December 2009
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Rags and Bones

 

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

 

 

The Fort Hood shooter

 

            The story of the military psychiatrist, in the service since 1996, who pulled a gun and killed thirteen other soldiers, is very discouraging and disturbing. We live in evil times indeed; at the worst moments of the Second World War, we had no cases I know of involving a Japanese American or German American going on a shooting spree. The first modern instance of a mass shooting was carried out by a mentally ill veteran in the late '40's, in New Jersey.

 

            Today, buoyed by the media and encouraged by highly persuasive fundamentalist ideologies, this kind of thing seems epidemic. The number of people in our world who feel entitled to take the life of random, innocent others because they are having a bad day , or year, is stunning. The fact that this shooter was a highly privileged middle class individual—a physician, sent to medical school by the Army—makes one think of the September 11 killers, who were primarily engineers and professionals from wealthier Arab countries who had never personally experienced hardship or war.

 

            A lot of people, Moslem and Christian, have been quoted as saying that, despite the fact the shooter was religious and highly conflicted about deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, this should not be construed as a Moslem thing, but as an individual or a military problem. I disagree. While I think we need to be extremely careful to avoid arbitrarily infringing the civil rights of Americans from the middle east on grounds of mass suspicion—why I almost didn't write this—we are suffering from the effects of a devout believer taking a scary religious text completely seriously. The Koran is a violent book, but not more so than the Old Testament which underlies both Christianity and Judaism. The problem is less with the book itself, than with contemporary modes of thought which make it acceptable to kill others in service to such books. We have seen horrible instances recently, of Christian fundamentalism leading to the murder of an abortion doctor, Jewish fundamentalism causing the killing of gay people, liberal Jews and Arabs; and Moslem fundamentalism supporting more murders than I can list, including those of women, children, people attending funerals and shopping in markets. In a world that was supposedly trending towards the rational and democratic, the resurgence of fundamentalisms is a terrible threat.

 

Immigration jails

 

            In downtown Manhattan is an immigration prison, privately run by an Alaskan tribe. People immured there, many of them long time residents of this country, some middle class people with visas the government is trying to cancel, tend to be mysteriously transferred to other parts of the country just when volunteer lawyers are trying to see them. This is consistent with a decades-old history of dirty tricks by Immigration employees. In the '80's, when I volunteered to represent Haitians and others in asylum proceedings, I showed up in court one day to discover that the service had bullied my Salvadorean client into firing me and signing a consent to deportation in the week since I had last seen her. That year, Haitians were being held in a prison so far from Miami that few volunteer lawyers could get there. I remember an account from one which said that while he was in one courtroom asking for extensions of time so he could file asylum applications for one group, the judge in the other courtroom was hurriedly deporting dozens of people, so the volunteer lawyer wouldn't have time to get over there and represent them.

 

            Its a disgusting system and cries out to be fixed. The Tlingit tribe's response, when asked about mysterious transfers of prisoners, was a classic, revealing non sequitur: the administrators' only responsibility was to maximize the value of the tribal shareholders' shares, not to serve justice or to protect detainees. Which is why all private prisons, immigration and otherwise, should  be ended immediately.

 

Postal

 

            Outside my local post office in Amagansett, NY stand three post boxes, one for express mail, one labelled “Out of Town” and one for zip code 11930 only. Makes me wonder who, if anyone, sends letters within a zip code any more, especially a rural one, rather than picking up the phone or sending an email. Of the 30 or so bills a month I pay, only one goes to an address within my zip code. Another ten years and nobody will pay bills by mail any more, most likely.

 

Gay marriage

 

            Rejection of gay marriage in the otherwise tolerant state of Maine was a big disappointment, but it brought an epiphany: how the hell did we end up leaving fundamental civil rights issues to be determined by popular vote?

 

            If we had taken the same approach in the 1960's, desegregation would never have occurred. What referendum vote would have resulted in Brown v. Board of Education? Would President Johnson's Voting Rights Act have passed if put on a national agenda? The right of black and white people to intermarry was settled by a Supreme Court case, not an election.

 

            Gay marriage is an equivalent issue, too damn important to be left to the states, where the most backward minds with the most determination and money can set the outcome. All of the local and state judicial and legislative initiatives, and the resulting referendums which undo them, are happening in a national leadership vacuum. To reach a result consistent with the national narrative of equality and tolerance—and thus to create a national right to gay marriage-- we need the Supreme Court, Congress and the President to provide some leadership, as they did on race issues  in the 1960's. In the absence of that leadership, nothing much can be expected from the states other than the kind of moneyed bigotry we are seeing now.

 

            Another issue is that referendums are a damn bad way to make any kind of policy. We live in a representative democracy, where the basic concept is to elect people we trust to determine directions and legislation—and not to micromanage them. California is a powerful failed experiment in direct democracy—the state is bankrupt as a result of a long series of referendums where Californians routinely approved spending increases and tax cuts. America, and  its individual states, are too big and complex to be operated as an Athenian style popular democracy.

 

Mahmoud Abbas

 

            Congratulations to the president of the Palestinian Authority for threatening to quit, even if he is not serious. Abbas' action adds to his integrity, underlining that he is there not to sleep and feed (like the hippo in Eliot's poem) but to get stuff done. If the Israelis aren't serious about negotiating a Palestinian state, why maintain an authority to deal with them? I too would seriously think about spending my declining years on the beach, while leaving the Israelis to deal with Hamas. Why should anyone be a moderate, or recognize Israel's right to exist, if  moderation and recognition don't lead to any concessions? Netanyahu has backtracked even on the supposed longstanding Israeli  commitment to a Palestinian state. The Israelis, in their arrogance, probably believe that the Palestinians have no choice but to offer a negotiating partner even if the Israelis stall endlessly. Abbas is calling their bluff.

 

Slavery

 

            Speaking of national narratives, raise your hand if you don't know that people legally owned slaves in New York, Massachusetts and other Northern states. I've been on a history reading binge and came across accounts of slavery in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston  in independence times. When John Adams met his future wife Abigail Smith in Boston in the 1760's, her father owned slaves. We have forgotten all that because the northern states ended slavery before the Civil War, and thus we've been able to adopt a national narrative that makes the South out to be different and shocking.

 

            Large slave populations never made much sense in the North, with an economy increasingly based on manufactures and trades and no shortage of labor. Another forgotten fact: shipping the slaves, rather than using them, was an important income source for Northeastern ports in the 1700's.

 

Population

 

            One statistic which makes me go silent with incomprehension and fear: There are twice the people on earth that there were when I was a child. In fifty years, Earth's population has increased from three billion to six billion people. How long can we keep that up?  Nobody seems to know.

 

            In the '60's, scientists and sociologists making apocalyptic projections (I remember a particularly frightening book named “The Twenty-ninth Day”) tended to describe scenes of mass famine, thirst, rioting, end of civilization, new deserts everywhere. A short story I read back then, by a precocious pre-teen, published in an annual series of the best fiction by grade school students, imagined billions of people lying in heaps gasping for air.

 

            I wonder if there have not been more subtle effects of the doubling of the world's population, that we have not yet clearly linked to their causes. When I was a child, my parents let me walk the seven blocks to school alone, and wander the neighborhood alone, without fear of predators, and so did everyone else's parents. By the eighties, we never let children out the door unsupervised. Suppose the  increase of population leads not to a mathematically equivalent increase in the number of pedophiles, but a five or ten fold growth? To get to specifically American effects, of course, you would have to deal with the fact that U.S. population has increased by only about twenty-five or thirty percent.

 

            I also wonder if the increase in suicide bombing correlates to population. This phenomenon, unknown when I was a child, first became prominent in the 1980's when Hezbollah commandos in an explosives-packed van killed about 240 U.S. Marines in Lebanon.

 

            In college in the mid-70's, I took a world politics class with Roger Hilsman, who had been an official in the Kennedy administration. Hilsman had us spend a day role-playing; I was the president of a still-apartheid South Africa, trying to negotiate a peaceful solution with the African National Congress. I vividly remember Hilsman announcing that the ANC had instructed its field operatives to die killing as many whites as they could. About an hour later, Hilsman made a further announcement: every single man willing to die had already done so. White losses, while significant, were not critical, and there would be no more suicide killings.

 

            In retrospect, this seems terribly naïve, as there appears to be no end to the number of people eager to blow themselves up today, with new teenagers taking their place as fast as the older generations can kill themselves.

 

            The Middle Eastern and Islamic populations, which supply most of the suicide bombers, certainly have doubled in fifty years. I wonder if there is not some kind of network effect which links population increases to a many-fold increase in the number of people willing to die for fundamentalist causes.

 

The acquittal of hedge fund traders

 

            Two Bear Sterns traders were acquitted of securities fraud and insider trading in a case considered a major setback for federal prosecutors. The chief evidence was private emails in which the traders expressed clear knowledge that the subprime mortgage market was melting down, even as they told investors that everything would be all right. Worse, one of them apparently transferred two million of his own money into a less volatile fund, while telling his clients to stay put in the fund he left.

 

            This is fairly egregious, but it was also business as usual. My own financial advisor, who must have had a particularly tedious second half, and particularly last quarter, of 2008, would never tell me to sell. I am not a sophisticated investor, but I finally figured out there is no science, but only magic, to Wall Street advice. For people at my level, it is tedious magic. Unlike the scoundrels of alternative medicine and  the supernatural, who have new cures, forces and revelations to announce each week, Wall Street advice tends to be: buy, never sell. (Except for those who churn their customer's accounts, and they tend not to ask permission.)

 

            Modern history is full of cases in which only the lowest level scum are scapegoated for great crimes, while the really grand malefactors go free. The Bear Sterns traders played a tiny part in the collapse of 2008; they were more like American infantry at the collapse of Saigon, trying to make sense of what their President and generals have decided. They knew that if they told anyone to sell, they would be contributing to the general panic. And they probably had at least some hope that the market would come back if most of us stood fast.

 

            I fault prosecutors who regard their business as a growth industry and are always looking for new kinds of indictments to bring—against the relatively powerless who can't cause the prosecutors any kind of political pain. If the U.S. Attorney's office wants to do something really  innovative, it should indict ex-Senator Gramm, who by de-regulating the financial industry, did more than anybody to leave us completely exposed to the sharks.

 

Obama's reputation

 

            A major reason Obama may not be remembered as a great American president is the messy wars he inherited. He faces Hobson's choice: withdraw, witnessing general collapse and being remembered as the president who “lost” the wars, or stay put and continue burning American lives while preserving the conflicts for his successor. This was what President Johnson faced, and it led him to quit, refusing to run for re-election in 1968 and eventually turning the problem over to his successor, President Nixon.

 

Blackwater

 

            Apparently Blackwater paid a million dollar bribe to Iraqi officials to keep its operating license after the notorious incident in which its employees killed 17 civilians for no reason. The Bush-era mania for privatization extended even to war, with defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld the primary ideologue advancing the idea that wars can be fought with relatively few soldiers and lots of technology and contractors. Like private prisons, private soldiers are a really bad idea.

 

Eric Shinseki

 

            Shinseki was the member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff fired by the Bush administration in 2003 when he correctly, and publicly, predicted that a far larger number of troops would be needed to secure Iraq. It is good to see him back in public service, as secretary of veteran's affairs, proving that not everyone who is right gets permanently marginalized in politics.

 

The execution of John Muhammed

 

            We have seen so many more recent atrocities that it is hard to remember how frightening the fall of 2002 was, when the D.C. snipers killed ten people in the Washington area. The other night, the older and leader of the two, John Muhammed, was executed by lethal injection in Virginia.

 

            Muhammed is a poster boy for the death penalty. Sociopathic, remorseless, and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I can't feel any compassion for him, and I think that governor Kaine was right to say there were no grounds for granting clemency. That said, this is an opportunity for me to  add  that Muhammed should have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, not executed. Why?

 

            For two reasons, a practical and a moral one. From a practical perspective, there is no way to fine tune the death penalty to assure that no innocent person will ever be executed. Morally, killing killers makes us barbaric, and always will.  We should  end the death penalty forever.

 

A thought

 

            What would John Adams think of Sarah Palin? What would Thomas Jefferson think of Rush Limbaugh?

 

Open source

 

            Most of the utopian dreams we had in the '80's and '90's about the lovely, socially beneficial impact of software and networks have come to very little. One dream which has not only come true, but prospered, is open source software. People somehow have managed to overcome the jealousy, anger and deceit which spoils other types of human communities to create wonderful free software, such as OpenOffice (in which I am writing this), Java, and MySQL.

 

            Sun Microsystems, one of the venerable and always unpredictable forces in the industry since the beginning, has been a major sponsor of open source, more out of a desire to enrage Microsoft than out of pure altruism, I suspect. Now, Sun, at long last and very sadly, has sold itself to Oracle, another venerable name. European antitrust regulators are demanding that Sun divest itself of MySQL before they will approve the deal. The rationale is that Oracle, which makes mid-market and massive databases, will kill or squelch MySQL, its tiny not-quite-competitor.

 

            It seems as if the Europeans don't really understand the scope of the problem; why not demand that Sun spin out Java and OpenOffice while they are at it? Oracle should at least be required to prove its commitment to continued support of open source. Of course, the beautiful thing about the software is that its already public domain, so if Oracle fails in its commitment, someone else, or a million someone elses, can carry on.

 

News narratives

 

            I can't tell you how  disappointed I am that the woman cop apparently did not actually run towards the Fort Hood shooter, downing him even as he wounded her. Now it appears that she rounded a corner, was shot immediately, and her partner (a man) shot the killer.

 

            There's no lesson to be drawn here about women's skills versus men's; it was just the bad luck of the draw. A soldier I know who served two tours in Iraq says he met women there he would rather “kick a door down with” than some of the men.

 

            There is a lesson to be remembered about the news, and I'm surprised I forgot it. Reporting is usually inaccurate at least in some details. Every time I have ever seen a report on an event or controversy I was personally involved in, some of the details were wrong. In the very best, New York Times-quality reporting, these are relatively unimportant details, and the gist is right. In the worst papers, everything is wrong.

 

             A related issue is that journalists love to give us the narratives we love. The slight female cop with the love of guns and SWAT training downing the shooter was a damn great story. Too bad it wasn't true.

 

            Note to myself: try not to get too married to narratives, especially those which emerge in the first hours after an incident.

 

Recovered memories

 

            In a small town in Missouri, members of a family have been arrested based on the recovered memories of a single witness pertaining to child abuse. I believe that recovered memories are in most cases false, even when the individual believes them. Nobody should be prosecuted based on recovered memories alone, in the absence of other witnesses and, in particular, physical evidence. In the eighties and nineties, when there was a prosecutorial fad for this kind of “evidence”, scores of innocent people were sent to prison. Some are still there.

 

            First, there is no compelling evidence that we tend to repress any memory of a trauma, sexual or otherwise. The world is full of former children with vivid memories, which were never lost,  of being raped or beaten. There is not one case of anyone who forgot being held in Auschwitz, for example, until the return of the memory was somehow triggered later in life.

 

            Second, there is a lot of support for the proposition that compliant children can be coached to recover any kind of memory you want. In many of the older cases, over-zealous prosecutors and social workers acted out abuse scenarios using toys and action figures, the result being that they led the children into telling stories based on what the adults had just enacted. Because children have little objective knowledge and judgment of the possible, many of these stories included quite improbable elements, such as levitation and the murder of elephants.

 

            Recovered memories in adults, as in the Missouri case, contain an additional level of psychopathology. I believe that recovering a memory of abuse is closely related, as a psychological phenomenon, to the discovery that you are channeling a 4000 year old Sumerian, or are the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. If the law doesn't give credence to these assertions, it shouldn't be so quick to act on recovered memories of childhood abuse.

 

            Freud became seriously concerned when female patients communicated a sense they had been abused by their fathers. He stopped taking it seriously when he discovered that every female patient had this idea, because he believed it wasn't possible that every father abuses his daughters. People like the witness in the Missouri case may be acting out a very complicated psycho-dynamic that never included acts of actual physical contact.

 

            Recovered memory cases are the modern day equivalent of the Salem witch trials, driven by neurosis, anger and panic.

 

U.S. terrorist trials

 

            There's a flap going on about the administration's announcement that some of the Guantanamo detainees will be tried in federal court in New York. Of course they should be. There was never any honorable alternative to this in the first place. The arguments, by the way, against closing Guantanamo (and in favor if holding military commissions there) totally ignored the profound act of rudeness to the Cuban people of placing the terrorists there in the first place. They are our responsibility, facing our charges, and because of our actions in opening the camp and disregarding the Geneva conventions, our mess to clean up. As a New Yorker—I don't live in the city any more, but am there every week—I have no problem with their being tried nearby.

 

Medical “rationing”

 

            Republicans are yelling that the recommendation of a government panel, for changing the protocols about mammograms, is a forecast of government “rationing” of health services. This position is illogical and offensive, but also rather funny.

 

            There has been a lot of coverage, and some studies, of the question of whether we test too much for the benefit received. Some common tests (including mammograms and prostate cancer tests) seem to miss a lot of serious cancers, while finding those that might never be a problem in the person's lifetime. Several studies in recent years show that testing doesn't correlate very well to improvements in outcomes. So the panel issued a nonbinding recommendation that women start mammograms later and do them less often. Makes sense to me: if we are going to cut the medical costs which make insurance unaffordable, shouldn't we start by eliminating unnecessary testing that does no real good?

 

            What is so amusing about the Republican reaction is that if the panel had done the opposite, and recommended more testing, they would certainly have screamed that it was an example of government overspending on health care. So there is no way to please them, except by keeping the status quo, and of course not even then.

 

            By adopting this kind of hyperbolic, scorched earth approach, the Republicans are trying to ensure there will be no change to the system. They keep hinting there are better ways to fix what some of them acknowledge is a problem, but we have yet to hear any comprehensive proposal, other than to leave the present dysfunctional system untouched. This is a grossly missed opportunity for a little bipartisanship to solve a really dangerous problem.

 

Actual innocence

 

            God bless some New York judges who have cut to the heart of the matter, and started writing opinions suggesting that actual innocence can win freedom for a prisoner despite procedural blocks such as the exhaustion of remedies, failure to raise the evidence earlier and so forth. The only system that could possibly have any ethics, any heart, is the one which recognizes that if someone is truly innocent, he should be released from prison no matter what. The prevailing philosophy today, as expressed by Justice Scalia in the dissent I quoted last month, is that if you lost at trial and on appeal, you are guilty for all intents and purposes, even if you didn't do the crime. But that elevates a very flawed process over the reality. It should never be too late to do the right thing.

 

An aphorism

 

            Which reminds me that I invented an aphorism, of which I am proud enough I may put it on a t-shirt:

 

            I have nothing better to do than the right thing”

The United Homeless Organization

 

            Wherever you go in New York are tables with a big jar labeled “United Homeless Organization” and an illegible ID card in a plastic sleeve. There is no literature, no signs with photographs of smiling people, no posters detailing the services. You never see ads for the organization in the newspaper, or read that Mariah Carey sang at a benefit. The organization has been out there for at least five or seven years now, and I didn't need acute New York street radar to know something wasn't straight.

 

            After all these years, the Times finally decided to cover it, and it appears that it is an elegant, very simple concept. A former homeless man created the organization. Other homeless people run the ubiquitous tables. They collect about $25 daily, give the founder $15 and keep $10. Their ten dollars pays for transient housing, food or, I suppose, booze. His $15 pays his rent, premium cable service and so forth (he has an apartment near the Bronx Zoo). The organization has no other staff or services.

 

            Attorney General Cuomo is now after UHO as a scam. Which in a sense it is. But—and there is a breathtaking Zen simplicity at work here—it genuinely helps the people who run the tables, who make $10 they wouldn't otherwise get. UHO is vulnerable because marginal and run by relatively powerless people.  Lets not forget that all the founder has done is successfully implement a concept invented by Wall Street: to have a successful business, you don't need people or products: All you need is a brand.

 

Biggest Loser

 

            It almost isn't worth writing about television reality shows. I like to wail and gnash teeth about things which everyone else isn't highlighting. It almost seems a waste of time to stand in line with the Righteous Indignation Brigade.

            However, here goes. “The Biggest Loser” looks for morbidly obese people willing to use any means necessary for a shot at a quarter million dollar prize. They dehydrate and starve themselves and may do permanent damage to their health. Some at least balloon back to their prewar weight after leaving the show. All this in favor of a spectacle which will attract ten million viewers when the more nuanced and interesting scripted shows are having trouble accumulating two or three. A lot of the snarky satire written about TV game shows over the years--”The Running Man”, “Gamer”, “Deathrace”, “The Tenth Victim”--is not that far off. Something in us loves a cruel spectacle.

 

Thoughts inspired by Thomas Jefferson

 

            I have been reading the history of our first presidents and the Revolutionary war this month. For years, I have had an idea for a Spectacle piece on Thomas Jefferson (race, abortion and Jefferson are the three great unwritten Spectacle articles). I detest the man, for a lot of reasons. He was a slave owner, a liar and bloviator, faithless to his friends,  willing to use lies and libel to attain political goals, and a proponent of violence who never fired a shot in war himself and was likely not physically courageous.

 

            I still hope to get to that article sometime soon, but a couple of stray thoughts inspired by my reading are worth mentioning. Jefferson's liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings, recently confirmed by DNA testing, was rape. It may have been romantic, tender, exclusive and life long, for all we know; but she was his property, and did not have the ability to say no.

 

            Jefferson's choice of women contrasts with that of his friend, John Adams. Adams married Abigail Smith, a highly educated woman arguably a little smarter than he was,  loved her all his life, and relied on her counsel.  Jefferson picked an uneducated teenager entirely in his power. At his death, his will freed their children—but not Sally Hemings.

 

            Jefferson betrayed John Adams; while serving as the former's Vice President, he did everything he could to undermine the goals of the administration, hired rogue journalists to spread lies about his friend, and then defeated him in the election and replaced him. Jefferson's remarks about revolution, including the famous one about the blood of tyrants and patriots being the natural manure of the tree of liberty, betray a terrible lack of compassion, uttered in support of a a revolution in France which had already killed some friends of his. Adams was not only an honest man, but a very compassionate one.

 

            It occurs to me that compassion and honesty may be closely related. Anyone who cares about other people is likely to understand that truth is one of the obligations we owe them. There are other foundations for honesty; there are honest cruel people as well; but I suspect there aren't many genuinely warm hearted people who are habitual liars.

 

            Another thing I have learned from recent reading is to stop excusing the blotches and bad actions of the past. In honoring Jefferson despite his ownership of slaves, we always say, “He was of his time, and people owned slaves.” But not everyone did; John Adams was horrified by slavery. There were in any period people who knew better. It is also possible that a large part of the holes in Jefferson's character may have been influenced by the cruelty and dishonesty of the slave-owning environment. He may have learned his duplicity at his mother's knee.

 

            It is interesting that we don't make these same excuses for other cultures. When we read about British lords enclosing commons and starving farmers, or military governors working men to death in Australia, we don't say, “They were of their time”. We don't give a free pass to cannibalistic cultures or Aztec sacrifices of children.

 

            The best analogy I can come up with is baby-eating. Imagine an alternate universe in which slavery did not exist. Instead, people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would sometimes have an uncontrollable urge to snatch and eat a passing baby. Everyone was a little embarrassed about this—in general there was an agreement it was Not a Great Thing. But people were simultaneously very stubborn and defiant, privately, about their right to eat an occasional baby, and even the Constitution was subtly worded to make sure no-one would ever be prosecuted for baby-eating. In  fact, the allocation of electoral votes to certain parts of the country was based not only on the number of men, but how many babies each had eaten.

 

            Would you say, “They were of their time, and that's what people did”?

 

            Apropos of my decision not to forgive the crimes and mistakes of past cultures where certain behaviors were prevalent. I have been reading Edmund Burke on the French revolution, and largely agree with his estimation that it was an act of arrogant insanity, leading to horrific violence. Imagine my disappointment to find his essay peppered with phrases of the most primitive, derisive and mean anti-semitism, inserted where they aren't even relevant to the subject matter. (Hate someone? Compare them to a Jew.) Anti-semitism was of course widespread. But, again, compare John Adams, Burke's American contemporary and political fellow traveler, who wrote a really lovely letter, full of compassion and sincere compliment, to the rabbi of a New York synagogue.

 

Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq

 

One of the great mysteries of modern times is how George W. Bush could launch us into his Iraq adventure with the Vietnam experience fresh in memory. Our eight year stand in Afghanistan, culminating most recently in an election stolen by the highly inadequate president we support, Hamid Karzai, is also reminiscent of the Vietnam era.

 

            All three incursions share two overlapping strands. The first is the horrendous difficulty of fighting a determined ideological insurgency in a Third World country. The other is the absence of partners committed to the values we are trying to install, resulting in the necessity of propping up corrupt, violent local rulers.

 

            I have been reading Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald’s Pulitzer-winning book first published in 1972 while the war was still waging. Some of her descriptions of the government we were trying to support are quite evocative. The following describes the perplexities of American journalists trying to impose a narrative on the confusion around them:

 

Led to expect some organized gratitude on the part of the Vietnamese for all the sacrifices of the American troops—the image was, perhaps, of crowds of native girls throwing leis over the necks of the incoming U.S. soldiers—they found only hostile crowds and officials who seemed to be growing more uncooperative every day. What was more, the American officials themselves could not give them a straight answer as to what was happening. The “bastion of the Free World” that the military officials had talked about seemed to be disintegrating into a chaos of generals with interchangeable names.

 

 

            Sound familiar?

 

Land mines

 

            Land mines continue maiming and killing civilians, including many children, for decades after they are laid. They are a terribly indiscriminate, cruel and sloppy way to fight wars. An international treaty banning mines, promulgated 10 years ago and signed by 156 countries, has never been endorsed by the U.S., Russia or China. President Obama also is taking a wait and see attitude. But his sales push during the campaign involved social justice, compassion, and making a break with the past. It would be one more sign that business is continuing as usual, that the Obama administration doesn't diverge enough from the Bush team, if we fail to join this treaty.