Carlton Sparks is the reason the GOP has a stranglehold on the South. With his wife, Cindi, and their 17-year-old son, Andrew, he lives in an unassuming, tan, one-story home off a country road surrounded by mountains. Sparks, 49, makes a good living for a resident of Blairsville, Georgia. He pulls in more than $45,000 a year from Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, where he works as a warehouseman.
Sparks grew up a self-described Kennedy Democrat, born to a single mom in 1954, a time, he notes, when single mothers weren't too popular. After high school, he joined the military for a short stint, got out and went to work at his uncle's sawmill, before joining a Blue Ridge EMC right-of-way crew. This was before they used chainsaws. "They's people in prison don't work as hard as what we worked," he recalls, "but I had to have it." He had a wife and baby girl to support.
Watching him light up Winstons or ramble up the drive to his home in his heavy-duty pick-up, you might pigeonhole Sparks with a glance -- typical NASCAR dad. You'd be wrong. He defies easy categorization. True, one minute he's doling out the Fox News/talk radio clichés about "big government" and school prayer, but in his next breath, he's telling the stories of his neighbors and coworkers, talking vividly about the death grip squeezing rural middle class America, the battle he watches, in person, every day. It has nothing to do with affirmative action or the pledge of allegiance.
In Sparks lies the great conundrum of modern Southern politics: The average white male, for whom the system has always worked, is having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet -- as if consumer debt recently topping $2 trillion for the first time wasn't enough of a clue. His wages have dropped when adjusted for inflation. His health insurance premiums have skyrocketed (if he has health insurance). He and his wife both have to work, and they pay astronomical childcare bills. His younger kids' schools are crappy and under-funded. His older kids' college tuition jumped (14 percent in the last year, on average). And heaven help his children if they don't go to college, because they're bound for a near-feudal system of working for wealthy people in low-paying service sector jobs. Moreover, if the average Joe is like Sparks, 30 percent of what he stashed away for retirement evaporated in a stock market fiasco fueled by corporate greed that a bit more government oversight could have prevented.
So where's the anger? Why isn't he pissed that he's not getting more bang for his taxpayer buck? And why in the world is he going to vote for a president based on a side issue like gay marriage?
I spent a week on the road trying to figure out why traditionally Democratic rural whites have so solidly embraced a Republican Party whose economic program runs directly counter to their own interests.
I started in the mountain hamlet of Young Harris, Georgia -- the hometown of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller -- and in nearby Blairsville. Then, on to Seneca, S.C., the birthplace of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. Finally, I headed to Polk County, one of the poorest parts of central Florida. Like much of the rural South, each town I visited was relatively poor, overwhelmingly white and voted for President Bush in 2000. At each stop, I looked for working poor and middle-income people, asked them how they voted and why. The answers were depressingly facile, filled with the perfectly parroted lingo of the right-wing echo chamber, and yet, once I dug, often so thin, disconnected and confused that I wondered whether a strong wind (or populist candidate with the right message) might reorder the political landscape.
"Part of the problem that any political party would have ... is: Do you take the political world as you find it or do you try to change the electorate?" says Emory University political scientist Merle Black. The answer for progressives and populists is the latter if they intend to solve the riddle of their dwindling support, because these are the places where politicians fear to tread, places populated by the most ignored voters in the country. These are the people for whom governments, Democratic and Republican, have done little in the last 30 years.
Conflict Of Interest
In the parking lot of Mary Ann's, one of Miller's favorite eateries, four men huddle around a pickup truck. A red, white and blue placard below the sign for the Young Harris Motel proudly reads: "American Owned."
The men are examining a diesel generator in the back of the pickup. I ask whether they plan to vote to re-elect President Bush.
"Hell, no. I've been starving since Bush became president," says a man, 25-ish, a dump-truck driver in a baseball hat.
"It's about conflict of interest," he continues. "He come from oil, so we attack a place with oil. There's plenty of dictators in Africa doing worse things to their people, and [Bush] don't do nothing about them." The oldest member of foursome turns to me and leans close to my face. "You won't find many people here voting for Bush," he twangs. "They's poor people here. Zell Miller's from here." He points a thumb to the east, in the direction of the senator's home.
The older man is right, sort of. There are plenty of poor people in Towns County, which is deep in Appalachia, right across the line from North Carolina. Nearly three-fourths of the households earn less than $50,000 a year. (Sparks is something of an anomaly in these parts.) More than one-quarter earn less than $25,000.
But the guy's wrong about the way people voted. The gang around the Silverado definitely is in the minority in these quarters. Towns County turned out nearly 2-1 for Bush in 2000. In return, they got a free-spending president who gave them a $300 tax rebate while he lowered the taxes of the richest Americans to their lowest levels since 1932, a government deficit billed to their children and their children's children, and an invitation to send their kids to a war of disputable necessity.
By all counts, it looks as if they'll vote even more heavily for Bush the second time around. It's like watching someone flog himself again and again.
Not surprisingly, the roots of such self-flagellation can be traced to the historical bogeymen of Southern backwardness. Forever, it seems, Southern demagogues have managed to blame the "other" -- mainly blacks or Yankees -- for the sorry state of poor and average whites, while they quietly curried favor for corporations and wealthy families. Now, Zell Miller and George Bush blame "liberals," but they're doing the same thing.
And, after a couple of centuries of twisting the Bible to justify slavery, large swaths of Southern religion have lost the moral grounding to stand toe-to-toe against such demagoguery. Indeed, many churches have employed it themselves. They've substituted Christ's message of social justice for the self-help gospel of personal wealth -- together with a big emphasis on casting stones at others.
Heat those traditional bogeymen in a pot with the vitriol of rightwing news outlets and a well-funded political machine designed to advance the special interests of corporations. Add seasoning from the well-founded skepticism about government that started with the Vietnam War and got worse during Watergate. Now you've got a pretty potent stew. It's not surprising that national Democrats, even the moderate ones, measure nowadays in the Southern, white consciousness as little more than exotic reptiles -- fun to look at but you wouldn't take them home with you. Carlton Sparks is no different, and yet he juggles contradictions -- the words he hears from television commentators versus the life he sees and lives.
So why is Sparks a Bush man? He makes half a case for morality -- the abortion thing -- before conceding "even that has its gray areas."
There is also a careful, understated racism that mimics talk radio's complaints about misguided affirmative action. He lets out his beleaguered taxpayer: "They's always someone on the side that's going to get their pockets lined. They's always a minority group or whatever that deserves this other chance," Sparks says. "It's supposed to be the government of the people, for the people and by the people. But it's gotten to the point now where you've got four or five people that raise their voice. Everybody else is, I reckon, busy making a living, and they listen to the four or five."
And here comes the right-wing whipping boys, atheists, the ACLU. They're taking the Ten Commandments out of public buildings and prayer out of the schools.
"You let your moral values keep sliding away, keep sliding away," Sparks says. "How long is it going to be before start taking out the pledge of allegiance?"
And yet, Sparks is capable of the kind of socioeconomic insight that many politicians just don't get. You just have to ask enough questions. Take his employer, the electric membership corporation.
"It's tough. Up here, for the guys starting on the right of way crew now, if the company pays him $14 an hour, his benefits is going to cost him $7 an hour," Sparks says. "He ain't making much money, so the cost of his benefits are going to seem greater. It comes time that something's got to give. He's got to put food on the table. When I went to work on the EMC the average years was like 25 years. Now, a lot of kids will start, will work for a couple of months and then they're gone." They become fixated on that $7 an hour net income. "They can get a job out here runnin' a dang weedeater for $10 an hour. Well, the $10 an hour don't bring insurance, but he's got to have the $10 an hour to put food on the table."
Sparks acknowledges he'll be paying for their doctors' bills with higher insurance premiums, and yet he's not interested in paying higher taxes for national health care.
Still, he understands tradeoffs. Sparks has the pocketbook scars to prove it. To pay for college for his daughter, Carli, he refinanced his $26,000 house, when he had just $5,000 left on the mortgage. After refinancing, he owed $45,000. That's the kind of life he's had to live, a life unlike the fiscal policy of his president, one where sacrifices have to be made.
"We went and visited family here and there a time or two," he says. "We went to Florida a time or two, but not a whole lot of vacations, not a whole lot of this, not a whole lot of that in order to make life work. You got to live conservatively. You can't have everything."
Another Roadside Attraction
Driving into Seneca from the west on U.S. 76, you're greeted by the corpulent majesty of the local Super Wal-Mart, a monstrosity with a barber shop, McDonald's, grocery store, shotguns and eye doctor. Everything under one roof.
Most of the Wal-Mart's blue-smocked employees greet news that a reporter's in the building with startled amusement or downright evasiveness, as if they're being asked what color underwear they're wearing.
Person after person shrugs when asked who they plan to vote for in November. Most say no one. They don't follow it, don't have time for it.
Few even know that Edwards, a North Carolina senator who moved as a child from Seneca to Robbins, N.C., is a favorite son. There's an Edwards campaign sign, faded from the sun, in the window of the local Democratic Party headquarters and a gravestone marking a family plot in the city's cemetery. But it doesn't seem today as if Edwards' roots even matter.
A few women say they'll vote how their husbands are voting, and that's for W. In grocery stores and fast-food joints all over town, this pattern is repeated, which is not exactly surprising to people like Merle Black. He notes that the poorest and least educated Southern whites used to vote but now seem to have dropped out of electoral politics almost entirely.
"They're either alienated, or they don't see that their interests are advanced or that they have any real motivation to take part," Black says. That might sound like a promising voting bloc for Democrats, but Black notes that the lack of unions in the South makes it difficult to organize working-class Southerners into a group that would work together for their own economic and political interests.
And who is to say which side they'd be more predisposed to support, anyway? In the Super Wal-Mart, Adam Canady, from nearby Walhalla, practically sticks out his chest when he says he'll vote for Bush.
"He's the only one who's shown himself capable of leading," Canady says.
Sentiments like Canady's and the fact that Al Gore won just 42 percent of the vote in 2000 didn't stop the Democratic presidential candidates from campaigning like hell in South Carolina, a state that could supposedly prove bonafides with Southern voters. Never mind that they don't have a chance at winning the state, or that the primary is so unrepresentative of the state that nearly 50 percent of the voters are black. The state, meanwhile, has just a 30 percent black population.
Tossing Out Democrats
Marlene Young was the last Democrat elected to Polk County's Board of Commissioners. That was in 1996, when she won re-election for a third term.
In 2000, voters in Central Florida's Polk County pulled the lever for George W. Bush by a 10 percent margin. And, after 12 years of public service, Young, a moderate, was tossed out, while Republicans captured all five commission seats.
Yet Polk and its largest city, Lakeland, are anything but the picture of economic well-being. Nearly 20 percent of its children live in poverty, according to the most recent census data. The median household income is a modest $36,036. The city has a movie-lot quality. The commercial strips, save for a Super Wal-Mart and a Target on the edges of town, look as if they haven't seen new façades since 1973.
Young sits in her real estate office in a shopping center in nearby Winter Haven well past closing on a recent Saturday. She still can't put her finger on the "why" three years after the election that knocked her out of politics.
"I'm a Democrat who's been turned out of office by registered Democrats, who are essentially voting Republican," Young says. "For a long time, I've looked and been dismayed at, you know, why are people who are not being well-served by these Republicans in office, or by this party and the platform -- why do they continue to support it?" She has come up with various theories, none of which quite satisfies her.
"At this point, the Republican Party is certainly seen as the party of wealth and influence and power and the country clubbers, all of those things that the poor working schmucks strive to be," Young says. "It's almost a wannabe mentality."
Then, Young attributes the shift away from Democrats to Clinton's sex scandals and "because the Republicans have so effectively characterized us as free-wheeling, tax-spending, social-promoting freeloaders." And yet, Young says, it was these very same people who are indignant about the huddled masses getting a crack at their money, who clamored when she was in office for more services and lower taxes.
"It just ... seemed to be a dwindling of responsibility," she says. "People more and more just seem to be looking at their own individual self-interests rather than the larger interests that may be necessary for all of us to live together ultimately."
Neil Combee is a farmer, Republican and 13-year member of the commission. He explains the shift to the GOP more coarsely than Young. Voters are "tired of paying people who sit around all day on their butts."
Never mind, of course, that it was the Democrat Clinton who signed the welfare-to-work legislation and famously declared an end to the era of big government. There just aren't too many people left cashing government checks each month, but in conversations with a number of voters, the bugaboo of welfare queens was cited as a reason they plan on voting Republican.
Sparks says he feels like the government's doing enough to level the playing field, and people like Lakeland's Darrell Conaster, 45, a firefighter in the Winter Haven department, have a traditional American belief in fairness, though it's shallow. "Government should be involved to the extent that it's fair for everybody."
But it already does that by enforcing anti-discrimination laws, he reasons.
Conaster, like Sparks, closely identifies with JFK, even though he largely missed those years. When he was in high school during the mid-1970s, "you still had the utopia of the Kennedys, you know, everybody helping one another. That's the mindset that I had. That's why I considered myself a Democrat. Republicans were the well-to-do party. I never considered myself that way. I'm more down to earth."
Conaster lives with his wife of 14 years, and two children. While he says he gets his news from local television and "balances it out" with reports from Pat Robertson's 700 Club, Conaster also thinks The Ledger, the local New York Times-owned newspaper does a fair job.
He has spent 18 years as a firefighter with Winter Haven and works a second job, running Faith Lawn & Tree Service. His wife works as an office manager so that his children can attend a private Lutheran school. Public schools "force your children to learn things that are not your family values," says Conaster, citing evolution.
God informs Conaster's voting. He attends the local Family Worship Center, an off-shoot of the conservative Kenneth Hagin Ministries, which spawned self-help televangelists such as Kenneth Copeland, who sound more like motivational speakers you'd find at business conventions than typical preachers. In his version of the Bible, and the one Conaster describes his minister discussing on Sundays, God wants you to be rich. It's here that Young's contention that Americans identify themselves, whether they're wealthy or not, with the party of financial success makes sense, even if Conaster can't see it working in his own life. He describes a sermon in which his pastor, Reggie Scarborough, was advising the flock on how to make money in real estate. "Pastor was talking about prospering and how you can buy a house and sell it and make $10,000 and stuff like that, and I asked him 'Well, I'm a civil service worker, I don't get bonuses,'" Conaster says.
Yet, he doesn't have a populist's suspicion of success.
"I think the Ross Perot thing was when I really started picking up on that, because they were picking on him, and the man's a successful businessman, and if you check his company out, which I did, he did a lot for the people of his company." Conaster insists that he despises partisanship. But one gets the sense that he is firmly attached to the GOP. He says his switch to the Republican Party had a lot to do with Clinton.
"Bush is family-oriented," Conaster says. "His stance on faith is bold. He's got backbone. He's got integrity. He's not afraid to do what he feels is right. You don't get that wishy-washy thing out of him."
At the same time, Conaster sees no moral problem with handing tax cuts to the wealthy -- he thinks he may have received $200 or $300 with the first Bush tax cut. He shrugs at the idea that conflicts of interest, like the one between Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root and its ex-CEO Dick Cheney, could end up looting taxpayer dollars. "You can invest in those companies," Conaster reasons. "Bush ain't just standing back saying we've got to give more money to the poor to stimulate the economy. That ain't what makes it work."
Actually, that is what has made America work. As author Michael Lind notes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a large, healthy middle class doesn't just happen in a capitalist system. "The truth is that each of America's successive middle classes has been artificially created by government-sponsored social engineering," he writes. Since 1800, you've had land distribution laws that promoted small farmers -- America's first middle class -- high tariffs, the end of child labor and strict immigration limits benefiting turn-of-the-century industrial workers and Social Security, Medicare and the GI Bill, among other initiatives, that solidified the middle class during the last half century.
So what programs guarantee the future stability of the middle class? Few politicians have any answers, and tax cuts don't count.
Indeed, a powerful case can be made that racism and anti-government sentiment are just by-products of the squeeze on the middle and lower classes -- eggs to the much larger chicken of enormous and increasing income inequality. Reaganomics has led to numbers like these: In 1979, the top 5 percent of earners made 11 times more than those in the bottom 20 percent. Now, the elite earn 19 times more than the lowest 20 percent. Meanwhile, the economy during that period grew just three times and typical family incomes only doubled.
And CEOs have really been rolling in the dough since the Reagan years. In the 1970s, they made 25 times what the average worker made annually. That number rose to almost 100 times by 1988. By 2000, CEOs made 500 times, on average, what the typical worker made, according to numbers compiled by economist and professor Jeff Madrick. These are inequalities that we haven't seen since the 1920s. The only difference is that during the 1920s, the economy grew rapidly. That isn't the case now, and it can be argued that such inequality leads to the search for scapegoats. "Roughly, since 1973, we've been growing about 1 percent a year slower than we did since 1870, and that's very significant when you accumulate it over time," says Madrick.
You might expect a little outrage from the average worker when confronted with numbers like these, especially when he sees little that government is doing in his own life, but it's distressingly rare. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening -- a sort of political paralysis that's reflected in the blank stares of Seneca's Wal-Mart employees.
Journalist George Packer, in his introduction to "The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World," captures the downward spiral of American politics: "The relationship between democracy and economic inequality ... creates a kind of self-perpetuating cycle: The people hold government in low esteem; public power shrinks against the awesome might of corporations and rich individuals; money and its influence claims a greater and greater share of political power; and the public, priced out of the democratic game, grows ever more cynical about politics and puts more of its energy into private ends. Far from creating a surge of reform, the erosion of the middle class has only deepened the disenchantment."
It didn't have to be that way, especially for white males. In the early 1970s, wages stopped going up for males, and in particular for lower-income or middle-income, less-educated white males. Nearly 60 percent experienced either a decline or almost no gain in wages, Madrick writes. They rose for minorities and women, but only because they'd been so much lower to begin with.
With a little more imagination, the government response might have been to step in and re-train the workers who were falling behind. It would have meant more spending, but not a huge increase, Madrick says, and it might have helped avoid the pervasive anti-government feelings I heard on my trip through the South.
Add solutions to the current wage-growth killers -- increasing childcare and healthcare costs -- to worker training, and maybe the political landscape is different in the South. Maybe more folks have a vested interest.
Instead, as Sparks of Blairsville suggests, those low-skill workers just kept falling behind until companies started shipping their jobs out of America.
"You wouldn't believe the jobs we've lost in this area, and now this wasn't a great place to come to work to start with," Sparks says. "But these companies that keep farming it out overseas ... where's your kids going to work one of these days?"
If progressive politicians want to break the GOP death grip among rural whites, Sparks' question is one they need to answer. They should begin by charting a new course for expanding the middle class -- the backbone of American promise and political clout -- in the new century. Maybe then the words Democrats speak will connect with the lives most people in this country lead.
Kevin Griffis is a staff writer for Creative Loafing-Atlanta.
|Honor Thy Word |
Should celibacy be a requirement for Catholic priests? Yes. For the Church to change its position for the sake of convenience insults the great dedication and sacrifice of those whose spirit was stronger than their flesh.
I am the product of a Catholic education. I have two great-uncles who chose to become priests. There was a time in my life when I attended mass every day (except Saturday). None of these factors makes me an expert in canon law, but my days as a practicing Catholic (I wasn't any good at it -- that's why I had to practice) have provided me with some insight as it relates to the subject of a celibate clergy.
First and foremost, the Church is not a democracy. While American Catholics have a tendency to blend politics with religion (majority rule), the Roman Catholic Church remains a male-dominated, misogynistic organization run by a cabal of old farts in Rome. And they didn't get to that position by changing Church law every time some progressive American priest thought he'd made a better mousetrap.
Sure the Vatican pays lip service to mavericks. But in the end, the old guard views them as little more than rebellious teenagers. They may raise valid points (married clergy, ordination of female priests, relaxing the celibacy rule), but ultimately the powers-that-be dismiss them with an apostolic wave of the hand.
The truth is, celibacy and/or the priesthood are for everyone. It is fair to assume that those who've chosen to serve God in such a capacity do so after great reflection and prayer. For the Church to change its position for the sake of convenience insults the great dedication and sacrifice of those whose spirit was stronger than their flesh. For the Vatican to reverse itself to address the numerous sexual scandals that have marked its history diminishes the commitment and sacrifice of those priests who faithfully honored their word.
There are other reasons for the Church's reluctance to even consider the matter. Eliminating the celibacy requirement for the clergy would cause more problems than it would solve. What exactly does celibacy mean? The wrong answer would send the dominos of church taboos falling.
Would unmarried heterosexual priests be permitted to engage in what my high school theology teacher used to call "heavy petting?" What about homosexuality and the issue of gay priests?
The Church has historically stuck its head in the sand on the topic, but a change in church dogma in terms of heterosexual celibacy (for the priesthood) would open the homosexuality and pre-marital intercourse cans of worms. And again, the Vatican didn't get in the position of dominating and controlling the behavior of billions by opening cans of worms.
Chris Renaldo is a recovering Catholic who no longer believes in Santa Claus.
|Celibacy Is Unrealistic |
Should celibacy be a requirement for Catholic priests? No. After all we've learned in recent months, the suggestion that Catholic priests should continue taking a vow of celibacy is downright laughable. Men aren't often this honest, but I can say with authority that any male human being who promises he'll never engage in any form of sexual activity is either lying or castrated.
It's obvious to everyone but Catholic leaders that a vast majority of priests ignore their celibacy vow and are flagrantly sexually active. The Catholic hierarchy is even more clueless when it comes to the incalculable damage the celibacy vow has done to countless children and families over the years.
Pope John Paul II, ever the conservative hardliner even in his growing infirmity, has refused to discuss any proposal that would review the requirement for priests to remain celibate. His silence on the matter stands in stark contrast to the deafening drumbeat of sexual scandal that engulfs the Catholic Church in America.
There are many people (including me) who believe that the official Church policy on priestly celibacy is directly related to the horrifying and seemingly never-ending revelations of priests molesting children in this country. It doesn't take a genius to determine that a large percentage of men who are required to suppress their very natures under penalty of eternal damnation are likely to evolve into deviant examples of psychological and sexual perversity. The problem is amplified when the Church nurtures and protects abusive priests, allowing them to continue their evil behavior.
And it's not just the child abuse scandals that make the case against celibacy. Father Donald B. Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and a longtime pastoral adviser to priests, has publicly suggested that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all priests are practicing homosexuals. His estimate is derided by conservative Catholics as far too high, but Cozzens firmly believes that priestly camaraderie and the vow of chastity are highly attractive to closeted gays who are conflicted about their sexuality and were raised in strict religious homes.
No matter what the Vatican says, human nature can't be overcome by way of a simple promise. Even a promise to God. The Lord has hardwired us all to have sexual feelings, and when they are expressed in a sane, consensual and healthy manner, the gift of sexuality is sacred. It is obvious that God made no exceptions for priests.
As the father of two young sons, I could never consider allowing my children to be alone with a Catholic priest -- at least until the requirement for them to be "celibate" is abolished.
Jeff Berry is totally creeped out by "celibate" men who molest little boys.
Kevin Peace's addiction was no different from others -- until he found a treatment few addicts knew existed. In his yearlong attempt to spread word of a miraculous treatment, he says he fixed a dozen lives. But he also broke the law and learned how hard it is for a controversial cure to reach the people who need it.
For most of 1997, the white-collar twentysomething was making morphine from scratch, telling himself it would be just a luxury, a weekend thing. But the high was so good that, after a year, Kevin Peace was swallowing his homemade pills before he left for work. Once a week, he was making the trip from his home in Atlanta to his North Georgia poppy field to harvest the red flowers that fed his habit.
Pathetic, Peace thought one day. When he learned his wife was pregnant, he sank even lower. She's carrying a child, he realized, and I'm carrying a drug addiction. He typed "opiate drug treatment" into an Internet search engine. A few clicks later, Peace was learning about ibogaine.
Ibogaine has been the bastard child of pharmacology since arriving in America almost 50 years ago. Because ibogaine is a psychedelic that may kill brain cells, the federal government has outlawed the drug, placing it in the same category as cocaine or heroin. As for the street appeal of ibogaine, there is none: The drug, which is extracted from the root of the African iboga plant, is a trip that lasts too long and can be too unsettling for those out for a good time.
Still, ibogaine does have a constituency. For addicts of such drugs as morphine and heroin, ibogaine is like an analgesic; it's a substance that meets drug addiction where it hurts most -- in both the brain and the body. Take ibogaine, believers said, and your cravings for opiates and your withdrawal symptoms will dry up.
Peace was intrigued -- and desperate enough to roll the dice. He finally found an overseas supplier who could mail him three grams of ibogaine, extracted from the plant, powdered and packaged in capsule form.
Wanting to play it safe, he took one pill a day for three days, even though the online gurus advised taking them all at once. An hour or so after the first capsule, the drug took hold.
Ibogaine gripped his mind, forcing him to face the errors of his past. "I just got this sudden realization that for the past five years I had totally wasted my life," Peace says. "I had waking dreams but not a hallucination, per se. Because if you've got your eyes open you don't see anything that's not there."
After his ibogaine session in the spring of 2000, Peace no longer felt the aches of morphine withdrawal, and he didn't desire the drug anymore. As an ibogaine convert, he wanted to share the good news.
He's treated 14 patients with ibogaine, most of them arriving in Atlanta from out of town.
Peace realizes he's breaking the law, but to him, it's worth the risk to free others from the shackles of addiction.
"Going through the pain of withdrawals, which I went through many times without ibogaine, and then seeing someone in your situation, you just want to help them out," Peace says.
While the ibogaine community is full of believers such as Peace, the drug still can't shake the stigma of being little more than another acid trip -- one that might kill. Three deaths in Europe have been linked to ibogaine. In the U.S., doctors are mostly unaware of it or deem it too kooky or dangerous for conventional care. It is, after all, illegal. Government funding for research into ibogaine has dwindled.
"Of all the hallucinogens, this is probably the most toxic one that people take," says Dr. Frank Vocci, head of treatment research and development at the National Institute for Drug Abuse. "The FDA might want to proceed very cautiously, given the deaths that have occurred."
We'd ask the FDA ourselves, but over the course of two weeks, they didn't return phone calls.
It is ibogaine's curse that the one home the drug has found -- among researchers and passionate advocates -- has turned out to be a dysfunctional one. The family of ibogaine believers fights over who should get credit for its use. Allegiances have been made and broken. Lawsuits and countersuits have been filed.
So great are the differences within the ibogaine community, in fact, that the acrimony may have stalled the one thing that all the believers want: the broad acceptance of ibogaine as a treatment for opiate addiction.
Certain aspects of the drug's history, though, are undisputed.
In 1962, a 19-year-old heroin addict named Harold Lotsof knocked on the door of a Manhattan black-market chemist. The chemist reached into his freezer and pulled out a white powder. He told Lotsof the drug was called ibogaine and would give him a trip that would last a day and a half.
"I did not want a hallucinogen that lasts 36 hours," Lotsof recalls from his Staten Island, N.Y., home where he has been forced into retirement from a career in ibogaine. "I had a friend of mine, though, who was into the rare and exotic."
Lotsof gave his friend the ibogaine. A month later, Lotsof got a call. "He was ecstatic," Lotsof says. "He said it was a food, that we have to call Congress. It took me two to three months to obtain additional supplies. That's when we started turning up the very specific effects of ibogaine."
Lotsof took the powder in capsule form by himself, at his parent's New Jersey home. Thirty hours later he woke, dressed, walked outside and paused.
He should have been in the throes of heroin withdrawal. He wasn't.
"I immediately realized that my entire perception toward heroin has changed," he says. "Where previously I viewed heroin as a drug which gave comfort, I now view heroin as a drug that emulates death. And suddenly I realized that for the first time in my life I'm not frightened. And I realized that heroin use is related to fear and the covering up of that fear, and all of that's gone."
While no two ibogaine trips are the same, they seem to share similar phases. In the first phase, patients close their eyes and see images from the past or symbols that represent past struggles. Some people say they view themselves at various ages as if watching scenes from a film, only faster and more chaotic. Many say that for the first time in their lives, they view their actions objectively, helping them to understand where their desire for drugs originated.
Dr. Mark Molliver, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, has studied ibogaine's effects in rats and monkeys. He says it causes the brain to work harder than usual by releasing an excess of the chemicals that transmit neurons. He says that as neurons start firing faster, the brain can overheat, in a sense, and burn up cells in the cerebellum.
"The cerebellum is now thought to have many functions," Molliver says. "One of them is in balance and coordination of movement. But it also may affect cognitive functions, learning and memory, various aspects of thinking that haven't been terribly well-defined as yet."
Molliver says the cells that are lost in the cerebellum won't come back. "There's little doubt about that. It's very consistent." Yet other studies have shown that ibogaine is safe when administered in doses up to 25 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. That's the highest dose most researchers have used on humans, and the highest most Web sites recommend.
After three or four hours, the patient enters the second phase of the trip -- eight to 16 hours of intense insight, when the patient can call on specific memories at will, analyze the habits she's acquired and use her insights to reverse learned behavior. Those who benefit most from the insights say each trip is the equivalent of years of psychotherapy packed into a workday.
The third phase lingers for up to 24 more hours, then tapers off slowly. Colors may seem brighter, sounds sharper, thoughts more connected.
Lotsof wasn't thinking about neuron transmitters or cerebella in the early 1960s, when he walked out of his parents' house after his ibogaine trip and realized his heroin addiction was gone. He was wondering if his reaction was rare, or if ibogaine would affect others the same way. He handed the drug out to 20 of his friends. Seven of them were addicted to heroin. After their ibogaine trips, he says, the seven experienced no signs of heroin withdrawal. Five stopped using heroin for up to six months.
Lotsof determined that ibogaine wasn't exactly a long-term cure for heroin or opiate addicts. But he decided that it was useful in that it eliminated his narcotic withdrawal and left him with the desire to heal himself.
He tried in the 1960s to introduce ibogaine as a street drug. But ibogaine, ever the misfit drug, couldn't even find a home in the decade of experimentation.
"There were no ibogaine scenes," Lotsof says. "There were no ibogaine factories. There were no ibogaine parties."
No one was buying. The intense self-revelations and waking dreams could be unpleasant, showing a person too much of himself. And the sheer length of the trip was too much of a hassle for junkies looking for a quick high. Ibogaine just wasn't fun.
Lotsof also learned he'd get no repeat business, because ibogaine isn't addictive, either.
Years later, when Lotsof would try to introduce ibogaine to the world via different channels, he would hit the same brick wall. The right people, regardless of whether they were the people who needed it or not, just didn't care for the drug.
So in the late 1960s, shortly after ibogaine was declared an illegal substance, Lotsof put aside his notions of selling the drug. He enrolled in film school at New York University, earned a living as a plumber and went on to work in film production.
In 1981, Lotsof struck up a conversation with a woman whose boyfriend had a drug problem. Lotsof told her about his ibogaine experience. The woman said she'd give him a grant to study the drug's merits, and so Lotsof returned to ibogaine.
He spent a year researching the drug's origin and history. He found that the Bwiti tribe in the West African country Gabon has used ibogaine for centuries during rite-of-passage ceremonies, claiming it allowed them to communicate with gods and dead ancestors. He also learned that a Kentucky doctor used ibogaine in the mid-1950s to treat eight morphine addicts. In 1983, he began applying for patents. He would eventually patent ibogaine's use as a treatment for addictions to opiates such as heroin, as well as to cocaine, alcohol and nicotine. And he started raising money.
In 1986, he founded NDA International Inc., a for-profit business based in Staten Island and devoted to the future development and marketing of ibogaine (the FDA would have to approve it first). The following year, Lotsof visited Gabon, met with the country's president and through him obtained kilograms of ibogaine for research.
He brought the results from European studies back home to the U.S. in an attempt to convince the drug-funding arm of the government to start pitching in.
In 1991, after seven years of solicitations from Lotsof, the National Institute for Drug Abuse allotted $2-million for pre-clinical studies in animals.
Lotsof, energized by the government's interest, searched for patients to bolster his research. He contracted in 1991 with a Dutch doctor who would treat heroin addicts with ibogaine in an Amsterdam hotel or in their home. Lotsof hoped the results of these treatments would prompt the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to approve similar studies on humans in the United States.
Then Lotsof met Dr. Deborah Mash, a brain researcher at the University of Miami. He thought he'd struck gold.
"She was the exact person we were trying to meet," Lotsof says. "She had the interest and the ability."
She also had the reputation, with a major university to back her. Mash, who had won national acclaim for studies of Alzheimer's disease and cocaine toxicity, had heard about ibogaine in 1992. Lotsof says Mash contacted him because she was interested in his supplies of pharmaceutical-grade ibogaine, which nobody else had.
The two signed a contract, in which Mash's lab would study ibogaine and Lotsof's company, NDA, would be able to patent any findings she reached. In 1993, Mash became the first researcher to win FDA approval to study ibogaine in humans. By then, ibogaine treatments in Amsterdam were going so well that Lotsof invited a New York Times reporter to observe one.
His timing couldn't have been worse. The patient, a 24-year-old woman, died in the hotel 16 hours after taking ibogaine.
"It was a disaster," Lotsof says. "It then played out both politically and medically."
A Dutch coroner could not reach a definitive conclusion about what killed the woman. She may have sneaked into a bathroom and used heroin. Ibogaine patients must be clean of heroin for 24 hours before treatment, as well as during treatment, because it can exaggerate the effect of heroin and possibly other drugs.
From there, ibogaine research, at least as far as Lotsof was concerned, took a nosedive. The Amsterdam experiment with the Dutch doctor dissipated. Soon after, the relationship between Mash and Lotsof broke down. Mash had discovered another extract from the iboga plant, which she named noribogaine. Noribogaine seemed to curb addictions but caused no hallucinations. But instead of moving forward with research of both extracts, Mash filed suit against Lotsof.
Lotsof says accounts of what spawned the lawsuit differ. But he says differences between him and Mash had been brewing long before the 1997 filing date.
Others familiar with ibogaine research say the two had grown too power-hungry to be in the same room.
"I think that ibogaine just happened to, for some reason, attract a couple people that wanted to control the whole show, who wanted to be harbingers of ibogaine," says Eric Taub, a Gainesville man who organizes ibogaine treatment on international waters.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Lotsof's company went bankrupt. A debtor of his was able to obtain, through a court order, all but one of Lotsof's patents.
The trial between Lotsof and Mash was scheduled two years later, in June 2000. But days before jury selection, Lotsof felt too weak to proceed. He says he settled out of court with Mash. He later learned that he was ill with leukemia.
But what was lost on lawsuits and infighting was recovered elsewhere -- in places like Atlanta, where Kevin Peace was seeing the ibogaine light.
Lotsof says that during the years that ibogaine foundered on the bureaucratic level, the number of Kevin Peaces in the country grew. "There are so many people popping up here it's almost a blur," Lotsof says. "The Kevin scenario is not an uncommon one."
It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Peace should be at his 9-to-5 job. But he's on vacation.
He is sipping Starbucks hot chocolate as he flips through this week's issue of The Economist. His wife, carrying their 8-month-old infant, wanders through the adjoining bookstore.
Peace seems nothing like a psychedelic-touting renegade and every bit like the fellow patrons of this chain coffee shop, where he has arranged past meetings with two ibogaine patients. Button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans. Dirty blond hair cut close and neat. Cell phone on hip.
He dials a phone number and thanks the woman who answers for having him and his family over for dinner. He compliments her on the salmon. And he gets to the point. He tells her to keep an eye on her daughter, to let him know if she notices mood swings or depression. "Has she gained any weight?" he asks. "She's up to 110? Wow. That's great."
Peace, a pseudonym, does not have the bearing of a drug dealer or even a businessman out to make a buck. He considers himself a healer. He meets his patients in their homes or hotel rooms and feeds them that seemingly magical capsule, ordered from a company in Asia.
Six weeks have passed since Peace treated the woman's daughter, a 27-year-old who grew up in upscale suburbia, works as a freelance art director and, as of April, was struggling with a $400-a-week heroin habit.
"I wanted to stop drugs but just wasn't strong enough," she says. "I was in the trap. Stopping cold turkey meant going through a lot of pain for about a week or two, and I just couldn't handle it."
Her boyfriend was the one who found Peace, through a listing in the Happenings section of Creative Loafing in Atlanta: "Heroin & Opioid Addicts: Join us to share information about the plant ibogaine, which has growing testimony that it can cure addiction with only one use and little or no withdrawal symptoms."
The young addict sent an e-mail message to Peace, who wrote back and accepted her as his 14th patient. On April 13, she ingested 1 gram of ibogaine at her boyfriend's apartment. Peace kept vigil for four hours, then returned the following morning before work, during his lunch break and after work. Since then, he's called her mother weekly.
"I was a little worried, but once I had taken it I wasn't afraid at all," his last patient says. "He was excellent. He's like my little angel."
She says she has not returned to heroin use and has no lingering cravings. And ibogaine, through Peace, cost her practically nothing. Peace asks only that he be reimbursed for the cost of the drug. He's not in it for the money.
Others, however, do seem to be making a profit in the ibogaine trade.
Taub, the Floridian who treats clients on international waters, says he has conducted about 350 ibogaine sessions, half of them for drug addicts and the other half for "spiritual pioneers." He attracts clients, mostly from the U.S., via his Web site. He flies with them from Florida to a Caribbean country, such as Guatemala or Costa Rica, and then sails them to a place where he's untroubled by laws and the question of legitimacy.
The cost runs between $1,200 and $6,000, before airfare. (He says he is willing to waive the cost of the session for special cases.)
Taub's operation, although well established, is the object of scorn from the scientific community. But, having treated more people than most researchers, he says he's just as qualified as they are.
"They believe, I suppose, that it should be conducted only by doctors in a very regulated clinical setting," says the former jewelry maker. "It's a plant. I think people should have the opportunity to heal themselves. And I think people should have the choice to take whatever they want."
Other entrepreneurs, as well as doctors and researchers in search of test subjects, charge anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000 for ibogaine treatment. Mash, with the University of Miami, currently offers ibogaine treatment off the coast of Florida on the West Indies island of St. Kitts. A session at the private clinic, Healing Visions, costs around $10,000.
At least five ibogaine-related Web sites offer out-of-country treatment, with varying levels of supervision and legitimacy, in locales from Pakistan to Panama.
Some of these clinics have shown that ibogaine can turn a profit. Still, ibogaine has miles to go before it attracts the interest of U.S. drug companies.
It takes about 80 studies, and close to $200-million, to develop and market a drug in the U.S., says the federal drug institute's Vocci. His agency doled out about $2-million in grants for 18 ibogaine studies in the early and mid-1990s -- a drop in the bucket, and a drop that's fast evaporating. Typically, drug companies pick up much of the tab. But with ibogaine, they're not biting.
From a profit standpoint, ibogaine makes little sense. It's not a maintenance drug, so drug manufacturers, like pushers, couldn't count on much repeat business. What's more, ibogaine patients -- by dint of their addiction -- pose a liability risk. Finally, no drug with "psychedelic" qualities has ever been marketed in this country.
"Obviously there's the pessimist's and the optimist's answer," says Kenneth Alper, a New York University professor who hosted a 1999 ibogaine conference. "There are those that are convinced that the government is dead-set against it and that it's an intractable situation."
The future of ibogaine development may not focus on ibogaine itself but on that other derivative of the iboga plant, Mash's noribogaine. Because it causes none of the visualization or intense insight, it may win a little more popularity -- or attract less resistance -- than its sibling among FDA officials and even drug companies.
But addicts who have experienced the waking dreams of ibogaine swear that the psychological insight is crucial to kicking the habit.
A Chicago body piercer whoå took ibogaine in May to help him withdraw from a methadone addiction says that without the insight ibogaine offered into traumatic events, his treatment would not have worked. Part of what led to his drug abuse was the death of his wife eight years ago. Ibogaine not only got him over his 120-milligram-per-day methadone addiction, it helped him cope with the very grief that drove him to addiction to begin with.
"I resolved so many issues that I just never thought would be resolved," says Bob Bruner, 45. "I did not expect anything remotely like this. I was going through all of the experiences that had been important to my life. Eventually, it all starts to form a pattern, and the pattern makes a lot of sense."
Bruner did admit, however, that his common sense wasn't shared by his methadone provider. Bruner had been paying the clinic about $300 per month. After Bruner took ibogaine, the clinic lost his business.
Meanwhile, even ibogaine's believers are pulling back. The ailing Lotsof admits that he has failed in his goal to make ibogaine a mainstream treatment for drug addicts. But he's still holding out for that somebody who will be able to do what he couldn't. "The benefits would be enormous both to individuals who have chemical dependency and to society as a whole," he says. "It would just be like a safety valve on this entire drug insanity."
Yet the FDA, drug companies and critics may never see the light of ibogaine. If the drug is relegated to the Peaces of the underground, Lotsof says, so be it.
"I'd like to see it within the medical context," he says. "But if you don't have a medical community or a government that's taking responsibility, then you can expect to have people to step into that position and assume those responsibilities themselves."
But even Peace, now listed on the Web site he first visited years ago as the American contact for ibogaine questions, is thinking of taking down his shingle. It's not fear of getting busted that's pushing him out of the trade, he says. He's confident that drug enforcement agents have little interest in cracking down on the minuscule amount of ibogaine entering the country. Nor is it the hassle, or the expense, or a lawsuit, or any of ibogaine's past impediments.
"With my new baby and everything, I've just got to change my life focus away from it. I feel I've done more than my fair share of giving back," Peace says. He pauses. "I might do a few more."
Mara Shalhoup covers social justice issues for Creative Loafing Atlanta. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org.
We put a stop last week to the ramming of buildings with hijacked jetliners. Unfortunately, we also shut down the entire air-transport system.
New restrictions on passengers, including random searches of luggage, were put into place, along with airport patrols and new restrictions on people's movement and access. But aside from prohibiting knives on planes (they didn't already do that?) and finally giving checkpoint security guards at least as much training as your average night watchman in a used car lot, not a thing announced so far would have stopped these hijackings.
How much must we give up for a trivial change in the odds against death from terrorism?
Our society might choose a different tradeoff between liberty and some other social good, such as protection of human life. But if we will sacrifice liberty or convenience for safety from attack, will we sacrifice our tax reductions or our moral views on stem cells to prevent death by disease? What about doing something to prevent attacks by bioweapons, or carbombings, or street crime? Will we sacrifice tourism to prevent (last week's crisis) shark attacks?
Airline companies recently resisted, on cost-benefit grounds, aircraft modifications that might cost a billion dollars but render far less likely another TWA-style fuel tank explosion. We treasure our dollars. What is freedom -- lira? Some fervent believers stampeded the government to curtail the use of human cells in medical research that would surely save lives in the relatively near future. We will sacrifice human freedom, but not human stem cells?
Or did something fundamentally change last week? Is it now our resolve to halt death?
The death rate in the United States is 8.7 deaths per 1,000 population. In a population of 275.6 million people, nearly 2.4 million die every year. That's 6,568 people every day -- not far from the number of likely deaths in the terrorist attacks last Tuesday. How many preventable deaths were there on Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday? How many lives would be saved in a year if we had turned our tax rebate over to medical research, or put the money into higher automobile safety standards? How many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children died of cancer last week, or diabetes, or kidney failure or AIDS? How many from accidents on dangerous roads? How many from guns?
How much would we reduce the antagonism, even hatred, toward the United States in some areas of the world -- the kind of thing that lets terrorism germinate -- if our foreign aid and overseas cultural and educational programs amounted to more than a fraction of 1% of the federal budget? Who knows what the effect would be? This is who knows: The same person who knows how many acts of terrorism will be prevented by eliminating curbside baggage check-in and increasing random searches of people's luggage. No one knows. No one knows whether the randomly placed sky marshals will wind up on the same flight chosen by a hijacker. Yet we will inflict government searches on all traveling citizens without any probable cause, while rejecting the idea of spending, say, $20 million more on international aid. (The post-tragedy emergency appropriation will be about $40 billion, two thousand times as much, and twice what President Bush first asked for. That's about the same as the budget for the Commerce, Justice and State Departments combined.)
When a herd starts moving, we tend to follow. But when you find yourself following a herd, it's time to change the scenery, to resurrect a sense of proportion. We feel the pain of those hurt in the terrorist attacks, but we don't feel the pain of chemotherapy patients whose nausea would be relieved by smoking a little pot. We'll march on Washington to stop black teenage girls from aborting their fetuses, but utter nary a word about farmworker children living in slavelike conditions. One wonders: the sanctity of which life? The terror of which death?
This has been an awful week for our country. We watch those huge buildings fall in on themselves imagining the terror of the thousands still inside. We feel more vulnerable, as individuals and as a nation. We admire the heroic efforts apparently made by those on Flight 93, and the courage and perseverance of police officers, firefighters and other rescuers. But in our emotion over an event so extraordinary and dramatic, let us not diminish the daily terror and courage of those who suffer and die in ordinary ways, and the ones who care for them -- victims of other things that we can hunt down and destroy, if we have the will to do it.
And let us not mistake a visceral response for a sensible one.
You know why we sacrifice freedom more easily than money? Because the loss of freedom will not weigh as heavily on white, educated and financially secure people in our society (such as most government officials and mass-media commentators). The loss of freedom will fall most heavily on "other" people, the ones stopped for "driving while black;" the Arab-Americans suspected of anti-American activity just because of their name and passport; the people whose native language and lack of sophistication impair their ability to deal with an official who stops them for routine questioning. The well-to- do may nominally lose a little freedom, but it's cheaper than taking back those estate-tax exemptions.
When it comes to the sacrifice of freedom, or even mere convenience, we need to be very clear about what we gain in return. There is palpable overreaction now. The Boston Herald said Logan Airport (which towed all the cars in the parking garages) is eliminating plastic knives from bagel stands. Come on, those things can't even stand up to cream cheese. If they'll do that, what about the silverware in first class? The New York Times said a passenger on Flight 93 joked about taking out the hijackers with a butter knife. If butter knives are outlawed, only outlaws . . . well, you know.
Patrick Henry traded certain death for himself in exchange for a statistically tiny increase in the chance for independence. His heroic contemporaries sought to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." We should not sacrifice their historic accomplishment for a modest and theoretical improvement in the odds against death. Especially when mere money and some simple changes in federal policy would more surely save so many more lives.
The world changed Tuesday, Sept. 11, as surely as it changed with the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 or the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,1941. The question for all of us is what we will make of this new world and whether ultimately we will cripple our freedom and openness in the name of preserving them.
The targets were two great symbols of our American might, the Rockefeller-inspired World Trade Center towers in the financial district of Manhattan and the command center of the world's most powerful army. The weapon of destruction, selected again for maximum impact on American society, was a set of hijacked civilian jetliners.
Terrorism works through targeted destruction that impels us to turn against ourselves. After the immediate physical and human horror of Tuesday's terror from unseen and mysterious sources, we shut down travel, and the president and vice president were incommunicado for hours until Bush turned up in Nebraska. (First Brother Jeb Bush remarked that the "leader of the free world is the first target for terrorists attacks," although from ground zero in Manhattan, it might appear he's a little further down the priority list.) We surely will endure pain and even panic in the financial markets, which puts another burden on a limping economy, weakened businesses and unemployment. How could this happen?
We all knew, deep down, that it could. Despite a huge intelligence operation that has chipped away at civil liberties, and despite an expensive, high-tech military with "smart bombs" that can hit just about anywhere we want them to, we have failed to root out the culprits in prior terrorist acts, from the Marine bombing in Beirut and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 to the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the torpedoing of the USS Cole. Our president always vows retaliation, and we all rally 'round, but the truth is that the retaliation hasn't happened. We keep monitoring Americans' phone calls, checking their Web traffic, peering into their hand luggage, launching new military technologies and even dissing our international treaties to re-inaugurate "Star Wars," but we haven't managed to catch the bad guys.
The isolated convictions, including those in the earlier attack on the World Trade Center, were not the real instigators. We've executed Timothy McVeigh, notwithstanding the FBI's fumbling of the legal process, and it gives our government something to exult about, but all the king's horses and all the king's men can't do the hard stuff of tracking down known terrorists and despots in foreign hideaways.
We saw little of such talk in the hours after the tragedies of Tuesday morning. At one point on ABC News, a "military consultant" began talking about intelligence failures until Peter Jennings cut him off by saying, "Let's not lose focus for today." He added, "Before we get carried away by a theory on terrorism," we should look in at the hospitals of Manhattan. So much for a search for understanding on national TV.
A short time later, erstwhile contrarian hero John McCain came on to anticipate, regretfully but approvingly, what amounts to the growth of government restrictions. "I don't think our lives will ever be the same," he said. Things like air travel now may be "very inconvenient for Americans." He also said we need to "improve our intelligence capabilities, especially the area of human intelligence." Meaning spooks.
While Peter Jennings was trying not to focus on the failure of the military-intelligence complex, prices were going up at gas pumps around the nation. The Establishment will complain of pundits who don't bring America together, but the Establishment won't mind taking some profits where it can.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we rounded up Japanese-Americans (they were all, of course, just "Japs") and put them into prisons (they were just "camps") and even won the consent our U.S. Supreme Court to that obvious constitutional usurpation. During the Iranian hostage crisis, we made it very unpleasant to be Arab in this country, and we instigated the use of "secret evidence" by the Immigration Service against people like MazenAl-Najjar, instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who was held in detention for three years and seven months without so much as a criminal charge before a judge unequivocally cleared him and released him last December. The long-enduring Red Scare held free expression hostage and ruined the careers and even the lives of many people. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the historic right of a person to challenge the constitutionality of his imprisonment.
In our cowboy approach to world affairs, it will be tempting to respond in kind--to "do something" by going out with guns blazing into the world to hunt down the culprits and anyone who might be culprits.
Perhaps this really is an act of war against the United States. Unquestionably we have to respond, perhaps even with tools of war. But we cannot sacrifice our freedom in the name of protecting ourselves. What we need to sacrifice is our longstanding practice of worrying more about the protection of the Fortune 1000 than human rights and liberties. Let's not permit the enrichment of Boeing and ExxonMobil and the bankruptcy of individual freedoms.
Horrible things happened Tuesday. A lot of it, despite all the TV angles, we didn't see: the likely sense of impending doom on those airplanes, the long fall for those who preferred death by jumping to death by fire or burial under rubble, the cruel fate of being in a certain place at a certain time. Our anger surely will build as we begin to put names to the destruction, see the pain of survivors, and bury the dead.
No matter who is in the White House now, a president who feels our pain or one who doesn't, it's hard to know just what to do. But history helps us understand what not to do. We can unite Americans and the rest of the world against those who would destroy our human freedoms only if we are not willing to destroy them ourselves.
Neil Skene is senior vice president of editorial for Creative Loafing Inc. He formerly was editor and publisher of Congressional Quarterly in Washington.