Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ultimate punishment

A month or two back when I started writing this blog, I confessed to being a churchgoer and active member in the local congregation. We seldom get involved in current events, lest we discover our "unity" to be a little less than what we had thought. Still, some aspects of religion/faith are bound to touch on things we normally regard as secular.
Crime and punishment is one of these. Specifically, capital punishment as laid out in Leviticus, then applied to life today. Leviticus, you may recall, contains most of the "fleshing out" of the original Ten Commandments into what became Law of Moses. There seems to have been little or no imprisonment proscribed for punishment as we now know it. Some crimes required compensation for the wronged party, and a large number simply demanded death as the penalty for the criminal. There's no use going through the whole list, but it includes things like disobedient children as well as adultery and murder. It runs into dozens of offenses, many of which wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.
So the Children of Israel, circa 1500 BC, have a start on being something like a self-governing people. With no more formal law than the Law of Moses, they proceed, after the 40 years of wandering, to occupy Canaan, and to live in sometime peace as a confederation of 12 tribes. It doesn't work too well, and the succeeding line of kings starting with Saul doesn't do much better. Plenty of killing takes place, though more for political (and personal) than penal purposes.
Time marches on. If anything, more executions take place, sometimes under the banner of law enforcement, often just to settle old grudges or dispose of the latest rabble rouser like Joan of Arc. The only real addition is that the ax-wielders are now Christians (at least in name), as are the majority of victims. The United States is established, and law enforcement becomes one of those shared powers between the Federal government and the states. The burning of witches disappears, only to be replaced by the hanging of cattle rustlers and lynchings, which often take place with the full knowledge if not participation of local authorities. Today in some states you can blow someone away if they're in the process of robbing your home or, in Texas, stealing your car without having to worry about legal problems. After all, you're the victim, not the guy who started it all. In defense of self and family you can enforce your own capital punishment, although there could be an investigation, just to make sure you were within your "rights" to blast away.
From heresy to disloyalty to the monarch, to espionage to rape and murder and everything in between, what would you guess the number of crimes which have affixed a capital penalty to be in our nation's history, or in human history? I couldn't even guess, but it must, I would think, be in the dozens if not the hundreds. Does anyone doubt that those carrying out the grisly mission of dispatching these folks were sure beyond doubt that they were doing the right thing? We rejoice when we hear that the #2 creep in Al Qaeda has again joined the martyrs (the real ones) in the next life. Timothy McVeigh is executed without objection, if without celebration. The former Governor Bush tells us that all the criminals whose execution he signed off on (none after more than 15 minutes of contemplation) in Texas were "guilty", without a second thought. Poll after poll shows most Americans support the lethal needle for someone for some crimes, though the list of crimes seems to be shorter than in previous decades.
My question is this: After aaaalll this time, and so many changes in so many societies, WHY do we conclude so quickly that NOW, after eons and centuries of some type of criminal system, that we FINALLY have it RIGHT? And if we're not sure that we finally have it right, would it be so awful if we joined almost all of the western democracies in refraining from this irreversable procedure? There must be some degree of doubt, since the 50 states vary widely in their interpretation of law and punishment. One state, Illinois, even had a governor put a halt to all executions in order to have someone rethink the entire matter. I'm going to continue this issue next time to see why a believer might decide that the payoff isn't worth it for our society.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Tilting the Playing Field

Before moving into new territory, I just can't leave the fertile ground of Dick Cheney quotes. Instead of speaking to ALL americans, the VEEP now almost never speaks a sentance which isn't partisan in nature. Yesterday he claimed that the US must win the War on Terror (meaning everyone we choose to bomb for any reason) in order to save the civilized world. That will sure win the hearts and minds of our Islamic friends.
It's election season. In some areas, it can get pretty intense depending on which races are contested and how close they are. It can lead to what I'd call "tilting the playing field", trying by extralegal ways to ensure your guy is the one that takes office. I've become aware since 2000 that parties controlling a stat's executive offices can alter election results, sometimes by doing things months ahead.
For instance, many states prohibit convicted felons from voting altogether, or make it difficult for one to regain the voting privilege. That in itself may not be partisan, but in the NAME of cleaning former crooks off the registered voter lists all kinds of damage can be done to registered voters whose names are similar to the former cons'. Make your disqualifying rules too broad, or concentrating on names which may signify minority voters and you've got a little edge on Election Day. The disqualified voters may or may not get another chance to set things right, but if that chance isn't till the next election, well, who's to blame? This technique was used in Florida prior to the notorious 2000 non-recount. The state GOP tried to compound the mess post-election when they worked hard to INCLUDE spanish surname voters (hopefully ethnic Cubans voting GOP) on the same lists.
Then there's the simple idea of making voting hard for some people while flinging the door wide open for others. This can take many forms: be stingy with voting units in certain neighborhoods and generous in others. Move polling sites, but keep it quiet. Make new rules requiring elaborate ID's at the polls. Some folks will fall through the cracks even if the ID's are free, and some just won't bother, but say it's for everyone's good by stopping voter fraud. Sounds great, but there is no real incentive for INDIVIDUAL fraud anyway. How much damage can be done with ONE fraudulent vote, especially when the offense carries a heavy penalty? Start looking for poll volunteers purposely too late, or require them to work at polls far from the neighborhoods where they live. Leave the pollworkers' pay at the same level, or, better yet, ask them to work for free ("It's an honor to work for your country."). Make everything in English only (sound familiar?) if you can, or send the other ballots to a part of town where they won't be needed anyway. If it will help a LOW turnout, make liberal use of barricades, police assigned to "hang out" around a polling place, and official-looking signs actually intended to confuse.
And I haven't even mentioned paperless electronic voting units, which I don't pretend to understand, but which, nevertheless appear to frequently give results the opposite of exit polls. There is to be plenty of evidence that such units can be reprogrammed ("Hacked"!) to get the desired results. One manufacturer of such machines, Diebold, has a CEO who's is on record as wanting a GOP-controlled government. But shouldn't "The People" be handling/counting their own votes?
Anyway, good luck on Election Day. You still have almost 50 days. And good luck to the "Civilized" world.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

His Darkness

It's been a long time since the term "politician" had much positive context for Americans. We now use the word like an epithet, taking some small delight in the fact that, though poor and weary, at least we're not like those blankety-blank, two-faced politicians. I can understand those feelings, though I can't fully agree. There IS an irritating quality about someone whose continuing job prospects depend on being seen and heard doing things that appeal to the broadest possible portion of the population. Liberals like to be seen with guns hunting the next dinner. Conservatives, by turn, seem to enjoy nothing more than bringing home the federal money for items that they would term "pork" if based somewhere else.
But there's one guy who dares to show us just one side, challenging us to decide to like or hate him. He yam what he yam. He's Dick Cheney, the man most often connected with the evil, though fictional, Darth Vader. He's rich, he's elected, he has friends in high (mostly corporate and military) places, and he has only one person to please each day, the President.
It almost shocking how one-sided the VEEP's image is when compared with the others who've held the office. Have we ever seen Cheney visiting a public school? A ball game? A hospital? A presentation of the Arts of some kind? Outside the odd network appearence, he almost always appears in front of "blood oath" audiences like the NRA or a veterans' group who think like he does and function like little GOP subsidiaries. Even Spiro Agnew, Nixon's henchman VP seemed to display a little sense of humor while letting fly with phrases like "the nattering nabobs of negativism". Not Cheney. Humorless, grim, conspiring and totally partisan are the terms which come to mind. If you're waiting for the Dickster to apologize for dropping an F-bomb in the US Senate Chamber to Senator Leahy of Vermont, you'll be waiting a long, long time. The VEEP doesn't DO apologies.
Which brings us to those occaisional appearances on news programs. It's Cheney's habit to deny things he has said in the past, even when it's on tape, and move on to new accusations most often aimed at Democrats in a way that carries dire warning. His memory is unsmilingly selective, and most TV journalists simply haven't the stomach to go toe-to-toe with him to make him account for past errors and/or lies, deliberate or just boo-boos in thinking that have led to thousands of deaths and injuries. The fear-mongering that helps so much on Election Day expanded lately to warning against pulling out of Iraq lest the bad guys see a way to attack OTHER mideast countries, including our democratic pals, the Saudis. He even declared that Iraq was better off today than pre-occupation., though the 100,000 plus dead weren't polled, and the 90% or so of Iraqis who want us gone were evidently just mistaken.
As the ultimate insider, Cheney's resume would be perfect for the job opening, if there was one, of dictator. But if there's any good news in all of this it's that the VP's popularity has headed South and stayed there. If Bush's positive numbers are somewhere in the 30's, Cheney's are about a dime lower. The low-level rumor of a Cheney presidential campaign ("We need to finish the job.") has died a quiet death, though no one thinks the Dark Lord will be taking his errant shotgun back to Wyoming to live. Barring a killer heart attack or a double impeachment we'll have Cheney around another full two years, but hia official duties are few and his record of being wrong has even been noticed by the White House (!) , where his influence is supposedly on the wane. He'll then become the answer to the trivia question: "What American vice president has had the most and worst influence on US world prestige in the post WWII era?"
This isn't, you've noticed, a spot for personal stuff. Nevertheless, congrats go out to Ember and Jake on the birth of grandkid #8, Tobin. Is it too soon (one day) to start calling him T-Bone?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Who Wants Freedom?

I have reason to feel both good and disappointed over last week's entry. My word processing skills, or the lack of same, showed in my attempt to make two columns comparing our current war with WWII. It looked great on the screen, but didn't get published that way. I thought about adding directions on understanding the whole thing, but then concluded it would only make things worse. If anyone tried to make it readable, I'm sorry, and hope you found a way.
On the other hand, the President blew into Salt Lake City last week to give the latest, greatest Iraq speech yet and did a nice job of pretending it was 1944. Nice Job? He all but recited the George C. Scott opening speech from "Patton". You know - "Shoot HIM in the belly!," etc. The perfect combination of American Legionaires and Utah red meat, er, state folks ate it up like a handful of Jelly Bellies. That might be the last speech the President gives before Election Day that might not have required some kind of Republican blood oath to attend. With popularity numbers under 40%, Mr. Bush won't speak to just any old group of American citizens anymore. It made me look good with my prediction about campaign themes the last two months, but far be it from me to brag.
The President fairly goes into a personal rapture when talking about "freedom", always in a kind a vague way. It has to be a little murky because some of the so-called allies we count in this business (and that word is chosen purposely) aren't the most free countries out there. Think the Saudis want to make their country free? The Kuwaitis? Why should they, when oil's at 70 bucks a barrel? We'd kind of like the Chinese to loosen things up a bit, but not enough to risk the business we already do with them. Who do you think builds a sack of screwdrivers for $1.98 on sale at WAL-Mart? Gosh knows it's not US. Those jobs headed east years ago, and ain't returning.
Consider all the countries that DIDN'T feel they needed a large American army to acheive the freedom we're always gushing about. The Chileans didn't need us to get rid of Pinochet, nor did the Argentines ask for the Marines to evict the junta they were cursed with. Our once-large force in the Philipines stayed out of that country's successful effort to dump the Marcos Family as rulers in perpetuity. The Russians stood up to the last of Soviet Communism without any overt aid from us. The Ukrainians did the same for a guy the local spooks tyried to poison without so much as a helicopter from us. Sure, we were around to give things a little push, but ALL of what was once the Warsaw Pact fell in a reverse Domino action before our eyes, and we didn't drop one bomb.
Here's the point. All these countries and a few more obtained freedom ON THEIR OWN, and all of them did it at some risk to themselves, pretty much the way our short-pants Founders did two plus centuries back. US public opinion would have supported our intervention in NONE of these countries. After all the different slogans tried on Americans to buy into this current war of occupation, do we really think that Iraq ALONE was worthy of a $billion/wk intervention when NO ONE else was? When did the Iraqis stand up for freedom? On their election day? Maybe, but it seems now that was just an excuse to rally around whichever sect they preferred, not for democracy itself. The sad part is that the Iraqis are now as much at war with each other as they could EVER have been vs. Saddam, if they had had the nerve.
Freedom? What about the Iraqis freedom to invite us to LEAVE? That's a freedom that won't be excercised soon, even though 90% of Iraqis would like to see us go NOW. All we can talk about instead are options to stand/sit/fall down when the locals take over, something they have little incentive to do since American interests will own a good part of the local economy thanks to the neocons who put together the new constitution. No, we may be in Baghdad for longer than we've been in Korea. And you can be sure that if the day ever comes when we DO leave, that NO ONE will say "Sorry. Guess there weren't any WMDs after all. Sorry about the 100,000 (or whatever it will be by then) dead civilians. We just went a little, ah, crazy".