J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Why the Murtha Gambit Will Backfire

On the surface, it seemed like a brilliant political strategy for the Democrats. Send out a decorated war veteran (Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts), a former Marine with an impeccable pro-military record -- the first Vietnam veteran to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, in fact -- to be the point man for the bring-the-troops-home-now assault.

And it seems to have worked brilliantly.

Calling the Iraq war "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," Democratic Pennsylvania Congressmember John Murtha declared earlier this month that "It is time for a change in direction [in Iraq]. The Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free. Free from United States occupation. Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME."

At first, the Bush White House and the Republican leadership reacted as they almost always do when criticized -- they tried to slime the critic, questioning Murtha's patriotism and anything else they could think of. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan called Murtha's position a "surrender to terrorists" and accused him of "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party."

A Republican Congressmember intimated on the floor of the House that Murtha was a coward, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert all but did the same, releasing a statement that read, "Rep. Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world. We must not cower like European nations who are now fighting terrorists on their soil."

But by the weekend, the White House had toned down the attack considerably. From China, President Bush called Mr. Murtha "a good man who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman. And I know the decision to call for immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way."

The President concluded, a little wistfully, only that, "I disagree with his position."

And House Leader Hastert was also backpedaling on his attack on Murtha. A Hastert spokesperson told the New York Times this week that even though Hastert had used the word "cower" in his statement about Murtha, Hastert "did not use the term directly about Mr. Murtha."

It was a notable retreat for a president and a Republican leadership that doesn't often back off on any issue. Both Murtha's initial statement and the failure of the administration to come after him with guns blazing gave political cover for other Democrats who have been wanting to call for a troop withdrawal, but were afraid of paying a steep political price.

One might conclude that because this turn of events may lead to a shortening of U.S. involvement in Iraq, it is a good thing for progressives and anti-war activists.

But that ain't necessarily so.

The Murtha gambit sets a dangerous precedent for what kind of person can take the lead in criticizing the nation on matters of war and security. It concedes that the only moral voice who can oppose a war is someone who supported and/or participated in a past war. The flaw in the argument is that the Bush Administration and much of the national Republican leadership couldn't care less about distinguished past service; their strategy is to kneecap the opposition, using whatever methods, fair or foul, that come to mind.

Murtha gambit's may end up winning the battle for progressives (a quicker withdrawal from Iraq), but losing the larger war, the one being fought over the hearts and minds of the public about the role of the military in American life and world affairs. And so we may leave Iraq as we left Vietnam -- with too many people in high places convinced we would have won had we only given the military a fighting chance and better strategies. These people will still be willing -- and, perhaps, eager -- to test that theory out in some other part of the world.

In the 2004 Presidential race, John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero, was widely characterized by Bush supporters as a fraud and a coward. Former United States Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost three limbs in combat in Vietnam, lost his 2002 re-election race after Republicans charged that he was not sufficiently patriotic. Distinguished military service did not prevent either man from being slimed on the soldier issue.

The mothers of soldiers killed in combat are among the most venerated and honored citizens in the United States; but that did not stop conservatives from flinging mud at Cindy Sheehan for saying her son died in vain in Iraq.

Last summer, conservative bloggers posted Sheehan's August divorce petition online. They conducted extended speculation on the nature of her relationship with her estranged husband, with one self-described "life-long conservative spokesperson" contending that Sheehan's former husband "disagrees with Cindy's activities and has left her because of them. ...[Sheehan] is so wrapped up in her own cause and celebrity that she doesn't have time to try and help her family. This is not a sympathetic figure, she is a hateful, destructive, selfish woman who is more interested in her political agenda than she is in honoring her son or saving her family."

In this atmosphere, perhaps the Bush team didn't back off from the Murtha fight because they respect his military record, but because they did not have sufficient time to find something to smear him with. In doing so, they have set the bar impossibly high for the Democrats.

If the Dems dare to put forward only anti-war spokespersons who are immune to Republican smear attacks, and if the only people immune to Republican attacks are those who have impeccable war records, the ranks of Democrats who can take the lead in opposing this war or any war, will soon become depressingly thin. It also implicitly bows to the specious conservative argument that one who opposes a war while that war is in progress cannot, by definition, be a patriot.

A member of Congress once stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and forcefully explained his reasons for a vote against an ongoing war that was, he declared, "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President." The war in question was the Mexican War, and the Congressmember was Abraham Lincoln. People have questioned a lot of things about Mr. Lincoln, but rarely his patriotism, or his record as a "war President."

The danger for progressives in allowing the Murtha gambit to go forward without comment is evident when looking at the many times Murtha and Kerry have made derogatory remarks about Republican leaders who avoided combat during the Vietnam War. It may sound good when aimed at Republicans; but isn't it also an attack on anyone who dissented in '68?

Anti-war activists should certainly welcome Murtha's call to "BRING THEM HOME." It would appear that the Pennsylvania Congressmember is a man of conscience who came to his conclusions after painful deliberation over the fate of the United States military, which he clearly supports and loves. But anti-war activists and progressives should also beware the trap perhaps unconsciously set by Murtha's entrance into this discussion.

It was the anti-war activists -- from Congressmember Barbara Lee to the hundreds of inhabitants of Camp Casey to the millions of demonstrators who have poured out into the streets of this country -- who have led us to the moment where the war in Iraq is no longer supported by a majority of Americans. Without pressure from activists, there might have been no Murtha call for immediate withdrawal. For those progressive leadership voices to allow themselves to be relegated to the backwater of the Iraq war debate at this historic turning point in time would not only be a mistake for progressives, it would be a national and international tragedy.

Time and the Governor

It's hard for a politician to lose more decisively than California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did on Tuesday night. He walked into the schoolyard -- almost literally, since some of his actions were aimed specifically at the state's public education system -- and picked a fight, and then got thoroughly whipped in full view of everyone assembled. The particular fight this time was Mr. Schwarzenegger's authorization of a special, off-year election to ask voter approval of four ballot measures that his own staff had authored.

The centerpiece of the governor's efforts -- a state constitutional amendment that would have given him enhanced powers over the state budget -- did not even get 40 percent of the vote, and a proposal to take drawing of legislative district lines out of the hands of the legislature didn't do much better. His two other measures-increasing state powers over public teacher tenure and curbing the ability of unions to contribute to political campaigns-hovered around 45 percent approval. It was a massive, resounding political defeat for a man who had blown away the field only two years ago to win the governership in a special recall election.

Within moments after Mr. Schwarzenegger made his concession speech at a Beverly Hills hotel on Tuesday night, political observers were calling this a self-inflicted wound, accusing the governor and his advisors of hubris, overreaching in an attempt to stuff their mouths with political power. An opponent, Democratic State Senate leader Don Perata, put it about as succinctly as you could. "He got a lot of really bad advice," Mr. Perata remarked, a little drily, advancing the prevailing political wisdom that calling the special election had been a "bad idea," to quote one of Mr. Schwarzenegger's more famous movie quips.

Respectfully, I'm going to have to disagree with the prevailing political wisdom. What did Mr. Schwarzenegger in was time. And in a truly Einsteinian twist, the governor was plagued both by too much of it, and too little, simultaneously.

Regarding the issue of too much time

Movie actors at the upper levels of box office stardom -- as Mr. Schwarzenegger once was -- operate on a public exposure schedule that roughly coincides with their movie releases. Except for teaser appearances here and there, such stars virtually disappear from public view for months while they are preparing for and filming their newest feature. Then, in the weeks immediately preceding that movie's release, they are suddenly everywhere: on bus billboards and television commercials, on Oprah, on Larry King and Leno and everything in between, interviewing up to their eyeballs. You can't get rid of them. The idea is to overwhelm the public, saturate us with their presence, make us believe that YOU HAVE JUST GOT TO GO SEE THAT MOVIE, OR YOU ARE GOING TO JUST DIE! These campaigns are all exquisitely timed to peak right at opening weekend. After that, except for the occasional carefully scripted promotional appearance or red carpet stroll, the stars disappear again until the next movie comes up, beginning the cycle anew.

Mr. Schwarzenegger proved an absolute genius in this format and if his movies were not critical successes, they certainly performed magnificently at the box office. And because of the shortened time span of the 2003 California gubernatorial recall race, he was initially able to translate the winning formula to that arena as well, overwhelming the state's voting public with a clever combination of star power and clever quips that translated into interesting sound bites.

What those tactics masked was that over the long haul -- when you listen to more than three minutes of one of his speeches or see him on the news more than a couple of nights in a row -- Mr. Schwarzenegger tends to grate on your nerves.

This is not ideological. Eventually, Ronald Reagan's sunny personality and self-deprecating humor wore away much of the grumpiness of his Democratic and progressive opponents, even while they continued to blast away at his positions and policies. Mr. Schwarzenegger does just the opposite. The more you see of him, the more he gives you to fuel your anger against him, until you begin to forget what made you mad in the first place, and just know that you are mad. It's like the worst of marriages.

But it was the very boastful, World Wrestling Federation-type persona that made Mr. Schwarzenegger such a hit as first a body building personality and then a movie star that got him into trouble as a politician. He began his body building career baiting the shy and stuttering Lou Ferragamo and carried those activities into his action figure movie roles. His fans loved it when his robot character blew away the bad guys in Terminator 2 with the deadpan line "Hasta la vista, baby," or, in the midst of kicking Bill Duke's ass in Commando, declaring "I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now I'm very hungry." He was even able to get away with overt battery on a female, punching out movie wife Sharon Stone in Total Recall while telling her "consider this a divorce." Audiences went for it because, like Jessica Rabbit, Stone's character had been drawn to be so bad.

In that cartoon-type movie world Mr. Schwarzenegger once ruled, those lines got the governor the greatest applause, both in the theaters and during promotional tours. But he got in trouble when he tried to repeat them in the real world during his political battles, once famously calling the Democratic members of the state legislature "girlie men" or boasting that "the special interests don't like me in Sacramento, because I am always kicking their butts." These were all delivered with cigar-smoking winks, and the California voters were all supposed to know that this was part of a great joke, not to be taken seriously.

But the mostly-women members of the "special interest" groups he was targeting at that particular time --teachers and nurses -- were not amused, and neither were many of the state's voters. (One of the more striking memories of the 2005 special election will always be the union victory party held on election night in the same hotel and at the same time that Mr. Schwarzenegger was giving his concession speech, in which delighted nurses formed a conga line and shouted "We are the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses!" while snake-hipping their way around and around the room.)

Worse than that, the political demands of the governor's office did not allow Mr. Schwarzenegger to manipulate his onscreen time as he was able to do when he was only in the movies. And the more California voters saw of him, the less they seemed to like of him. His problem here, then, was that there was too much time to get to know him.

Regarding the issue of too little time

The term of a state governor -- or a United States president -- is set at four years, but in actuality, that only gives two years of governing time for the first-termer. By the third year, with opposition candidates identifying themselves and making speeches and giving interviews, the incumbent's actions start coming under the political microscope again. And the fourth year, of course, is taken up entirely by the campaign for re-election. A governor has the first two years, then, to compile a record of accomplishments -- as opposed to a list of promises -- before the political opposition starts seriously putting on the brakes. This is even more critical in a state, like California, where the opposition party holds a majority in the legislature.

But because he was elected following the recall of former Governer Gray Davis after one year in office, Mr. Schwarzenegger had only three years to serve his term. That left him, in actuality, only one year to build up a political resume, forcing him into some quick fixes with long-term consequences. He fulfilled his campaign promise to lower California's unpopularly high automobile registration fee. In so doing, however, he left himself with less available money to work on California's severe budget crisis, a problem he had also promised to fix. That led him to the infamous education compact of 2004, the deal in which Mr. Schwarzenegger won the promise of state primary and college leaders to forego full educational funding for one year in return for the governor's guarantee of a restoration of that funding in perpetuity beginning the following year.

But Mr. Schwarzenegger could not keep his promise to those educators to put back their state funding if he was going to both return fiscal solvency to the state budget as well as avoid raising taxes, two of the platforms on which he won the governership. Thus, he began 2005 with bleak prospects, looking at a year in which opposition to his policies would mount as his ability to both govern and maneuver politically would correspondingly dwindle.

Thus was born the self-titled "Year of Reform" in which Mr. Schwarzenegger decided to stake the future of his governorship on one roll of the dice: a special election in which he would go over the heads of the unions and state educational establishment and the Democratic Party opposition and ask the state's voters to grant him sweeping powers to deal with the state's problems. His hope was in part that returning to the limited format of an election campaign, he could recapture the popularity that won him the governorship in the first place.

It was a gamble, and he lost that gamble, about as badly as you can. But given the political realities -- both his own limitations as well as the limitations of time -- it's not clear he had much choice. Schwarzenegger limps, now, into the 2006 election as a wounded governor, the political hellhounds at his heels. But that's probably the same scenario he would have faced anyway, without the special election. This wasn't so much a case of hubris as it was a case of had-to-be inevitability.

Rosa Parks Was Not the Beginning

If things continue upon their present course--which "things" have that interesting habit of not always doing--somewhere in an elementary school 50 years from now, a teacher will stand before a class and tell her students the story of the day in 2003 when a courageous black woman, grown weary of the lies of the Bush administration, stood up by herself in the United States Congress and cast the single vote against the Iraq War Authorization, thus sparking a national movement that eventually led to both the collapse of neoconism as well as the end of the stranglehold of the radical religious right on the government of the country.

Fifty years from now some of you will almost certainly be around, and you will remember these days, and you will say patiently (but a little wearily, because you've grown tired of correcting this particular mistake) that yes, what Barbara Lee did was absolutely courageous and no, you don't want to minimize its historical importance or how much it inspired people at the time, but she was, after all, only part of a greater thing going on in opposition to Bush and the neocons and the war, and it is that thing going on of people and opinions and actions and accomplishments which must be studied and talked about if one is to understand the history of those (these) times.

But history loves the simple tale, if for nothing else in that it is so simple to tell.

And so, this week, upon the death of the dear Ms. Rosa Parks, we must suffer through the recitation of the story--once more--about the courageous little Alabama black woman who got tired one day coming from work and refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, thus on-and-on, you know the rest of the tale.

And at the risk of being accused of kicking dirt on the freshly dug grave of a beloved national and civil rights movement icon, we are forced to say, once again, that no, that's not exactly how it happened, and that it doesn't take away anything from Rosa Parks to tell it right.

At the time of Ms. Parks' historic act in the mid-1950s, there were a number of African-American organizations in Montgomery--some of them based in the black church, some of them with ties to the union movement, some of them based in the black business or educational establishments--that had long been working to end racial segregation in public accommodations in that city. Rosa Parks herself was secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had membership from all of those factions.

As the story is told by those who were there at the time, in refusing to give up her seat, Ms. Parks actually repeated an action that had been taken several weeks before by another young black woman.

Black Montgomery leaders briefly considered making that earlier action a test case, but decided against it when they learned that the young woman had a child out of wedlock. Afraid that Montgomery's white segregationist establishment would pound on that single fact--"niggers dropping babies without fathers"--to turn local and national attention away from the issue of segregation, the black leaders searched around for someone who could not be attacked on such "moral" grounds.

Rosa Parks was chosen, and the refuse-to-give-up-her-seat-on-the-bus incident was restaged so that she could be arrested, and the black bus boycott instituted as a "spontaneous" response of outrage.

Personally, I think that either action--the spontaneous one of the earlier black woman as well as Ms. Parks' planned demonstration--took equal courage in Montgomery in the mid-1950s, but that's just me.

And it is also interesting to see how little things have changed in human nature in the past 50 years. In the mid-1950s, just as it is today in 2005, it was easy to get people distracted from issues, muddying the waters with one moral issue--having a child out of wedlock--in order to cover up another one--oppressing a group of people because of their race.

In any event, Rosa Parks herself tended to both resist her own deification and to try to tell the truth about what really happened in the months leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott. I got the chance to interview her by telephone some years ago, and she confessed that months before she refused to give up her seat, she was "very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery."

At that time, the summer of 1955, she was attending civil rights training workshops at a long-time labor and radical movement center called Highlander in Tennessee. One of her trainers was a woman named Septima Clark of Charleston, a giant in the civil rights movement, but someone you've probably heard little or nothing about.

"I had the chance to work with Septima," at Highlander, Ms. Parks told me. "She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years."

Septima Clark was certainly someone to look up to. She had joined the NAACP in 1919--only a few months after it was formed--and worked in its initial campaign to end lynchings in the Deep South. As frightening as Montgomery in 1955 seems to us now--with its white terrorist bombings and racial murders and police attack dogs--South Carolina in the 1920s was a hundred times more dangerous for civil rights and black freedom advocates.

But just like Ms. Parks, Septima Clark always minimized her own accomplishments, giving credit to the people who had come before her in even more dangerous times. The black Reconstruction-era officeholders, for example, who faced assassination in the reign of terror that came after union troops were pulled out of the South in the 1870s, the time of the original formation of the Ku Klux Klan by former Confederate officers and soldiers.

Or, earlier than that, the Charleston Sea Island black folk--the people known as the Gullah--who had seized plantation lands from slavemasters in the midst of the Civil War, received General William Sherman's promise that they could keep it (the famous "40 acres and two mules Special Field Order"), and later refused to give it up even after the United States Congress said that the former Confederates should have their land back. These were the people Septima Clark looked to for stories of courage and inspiration.

Looking at Rosa Parks, therefore, we don't see as much a "beginning"--a single spark lighting a prairie fire, to use Mao tse Tung's famous phrase often-quoted by '60s-era radicals--as we do a "continuation," a string of history running backwards and forwards through the momentous events of Montgomery 1955, with courageous people rising to meet the challenges at different points, some of them well-known, some of them anonymous and lost to the history books.

With Rosa Parks' passing week, therefore, we don't see the end of the story. It's only the turning of a page, and the moving on to another chapter. Fifty years from now, I hope that's the story that gets told.

Measure R Loses Recount

The recount of Berkeley's Measure R has left the medical marijuana initiative 166 votes short of victory, and supporters still dissatisfied with the count hoping that legal action would overturn the outcome.

Measure R spokesperson Debbie Goldsberry said that the recount uncovered hundreds of Berkeley voters whose votes were not counted because of improperly filled-out provisional ballot forms, and a thousand UC Berkeley students whose votes were not counted because their names could not be found in the Alameda County Registrar of Voters registration database.

The measure sought to end limits on the number of plants allowed to medical marijuana users and would have allowed Berkeley's three medical marijuana institutions to move anywhere within the city's commercial zone.

"I'm convinced that if we had properly counted all of the actual votes in Berkeley, Measure R would have won," Goldsberry said. "But the decision of the registrar's office is final."

Alameda County Assistant Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold said that while there were small discrepancies in the Measure R count "they had no material impact on the results of the election."

Ginnold said that one of those discrepancies was 20 fewer ballots than the number of voters who signed in on election day at the Side B precinct station at the Northbrae Community Church on The Alameda in Berkeley. Despite a search by registrar's office workers during the recounts, those ballots were never recovered. In addition, the voter count and actual ballots were off "by one or two votes" in a number of other Berkeley precincts. "But there will always be that type of discrepancy in any election," Ginnold said.

The vote count discrepancies Ginnold referred to were a different issue from the uncounted votes referenced by Goldsberry.

Goldsberry said that in the case of 1,000 UC Berkeley student voters not found in the database, "the students' names may have been there, but the workers just may not have been able to find them because of the way in which they were listed and the way the workers were searching." Goldsberry said the uncounted votes involved students who lived in UC dormitories.

She said that the largest number of improperly filled-out provisional ballot envelopes came from two Berkeley precincts. "We suspect that workers in those precincts were not giving proper instruction as to how to fill out the envelopes," Goldsberry said. "That's something which is just going to have to be looked out for and corrected in future elections."

The battleground for Measure R now shifts from the counting room to the courts, where Berkeley-based Americans For Safe Access has filed a state lawsuit contesting the election. That lawsuit involves ballots cast by computer in the Nov. 2 election.

Goldsberry said that many of the uncounted paper ballot votes were discovered after the filing of the lawsuit early last week, and so will not be at issue in the legal proceedings. "We're just going to have to suck that up."

He Got Shame

During Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearings, he charged that he was the victim of what he called a "high-tech lynching." Most African Americans at the time thought the complaint was absurd – an abomination – a tossing off of the suffering of thousands of our ancestors, hung from trees. How can depriving a man a seat on the Supreme Court compare with depriving someone of their life?

Now, with the Ron Artest Affair, we are still searching for a more appropriate term.

Indiana Pacers basketball forward Ron Artest was not lynched last week. He was not even injured. He was suspended for 73 games for his part in last week's widely publicized, out-of-control brawl between players and fans in a basketball game between the Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. Eight other players were suspended for up to 30 games for their roles in the altercation but Artest's punishment – banishment for the rest of the season – indicates NBA Commissioner David Stern's belief that Artest was the instigator of the events. It is the longest non-drug-related suspension in NBA history.

"What [Artest] did was unforgivable," Stern said in announcing the punishment. "It was a horrible scene and it is up to us to see it is not repeated."

For those who watched the endless news broadcasts or read newspaper accounts of the fight, it was hard to disagree. Larry Lage of the Associated Press started off his account – which was the basis of stories printed all over the country – by calling it "one of the ugliest NBA brawls ever – and Indiana's Ron Artest was right in the middle of it. Artest and [Pacers teammate] Stephen Jackson charged into the stands and fought with fans in the final minute of their game against the Detroit Pistons."

More details were given in a story posted the night of the fight on the ESPN.com Web site, which described events following initial pushing and shoving among the players on the floor. "Just when it appeared tempers had died down, Artest was struck by a full cup thrown from the stands. He jumped up and charged into the stands, throwing punches as he climbed over seats. ... After Artest charged into the stands, Jackson joined him in the melee and threw punches at fans, who punched back at them."

The written accounts were verified by identical video clips shown over and over by local news broadcasts around the country – the most memorable shots being Artest leaping over seats to get to a fan, later he and Jackson in a wild fistfight with Detroit fans in the stands, and then both Artest and teammate Jermaine O'Neal back on the floor of the arena, alternately punching another Detroit fan, knocking him down twice. The broadcasts ended with the wild aftermath: Detroit fans – apparently in retaliation for the actions by Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal – pummeling Piston players with food and liquid as the players ran through a gauntlet to the dressing room.

It was virtually impossible to turn on a television in the days following the Basketbrawl, as it was dubbed. They are burned into our national brains as our collective memory of those events. And they are absolutely wrong.

I was watching the Detroit-Indiana game on ESPN, live, and watched the entire fight as it unfolded. Since then I've watched the fight portion of the video – the entire fight – several times over. Watching it in its entire sequence leaves a cause-and-effect version of the events that is very different from the national impression.

The ESPN.com account starts out correctly. After being shoved on the floor by the Piston's Ben Wallace, and while other players were milling around, shoving and pointing and arguing, Artest retreated to the scorer's table and laid down on his back, away from the scuffling. It is true that a cup of liquid, striking him full in the face, caused him to "jump up and charge into the stands." It is not true that he was "throwing punches as he climbed over seats." In fact, Artest throws no punches at all in that initial charge. He appears to be taking aim at a particular fan, passing others unmolested as they jump out of his way. When he reaches the fan – who, we can assume, Artest believes threw the cup – Artest does not hit him, or even tackle him, two actions we might expect the player to take immediately after being struck in the face with the cup and liquid, when he would have been at his angriest, and when he would have been at his most out of control – if he were out of control. Instead, Artest grabs the fan by the shoulder, and drags him down into the seats.

Was Ron Artest wrong for taking that action? I don't think so, but that's a judgment call upon which we can reasonably disagree. The point is, he never threw a punch at the fan he was initially the most angry with. Don't take my word. Watch the fight video – the whole video – yourself.

The punching was initiated by the fans – initially a man in a baseball cap who grabs Artest from behind around the neck, drags him back, and cold-cocks him several times in the head. After that it's pretty much a bar fight.

Was there a conspiracy by the media to alter accounts of the events to "get" Ron Artest? I don't think so. ESPN, which broadcast the game, afterwards rebroadcast the entire fight sequence several times over, letting people make up their own minds. But ESPN is a sports network, and the fight sequence took several minutes. Local television stations don't have that kind of air time to devote to one story. So in the moments immediately following the game, someone packaged the fight into a convenient feed for local news and sports broadcasts, leaving in the most spectacular events such as the punches, leaving out the intervening actions that might have explained them. In a world where news outlets are racing to beat each other on the air, that's how it works.

However, moody and intense Ron Artest was an easy target. This week Sports Illustrated's Web site posted a story by regular contributor Lang Whitaker titled "Ticking Time Bomb: Artest's Earlier Off-Court Antics Foreshadowed His Epic Meltdown." The problem is, in six items listed to show Artest's tendencies, Whitaker only cites one involving violence, and that one not against an individual, but an inanimate object: "Two years ago, he flipped out and broke a television camera at Madison Square Garden." As an NBA Defensive Player of the Year who must gear himself up to guard some of the world's most talented athletes – night after night – that's hardly remarkable. Still, SI's Whitaker concludes that "We had to know something was going to happen, right? You could practically hear the ticking. Surely the Pacers had an inkling. After all, Artest has spent the last few years as a loner, watching "Ultimate Fighting Championship" DVDs on the team plane on a laptop that is missing half its keys."

A ticking time bomb? Eccentric seems more like it.

But fans pay the bills for sports franchises – and all the salaries of players, coaches, and commissioners alike – and so as much as fans might be culpable in the Basketbrawl in Detroit, the NBA cannot afford to go there. Somebody must be sacrificed, and this time it was Ron Artest. Was he lynched? That is far too harsh a word for those of us old enough to remember was lynching was really about. Will he suffer greatly, or at all? Perhaps, but that is not the point. What has happened is that in the Ron Artest Affair we have watched history altered before our eyes, shaping public opinion, and then affecting the conclusion. Of all the things about this event, that should worry us most of all.

When Priests Play Politics

Two weeks before the national elections, WUSA's Inside Washington political talk show held a brief exchange which showed that in a country that boasts that it is one of the most religious in the world, ignorance of our own religious beliefs can have costly political consequences.

The discussion began with a news item about evangelical leaders who have been urging their followers to go to the polls to vote for George W. Bush. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer – who most often takes the conservative line on the show – thought it a bit hypocritical to even bring the subject up, wondering that "African-American churches don't have the same effect and the same message in their churches?... What's new here?"

The exchange continued:

Moderator Gordon Peterson: [The] New York Times ran a story on [October 12] about a group of Catholic bishops using their influence to oppose Kerry, because of his position on abortion.

Charles Krauthammer: That's okay.

National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg: I actually don't think it's okay. It certainly is their right to do, but I don't think it's okay. And the reason I don't think it's okay really has to do with what kind of a country we are. Part of the way we sustain our complete tolerance and freedom of religion is to not entwine it with our government decisions. Catholics for decades, before John Kennedy was elected President, were discriminated against in part by the shibboleth, in part by using the shibboleth, if you elected somebody President you'll have the Vatican in the White House. I don't want that to happen again. I don't want that to happen to anybody.

Charles Krauthammer: That objection would have more weight if you had complained about black churches and their political influence in the past. People don't because that is what's a normal part of American life. It seems to me if it happens among evangelicals, or blacks, or among the Catholics, perfectly all right.

The conversation veered off into the subject of whether or not churches risk their tax-exempt status by political involvement, leaving the impression that Mr. Krauthammer had scored a point. He hadn't. There are real religious differences between the various branches of Jesus' followers, and their practical impact go far beyond abstract theology.

As to the comparison of the electoral activity of black churches and white evangelicals, Mr. Krauthammer is right on the money. There is hypocrisy afoot when you either applaud or overlook the one while condemning the other.

Black churches have served as political staging points since the Reconstruction days. In the mid-'60s, the premier black minister-activist group – Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference – even changed its slogan to "From Protest To Politics," officially announcing that it was taking its followers into electoral activity. Black ministers have long put their "blessing" on certain candidates by allowing those candidates to speak directly from the pulpit during Sunday service, a merging of church and state if there ever was one. And both white evangelical ministers and black ministers have made the jump from the pulpit to the stump, making Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. Al Sharpton pretty much equal in that respect. Liberal-progressives, who benefit heavily from this church-electoral politics merging when it happens up in Harlem, can hardly complain when conservative whites take advantage of the same opportunity out in Oklahoma City.

Why, then, should it be viewed any differently when Roman Catholic bishops intervene in the 2004 Presidential election? The answer lies in the difference between the assumed powers of a Protestant minister and that of Catholic bishops and priests. Roman Catholics believe that God has granted to Catholic bishops and priests the power over the judgment of sins. That power is vast reaching and enormous, because Catholics also believe that one who is in a state of sin is not in God's grace, and therefore cannot enter heaven.

The Council of Trent, assembled by the Pope in the mid-16th century to combat the theological challenge of Protestantism, declared that "If any one shall say that in the New Testament there is no visible and external priesthood nor any power of... remitting and retaining sins,... let him be anathema." Protestants, on the other hand, believe that while their ministers are God's representatives on earth, who stands in God's good grace is a matter between God and the individual Christian. As Protestant theologan Philip Schaff explains it in "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge," "The Protestant goes directly to the Word of God for instruction, and to the throne of grace in his devotions.... From this general principle of Evangelical freedom, and direct individual relationship of the believer to Christ, proceed [one of] the three fundamental doctrines of Protestantism – the absolute supremacy of... the general priesthood of believers." That leaves a Protestant minister with tremendous powers of persuasion here on earth, but none over the direction one goes in the hereafter.

And so, taking each faith at its own word, while one can assume that most of the members of Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church will vote for George W. Bush this Tuesday, those who sneak a mark next to the name of John Kerry in the privacy of the voting booth will not put their salvation in jeopardy.

Again taking each faith at its own word, that is not true for those Catholics who buck the will of certain bishops.

In the article referred to by Washington Insider's Gordon Peterson, the New York Times reported that in an interview with the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in Colorado, "Archbishop [Charles J.] Chaput said a vote for a candidate like Mr. Kerry who supports abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving Communion. 'If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?' [Chaput] asked. '... The answer is yes.'" Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley have gone further, stating that pro-choice politicians should be denied Communion because of their views, a severe punishment, since Catholics believe that participation in Communion is essential to salvation. To prevent a confrontation with Archbishop Burke, Kerry skipped Communion earlier this year while campaigning in Missouri, thus – if he believes Catholic theology – risking his immortal soul. Clearly, then, there is a difference between the political actions of the Protestant black and evangelical pastors and the political actions of the Catholic bishops.

Are the bishops right in taking these actions against pro-choice politicians and voters? Answering that is an act based upon belief, upon which we can reasonably disagree. But if religion is going to play an increasing role in American politics – and it shows every sign of doing so – then understanding the meaning of the differences in our various religions is an act of political necessity. In this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss.

Can Kerry Just Be Himself?

As the presidential campaign settles down into that crucial back-stretch period, progressive commentators continue to argue that Sen. John Kerry needs to explicitly articulate an Iraq exit strategy.

The latest to take up this position is Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, whom I greatly respect for past and present work.

"At Bush's prompting," Mr. Scheer writes in a recent column, "reporters asked Kerry if he, knowing what we all know now about Iraq's lack of weapons of mass destruction, would still have voted, as he did in October 2002, to authorize the president to use force against Iraq. Instead of smacking that hanging curveball out of the park by denouncing the Bush administration for deceiving Congress and the nation into a war, Kerry inexplicably said yes.... Unfortunately, then and now, it is the wrong answer to the wrong question.... Half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out. The American people want to know how we got into this mess, how we can get out and how we will avoid making such stupid mistakes in the future. To win the debates and the election, Kerry needs to establish himself as the clear alternative to a president who has lied us into a quagmire."

Respectfully, I disagree. This is a case, I think, of progressives fighting the last anti-war.

The great anti-war protests of '67 and '68 helped fuel the insurgent, anti-war challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy to sitting President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential election. McCarthy came within a few percentage points of beating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and that event – coupled with the entrance of Robert Kennedy into the Democratic race on a rising anti-war tide – forced Johnson to announce his decision not to run for re-election. Richard Nixon won the presidency over Vice President Hubert Humphrey later that fall, partly on a pledge that he had a "secret plan" to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.

But that was then. This is now.

There are two reasons why progressives should not look to the election of 2004 as a reprisal of '68. The first is that – unlike 1968 – there is not yet a broad consensus among anti-war Americans as to what should be done about Iraq. And second, John Kerry is not a formidable advocate of his positions, and would probably fumble the attempt to explain in detail an exit strategy. And fumble it badly.

In 1968 – with ever-growing numbers of U.S. military casualties – the belief solidified across a large section of America that U.S. forces should be unilaterally withdrawn from Vietnam. The smaller group of this coalition was made up of those who felt that Vietnam was an illegal, immoral, unjustified colonial war. But the larger – and eventually decisive – element was made up of a broad group of citizens who felt it was an unnecessary war, at least from the point of view of United States security. And later events, of course, proved that view to be correct.

Jump, now, to the present. There is no such unconditional withdrawal consensus concerning the war in Iraq, for one quite obvious reason: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While my friend, Mr. Scheer, is entirely correct in his statement that "half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out," the "how" of the getting back out is another thing entirely. Many – and I count myself among that many – believe that it is the U.S. military presence in Iraq that is exacerbating the problem. We are developing two new terrorists for every one who U.S. soldiers manage to kill, and an immediate, unconditional U.S. withdrawal is the first, necessary step for healing the wounds and promoting homeland security. But many other Americans – thoughtful, reasonable friends and neighbors – while now believing that we never should have invaded, also believe that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would make things infinitely worse, helping to advance the terrorist cause. These folks believe that it is our responsibility to clean up the mess we have caused.

These are two legitimate but opposing views holding – almost certainly – a majority of the Democratic Party between them. One would have hoped that the spring Democratic primaries could have been used to debate these positions, as the primaries were used to debate the pro-war and anti-war Democratic Party positions in 1968. But elections aren't run that way, these days. John Kerry became the Democratic Party nominee precisely because he fudged his positions on Iraqi withdrawal, straddling the great American divide: yes, we shouldn't have gone in, but how we should leave is a matter yet to be determined. Turning from that course in either direction would now tip the balance and lose Kerry one wing of the Democratic Party or the other, dumping all of us into the abyss.

There is another problem with pushing Kerry to clarify his exit strategies. We have heard John Kerry, and he is no Gene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy. Under relentless attack from the Bush camp on the charge of "nuancing" and "flip-flopping," Senator Kerry and his advisors have so far flubbed the explanation of his two key Iraqi war votes – the war authorization vote and the $87 billion funding vote – in a way that has put Kerry on the defensive when he should not be.

The charge from the Bush camp? That Sen. Kerry voted for the war, but later voted against the money to fund it.

The perfectly reasonable and obvious explanation: Senator Kerry voted to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, believing that the president would use that authorization in the manner that recent presidents would almost certainly have done – presidents Reagan and Clinton and Mr. Bush's own father, for example – building a powerful international coalition and using threat of war to force concessions out of the Saddam Hussein regime, but only using war as a last resort.

Instead, President Bush screwed it up, going to war as a first resort and, in doing so, causing the mess in which we presently find ourselves. In other words, Bush misplayed a good hand. The United States Congress was thereafter presented with an $87 billion appropriation bill by the Bush administration, $67 billion of which was to go to fund U.S. troops, $20 billion which was supposed to go to some sort of "reconstruction aid" to Iraq. Sen. Kerry felt that there was no solid plan or safeguards for the spending of the $20 billion "reconstruction aid" money, and voted against the entire appropriation while asking that the troop money be brought back for separate consideration. In fact, Sen. Kerry was absolutely right on that issue. There is considerable controversy over that $20 billion, much of it apparently unspent, some of it possibly misspent, with the Coalition Authority going out of business before a full accounting. There should have been better safeguards and a detailed spending plan.

If Senator Kerry cannot handle explanations for these perfectly reasonable past positions, I don't have much confidence that he can make his way through the quagmire of Iraqi withdrawal – not while the election is going on. And entering that quagmire probably ensures his defeat.

Let Kerry be Kerry and keep vague on what he may or may not do, leaving the specifying and educating part in the capable hands of folks like Mr. Scheer. That's the only way Sen. Kerry is going to win, and the only way the nation will have a chance – within the next four years – of pulling itself out of this Middle East mess. If Mr. Bush wins, we go in deeper, without a doubt. If Mr. Kerry wins, we may not. It's not the best of choices. But it's the best choice we're going to get.

The America We Know

There is videotape of the beatings by the six guards, available on the Internet for download. Soft, grainy and shot from a distance, still, what is happening is unmistakable. Two prisoners are lying sprawled on the floor, face down, unresisting. An L.A. Times news article graphically describes the scene: "[One of the guards] sits astride [one of the prisoners and] begins punching him with alternating fists, landing a total of 28 blows. At one point, [the guard] can be seen lifting [the prisoner's] head by the hair in what looks like an effort to get a better angle for his punch. A few feet away, the tape shows [a second guard] slugging [the other prisoner] and using his right knee to pummel him in the neck area as the [prisoner] lies motionless. ... One [guard] is seen shooting the [prisoners] with a gun that fires balls of pepper spray, while another sprays their faces with mace."

The video also shows one of the guards giving a kick to the head of one of the prisoners with the toe of his boot.

No, the videotape is not of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. As far as I know, no such videos exist. The video of which I speak documents the beating of two United States citizens -- juvenile prisoners under the control of the State of California -- by guards of the California Youth Authority at the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, California. Chaderjian. Abu Ghraib. It is easy to get them confused, I suppose.

(Both the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office and the office of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, by the way, have declined to bring charges against the guards in the incident, citing their contention that there was "no reasonable likelihood of conviction" of the guards in a California courtroom.)

This week, President George Bush went before representatives of various Arab-language television stations and stated-in reaction to the photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers coming out of Abu Ghraib-that "[this] does not represent the America that I know."

No, I suppose not. Mr. Bush has never been a black or Latino kid, locked up by the CYA.

What one finds most disturbing about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses is this national display of collective shock and surprise as television commentators pass serious comments about the meaning of it all -- the widened eyes, the caught breath, the hand over open mouth, the calling in of the multitude of expert commentators, the incredulity that Americans, of all people, could be the author of such acts. Has no one been paying attention?

"[This] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush.

The president must, one must guess, therefore never watch broadcast television. The physical abuse by United States guards of prisoners incarcerated in United States jails is so well known and widespread that it is a running, national joke. Watch any sitcom long enough, and sooner or later, someone will make a threat about someone going to prison and having to "do the laundry of a 300-pound cellmate named Bubba." It is a joke -- if one misses the point -- about people being raped in United States prisons, a condition that does not invoke calls for investigation, intervention and reform, but merely a David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld smirk.

Yes. How very funny.

America shocked -- shocked! -- at the Abu Ghraib humiliations? Why should we be? The humiliation of individuals has become an American obsession; it is, in fact, the growing American pastime, surpassing football and baseball as our national sport. We used to hold contests in which people competed, and then judges awarded a prize to the person who they thought performed the best. It was the thrill of the victory in which we wanted to share. The camera focused on the joyous, beaming Star Search winners while the second- and third-placers, mercifully, were hustled offstage before their frozen smiles shattered and their tears flowed over the loss of just-missed dreams. Now, voyeurs of despair, it is the agony of the losers on which we dwell. Televised contest after contest -- from ESPN's new announcer to Donald Trump's "Fired!" to American Idol to Elimidate -- puts the spotlight not on just the losing, but the degradation of those who lose.

Our reveling wallow in the culture of suffering has become so widespread that now one national automobile manufacturer -- I cannot recall their name because having watched it once, I have to turn it quickly off because I do not want the sickening images in my head -- begins with a montage of horrific, swollen knots on people's heads, then moves to a young yuppie admiring a car and, turning, still distracted, busting his head on an overhanging fixture, knocking himself to the floor. My god. It is the equivalent of selling hamburgers by watching photos of the carnage resultant from highway accidents. "America's Funniest Home Videos" -- the once-backchannel program where we became comfortable in snickering at people's pain like a kid thumbing through porno locked in the bathroom -- has now come out of the closet and moved into the mainstream.

But "[this] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush.

Oh. Really?

"That the way the United States treated its prisoners in occupied Iraq would become a focal point of international scrutiny, and perhaps a critical element in winning the confidence of the Iraqi people, should not have been a surprise to anyone," the San Francisco Chronicle writes in an editorial. "From the top down, the message from U.S. commanders should have been crystal clear: Humane treatment of prisoners is essential to our mission."

No, actually, it's more fundamental than that. How we treat prisoners under our control is indicative of who we are. It is essential to our very humanity. It is how we are defined, both by ourselves, and by others who either observe or interact with us. Christian doctrine -- and the right insists, with pounded breast, that we are a Christian nation -- teaches in Matthew 25:40 that "the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." That, again according to New Testament Christian doctrine, is how we are to be judged.

"[Abu Ghraib] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush, in all seriousness.

If so, he must not have been paying attention.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is managing editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Confrontation in Cincinnati

The kinds of answers we get are almost always determined by the questions we ask. In the recent, tragic death of Nathaniel Jones of Cincinnati, Ohio, we appear to be asking the wrong questions.

To recap for those who may have missed it: Police were called to a Cincinnati fast food restaurant on a Sunday morning in early December after reports that a man who had passed out on the lawn outside had awakened and was making "a nuisance" of himself. (What one must do in Cincinnati to become a nuisance has not yet been defined, but that is another question.)

In any event, police arrived, and beat Jones to death with billyclubs. The county coroner later said that an autopsy of the 41-year-old Jones showed that he had an enlarged heart, suffered from obesity and had intoxicating levels of cocaine, PCP and methanol in his blood.

"Absent the struggle," the coroner said, "Mr. Jones would not have died at that precise moment of time." But while the beating led directly to Jones' death, the implication of the coroner's public statements was that the victim's health and stimulant conditions were the actual, inherent causes of death, with cardiac dysrhythmia being the immediate culprit.

What brought this case to national attention was the fact that the confrontation was recorded on a videotape camera mounted on the police cruiser. Within hours of the incident, the video was broadcast by television stations across the country; Rodney King, the Remix, over and over, its images imprinted on our brains in the sort of national, mass visual experience we've come to expect in these days of 24-hour-cable news.

With predictable reaction.

"The sight of police officers repeatedly beating Nathaniel Jones with metal night sticks is sickening and appears well outside of the norm for subduing an unarmed suspect," said NAACP president Kwesi Mfume.

"Why didn't they use a stun gun or other nonviolent means to subdue him? Police officers have options available to immobilize citizens short of death," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"If proper procedure means that you can use that kind of force to clobber people repeatedly who are clearly disarmed, then there's something wrong with the policy," said Calvert Smith, president of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter.

"You don't keep beating on him; you give him a chance to surrender," said Ken Lawon, the Cincinnati attorney called in by the Jones family to represent them in the matter. "No-one is going to surrender as long as you keep slapping them across the head or body."

Referring to the 19 African-American men who have died in encounters with the Cincinnati Police Department in the past eight years, Malik Shabazz, the national chairman of the New Black Panther Party, charged the Cincinnati police chief with "running a criminal organization that has the blood of 19 black men on its hands."

To their credit, a number of African-American leaders and organizations called for an investigation into all of the circumstances surrounding Jones' death, including how police respond to citizens who may display symptoms of mental instability. But in the seductiveness of the video itself, those nuances were lost. And the problem is, by itself, the Nathaniel Jones video does not support a charge of police excess. Watch it yourself, in the quiet of your home, now that a little time has passed, and the emotion of the initial event has somewhat eased.

What the video shows is a large man (Jones was reportedly some 350 pounds) lunging at one police officer, swinging at him, and then attempting to collar him. Under those circumstances (and remember, we're considering only the video itself), the police response appears appropriate, and may be more properly be defined by what they did not do than what they did. The police did not pull out guns and shoot Nathaniel Jones. They did not strike him in the head with their clubs. Once Jones was on the ground, they did not kick him, nor try to raise up his head and strike it against something. Instead, they jabbed and beat him with billyclubs on his upper and lower torso until they were able to get him subdued.

Constantly replayed on camera, the scene is not pretty. But violence -- actual, real-world violence -- is never pretty. It doesn't play out in choreographed, slow motion artistry like a scene from "The Matrix." It doesn't come with music to identify the good guys and the bad, to cue us in on which side to take. The rebroadcast of real-life violence almost always appears thuggish and brutal and sickening, no matter which side you started out supporting. And so, if all we focus on is the image of the swinging clubs, the police officers will always come out wrong.

What may have provoked Jones' initial action to swing on the police officer is unclear at this time. The drugs in his system? Something the police did or said to him off-camera? Flashbacks from some past dealings with police? A trial may reveal this, but more likely, because Jones is not present to give his side, we simply may never know.

That leaves us with two questions to be answered. The first is directed at the African-American community in general and African-American leadership in particular: under the circumstances portrayed in the videotape -- and only the circumstances portrayed in the videotape -- what should we suggest that the police officers should have done? Some have said that the response should have been some form of "non-lethal" firepower such as tasers or rubber bullets or wooden dowels. But if Jones had died under that kind of firepower -- and his medical condition gives every reason to believe that this was a possibility -- would the reaction against the Cincinnati police from the African-American community been any less vehement?

Another popular answer is that the police should simply have backed off. But faced with Jones' attack on the officers, this is an answer that only says, "deal us out of this hand." It might have been an appropriate response from African-American leaders of a generation ago, in the days of Bull Conner and Sheriff Jim Clark, but not now. Though in many ways, police attitudes toward the black community have not much changed from those bad old days, still, there are African-American police chiefs and mayors and council members in cities across this country. Some of us have stepped into the Big House now, not merely as cooks and servants, but in positions of authority.

No. If we have a better plan, then some of us need to spell it out. How would we have been handled it, specifically, had we been the police officer dodging Jones' blow?

The second question to be answered -- this one to the population at large -- is, who should respond to reports of unstable citizens, and how?

Surveillance video released from the fast food restaurant where the altercation took place showed Jones dancing and marching around the restaurant and then the parking lot. Jones later reportedly fell outside, and rolled down a hill. That's when fire department paramedics were called. They found Jones acting in a manner that has been variously described as "strange" and "bizarre." Following standard procedure on situations somewhat out of their field of expertise, they called the police.

Police are trained (some better, some not so well) to subdue and arrest criminal suspects. Paramedics are trained to treat emergency medical victims. Neither seems capable of handling what appears to be a growing American social problem: the mentally unstable. Combine the rise of drug use with the explosion of the homeless population, add in President Reagan's emptying of the country's mental wards for the sake of some short-term savings, and you end up with a large number of odd-acting folks walking around our streets and other public places. Some mumble to themselves. Some shout. Others act aggressively towards others, or do other belligerent things. Are these people merely dancing to a different drummer, or are they actually threats, to themselves or to folks around them? Only professionals can tell.

Often, our responses to these people becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the very presence of police officers may (and in this case, we must stress the may, since we're only speculating) have provoked Jones to a violent response, whereas his response to some other type of professional might have led to a less tragic result.

The problem is, we are asking police to do things beyond their field of expertise, and then offer criticism when they cannot perform what they have no training to do. We appear to have no middle ground to call upon, a professional force that can, on the street and in the heat of a confrontation, recognize the difference between mental instability and criminal intent and respond appropriately in either situation. Such a force is clearly needed.

So far, the death of Nathaniel Jones has led to a widening of the great rift between the police and the African-American community and their supporters, both in Cincinnati and in other parts of the country. His death might be an opening to solution for some enormous national problems. But only if we ask the right questions.

Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif.

The Affair of the Fifteen Women

At the risk of having all of my good Republican friends admonish me to get over it, I'm wondering if we are going to have any sort of resolution of Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's Affair Of the Fifteen Women.

For those of you who missed that one (or held your hands over your ears and shouted, "I don't wanna hear it! I don't wanna hear it!" shortly before the recall election), the Los Angeles Times released a story saying it had found some 11 women who said that Mr. Schwarzenegger had physically assaulted them over the past several years. After the story was published, another four women came forward with similar charges.

I deliberately use the term "physically assaulted" rather than "groped" (the term that most newspapers used when reporting the incidents) for a reason. "Groped" has a sort of teenage-boy-snicker sound to it, a sort of "yeah, she squealed but she really liked it" feel. "Assault," on the other hand, is the legal term used when someone puts their hands on you without permission (its close cousin, "battery," is used when that assault leads to physical harm).

And that's what the 15 women accused Schwarzenegger of doing: Not of being boorish, of breaking the law.

Immediately after the charges against Schwarzenegger surfaced, my conservative friends accused my liberal friends of "hypocrisy" because -- according to the argument -- liberal Democrats were castigating Schwarzenegger for the same activity that they, the liberal Democrats, so recently excused in the former President Clinton.

This type of thinking must have been filed under the "It Happened To Women And It Had Something To Do With Sex, So It Must All Be The Same" category.

I can understand (while not agreeing with) why so many of my conservative friends chose not to listen to the charges about Schwarzenegger before the election. After all, if conservatives stood up and took the charges seriously and believed them, these conservatives would face a difficult choice. If they went ahead and voted for Schwarzenegger, they would have to admit -- to themselves in the privacy of the ballot booth, if not to the public -- that all this loud, chest-beating self-righteousness they have subjected the nation to on moral issues these past few years has been so much blown smoke.

On the other hand, if they followed their consciences and moral compasses and didn't vote for Schwarzenegger, conservatives risked leaving California in the hands of either Gray Davis or Cruz Bustamante. So just say that it's all a liberal plot or a Gray Davis dirty trick. But the election is now over, and we have no more excuses.

For Californians of all political persuasions, the questions now hang: Did our governor-elect assault 15 women and, if he did, do we think that's okay?

As the father of four daughters, I'm especially interested in the answer.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a regular columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet.

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