Wednesday, May 25, 2011

McCain Takes the High Road

Gingrich Wallows in the Mire

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear.” – Sen. John McCain.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I’m a Democrat and seldom have good things to say about Republicans. There are exceptions, though, and today’s posting is one of them.

The back-story, of course, is that the whackadoodle fringe of the Republican Party received a double blow earlier this month. Not only did President Obama produce a copy of his original birth certificate, with signatures and all, just a few days later he announced that Osama bin Laden had been found in Pakistan and killed.

Desperate for some way to spin at least some of this to their advantage, several rabid right spokesdorks suggested that bin Laden would never have been found without George Bush, Jr.’s “enhanced interrogation” measures early in the war. That sterile phrase translates into water-boarding and other forms of torture and elicits the dreadful images of Abu Ghraib.

Michael Mukasey, who was one of Bush’s egregious attorneys general, said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information – including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.”

McCain knows a lot about torture. He was shot down in Vietnam in 1967 and was a prisoner of war there until 1973. He was repeatedly tortured and deals with the physical effects to this day.

Mukasey’s suggestion that U.S. torture led to bin Laden’s capture appeared in the Washington Post, and that’s where McCain rebutted him in an op-ed piece on May 11th. He responded to Mukasey’s claim quoted above by saying, “That is false.”

He also said, “Individuals might forfeit their life as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that right to others.”

And that’s the point, isn’t it? We cannot preserve and extol our treasured rights and freedoms by denying them to others. We cannot legitimize torture in some foreign land or in some maximum-security prison without staining the very principles we are supposedly defending.

There was more from the apologists – search Rick Santorum and Dick Cheney if you want to know more – I don’t – but they were careful not to slander McCain himself, which is something new. It is refreshing to see a Republican draw a line that he won’t cross without having all the other elephants dump on him.

Before he ran for president, Sen. McCain was known as a statesman and someone who worked for bipartisan progress. His fellow Republicans called him a “maverick” because he didn’t always toe the party line – and it wasn’t always a term of endearment. He seemed to relinquish that title, even while he wrapped himself in it, in his campaign against Barak Obama. Perhaps now he can claim it again. (See McCain’s full text at

Of all the issues that call out for righteous rejection by Republicans who still claim some vestige of honor, the defense of torture is perhaps the most important, and the most obvious. McCain’s principled refusal to condone “enhanced interrogation” shows courage and conviction that have been scarce among GOP legislators. Maybe it will encourage others in the party to speak out against their colleagues who go too far.

Unfortunately, it didn’t inspire Newt Gingrich, who stepped out of line by calling Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “right wing social engineering” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite the accuracy of his statement, he was castigated and pilloried and left for dead by the right wing echo chamber, and instead of defending his remark, he proceeded to apologize and make the bizarre excuse that he had been tricked into saying it.

Then, on Faux News, he came up with the ultimate denial, saying, “any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood.”

No statesman Newt. Needless to say, his fledgling presidential campaign sank before it hit the water. Thank goodness.

May isn’t over, but so far it’s been a bad month for Republicans and their presidential hopefuls. The birth certificate did in Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich self-destructed, and Mike Huckabee decided he didn’t have enough fire in his belly. Osama bin Laden’s death gave President Obama a bump in the polls. Paul Ryan’s attempt to dismantle Medicare isn’t playing in Peoria, or anywhere else. Just yesterday, the Democratic candidate in a “safe” Republican district in New York won a House seat. Glenn Beck was apparently fired and Rush Limbaugh’s ratings are in the toilet. And what’s left of the GOP presidential bullpen seems to be populated by klutzes fresh off the farm-team.

But in the long run, Republicans can be proud of their former standard-bearer and once-and-perhaps-future maverick and statesman, John McCain.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Want Our Schools to Fail

A Successful Society Honors Its Teachers

“If a seed of lettuce will not grow, we do not blame the lettuce. Instead, the fault lies with us for not having nourished the seed properly.” – Buddhist proverb.

The subject of education is difficult to approach. We know there is much that is wrong with our present educational system, but there is no consensus about what the problems are. To make matters worse, there are people out there who really do not want to improve education.

Some of those people are parents. Among them are those who cannot find the time to care about their children, for whatever reason, but many are people who didn’t get much out of school themselves. Our educational system failed them, and they expect it to fail their children.

As I see it, they send their children to school wearing the dunce caps they once wore.

It has been shown many times that lack of education leads to lack of income. Lack of income forces people to live in substandard housing, which is usually clustered with other substandard housing. Schools in such areas do not perform well compared with schools in more affluent areas.

And that is the primary problem (there are many others) with the concept of “No Child Left Behind.” This act of Congress, signed by President George Bush, Jr. less than four months after the 9-11 tragedy, penalizes poorly-performing schools without regard to the obvious connection between lack of education and lack of income and parental support.

NCLB makes the assumption that teachers are at fault. We’ve all had poor ones, and it would be nice to be able to weed them out, but teachers cannot be evaluated only by how well their students perform. Other factors must be considered.

Some parents are a problem, mostly because of their lack of support, but there are forces out there with a more diabolical agenda.

Teachers have been assailed on another front recently. Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin pushed through a measure to strip his state’s teachers of their collective bargaining rights, and several other Republican-controlled state houses are trying to do the same. Teachers, they say, get paid too much and work too little. They are to blame for our economic difficulties.

That isn’t true. If we truly valued our children’s education we would pay teachers a lot more. As it is, we place a higher value, in dollars at least, on celebrity blowhards like Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen; on stockbrokers and basketball players and fashion designers and corporate raiders and all those who accumulate wealth, even if they do so by impoverishing others.

A society that doesn’t value its teachers is not likely to have very well-educated children. An educated person doesn’t just know facts, or where to find them. He or she knows how the world works, questions authority, is tolerant of those who are different, and is skeptical of simple answers to complex problems.

Such a person is not easily misled, and is considered dangerous by those who seek to mislead. That is another group that wants our educational system – at least our public educational system – to fail.

Yes, I am saying that there are people committed to “dumbing down” our citizens, and they are succeeding wildly.

Teachers and their bloated salaries caused the recession. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. Barak Obama is a Kenyan Muslim communist. The universe is only 7,000 years old. Tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to the rest of us. We have the best health care in the world. Global warming is a hoax. We wouldn’t have found bin Laden without torture. Drill, baby, drill.  Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.

Well-educated people don’t accept such statements without question. They’re not likely to keep the dial turned to Faux News. They’re dangerous.

Well, I say be dangerous! Encourage your children, and your friends’ children, to learn, and explore, and doubt! Question authority! Speak truth to power! Value those who teach!

And never stop learning. If we all keep learning, those who seek to mislead will lose this perilous game.

Let’s not be stupid enough to accept being dumb.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mexico's Future Is Intertwined with Ours

(This is a piece I wrote in June, 2007, which was published on another site. After four years, I don’t see the need to change a single word.)

When I was in high school I was hired off and on to help a local land surveyor. I went with him on surveys all over our home state of New Mexico. One large tract was located south of Columbus, the town Pancho Villa raided in 1916. Its south boundary was the international border with Mexico.

The border at this place was marked by a barbed-wire fence that looked just like all the other barbed-wire fences that crisscross the West. I suppose there were marker stones here and there, but there was nothing immediately visible to indicate that this fence separated two widely diverse countries.

This was grazing land, on both sides. All that could be seen in either direction along the fence was grass, rolling hills, an occasional cow.

I think of that lonesome stretch of land when I hear people suggest that all we need to solve our immigration problems with Mexico is a secure fence.

About half of our common border looks just like this. The other half runs along the centerline of the Río Grande, a river famously described as “too thin to plow, too thick to drink.”

The distance is 1,951 miles.

Could a “secure fence” be built across such a long distance?

Sure. It would be about 70 times as long as the Berlin Wall, which was 28 miles, but less than half the length of the Great Wall of China, which stretched for 3,948 miles. There’s plenty of historical precedence for such barriers; they often outlive the regimes that build them.

The cost would be astonishing, even if our “great wall” was just an electrified fence. It wouldn’t just be the cost of construction, of course. Any kind of barrier would require maintenance, energy, and human oversight.

Meanwhile, some 350 million people a year cross that border through legal points of entry. They include busloads of tourists, semi loads of all sorts, hordes of pedestrians. They all expect to make the crossing with minimal delay. The commerce they conduct is economically beneficial to both countries. Obviously, maintaining security while allowing that commerce is a difficult job. Any increase in security measures that slows down the flow causes an immediate outcry from the people who depend upon the border, many of whom are quite influential.

All borders are artificial. Even if they are maintained with rigid military zeal, such as in East Germany before the wall came down or in North Korea to this day, there are people on both sides who have relatives, interests, histories, and memories on the other side. Those people will do what they can to return.

Perhaps a better approach than building a great wall would be to help Mexico come closer to its potential. It is a country rich with natural resources, and it has a huge workforce. It has many natural wonders. Its people and their culture are delightful. The population is well educated: 98% of children attend primary school, 64% go to secondary school, and 23% go on to college.

Mexico also has many problems. It is ruled more by money than by law; corruption is endemic. A mordida, or “bite,” of the proper amount – you might call it an institutionalized bribe – will remove obstacles faster than a cadre of lawyers can do in this country. There is an oppressive class structure composed of a few who are very rich and the many who are very poor. Environmental controls are lax.

Despite its shortcomings, Mexico is attractive in many ways. It has lots of petroleum and many kinds of minerals. It has cheap beer and cheap but wonderful food. It has beautiful scenery and many miles of beaches.

Its main asset is its large, underutilized labor pool. If we could help Mexico create jobs for some of these people, they would be less likely to brave the dangers entailed in an illegal border crossing.

As it is, the United States is getting the most courageous and resourceful of Mexico’s citizens. Many of them come here to work but continue to support those less able back home. Many of them would like to return but cannot because there are no economic opportunities there.

That’s a real waste. It seems probable that the United States will rely on Mexican imports more and more in the future. Our destinies are intertwined. We need to open doors to Mexico, not seal them up. We need to encourage trade and promote the ideals that have improved the lives of our own citizens.

We don’t need to build a fence.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ding, Dong, the Wicked Which Is Dead?

The Head of the Snake or Just a Big Snake?

We’ve cut off the head of the snake.  James Warlick, U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria.

In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy suggests that if Napoleon had never lived, France would have invaded Russia anyhow in 1812. It’s as if all kinds of forces had come together to that end, and Napoleon somehow found himself on a horse in a funny hat in front of the French army.

The surgical assassination of Osama bin Laden was celebrated raucously Sunday night in Washington and many other cities across the country with shouts and signs and spirits, both high and distilled. There were expressions of great relief on all sides along with congratulatory handshakes and shoulder-pounding.

Indeed, the ferreting-out and killing of this despicable person after almost ten years of searching was good for our national psyche. It was like a sore tooth finally pulled.

But Osama bin Laden was not the sole source of the enmity that resulted in the 9-11 tragedies. He was charismatic, I’m told, and a source of inspiration to his followers, but he was not their only inspiration. His death doesn’t change their minds.

There are many in the Islamic world – and elsewhere about the planet – who think of the United States of America as the “Great Satan.” We returned the favor by giving that title to bin Laden.

Both are wrong.

Had Osama bin Laden never lived, the Twin Towers might not have fallen, but the hatred that is borne against our country would have found some expression, some outlet. And it still exists.

There are many causes of that hatred, some going back to the time of the Bible, some from the era of the Crusades, some from the heavy-handed imperialism of Great Britain. But the biggest problem today is Israel/Palestine.

“This land is mine. God gave this land to me.” Those are the opening words of the theme song of the 1960 movie, “Exodus,” which chronicled the establishment of Israel and was a big event at the time. “Next year in Jerusalem” is the way Jews conclude both their Yom Kippur and Passover Seder celebrations. The “return to Zion” was eagerly anticipated for centuries, and after the Second World War, newly-freed Jews from all over Europe and elsewhere flocked to what was then called Palestine to make that dream a reality.

The United Nations voted to accept the partition of Palestine in 1947, the year I was born. The enmity toward Israel, and to a great extent toward the United States, which has supported Israel from the beginning, is just as gray-haired as I am. During those decades, many Arab countries have become fantastically wealthy supporting the worldwide demand for petroleum, but that hasn’t reduced the hatred. It has just made it possible for the haters to buy lots of weapons.

We can kill all the bin Ladens we can find, but the hatred will continue – and the danger to our homeland will continue – until the problem of Israel and Palestine is finally solved. God may have given Israel to the Israelis, but the people who lived there before that happened see it differently: “This land is mine. The Israelis stole it from me.”

A day will dawn when it no longer matters. That day is far in the future, and Israel and the Arab factions that vie for control of the land around it are doing little to bring it closer.

The best thing our country could do to secure its homeland is to work with Israel and its neighbors to establish the pre-1964 borders as permanent, create a Palestinian state with some real measure of economic stability, and demand every nation in the area accept the result. We and our allies have a lot of economic and diplomatic power we can wield to that end, and wield it we should.

Some would say that now is not the time, given the current disruptions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. I would argue that this is the perfect time. Osama bin Laden is dead. We’re moving troops out of Iraq and we really want to move troops out of Afghanistan.

Israel must be pressured to give up its extraterritorial building projects and accept the pre-1964 boundaries, but it will not do so until the factions in Palestine stop shooting missiles into its territory. The reverse is true as well. It’s time for everyone in the region to lean on the two sides and promise to support and defend the result.

Until that happens, we can look for more terrorism here and across the world. I really think now is the time to do something about it besides making everyone take off his shoes at our airports.