

    In other words, a weak field. And Caine gave a great performance. And, just as Al Pacino got an Oscar for "Scent of a Woman"--one of his weakest performances--Caine was "due." He got his Oscar--as some actors do when they near the end of their careers--for a lifetime of achievement. Proof? Caine's acceptance speech:
  • Michael Caine made stars sob when he turned his 2000 win for "The Cider House Rules" into a moving tribute to his fellow nominees. While jabbing at rival Tom Cruise ("If you'd won this, your part price would have gone down so fast. Have you any idea what supporting actors get paid?"), he humbly declared that he did not feel like a winner, but won the award to represent "what I hope you will all become, a survivor."
    LC: He [Kabir] quotes a teacher named Rumi: "I died as mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I ever less by dying?"

    Oh, dear. Rumi is indeed a teacher, in the cosmic sense, but he is better known as "one of the greatest literary and spiritual figures of all time" --- and as probably the best-selling poet in the West. (For a brief tutorial about Rumi, see Head Butler.)

    LC goes on to mock Rumi: "If that is your view of death, I can see that you might not be bothered by things in this movie that rendered me apoplectic."

    If that is your view of death, you might be...oh....a Hindu. "According to Hinduism a soul reincarnates again and again on earth till it becomes perfect and reunites with it Source. During this process the soul enters into many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths." Or you might be a Buddhist. In other words, about a billion people would find Rumi's sentiments reassuringly familiar.

    LC: "The film depicts Frankie as going to Mass daily, and this gives the impression that, no matter what the Catholic Church teaches about suicide, Frankie was a good Catholic and his decision was thus more human and correct than Church teaching. Before killing Maggie (as we know all along he will), Frankie takes his concerns to a priest, who already has been shown in the movie to be a less than engaging human being. The priest seems sort of a stuffed shirt who wouldn't understand a "real" problem like the one confronting Frankie."

    A reader agitated by the misrepresentation of the movie by conservative critics writes to me on this subject:

    The long-suffering priest warned Frankie that acceding to Maggie's request would lead him into a very dark place from which there might not be a return.

    And there's the beauty part. Frankie has the right to choose. That's God's perfect gift - we have the right to choose. Will Frankie's soul burn in hell? We don't know and it's not our decision to make. But we certainly need to ponder all the questions here, and that's what Clint's movie does for us. It leads us to ponder the questions. LC quotes Charlotte Allen on "why the public seems to be rejecting this bleak little opus":

    'Million Dollar Baby' is cut to the Sixties template: attractive young heroine with every card in the deck carefully stacked against her: poverty, rotten family, no friends (except for the equally down-on-his luck Eastwood), rigged fight, dank, disease-ridden hospital with not a caring attendant in sight.
    Did we see the same movie? Hilary Swank is a beautiful woman; Maggie's rather plain, even asexual. Which she needs to be, to underscore that Eastwood's attraction to her is paternal, not carnal or romantic. As for "a dank, disease-ridden hospital," all the filmgoers I've talked to recall it as a sunny, well-appointed facility, with caring attendants often visible--except, for dramatic purposes, when Frankie shows up to end Maggie's life. And then reality is submarined so completely that, when he cuts off her air tube, no alarm sounds.

    One last bit from Charlotte Allen: "They mostly don't want to see a cynical movie that informs them that struggling isn't worth it and the society they live in is beyond redemption."

    Again, the entire movie is about struggle--Maggie's superhuman effort to turn herself from a nobody waitress to a somebody boxer. And then, after her injury, her struggle to gain control of her destiny, to exercise her choice about living or dying. As for a judgment about society, hey, this is a little movie about three people in a gym. If you want parables, look elsewhere.

    LC: "Andrew Coffin of This Week magazine notes that family-friendly movies never win Best Picture. He plots the turning point as Midnight Cowboy."

    Andrew Coffin--former "Reagan Ranch communications director with Young America's Foundation"--does not write for a non-existent publication called "This Week." "This Week" is actually a department of World Magazine, edited by Marvin Olasky, the ardent Dominionist who created the phrase "compassionate conservatism." World aims "to report, interpret, and illustrate the news in a timely, accurate, enjoyable, and arresting fashion from a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God." I can only imagine what the fact-checking department does with that mandate. Clearly, no one bothered to review the list of Oscar-winning films since 1979. If you have a definition of "family friendly" that's broader than "Bambi," you'll find:

  • the very next year: Patton
  • 1980s: Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy
  • l990s: Dances with Wolves, Forest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic
  • 2000s: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Interestingly, on a list of films "deemed conservative, patriotic, and positive for people of all ages" compiled by National Review, World Magazine and the staff of Young America's Foundation, the very same Andrew Coffin includes Chariots of Fire, Gladiator, Kramer vs Kramer, Patton and the first two Lord of the Rings movies. Given how easy it is to Google a writer's clips, Mr. Coffin might do well to check his prior work before condemning movies he has previously endorsed.

    To sum up: There are criticisms to be made of Million Dollar Baby. But not with sources this spotty. Do-over, LC?

    The Wichita Killer: How Did He Come to 'Bind, Torture & Kill'

    If you have a weakness for serial killings, you have surely been riveted by the arrest of the "BTK" killer--a serial murderer who, by his own description, liked to "bind, torture and kill" his victims.

    Dennis Rader, a municipal employee in Wichita, Kansas, has allegedly confessed to at least six of the thirteen murders he's suspected of committing. The murders started in 1974--the residents of Wichita have been looking over their shoulder for 31 years. And they have often seen Dennis Rader; he was their neighbor and, recently, a city employee:

    In Park City, Mr. Rader was known for wandering the subdivision roads in his city truck, wearing his official tan city uniform, and stopping in whenever he saw potential violations of the city's rules. Mr. Rader knew every lawn, every house in the community of about 6,000. Sometimes, neighbors said, he would march right into their backyards and snap photographs to show leaky roofs or overflowing trash. He was persnickety about code violations, even pushy, people said, but he certainly never struck them as dangerous or even particularly interesting.
    But it gets worse. At Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, Mr. Rader was president of the church council:

    Rader has been a member of the Christ Lutheran church for 25 to 30 years. He has long been one of its most active members, handing out programs, collecting offerings, serving on committees. His wife sang in the choir.
    Wait, it's even worse than that:

    They [Boy Scouts] remember that Rader was a great camp cook, that he was kind and patient with little boys and big boys. Three aging Boy Scout fathers remember a man whose friendship they cherished. And they remember him teaching little boys all the basic knots that doting Boy Scout fathers teach boys on campouts.

    He was extremely meticulous; he always overprepared; he always carried too much water, which weighed him down on hikes. How good a neighbor was he? This good a neighbor:

    Just last Wednesday evening, for instance, he had stopped by the church to drop off spaghetti sauce and salad for a potluck dinner before he went to visit his mother at the hospital.
    The people of Wichita are, shocked that their neighbor might have committed such gruesome crimes.

    In fact, he fits the profile of a serial killer to a T:

    Many serial killers are known for their innate ability to remain camouflaged in our society. It is this talent, to portray an air of normality that allows them to graduate from a common murderer and flourish as a serial offender. This aptitude for appearing respectable and often acceptable, non-threatening. It is how they navigate throughout their communities without arousing suspicion.
    We don't suspect the serial killer among us because he seems so like us--if not better. And yet all the clues are right there, out in the open: the meticulousness, the good citizenship taken to an extreme, and, of course, the expertise with ropes.

    Ropes--are you thinking what I'm thinking? (Or am I the only one with a dirty mind?) I'm no mental health professional. And this is rank projection--but don't you feel there's a sexual aspect to these crimes?

    A rope is a neutral tool. Use one to tie someone up, and it's instrument of power. Of dominance. See how the rope fits under the arms. How it binds the thighs. Criss-crosses the breasts.

    Feel the surge in your blood? (And I'm not trying to get you hot! And you're...normal.)

    My uninformed guess: When we finally hear Raver's story, I bet there's some sexual kink in it. And maybe not one that you'd think would lead to 13 deaths. Maybe he had some fantasy that just didn't fit in with the buttoned-up life he led. Maybe there was something he wanted to do that shocked his wife--or that he was so sure would shock his wife he couldn't even mention it to her. And the fantasy grew, and darkened, and took him over.

    I don't know the Lutheran "position" on sex. And, Lord knows, there are millions of ways for a guy to go crazy. But I've had enough friends go through AA to see the wisdom of that line: "You're only as sick as your secrets." And it's my suspicion that a lot of our secrets can be traced back to....sex.

    I've had three friends kill themselves because they couldn't come out. And many others who strained against "the rules" until something gave--their health, their marriages, their jobs. It's my sense that these sexual secrets are often shared in church basements at meetings in the evening. It's my impression that they're rarely, if ever, discussed from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

    How I long to walk past a church and see a sermon topic on the board: "If two people agree, it's normal."

    How I long to hear a minister preach on this theme: "Does anyone die? Does anyone feel demeaned after? Was there deceit involved? If not, bless you, my children--go and play. And hope that your time together becomes a prayer, an offering to God, a statement of union and divine ecstasy."

    Yeah. Dreaming. But don't you think we'd see fewer crimes of repression-run-amok if we stopped telling people what they shouldn't do? Less alcoholism? Less domestic violence? Fewer murders?

    Let's revisit this when the Michael Jackson nonsense ends and the Dennis Raver story begins.

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