Saturday, April 24, 2004

My Friend Bob

One of the reasons I really hate the cult of celebrity is the way it lionizes wretches while obscuring and ignoring the great people among us who choose anonymity. People like my friend Bob Leamer.

I think the closest Bob came to being a celebrity was back when we were both college students in Moscow, Idaho, and he made his living that summer peddling ice cream to kids by riding around with a bicycle-drawn cart. Everyone left in Moscow -- which, being a classic rural college town, tends to dwindle sharply in population in summer -- knew Bob by sight. The local paper ran an artsy picture of him on the front page, tall and thin and dressed in cutoffs and his trademark granny glasses, handing off ice cream to a bunch of eager kids, a smoke dangling from his lips.

OK, so he wasn't always the best role model. But actually, he was, at least in the ways that counted.

I first met Bob in 1978 or '79, I think, when he became friends with some of the people in my circle of friends at the University of Idaho. I had moved north to work on the daily paper in Sandpoint but still stayed in close touch with "the gang." When I moved back to Moscow in 1982 to finish my degree, I got to know him well.

He was undoubtedly one of the smartest people I ever met -- a voluminous reader and a brilliant analyst, he was working on his PhD in economics. He also was a Marxist back then, which for a conservative-minded Idahoan like myself was something of an anomaly. Problem was, it was impossible to outsmart Bob in any kind of discussion because he would destroy you.

Gently, of course. In addition to everything else, Bob was perhaps the kindest person I ever met. He also had a knack for drawing people out, partly because he was so intensely interested in them as people. I know that some of my favorite memories of Moscow revolve around the times I spent with Bob: Hanging out at his place on sunny afternoons, talking books and puffing a little weed and listening to the Clash. Driving down to the swimming hole on the Palouse River and skinny-dipping. Sipping beers at the Garden Lounge and smoking cigarettes till our lungs turned black.

Bob was a fascinating guy and easy to listen to, especially with that nice deep baritone voice. He was about 10 years older than me, but it seemed he had already experienced a lifetime ahead of mine. He had raised wheat as a farmer in southern Idaho; worked as an auto mechanic and pit crewman for racing cars; traveled throughout most of Europe and much of the rest of the world.

In fact, Bob once was the pit crew chief for Paul Newman's racing team. He and Newman, I gather, would argue the merits of Newman's production of Sometimes a Great Notion, a book that Bob revered. Newman, he said, would finally admit that the movie fell well short of the novel.

It's hard to say whether or not Bob ever would have been famous had he tried -- but he was brilliant enough that it seems more than likely. However, that was not in his chemistry. He wanted more from life than fame, and he got it.

Armed with his degrees and all that academic training, Bob decided he'd rather work with his hands. He became an expert boatwright, and spent the rest of his life building large wooden craft. He specialized in huge catamarans -- the kind that are used for hauling tourists about in places like Hawaii -- but he always had a special place in his heart for simple sailing boats and old Criss Crafts.

He and his wife, Karelle -- a special and fascinating person in her own right -- lived in a little spot down by the ship canal here in Ballard. And their little home remained Social Central for our old gang, most of whom moved out either to Seattle, Olympia or Portland after leaving Moscow. At least once a year there was a big party, and the Tribe of Bob would gather to rekindle old friendships and sometimes bury old hatchets. We all could see we were aging together, but the gatherings, maybe, gave us a chance to feel young again.

About three weeks ago, Bob got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom (as those of us who are aging are wont to do) and didn't come back to bed. Karelle got up and found him collapsed in there. He had suffered a major aneurysm and was unconscious. There were a few brief moments of consciousness there and in the ambulance, but Bob was gone. He was mostly brain-dead by the time he reached the hospital, and Karelle finally pulled the plug late that evening.

The gang got together last Saturday for a kind of memorial service at his workspace in Magnolia, next to the ship canal. We gave him three big shouts and said our farewells. It was a big crowd. Many of us hadn't seen each other in years, in some cases decades. This time, none of us felt younger. It was remarkable, in fact, how much we all had aged.

Bob was one of those people who made you believe in humanity. As easy as it is to grow cynical about the rest of humankind, Bob was a kind of bulwark against that. In a society where greed, cruelty, falsity, and the grasping desire for wealth, fame and celebrity are what seem at every turn to triumph, he was a living reminder that generosity, kindness, integrity and the value of simple, anonymous hard work are the things that really bind us together and keep the world from falling apart. If I ever was inclined to give up on the rest of mankind, Bob was a living reminder that it didn't have to be that way. That's a little harder for me now.

When celebrities die, there is often a big to-do made over their departures, regardless of whether all they ever contributed to humankind was a knack for film acting or singing or gathering wealth to themselves. It's as if their fame signifies their superiority as beings to the rest of us.

But it's a lie. Anonymous people die every day who contribute more meaningfully to our lives and to the fabric of society, by the simple and sheer virtue of the way they connect us to each other and to what is real and what matters. The culture of celebrity obscures the importance of their contribution. But every now and then, it's important to stop and appreciate just how much they mean to all our lives, and to reflect on how impoverished we all would be without them.

My friend Bob meant a lot to the cause of humanity. Hardly anyone, in the big scheme of things, was aware of it. But for a day, at least, I want to stop and say: Thank you, Bob, and all other Bobs out there. Well done. May those of us left behind live up to what you started.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Busy, busy

I'm participating tomorrow in the National Writers Workshop, which is being held in Seattle this year (and is being sponsored by the Seattle Times).

I'm taking part in a panel discussion on blogging with Tom Brown, one of the Times' in-house bloggers. We plan to explain to all the hapless journalists out there how blogs are going to take over the world. Or something like that.

It's just a two-person panel (Josh Marshall was supposed to join us, but has apparently backed out). I'm especially looking forward to meeting Charles Pierce, who's kicking things off with a discussion bright and early at 9 a.m. I guess he'll still be operating on East Coast time, giving a talk that early in the day.

Our panel will be from 2-3 p.m. Unfortunately, it costs a chunk of change to participate in the workshop -- otherwise I'd urge anyone interested to turn out. But, hopefully, we'll still have a nice-sized audience -- and of course, we also hope to make it an interesting discussion. I'll report back.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Real Americans

This is the photo the White House doesn't want you to see. (Be sure to send it around.)

And as we saw today, they are a bunch of vindictive bastards about it.

One of the Seattle radio stations yesterday carried an interview with a Pentagon spokesman regarding the photo. He declined to suggest that there would be any retribution to the Times for running it, but merely made the somewhat coldly menacing remark that "we were disappointed." Today, we learned what that meant.

The spokesman, incidentally, emphasized that the policy had been in place since 1991.

That would have been during the first conflict with Iraq ... stage-managed by Bush Sr., who had a similar obsession with controlling the press. (For all the gory details of how the first Gulf War became the model for controlling the press inside the war zone, see John MacArthur's Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.)

As Malcolm Browne observed in 1991, "Real war stinks of rotting corpses."

Americans need to ask whose interests are really being served by trying to keep soldiers' coffins out of the public view. It should be apparent, in fact, that the Bush administration is using the families (whose feelings they constantly cite as justification for the policy) as a shield for their own miserable failures.

A reminder

As Republicans -- speciously -- try to raise questions about John Kerry's military record, it's probably worth pointing out that many serious questions remain about George W. Bush's military record -- some of them involving potentially criminal matters.

The big question, of course, that lingers is: Why did you skip that flight physical, Mr. Preznit?

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Where's the outrage?

It's been a few days since it was first reported that 9/11 commission member -- herself the target of a right-wing smear campaign spearheaded by Attorney General John Ashcroft -- has been subjected to death threats.

And the silence, really, has been astounding.

Tonight comes the news that another man has been arrested for making a death threat against John Kerry, too.

It's important to remember that this isn't just the usual right-wing nastiness to which we've become inured over the past decade. It surpasses anything on record so far.

Death threats, in fact, are acts of real violence. They are serious crimes punishable by prison terms, particularly if they are directed against federal officials.

And in the case of Gorelick, we're talking about an act of terrorism, since the threat against her constituted an attempt to intimidate a federal official in the conduct of her duties.

Honestly, I don't expect the likes of Mickey "Will MWO inspire left-wing violence?" Kaus or Glenn "Right-wing extremists are about to join forces with left-wing extremists" Reynolds to say anything about this. Their crass hypocrisy on the matter of political violence from the right has been apparent for some time now.

But you have to wonder: Where are all the mainstream voices, including those in the media, now that the violence has stepped beyond mere rhetoric? This kind of behavior is exactly the kind of fascistic violence revolving around the coming election I suggested, back in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism, might manifest itself in the 2004 election. Notably, in both cases, the threats are clear outgrowths of the nasty attacks directed against both of these figures by mainstream Republican officials.

The threats themselves are deeply troubling. The lack of concern about them is alarming.

A little big victory

It appears that the right-wing stealth campaign to take over the Sierra Club has been a spectacular failure:

In elections for the Sierra Club's 15-member board of directors, candidates picked by the leadership won all five open seats in a landslide, according to vote tallies released Wednesday.

The election had been conducted by mail and online since March 1. A record number of members -- 171,616 out of 757,058 -- voted, easily the highest level of participation in the club's 112-year-old history.

It's heartwarming to see this kind of attempt at undermining one of mainstream liberalism's most significant organizations go down in flames. As my friend Maia notes, the Sierra Club's anti-Bush efforts have been some of the most potent. And let's not forget that it is a plaintiff in the attempts to unearth the info from Dick Cheney's secret talks with energy-company officials.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Killer meme

A reader directs me to a Lloyd Grove column with the following item:
Does right-wing comedy have a future in Manhattan -- the Death Star of the liberal elite? pundit Julia Gorin sure hopes so, as do her fellow conservative jokesters, New York Post editorialist Robert George and Marine Cpl. Luke Thomas.

"Conservatives have a reputation for being humorless and unhip, but I want people to know that we're not that scary," said the 31-year-old Gorin, who tomorrow night joins George and Thomas for "Republican Riot," an evening of standup comedy at Don't Tell Mama Cabaret on W. 46th St.

"I want them to know that we have a sense of humor and warmth and personality - even though Republicans are always being referred to by New Yorkers as 'aliens.'"

... "John Kerry better hope Hillary doesn't decide to become his running mate. Does he really think she'll let him live long enough to see the first 100 Days? She's not waiting four years to become President; she'll let him get inaugurated, but then he'll go the way of Ron Brown, Vince Foster and Buddy the dog."

Hee haw! A real knee-slapper, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh.

It's becoming obvious that clowns are hoping Hillary becomes Kerry's running mate, just so they can regale us with this meme until the inevitable assassination attempt by a deranged right-winger -- which they will then blame on Hillary, of course.

Hey, don't you guys know when it's just a joke?

Another InstaSmear

Glenn Reynolds, master of the mid-right smear, attacking not just John Kerry, but Democrats generally:
John Kerry has it tough. As I've mentioned before, he's been trying to send a positive message on the war when many people in his own party are actively rooting for the other side.

Since when, exactly, did a non-entity in Florida who ran an outrageously stupid ad come to represent "many people" in the Democratic Party?

Indeed: Can Reynolds name any Democratic officials who are "actively rooting for the other side"? He's already tried smearing Ted Kennedy with this charge, on clearly specious grounds -- though Reynolds does seem confused by the difference between criticizing Bush for his failures and hoping America fails.

In any event, one wonders whether Democrats should return the favor and accuse Bush and the defenders of the Iraq Misadventure of aiding the war on terrorism -- since it is clear, as just discussed, that the invasion has definitively harmed those efforts.

Hey, maybe there's a reason al Qaeda officials have already endorsed Bush. Does that make Insty and the rest of the Bush sycophants "objectively pro-terrorist"?

Monday, April 19, 2004

Oklahoma City, 9/11, and the Face of Terror

[Beginning an open-ended series]

Part 1: The Apocalyptic Asymmetry of April 19

Before there was 9/11, there was April 19. Understanding the former requires coming to terms with the latter.

We all remember what we were doing when we heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001. It was one of those dates that burns itself into our memories. Likewise, for most of us, with April 19. Both times, for that matter.

First there was 1993 and the burning of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. Two years later came the reaction in Oklahoma City.

I remember it vividly. Both times, I first heard about it on the news -- CNN, I'm pretty sure -- because, well, that was my job. In 1993, I was news editor of the newspaper in Bellevue (then called the Journal American). I worked night shifts, which meant I usually got up around 10 a.m. I was in the habit of turning on CNN when I first got up just to make sure nothing big happened.

In 1993, the horror of it all was what imbedded itself: Knowing we were watching, as those compounds went ablaze, the obliteration of dozens of people, including a lot of children. And I remember thinking: We're going to pay for this. We're all going to pay for this.

I remember, both times, calling some of my close friends and family to tell them to turn on the news. On both days, I quickly showered, hopped in my car and went to work.

By 1995, I was the editorial-page assistant at the paper (having burned out on the news-editing gig) but it hit harder because I had also begun free-lancing by that time. Looking for subjects I thought were both important and overlooked, I had been working on writing stories about the far-right militia movement for the long-defunct Pacific Rim News Service, in no small part because I had a long background in dealing with both the organizers and the followers of these belief systems. I had been attending militia meetings and interviewing movement leaders for about nine months when April 19 hit.

I showed up at work early and watched the unfolding nightmare from Oklahoma on the screens around the newsroom. I told my bosses I was fairly certain that militiamen or white supremacists or someone like them had done this. They nodded and went with the wire service stories that wondered about a Middle East connection and described Arabs being pulled aside at airports. Most of my co-workers thought I was obsessing about the militias anyway.

The next day, as APBs went out for two men, one of them clearly Caucasian, no one was quite as dismissive. When a white militiaman named Tim McVeigh was taken into federal custody the next day, the editors put me to work on a story that ran on Sunday's front page. After all, one of the militia meetings I had attended was in Bellevue.

I always felt a lot of guilt about Oklahoma City. I had been writing about the militias for months and hadn't been sure whether or not to take them seriously. I had done my best to sell the stories, but they had only previously run in overseas publications; American editors hadn't been interested in them. I hadn't been sure if I could blame them. As hard as I had tried, it hadn't been enough, no matter what.

Now we all know better. But it seems, at times, that we've forgotten. 9/11 has made us forget -- when in fact it should make us remember all the better.

There's an important reason beyond merely the shock that we remember these dates -- both April 19 and Sept. 11. That's because, in fact, they are closely connected, not just in our national psyches but in the reality of the shape of the threat this nation faces for the foreseeable future, for at least the next century and perhaps beyond.

The Oklahoma City bombing, it must be understood, was the precursor to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

America is no longer threatened by the nation-states that have waged war against us, and each other, over the centuries. We are the world's dominant superpower, and no one would think of declaring war against us. It would be national suicide.

But that doesn't mean we are now immune to threats. Quite the contrary.

In terrorism -- asymmetrical, often idiosyncratic, sometimes the work of extremely small groups of highly motivated actors, and so flexible as to be largely immune to the threat of a traditional military action -- most Americans, for the foreseeable future, face the challenge most likely to not only threaten them and their loved ones with serious harm, but to undermine the very underpinnings of our society.

And it is such a threat precisely because we are at the apex of our military preeminence.

As Robert Jay Lifton observes in his new book Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World [condensed version here]:
More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement--of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower -- the world's only superpower -- is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.

The murderous events of 9/11 hardened that sense of entitlement as nothing else could have. Superpower syndrome did not require 9/11, but the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon rendered us an aggrieved superpower, a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit.

Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability. A superpower's victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry determination to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world. Integral to superpower syndrome are its menacing nuclear stockpiles and their world-destroying capacity.

... Unfortunately, our response was inseparable from our superpower status and the syndrome that goes with it. Any nation attacked in that way would have felt itself humiliated. But for the United States, with our national sense of being overwhelmingly powerful and unchallengeable, to have its major institutions violently penetrated created an intolerable breakdown of superpower invulnerability that was never supposed to happen, a contradiction that fed our humiliation.

Brown Professor P. Terrence Hopmann describes how these asymmetric threats work:
Asymmetrical conflict succeeds by playing on such fears. Terrorism strikes at innocent civilians going about their daily lives. It also flourishes on flexibility and uncertainty. The terrorist has the advantage of choosing the time, place, and means of attack. The targets are mostly symbolic, chosen for maximum psychological impact. The goal is to disrupt the lives of all. In fact, the capacity to instill in ordinary people the fear that they can be attacked anytime and anywhere, while doing just about anything, is the most important weapon terrorists have.

It's important to remember that such threats cannot be dealt with by ordinary military means. Of course, those who commit such horrendous acts of terrorism as those carried out on September 11 must be found and brought to justice, one way or another. But the classic riposte of retaliation against the homeland of the aggressor may not only be meaningless, it may be dangerous, creating additional terrorists who are even more dedicated and self-sacrificing than those who went before. And as long as the terrorists continue to find fertile soil on which to operate anywhere in the world, they will be able to survive, to react flexibly to circumvent whatever security measures the United States and other countries put in place, and to find new means to deliver terror at times and places of their own choosing.

It is not only Richard Clarke, of course, who believes the nation has gotten seriously off track in the war on terrorism thanks to the Iraq Misadventure. That view, in fact, is held by nearly every serious authority on combating terrorism. Because they know what terrorism is really about.

It isn't just about al Qaeda -- though obviously that is one of the most lethal of the threats facing us. But it can also emanate from extremely well-financed cults, for example, or tiny cells of highly motivated white supremacists. In the larger picture of whence terrorism emanates, Iraq has always been a tiny presence at best. The "axis of evil" is an ephemeral construct that only vaguely deals with the reality of terrorism.

The Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in a report to Congress on the threat of the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW), identified six common characteristics of the modern asymmetrical terrorist:
Some of these characteristics are common to many groups, and others begin to etch a profile that law enforcement, emergency response and intelligence officials should consider carefully as they were grapple with the threat and consequences of terrorist use of chemical or biological weapons. The six characteristics we identified are: charismatic leadership, no external constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, a sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defense aggression. Of these six characteristics, the two that were present in all of the cases of actual CBW use warrant thorough examination: no outside constituency and a sense of paranoia and grandiosity.

Cults, loners and splinter groups are by their very nature often isolated from society. Lacking outside constituencies, these types of terrorist entities operate without any moderating influences. The Aum Shrinrikyo, R.I.S.E., the Rasneeshees and the Christian Identity group, the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), are all groups or individuals that fit this pattern. Another characteristic of these groups is their apocalytic vision. They lived in the confines of their own organization or self created world without the social constraints of society. They believed that they were superior to others who operated outside their world vision. When challenged, these groups all asserted defensive aggression. In the case of the Aum Shrinrikyo, they conducted their attack on the train lines crossing central Tokyo right near the main police station just as law enforcement authorities were closing in on them. All of these behavioral traits served to melt away the normal social restraints that keep people for employing chemical and biological weapons to get their way in the world.

In the cases examined in Toxic Terror, key group members exhibited a sense of paranoia and grandiosity. The sense of paranoia caused group members to act impulsively with little regard for the consequences of their actions. The sense of grandiosity allowed members to believe they could survive any adverse physical or social implications of their actions. Perceiving themselves as superior, they believed themselves above the earthly implications of causing indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Moreover, by inflicting mass death on others they affirmed in their minds their power and superiority. This is a very dangerous, self-reinforcing cycle. Fortunately, as noted before, the people who think this way tend to be amateur terrorists unable to harness the technical complexity of chemical and biological weapons and maintain effective group cohesion to fulfill their twisted vision. While the rise of groups interested in using chemical and biological weapons has increased in the 1990s, they have distinctive limitations that tend to hamper their capabilities to undertake the technically daunting task of a chemical or biological weapons attack.

The threat also extends to nuclear weapons, as demonstrated by the Aum Shinrikyo Cult that attacked the Tokyo subways with Sarin in 1995:
Another remarkable aspect of the Aum illustration is the numerous approaches the organization undertook to fulfill its goal of attaining a nuclear weapon. Not only did the group go to astonishing lengths to mine uranium in Australia and to develop laser enrichment processes in Japan, but at the same time there is indication that Aum was intending to work with plutonium as well. In addition to attempts to develop a nuclear weapon of their own, Aum officials appear to have been equally active in pursuing the purchase of a nuclear warhead from Russia. Such varied activity is in indication to security officials that no single method of nuclear acquisition should be assumed to be out of the sights of terrorist organizations. If terrorists are ambitious enough to attempt it, then security officials should at least know about their efforts. Even if a particular terrorist approach appears unlikely to succeed, it is still an important factor in threat assessment because it provides valuable insight into the mindset and motivations behind the organization.

In addition to Aum's diverse attempts at acquiring a nuclear weapon, the group was simultaneously seeking out a wide range of weapons capabilities. Besides nuclear and chemical weapons, Asahara made efforts to develop a biological arsenal, equipped with anthrax bacteria, botulism toxin and the Ebola virus. There were considerable efforts to augment the group's conventional weapons supply as well by adding tanks, helicopters, and the AK-74 rifles to name a few. Asahara was also interested in radical alternative weapon designs involving high-powered lasers, earthquake generation through magnetic fields, and the notorious and highly classified Tesla inventions. The combination of all of these efforts resulted in less of a focus on each individual project. If the detonation of a nuclear weapon were to be the paramount ambition of a terrorist organization, how much would the rate and extent of their activities have been increased in comparison to the Aum efforts?

This is why Oklahoma City is an important part of understanding 9/11: It was, after all, before 9/11 the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The 169 deaths today shrinks in comparison to 9/11's 3,000 ... but then, recall that the most recent al Qaeda attack -- the train bombings in Spain -- claimed a rather similar 190 lives. Indeed, smaller death tolls remain more likely, no matter who's attacking. And 9/11 wasn't necessarily a one-off; if someone gets ahold of a nuclear weapon, the results could easily top the 9/11 toll. The respective death tolls shouldn't camouflage the nature of the threat.

And the nature of terrorism requires us to be agile and flexible, to rely on our brains, and less so our brawn. So far, we have been failing the test. Indeed, we appear not only to be inspiring more terrorism, we appear to be on the verge of replicating the mistakes that brought us Oklahoma City -- but this time on a global scale.

And that is the most serious threat of all.

Next: Waco in Iraq

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

Squishing the exterminator

Here's a hilarious account of Tom DeLay's recent experience with some of his constituents:
Tom DeLay’s appearance at the Rosenberg Civic Center last weekend to explain teacher retirement was everything I could have wished for – Tom was arrogant, rude, patronizing, and I have 400 witnesses to prove it. And then, as if determined to make this the best day of my entire life, Tom threatened to have people “removed” and would not allow the news media into the room.

Thank you, Tom! I owe you a big one, Bub. For years, everybody thought I was exaggerating about your rotten attitude until you came to Rosenberg and made me look like Miss Understatement Festival Queen.

However, I did think that my fellow audience members were a little rough on Tom with all their booing and sardonic laughter. After all, Tom was slumming by coming to Rosenberg. With schoolteachers, for Socrates’ sake! Schoolteachers don’t have any money and the Rosenberg Civic Center is certainly a long slide down from the country club or Haughty’s Steak House. I think Tom was expecting the Mother Teresa Award for Being a Regular Guy because of this event. But instead, he got booed. And, worse yet, laughed at. By mostly women. Hundreds of them.

Events like these always give me heart that there's something serious a-brewing among the electorate this year ...