At 12:16 p.m. Monday, the rumbling began. Across a stretch of Coney Island Avenue known as Little Pakistan, store owners began pulling down their shop gates to show their solidarity with striking immigrant workers across the country, along with their disdain for HR 4437, the draconian anti-immigrant legislation that passed the House on December 16.
More than 100 businesses from this neighborhood that borders the Midwood and Kensington sections of Brooklyn closed down for about 40 minutes. Among them were Pakistani-, Russian-, and Mexican-owned restaurants, pharmacies, barbershops, beauty parlors, travel shops, call centers, and cell phone stores, a Bangladeshi wholesale distributor, and a Muslim bookstore.
The initial plan was just to shutter their stores, but then a group of about 50 Mexicans and Central Americans who work in the neighboring Parkville section of Brooklyn marched over to protest with them.
"Si, se puede!" they chanted in unison as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis linked arms with the Latinos and whites from the neighborhood, among them the Irish American owners of a plumbing supply store on Coney Island Avenue that also closed down.
They were cheered by passing drivers and big rigs blasting their horns in support.
It wasn't the biggest demonstration on May 1. But the decision of so many South Asians here to step out of their stores was significant, since this is a community which has already experienced firsthand the impact of mass deportations.
Following 9-11, the Department of Homeland Security set up a special registration program requiring immigrants from 25 countries -- 24 of them Muslim -- to register with the FBI and immigration officials.
More than 13,000 Muslims were put into deportation proceedings. Many others left for fear of being locked up in detention centers.
"We've already taken the hit," says Mohammed Razvi, executive director of the Council Of Peoples Organization (COPO), a social service group that serves South Asians and other immigrants in the community. In Brooklyn alone, Razvi estimates some 20,000 South Asians have left since the special registration program was implemented.
"If you go though my neighborhood you see Russian stores opening up because there were vacancies. That's the demographic shift that's happened here.
"People were afraid to go to the police to report crimes or the hospitals because they were undocumented. If they pass this new legislation, that is going to affect 11 million undocumented people, what will that do?" Razvi asks. "That would be devastation for the whole country."
"They're talking 'bout us lying, but look at this," complained Army Staff Sergeant Blanco (he declined to give his first name), holding up one of the flyers a group of anarchists was distributing recently outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Brooklyn. "It says we work on commission and get paid more the more recruits we sign up. If that was true, I'd be driving a Lexus. We'd set up a tent and be out here 24-7."
Billed on NYC Indymedia as a chance to "strike at the Achilles heal of the war machine!", the small street demo drew far more cops than anarchists. But for the Army and Marine recruiters milling outside their empty offices on Flatbush Avenue, it was yet another hurdle in a job that's getting tougher by the day.
From San Francisco, where voters just passed a measure aimed at kicking recruiters out of public schools and off college campuses, to East Harlem, where about 75 people gathered to protest the opening of a new recruiting office on East 103rd Street, recruiters are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the anti-war movement.
Buoyed by falling enlistment rates, peace activists of all stripes now see draining the supply of new soldiers as a more hands on way to stop the war in Iraq.
"It's better than marching around in circles," said Brian, a dumpster-diving squatter from Brooklyn as he pressed leaflets and pamphlets on high school kids and other passersby in hopes of dissuading any potential new GIs.
In the past year, Army enlistment has fallen off target by more than 6,600 soldiers, the biggest shortfall since 1979. Recruiting for the National Guard and Army Reserves has been worse.
Among African Americans, Army enlistment has dropped by 40 percent since 2000, a fact not lost on the recruiters posted in Flatbush. "We don't have the revolving door any more," said Army staff sergeant Arrindell, a Brooklyn native who also declined to give his first name. "Before a lot of people were walking in. Now you really have to go out and hustle."
Arrindell shrugged. "Nobody in New York has anything good to say about the war," he said.
"If we continue at this pace, guess what's next: a draft," an African American sergeant sitting at the desk next to him chimed in. "What are we going to do then as a country -- are people going to Canada? Then you've actually forced the government to do that, because you've stopped the people who want to voluntarily serve by giving them a lot of flak for it. What kind of democracy would we have then?"
Talk of crisis within the ranks only heartened the anarchists demonstrating outside. "Bring it on -- I would love a draft," said Wesley Everett, a 31-year-old from Queens who helped organize the protest. "It would expose how pathetic their war agenda really is.
"People sign up for two years' service but they can be called up for eight under the stop-loss program -- so that already is a draft. Poverty is a draft," he continued, echoing a complaint by Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, who has advocated reinstating a universal draft as a means to check the Bush Administration's militarism.
As Rangel and others have argued, the U.S. would be out of Iraq already -- or might never have gone in -- if children of the middle and privileged classes were forced to serve.
Helping the Enemy?
Of course, the thought that the military could be backed into a corner like this has alarmed war supporters, who have echoed President Bush's charge that the anti-war movement is helping the enemy.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly went so far as to suggest that al Qaeda should bomb San Francisco for its relatively mild ballot proposition urging educators at public schools to discourage recruitment and provide students with info on scholarships and alternatives to the military instead.
Counter-recruitment protests have become a flashpoint in the debate over the war in Iraq, and right now the protest crowd has the momentum.
"In the past year, there's been an explosion in this kind of work across the country," says Steve Theberge, a youth organizer with the War Resisters League. "A lot of people felt really powerless after the last election. But this is something people can grab on to. You can see concrete results, and there's real power in not feeding the war machine. For a high school student to say no to the military and speak out against recruiters at their school -- or an entire community to say no to recruitment -- that's very empowering."
Last Thursday, students were out picketing and protesting at high schools and colleges across the country as part of a nationwide "Not Your Soldier" day of action called by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. Actions were slated in more than 30 towns and cities, including Hicksville, Long Island, where high school students staged a lunchtime walkout to demand and end to military recruitment on campus, and Washington, D.C., where area students planned to besiege Pentagon employees at rush-hour with the demand of "Stop the Assault on Youth!"
In New York City, activists worked outside of high schools including Washington Irving in Manhattan and Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. They offered forms explaining how students can opt-out of the recruiting lists compiled from enrollment data that schools are now required to turn over under the Leave No Child Behind Act. And they circulated petitions in support of the Student Privacy Act, which could bar the military from getting names and contact information for students from schools without parental consent.
On Friday, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance put out a call for "non-violent resistance" outside recruiting stations. Demonstrations were announced in 15 cities, including New York, where the War Resisters League held a funeral march from Washington Square Park to the U.S. Navy Recruiting station at 207 West 24th St Street at 7th Avenue.
While the New York event is intended as a solemn procession with mock coffins, in Eugene, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, and Lakewood, Colorado, there are plans for sit-ins and blockades outside recruiting centers. In Pittsburgh, anarchists and other anti-war activists plan a noisy picket outside the same recruiting station where police responded with tasers, pepper spray and police dogs at a protest-turned-melee in August.
Dubbed "National Stand Down Day," Friday's protest takes its name from the "stand down" day called by Army brass in May. That's when recruiters were ordered to halt their outreach and review legal and ethical guidelines after a rash of reports of overly aggressive and abusive recruiting practices. Among the troubling incidents, recruiters in Golden, Colorado, were caught advising a 17-year-old to lie about his high school diploma and fake a drug test in order to enlist.
Stepping up Recruitment Tactics
As public support for the war withers (63 percent of Americans now disapprove of the situation in Iraq, according to the latest CNN/ Gallup/ USA Today poll) the Pentagon is upping the ante with boosted sign-up bonuses, video games, and slick ads to woo parents. Recruiters are also aggressively going after poor rural and minority youth.
Counter-recruiters say the government is closing off choices for underprivileged kids. "People see the money that would be going to education and CUNY schools for funding and scholarships so they could go to college is just going to the war," says Gloria Quinones, a mom who helped organize the demo in East Harlem. "It's like they're being backed up against the wall so they have no other options."
The House of Representatives just voted to slash student loans by more than $14 billion; if the language stays in the final budget bill, that would be the biggest cut in the history of the federal loan program. Yet the Pentagon is spending $7 billion a month to maintain the Iraq occupation.
And still recruiters are scrambling to meet their quotas. The increased pressure on young people is only provoking more resistance, anti-war activists say. "These days it's pretty hard to find anyone who supports what the military is doing," says David Tykulsker of Brooklyn Parents for Peace, which has been hosting tables outside Brooklyn high schools to inform students of their right to opt out of the Pentagon's recruitment lists.
Under the Leave No Child Behind Act, schools are required to turn over the names, phone numbers, and addresses of all students -- though students can remove their names if they request that.
Tykulsker claims that a member of the city's Panel for Educational Policy recently told him as many as half of New York City students have chosen to remove their names from the lists -- a number that if true would top the 19 percent opt-out rate recently reported in Boston.
A spokesperson with New York's Department of Education said no overall figures exist because the city is not required to keep such data.
Yet even as some students opt out of the lists that schools are mandated to provide, the Pentagon has hired a direct marketing firm to amass data on young people aged 16 to 25 -- including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, ethnicity, religious affiliation, grade-point averages, school interests, and other info pulled from motor vehicle records, commercial data vendors, Armed Services aptitude tests, and scholarship survey forms -- possibly even medical lists.
Unlike the student lists compiled by schools, there is no opt-out form for the Pentagon's Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies (JAMRS) Recruiting Database. Last month a coalition of parents, anti-war, and privacy groups wrote to the Department of Defense demanding that the $343 million program be dismantled.
"Initially I think people were shocked at the privacy issues involved with turning over student records. Now I think people are more shocked at what the military is actually doing," Tykulsker says. "This is a military that's engaged in serious illegal acts, ranging from torture and illegal detentions to the use of chemical warfare," he adds, referring to reports that the Army used white phosphorus in the siege of Falluja. "The idea that we would be subjecting our children to this is ludicrous."
The recruiters whose job is to enlist new troops hear the dissent -- and argue they're part of protecting it. "We're so quick to voice our opinions, but why do you have the right to do that? Because of the men and women in uniform who protect our freedom," says the African American Army sergeant working the desk in Flatbush. "You might not support the reason for the war, but all of us are Americans. I've been in the Army for 18 years -- for me, this is a livelihood. This is my career."
Jumah Dossari has been imprisoned at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo for nearly four years without charges or access to his family, in nearly complete isolation. On October 15, he tried to hang himself in his cell, timing the attempt so that an outsider might see him dangling in a makeshift noose, his last message to the world. Dossari has more or less survived. (Military officials confirm that in the last few months, there have been at least 36 suicide attempts.)
While he was being revived, other prisoners at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo, who are being force-fed because they are on a hunger strike in desperation, like Dossari's, had their cases heard against "George W. Bush, et al.," in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
I have seen many stories on the hunger strikers in the national and international press; but the clearest account I know, vividly detailing what George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld keep describing as the "humane" treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, is in Judge Gladys Kessler's decision on these cases in the D.C. District Court.
The prisoners are asking for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the government to prove the legality of their being held at the U.S. naval base. There have been hunger strikes at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo before; and this most recent oneÃ¢â‚¬â€�according to the petitioners' lawyersÃ¢â‚¬â€�included between 131 to 210 "detainees" of the 500 in prison. The Defense Department's statistics are reluctant and changeable, so that count may be larger.
At least 20 of the "detainees" claim they are being "forcibly subjected to involuntary medical intervention via the introduction of intravenous fluids or nasocentric (nasal) tube feeding."
In her memorandum opinion, Judge Kessler quoted a declaration by Julia Tarver, the counsel for three of the petitioners. It was submitted to the court after she had visited her clients at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo from September 30 to October 2 of this year.
Julia Tarver wrote that during the forced feeding of Yousef Al Shehri, as the tubes were inserted "through [his] nose, down the throat, and into the stomach, Al Shehri was given no sedative for the procedure; instead, two soldiers restrained himÃ¢â‚¬â€�one holding his chin while the other held him back by his hair and a medical staff member forcefully inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat. . . . He could not speak for two days [and] he could not sleep because of the severe pain." Judge Kessler wrote that "the procedure caused him and other detainees to vomit 'substantial amounts of blood.' "
In a different prison location, where there was a hole in the floor in which to urinate, thicker tubes were inserted into prisoners' noses; and when one was removed from Al Shehri's nose, Julia Tarver wrote (in another passage quoted by Judge Kessler), "blood came gushing out of him. He fainted, and several of the other detainees almost lost consciousness."
Further indicating that the "humane treatment" the president continually pledges is mandated in the cells at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo, Yousef Al Shehri also said, according to Julia Tarver's account, that "in front of GuantÃƒÂ¡namo physiciansÃ¢â‚¬â€�including the head of the detainees hospitalÃ¢â‚¬â€�the guards took NG tubes from one detainee, and with no sanitation whatsoever , re-inserted it into the nose of a different detainee." (Emphasis in original.) The passage continued: "The detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from other detainees remaining on the tubes."
Judge Kessler then wrote: "Petitioners assert that because of this needlessly cruel and painful treatment, Al Shehri 'can no longer walk.' " The judge further quoted from Tarver's account: "He lost some of his vision, and he is vomiting every day. . . . He has severe headaches and great pain in his ear. He is only able to urinate once every few days. . . . He has given his last will and testament, as he fully anticipates that he is going to die."
Some years ago, I was in Judge Gladys Kessler's courtroom and admired the crisp decisiveness of her judicial temperament. Therefore, I was not surprised that in her ruling on these cases, she noted that the government, in its response to these charges, "pointed out that thus far, 'no one has died.' "
Said Judge Kessler: "It goes without saying that this Court need not wait to issue injunctive relief until a detainee has died."
She went on: "The court concludes that Petitioners have provided sufficient facts . . . to establish that the threat of death or serious physical deterioration is real and imminent, and that Petitioners have satisfied the requirement of facing irreparable harm unless injunctive relief is granted."
Kessler's conclusion was that these prisoners have a right to challenge their detentions, as the Supreme Court ruled; and to have meaningful access to their lawyers and the Court.
Moreover, from now on, the government must inform the prisoners' lawyers "within 24 hours of the commencement of any forced feeding." And the government must provide "medical records spanning the period beginning one week prior to the date forced feeding commenced," and must also continue providing medical records, "at a minimum, on a weekly basis until forced feeding concludes."
Meanwhile, Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, has asked Donald Rumsfeld for permission to bring a team of U.N. human rights investigators to GuantÃƒÂ¡namo to interview the prisoners. Rumsfeld said they could come, but could not see the "detainees" privately. Nowak, refusing to come, said mordantly, "He said they have nothing to hide." Ah, but Rumsfeld is allowing an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to have private meetings with the prisoners. That, said Nowak, is because Red Cross investigators cannot declare their findings publicly. The U.N. team can.
Rumsfeld says of the hunger strike that these "detainees" are merely "fasting" for brief periods in rotation with each other.
First, a rundown of the incident. During the winter, Columbia University appointed a faculty committee to investigate and file a report on a dispute that has badly roiled its campus: a heated and very public controversy over student charges of anti-Israel bias by some members of the Middle East studies faculty. The 24-page report was readied for release on April 1, but the university decided to give the Times, an old friend with which it has quietly swapped favors over the years, a one-day advantage over the competition. However, Columbia set one condition: The Times had to agree, in return for this exclusive access, not to seek comment from any "other interested parties," such as the student body and, in particular, the Jewish students who had brought the allegations. Strangely, the reporter and her immediate editors accepted the conditions. The university also offered the same deal to the independent campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, which smartly turned it down and published a story with comments from the protesting students.
As long as I can remember, it has been an accepted rule of journalism that, absent some extreme circumstance, such as a threat to national security, a newsperson is never to acquiesce to a source's request to do less than a full reporting job or to leave basic information out of a story. The Times' own official policy contains the following: "We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being reported. We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story. (We may, however, agree to a limited delay in further inquiries--until the close of stock trading, for example.)"
The Times' latest stumble was discovered and immediately exposed by The New York Sun, a fledgling daily with a decidedly rightist, pro-Israel stance that has been waging a campaign against the Times' coverage of the campus controversy. A few days later, on April 6, the Times published an Editor's Note (reserved for significant errors), which read, in part: "Under the Times' policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information. In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public. ... Last Wednesday night, after the article had been published on the Times' Web site, the reporter exchanged messages with one of the students who had lodged the original complaints. The student was expecting to read the report shortly. But because of the lateness of the hour, and concern about not having response from other interested parties, the reporter did not wait for a comment for later versions, including the printed one, after the student had read the report. Without a response from the complainants, the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form. The response was included in an article on Friday [the following day]."
That second-day article was full of reactions, all of them unsurprising. The student complainants called the report "insulting" because the five-member panel found only one instance of inappropriate professorial behavior in the classroom. But a couple of these students, after a meeting with Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said they were encouraged that a measure of progress had been made. Some people at Columbia found other grounds for criticism, saying that the investigation by itself would have a chilling effect on academic freedom of expression. One source familiar with the preparation of the report complained privately that the Times' first-day headline and lead paragraph had oversimplified what he regarded as a nuanced and balanced document. The headline read: "Columbia Panel Clears Professors of Anti-Semitism."
The decades-old Middle East dispute is one of those virulent tribal wars that throw up the most extreme emotional arguments; middle ground is rarely in sight. This bitter campus argument is no exception. Outside advocacy organizations on both sides have thrust themselves into the fray, making resolution even more difficult. In short, no official report on the matter would have satisfied the warring parties. The journalism ethics issue, while hardly a cause for a hanging, was nonetheless an eye-opening goof. The Times statement, in its April 6 mea culpa, that "editors and the writer did not recall the [paper's] policy" was an astonishing one. After all the hammering the nation's still-best newspaper has taken for its major screwups of the last few years, and after installing an ombudsman as a corrective and rewriting the paper's entire ethics code, is it possible that anyone on the news staff doesn't know you aren't supposed to leave stuff out of a story because a source asked you to?
One Times insider said he believed that the Columbia story may have been the education beat reporter's first encounter with such a request from a source. OK, anything is possible. But what about her immediate editors? Isn't it a part of their job to have full knowledge of the paper's code of standards and ethics? Actually, my reporting indicates that editors were the ones who caught the lapse--senior editors who called a halt when the unholy arrangement with Columbia was reported to them at the late-afternoon Page One meeting--and ordered the staff to seek broader reaction to the Columbia report. The Times did the right thing. It corrected its mistake and deserves credit for that. Finally, what about Columbia? What was its administration thinking when it insisted upon these limitations on reporting? This is a university that boasts it has the best journalism school in the country. How will it explain this ethics violation to that student body? Where is the university's mea culpa?
Here is Columbia's response; readers can decide whether it satisfies them.
In a lengthy interview, Susan Brown, director of Columbia's Office of Public Affairs, said, in part:
"We wanted the report [initially] to speak for itself without the interpretations or responses of others commenting on it . . . not through the lens of others. ... It was not a condition, it was a request. We asked them [the Times] not to contact anyone who had not yet seen the report. We wanted to protect its confidentiality.
"As you said [when I told her the gist of the Voice article], this is a volcanic and polarizing issue. ... We all learn from experiences that there are unintended consequences. The intentions were perfectly honorable. No one was thinking of the journalism issue [at the time]."
More than once in the interview, Brown said that, in hindsight, "we would have done it differently."
The crime scene out front didn't cool Hot 97's "blazing hip hop and R&B" last week – or mute the station's intense coverage of the on-air beef between 50 Cent and the Game that ended in bloodshed on its sidewalk. Sure, morning host Miss Jones initially promised not to exploit the Feb. 28 shooting. But before noon on March 1, her broadcast crew was telling us "how it all began."
First, we heard the tape of Game's earlier appearance with host Funkmaster Flex, in which he disavowed any beefs with some of 50 Cent's top rivals. That meant, Jones told listeners, that "[Game] was never friends with 50." Then there was the audio of 50 Cent on Flex's show the day of the shooting, boasting that "every record [Game]'s selling is based on me being on his record with him," and announcing that Game was no longer a member of 50's G-Unit crew. Finally, listeners heard the call from Jadakiss to Hot 97 host DJ Clue right after midnight on March 1. "Who is he?" Jadakiss is heard saying of 50. Somewhere amid those clips was the confrontation on Hudson Street between backers of "Half a Dollar" and Game that sent one guy to the hospital.
It wasn't the first time the station had been in the background of a violent hip-hop incident. Last week, a federal perjury case opened against rapper Lil' Kim related to a February 2001 shooting near Hot 97. In 2003, Funkmaster Flex pled guilty to a harassment charge resulting from an altercation in September 2002 with rival DJ Steph Lova. And in September 2003, 50 Cent was fired upon in New Jersey in an incident that might have been triggered by his appearance hours earlier on Hot.
Well, it's a violent world, right? So someone shot a guy in a high-rent district of Manhattan last week, "so what?" rap impresario Russell Simmons tells the Voice. "There was a shooting in Brooklyn last night," and that's not big news, he says. Game was shot before, but the gunplay didn't make headlines then.
True. But those other shootings did not involve the entourages of young millionaires or result from on-air disses broadcast to millions on federally regulated, corporate-owned radio. While not excusing the triggermen in each case, some hip-hop heavyweights say the corporate ownership deserves blame for hyping hip-hop beefs, some of which turn bloody, and all of which undercut the true power of the music.
"They just throw it out there and they fester it," says hip-hop legend Chuck D. "They're just trying to get ears." Hence the airtime Hot 97 has devoted to the dispute between Benzino and Eminem, or Jay-Z versus Nas, and now 50 dissing Game – to name a few. Critics of Hot 97 who held a rally in frigid Union Square Park last Friday are part of a burgeoning opposition to corporate control of hip-hop radio. After all, these beefs don't just get aired to the five boroughs: Around the country last week, Hot 97's material was getting play, according to DJ and hip-hop journalist Mr. Davey D from Los Angeles. "Now people all over the world, radio stations out here are playing the clip of 50 and Game," he tells the Voice. "So their brand is out there."
Hot 97's brand was already out there. Its owner, Emmis Communications, calls it "the premier hip-hop radio station in America," and pegs its market revenue at $808.2 million. Emmis is an Indianapolis-based firm that owns a handful of small magazines, TV stations in several cities, and radio licenses in a few more. The firm's reputation is apparently good enough that "socially-responsible" investment funds, like the California Public Employees Retirement System and Domini Social Investments, hold thousands of shares.
Owners like Emmis and Clear Channel are the corporate muscle beneath hip-hop's skin; their hip-hop stations are notably dubbed "urban radio," which Chuck D says is "a perfect term because it actually escapes the notion of black ownership." The term first originated when black stations wanted to bring in white advertising, says hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. Now, he says, it's been donned by white stations "using black music and culture to get street cred and in turn to drive the rest of the music industry."
Hip-hop is an industry – whatever personal stuff was rolled into last week's shooting, the disputes cannot be separated from the money that makes the music possible. "Now artists are companies, they're not just individuals," says Davey D. "Fat Joe's success or failure impacts a whole lot of people who are associated with the brand." So when you get dissed on air, you've got to respond.
"Radio and the media in that aspect can play a really, really irresponsible role in terms of blowing out these beefs to a whole other level," says Chang. "Everybody makes money off of that: The magazine makes money off of that, the radio station makes money off of that, and the rapper makes money off of that."
Alex Dudley, a spokesperson for Hot 97, denies that the station exploits hip-hop rivalries, telling the Voice, "The beefs are no question a large part of the music as you can understand by picking up an album. So when an artist comes to talk about his album it naturally comes up."
Since the disputes are part of the lyrical form of gangsta rap, are the beefs, in fact, genuine? Despite rumors circulating for weeks about a tiff between 50 Cent and Game, 50 only brought the issue into the open the week of his new album's release.
Simmons rejects the idea that the disputes are a marketing ploy. "This is the mind-set," he says. "If they were two hustlers – and they are – and they have a beef – which they do – and that beef got interfered with, this is how they'd handle it." Todd Lynn, the comedian who was fired from Hot 97 over a song that used a racial slur and mocked tsunami victims, calls the station management "jackasses," but insists, "I honestly don't believe that they have anything to do with creating these beefs," or with hyping them.
Regardless of where the beefs start or if they are real, DJs are the ones who decide the kind of play they get. And it's not a painless choice. "I don't think any on-air personality starts the beef. I think artists make that decision all by themselves," says MTV VJ and syndicated Wake Up Show host Sway. But once a beef breaks out, Sway says, "You put the radio personality in a catch-22 because I don't think anyone wants to amplify that – or to some people, glamorize that – but if you don't the man across the street might."
So DJs are under big pressure to talk about these beefs. But, adds Sway, "how you talk about it and how you deal with it is important." The DJs could warn listeners that the beef might be just a record-selling ploy – not deadly serious. Or they could talk about more important beefs, like the Iraq war or police brutality. Too often, however, they obsess over the stress between the stars. "They laugh about it, but these are people's lives," says Rosa Clemente, a member of a coalition organizing protests against Hot 97 after the station aired the offensive song about tsunami victims. "This is very serious, what's happening, and it's very sad that Hot 97 will do anything for ratings at this point."
Hot 97 isn't the only station that plays the game. In an interview with 50 Cent on Feb. 28 before the rapper appeared on Hot 97, Power 105's Ed Lover promised at the start to talk about the "negative energy" in 50's life. "We have to," Lover said. Asked why the station had to discuss rap grudges, Power 105.1 program director Michael Saunders said in a statement, "As media professionals we have to ask artists questions about disputes. However, we try to downplay rivalries as much as possible because we are aware of our role in the hip-hop community. We realize the importance of not putting any fuel in the fire that might ignite individuals who surround the artists on a daily basis."
But during his interview, Lover devoted several minutes of airtime to 50's feuds with Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas. He wanted 50 to reveal "what's your beef with each one of them individually." Then another several minutes were spent on the dispute with Game. At one point, Lover asked, "So where does he stand with G-Unit?" to which 50 answered, "He's not in my camp." At the end of the show, Young Buck called in, offering to "take care of" Game. 50 declined.
It isn't news that sensational news sells. There was proof in the coverage of the Hot 97 shooting itself: The Daily News decorated the top of its March 2 cover with bullet holes and the headline "Rap Wars," and the next day a Post story was slugged "Fan day KO'd by gritty 'Fitty' bang-bang." Nor is it earth-shattering analysis that corporate control has, according to some fans, tainted a form of entertainment. The distinction is that in this case, the media conglomerate template is being laid over a subgenre of music – gangsta rap – that often celebrates bloodshed.
"It's not like the guys in the corporation really know who the Game is or give a fuck about 50 Cent. There'll be another," says Sway. "Whatever records by whatever artists work the best." And when a dispute between rappers erupts, Sway says, "it's not about Hot 97 or [L.A. station] Power 106. It's not about any radio station in particular. It's just about radio in general. If you're going to be on the air, you're going to have to be ready to compete at all times."
Hot 97 spokesman Dudley says blaming the station lets the triggerman off the hook. But radio's impact can be destructive. Davey D recalls that when local stations in San Francisco divided up the market into black and Latino audiences, high school fans almost resorted to violence to pledge their allegiance. Political commentary, once at hip hop's heart, has disappeared. And Simmons tells the Voice that he believes "that Biggie and Tupac's deaths were fueled by the media," although he blames the media at large, not just a few radio stations.
"I can't judge the radio station for having the dialogue that the kids are interested in," he says. The trick is to teach the listeners there is a better way, he says. Sometimes radio stations have done that – banning artists who get violent, brokering truces among rival stars. Hot 97 itself has shown restraint at times: stopping Nas from doing a mock lynching at Summer Jam, banning Capone from its air after the 2001 shooting outside the station. But other times, Simmons says, the people in charge of media outlets "don't say these things and can't teach these things because they don't necessarily know it. A lot of times we have these people in charge and their job is to exploit." That's true, he notes, of all industry.
Friday's rally against Hot 97 attracted only a few hundred people. But Chang sees the Union Square gathering as part of a "popular kind of uprising against what we're getting on urban radio" that has broken out in San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere. And while earlier crusades against rap radio were led by people who disliked the music, this one is run by people who love hip hop but feel it has been polluted by cash. Rejecting the charge that Hot 97 has failed to reflect its community's values, Dudley points to the station's long-standing ranking as No. 1 among 18- to 34-year-olds. "I think that's a pretty accurate reflection of the community we serve," he says.
Oddly enough, those same market forces are also the best weapon for reform. The outrage over the "Tsunami Song" spurred real action by Emmis only after Hot 97 began losing sponsors. "That is their lifeline," the rapper Immortal Technique told the Voice by e-mail. "Threaten that and they will listen."
Indeed, Hot's DJs themselves hint at a thirst for something better. The morning after last week's shooting, before they dug into the beef between 50 and Game, the crew at Hot 97 was actually on the same page as their critics. Their talk was about newspapers' failing to put Jamie Foxx, winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, on their covers. One of Miss Jones' on-air colleagues was skeptical that people of color could unify to fight that sort of thing – they paid too much attention to distractions like the "unfortunate incident" the night before. "Yeah, but can't we mobilize for other issues?" Jones asked. Her colleague replied, "I wish."
Waging war isn't about fun and games. Or is it? A visit to one of the world's biggest conventions for military training technology reveals that today's armed forces are taking cues from video games, theme parks and Hollywood. Find out how the Pentagon is funding the future of new media at Orlando, Florida's I/ITSEC: the Defense Department's own Disney World.
In one corner of a football-field-sized convention floor crammed with display booths, representatives from VirTra Systems stand at the entranceway to their company's tent. Different videotaped military and security training scenarios play inside, unfolding within a virtual environment formed by a series of interactive projections. A rep walks to the center of the near-circle of giant video images, clutching a realistic-looking laser pistol, as one of the narratives begins: An al Qaeda terrorist has taken an American engineer hostage, and the rep needs to shoot the bearded baddie down. The rep's laser pistol fires loudly, but misses the mark, hitting instead a pack of explosives strapped to the terrorist's chest. The walls glow with a virtual blast – the mechanized floor, in fact, vibrates like an enormous video game controller – and the scenario ends; the whole event has taken less than two and a half seconds. The other rep turns to the conventioneers clustered around the tent's opening. "This is what our military and law enforcement have to deal with on a daily basis," he says.
"Now, you can also use this to enhance the experience," the VirTra rep continues, fastening a thick, black device around his waist. The "threat-fire belt," he explains, issues an electric shock to the trainee if he or she is hit by the imaginary bullet of a virtual assailant, who might appear anywhere on the semicircular screen. "If you get hit in the back, trust me, you'll remember it. This one will bring you to your knees. The whole idea is to fight through the pain, and keep on going, just the way that you've been trained."
VirTra was one of hundreds of private contractors and military agencies showing off the latest in media-based training systems last December at I/ITSEC, the cumbersomely named annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. I/ITSEC exists to bring together the different military branches, related government agencies, private contractors and academia to showcase new and future developments in simulation-based training – military lingo for the technology-enhanced, serious-minded make-believe that provides the cornerstone of modern preparation for battle. When I/ITSEC began three decades ago, simulation training meant mechanical airplane cockpit mock-ups with blinking electronic lights, or live playacted war games of the Red vs. Blue variety. Such antique practices have now merged with the cutting edge of science and entertainment. Today, attendees are more likely to engage with something along the lines of VirTra's immersive virtual theater: the souped-up, grown-up cousins of video games, tailor-made to teach the new-media generation how to fight America's war on terror.
At first glance, the convention floor seems like a dotcom-era throwback. Elaborately decorated walk-through displays pack the enormous hall, each stuffed with monitors, flyers and logo-printed giveaway trinkets. Some bear familiar names – Saab, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics. Soundtracks to corporate videos bleed into one another, punctuated by newscaster-cool voice-overs, corny synths, and adrenaline-pumping guitar riffs. Many representatives wear matching team outfits: One group mingles in white lab coats, another in Red Sox jerseys. A smiling female booth staffer offers ice cream in exchange for dropping a business card in a fishbowl, as a polo-shirted man silently creeps by on a Segway scooter.
But this is 2004, not 2000, so the business at hand is fighting war and defending the homeland. Suits are as plentiful as desert camo; some displays are swathed in army green netting. Near the floor's entrance, a giant plasma screen shows a pilot's-eye view of a bombing run over a computer-generated desert landscape, where digital explosions blossom to the tune of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." A company called Dynamic Animation Systems shows off its urban-combat-themed marksmanship trainer prototype in six shooting-gallery-style stalls equipped with video projectors. In each stall, men in suits or uniforms pick up laser rifles and blast away at CGI'd insurgents, who jump out from behind cars and rubble in a digital mock-up of an Iraqi city, complete with fading posters of Saddam Hussein on the sides of buildings. To the casual observer, the trainer seems indistinguishable from the latest Iraq-themed game for PlayStation or Xbox. A woman in jeans and a pink shirt grabs a gun and starts picking off hooded villains with ruthless precision. "Oh man, she is cold!" laughs a soldier standing behind her. A few paces away, a grinning man who could be Dick Cheney's stunt double – fiftyish, balding, dark-blue suit and tie – perches atop a mock armored vehicle inside another dome of video projections, machine-gunning down computer-generated terrorists as the barren, sand-colored landscape rolls around him. Smoke pours from his mounted gun, and real metal shells fall onto the carpeted floor.
To a blue-state civilian outsider, the scene at first seems surreal – or, perhaps, all too real: the ultimate convergence of digital entertainment and the war on terror, a vision worthy of Paul Verhoeven, with blockbuster production budgets to match. As much as 16 percent of the current U.S. defense spending goes toward training, and the dollar amount has escalated sharply since 9/11. In 2000, about $3 billion was spent by the Department of Defense on the MS&T (modeling, simulation, and training) sector; now the figure is closer to $6 billion, thanks to increased demand from both domestic security and conflicts abroad. According to Orlando's National Center for Simulation, a nonprofit industry organization, over $1 billion is spent in Florida alone.
By all accounts, the U.S. armed forces devote far more time, money, and research to soldier training than any other military in the world, creating a nexus of academic, corporate, and military interests collaboratively devoted to pushing new-media technologies forward. Thus the conference's Orlando location: University of Central Florida professor Christopher Stapleton, on hand at I/ITSEC with his school's Media Convergence Laboratory, argues that "central Florida is the world capital of experiential entertainment." The area boasts not only long-standing military training centers and significant investment from the Department of Defense, but also the aerospace and theme park industries.
Michael Macedonia, the affable young chief scientist and technology officer of PEO STRI, the army's Orlando-based office for simulation and training, stresses that the large-scale shoot-'em-ups on display at I/ITSEC are definitely not just big-boy's toys. "First of all," he says, "the object is not to entertain you, but to train you." He continues, "The reality is, if you really look at some of these things, they would actually be quite boring to your average game player," noting that many simulations are created to train for mundane skills, like machine maintenance. Such high-tech training, Macedonia explains, is part of the new military's post-Vietnam paradigm. Before 1970, he says, the U.S. Army "trained through blood. Technology for training was considered expensive. People were cheap."
Macedonia brings up the case of Full Spectrum Warrior, a much publicized video game developed by the army with the help of a commercial gaming company. A popular, gamer-friendly version was released for Xbox in the summer of 2004 to critical acclaim and healthy sales. A related but different form is currently used as a tactical trainer within the military. "If you play the army version – which is the only one that the army endorses, by the way – it's actually very realistic, but it's really hard. People complain that they get killed in five minutes, and can't figure it out. Well, that's because we're trying to get as realistic as possible. It's about training, and so it's about making it hard."
Not that fun does not have its place. Spc. Samuel England, a fresh-faced 19-year-old stationed at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., came to I/ITSEC to showcase the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000. England appears in the trainer's video as an actor. "Making it was actually pretty fun, just like, I guess, any sort of Hollywood-style thing," he says, grinning. At I/ITSEC, he and two other soldiers shot at the EST2000 video screen with mock rifles, trying to take down images of actors playing Iraqi insurgents. England explains that "the Iraqis are actually paid people from Titan," a major military contracting firm. "They actually get Iraqi civilians, ex-Iraqi police, and Iraqi military, and they move over to the States. They act in the films, and they work at NTC." (Although Titan would not return calls to confirm their role in casting actors for the EST 2000, representatives at the NTC said that if such a video were produced at NTC, then their on-site Iraqi employees would likely be involved.)
At the display for America's Army – the globally popular online game developed as an army recruitment tool – local teenagers scrambled to play with the America's Army Vehicle Convoy Trainer, which looks like an armed, wheel-less Humvee placed in front of an oversize video game screen depicting yet another virtual Iraq filled with digital insurgents. Though available for free on the army's recruitment site since July 4, 2002, America's Army is now being retooled into a training device as well, not only for the military but potentially for other agencies like the Secret Service. "Fun is central," says Col. Casey Wardynski, originator and director of the America's Army project. "A 'fun' training system means keeping soldiers engaged voluntarily. This situation makes for better training, and can even extend the training day into the barracks, where soldiers could continue to train in their off time."
Already, americasarmy.com touts that America's Army's Government Applications and Future Applications development teams will feed tidbits of new innovations back into the free game, to whet the appetites of its devoted online following. Preliminary materials tout the project as a good "return on investment" for a game that initially cost $7.5 million to develop. "The country is at war and to the extent that America's Army can play a larger role, it should," says Wardynski. "We know there is no silver bullet for homeland security. In this case America's Army can serve two purposes for one taxpayer investment – communicate with young adults about soldiering and provide Americans with skills to address immediate consequences in a first-responder situation."
The fusion of playtime with wartime seems perfectly natural to the folks at I/ITSEC. Many of the participating companies play both sides of the fence, to some extent: VirTra Systems makes both immersive-training devices and theme park attractions, though the former have overtaken the latter in the past four years. "Education, entertainment, training – they're all the same thing," argues Stapleton, who himself comes from a background developing technology for Broadway and theme parks. "They're all in the same business of making memories for a lifetime. When you get down to that, it's not really about the technology – even though it gives us more capabilities – it's about the impact it has on us."
The technologies that shape our culture have always been pushed forward by war: Cell phones, transistors, video games, and even the digital computer itself all emerged from wartime research. In the long term then, Orlando may be shaping our collective futures more than Hollywood or Silicon Valley. "The entertainment industry is not looking at the real science and art beyond the obvious reactive, thumb-twitching experience that has some kind of titillation to it," Stapleton continues. "That's why I transferred from the entertainment industry to working with military research, because military are the people who are asking the tough questions, and the deep questions that will matter 20, 30 years from now. The military are actually the visionaries of experiential media."
For 51 years, a family in upstate New York has closely guarded one of the most explosive, and unusual, secrets any family could have: Its late patriarch, Dow B. Hover, was New York State's executioner. Hover held the job in the 1950s and 1960s and was the last man in the state to activate the electric chair. He left behind evidence of his work�letters from Sing Sing's warden�hidden in a filing cabinet in his house.
Hover, who lived in Germantown and worked as a deputy sheriff for Columbia County, took extreme precautions to ensure no newspaper would ever reveal his identity. On the nights he drove to Sing Sing to carry out an execution, he employed a novel strategy in order to elude pesky reporters: He changed the license plates on his car before he even left his garage.
Hover worked in the infamous Sing Sing death house, where 614 people perished between 1891 and 1963�more people than at any other prison in the nation during that time. New York's last execution took place almost 42 years ago, yet the debate over the death penalty continues. Last summer, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, and now the public debate has grown even louder. Just in the last week, the state assembly convened two public hearings, in Albany and Manhattan, on the future of New York's death penalty.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecy�no television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner's identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like "justice" and "deterrence." Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Dow B. Hover had two children, both of whom are now in their 70s and still live in Germantown. They have not paid much attention to the political debate swirling around the death penalty. In fact, neither likes to think much about the issue at all. But on a recent Saturday, Hover's children finally decided to discuss their family's secret. They spoke to the Voice about their father, his execution work, and his own life's end.
On Aug. 5, 1953, a headline in The New York Times declared: "State Executioner Quits." At the time, the executioner's name was well-known. Joseph P. Francel had held the job for 14 years; his name regularly appeared in the media. Just two months earlier, he'd pulled the switch that sent 2,000 volts of electricity into the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The married couple, convicted of conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets, were the most famous of the 137 people Francel executed.
Dow B. Hover, 52, replaced Francel, securing the job through his contacts at the Columbia County sheriff's office. Like his five predecessors, Hover was a trained electrician. Now, in addition to his work as a deputy sheriff, Hover would earn $150 every time he put on a suit, made the 160-mile round-trip to Sing Sing, and pulled the switch for the electric chair. (Adjusted for inflation, this $150 payment is equivalent to about $1,000 today.) Hover would also receive gas money, usually eight cents per mile. Soon, typed one-page letters from Wilfred L. Denno, Sing Sing's warden, began arriving at his home, notifying him of every scheduled execution.
One of the first people Hover was hired to execute was 40-year-old Gerhard Puff. In 1952, Puff traveled from Kansas City to Manhattan with his 17-year-old wife, Annie Laurie. By then, Puff's rÃ©sumÃ© as a bank robber had already earned him a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Shortly after Puff and his wife arrived at the Congress Hotel on West 69th Street, FBI agents flooded the lobby. The agents were waiting for Puff to emerge from an elevator. Instead, Puff snuck down the stairs, then approached one of the agents and shot the man, killing him.
Puff's execution was scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 12, 1954, at 11 p.m., the usual appointed time for executions. That night, Hover left his Germantown home at 6:30 and arrived at Sing Sing at 9:30, according to travel records he kept. In the meantime, guards had already brought Puff his last meal: fried chicken, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, asparagus tips, salad, and strawberry shortcake. Shortly before 11, two guards led Puff down a 20-foot corridor to the electric chair and ordered him to sit. They fastened five leather straps across his body. A mask was placed over his face and electrodes were attached to his leg and head.
Standing in an alcove adjacent to the death room, facing a switchboard, Hover could see Puff. It was his duty to lower the lever, but not for so long that the body began to cook. Not so long that the reporters and other witnesses seated out front could smell burning flesh. Some men required more shocks than others, and there was a certain skill involved in making sure that Puff was electrocuted just long enough to kill him. At 11:08 p.m., a doctor pressed a stethoscope over Puff's heart and declared him dead.
By 11:30, Hover was back in his car, heading north. This time he appears to have sped more quickly along Route 9G. According to Hover's travel log, he pulled into his driveway at 1:30 a.m.
|A news article Hover clipped about his work. Clippings courtesy of Gladys Bohnsack.|
A few days later, Hover received a letter from Sing Sing's warden with two checks�"one in the amount of $150.00 and the other in the amount of $12.80 covering your services at this institution in the case of Gerhard A. Puff." The language in these letters was always the same�exceedingly formal and intentionally cryptic.
By the time Hover began his work at Sing Sing, both of his children were fully grown and out of the house. Gladys Bohnsack, then 28, had attended Albany Business College and lived with her husband in town. Dow C. Hover, 23, was off fighting in the Korean War. The children did not get the chance to weigh in on whether they thought their father should be an executioner; by the time they learned about the job, he had already accepted it.
All the children knew was that their parents had consulted with their minister. As Gladys recalls, "My mother had a problem with it when he was offered the job, because she knew morally it wasn't right: You're not supposed to kill people. ... She went to our minister to find out ... I don't know what the conversation was, [but] the minister must've said it was all right to do it, that he wasn't going to go to hell because of it."
Everyone in Germantown knew the Hovers. There is a Hover Avenue in town, and Dow B. Hover had grown up on the street, in a family of fruit farmers. He married at 20, and he and his wife, Nellie, became regulars at the Dutch Reform Church. In the late 1930s, he started raising mice in the family's cellar and launched Dow B. Hover Laboratory Animals. After he sold the company in 1952, it became Taconic Farms, which today is one of the world's largest providers of lab mice and rats.
Hover's name regularly appeared in the local paper, including in 1961, when he helped rescue two people from the Hudson River after their sailboat capsized. But his role as executioner was hidden. With very few exceptions, nobody in Germantown knew.
The name of Gerhard Puff or anyone else he had executed never came up at the dinner table in the Hover home, at least not when the children visited. Hover didn't talk about his long, lonely drives to Sing Sing and back. He didn't talk about what it was like to see a teenager strapped into the electric chair (which happened twice in 1954, once in 1955, and twice in 1956). He didn't describe how he felt about killing three people in a single night (which occurred in 1955). He never mentioned the smell of burning flesh, the hissing of electrodes, the scent of singed hair, the sparks circling the prisoner's head. Nor did he express any doubts about whether the people he executed truly deserved to die.
During the years of Hover's tenure, 44 people died in Sing Sing's death house, ranging from nine in 1954 to zero in 1962. That year, Hover did oversee two executions in another state: New Jersey. It had become common practice for Sing Sing's executioner to freelance elsewhere; Hover's expertise was in demand. On the night of Aug. 15, 1963, the man seated in Sing Sing's electric chair was 34-year-old Eddie Lee Mays of Harlem, who had been convicted of murdering a woman with a pistol while robbing a tavern on Fifth Avenue. Hover didn't know it at the time, but this execution would be the last one in New York State.
Hover's children thought their father's work at Sing Sing hadn't changed him much. Despite having to write frequent letters to the warden about execution dates, he still typed with just one or two fingers. He still lived with their mother in a two-story Cape Cod-style house on Maple Avenue. And he still sat down at the kitchen table every day at precisely 5 p.m., knife and fork in hand, waiting for her to serve him dinner. There was one way Hover had changed, however: He seemed to have migraine headaches all the time.
"I'd go visit them and Dad would be on the couch with one of his headaches," Gladys says. "Sometimes he'd get up, have his breakfast, and go lie on the couch, and get up and have lunch and then go lie on the couch. They were severe for a long time." Dow adds: "He used to take medicine, but nothing seemed to work. It just went on for years and years. It seemed like he had headaches all the time."
For at least eight years after the Eddie Lee Mays execution, mail from Sing Sing continued to arrive. The letters concerned upcoming executions; each one of them was stayed or else canceled because the governor commuted the inmate's sentence to life in prison. In April 1971, Hover received a letter from the superintendent of Green Haven prison in Dutchess County: "This is to inform you ... that the electric chair was moved from Sing Sing to this facility last summer. We have, at the present time, three (3) inmates presently awaiting execution. ... I have been advised by Sing Sing that you have rendered a service in previous executions. Will you please inform me if you are still available."
By now Hover was 70 years old. He wrote back the next morning, punching out yet another letter with two fingers on his typewriter. "I am available if needed," he wrote. Hover never did get to perform his "service" at Green Haven. The following year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the way the death penalty had been enforced was unconstitutional.
The term executioner stress describes the toll that carrying out the death penalty takes on those closest to the process. The term appears in Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. In this 2000 book, former execution team members report suffering numerous psychological symptoms: nightmares, emotional numbness, depression. A former executioner from Mississippi likens his work to "being in a car wreck that's going on forever."
The history of New York's own executioners is equally grim. John Hulbert, the state's third executioner, had the job from 1913 to 1926. One night, right before Hulbert was about to pull the switch on two men, he collapsed. Revived by Sing Sing's doctor, Hulbert finished the job, then spent a week in the prison hospital.
Hulbert oversaw 140 executions before he abruptly quit in January 1926. "His health has been rather poor and he disliked the all-night ride he had to take from Auburn to Sing Sing and back," the state's superintendent of prisons told The New York Times. Hulbert himself said, "I got tired of killing people." Three years later, Hulbert, then 59, ended his own life in the cellar of his house in Auburn. His son found him crumpled on the floor by the furnace, a .38-caliber revolver by his side.
The state's best-known executioner was Hulbert's successor, Robert G. Elliott. From 1926 to 1939, Elliott oversaw 387 executions in six states. He had been New York's executioner for less than a year when his identity became public; a reporter followed him home from Sing Sing to Queens. Angry letters began filling his mailbox. Somebody firebombed his house. In 1939, he wrote Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner, which concludes: "I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States."
New York's executioners played a pivotal role in the state, enabling New Yorkers to support the death penalty without ever having to do the killing themselves. Each executioner came to embody the public's conflicted attitudes; people were alternately fascinated with and repelled by them. Decade after decade, New York's death penalty turned ordinary men into professional killers, and despite the ritualized aspects of the work, it took a tremendous personal toll.
While Hover's predecessors all became fairly well-known, Hover did not. However, his name did appear in Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House, which was published in 2000. The author, Scott Christianson, obtained access to 153 inmate case files from Sing Sing. The book features black-and-white mug shots, copies of telegrams, last-supper menus, letters from inmates, and some of the warden's correspondence, including one letter mentioning Hover's name.
Last year, Gladys Bohnsack, Hover's daughter, got her first ever call from a reporter. Staffers at Sound Portraits�a nonprofit that produces radio documentaries�had seen Hover's name in Condemned, and an intern, Brett Myers, tracked her down. Gladys, now 78, told Myers she'd been expecting to hear from the media for decades. "I was so surprised no one found him," she said.
She moved into her father's house 15 years ago and had recently discovered a file in the basement that contained letters from the 1960s between her father and Warden Denno. She sent the file to Myers, who later shared it with the Voice. For decades, the letters had been in a metal filing cabinet, buried amid all sorts of other paperwork her father had left behind: assorted bills, his marriage certificate, operating instructions for various appliances, manila files labeled "Fishing Reels," "CB Radio," and "Retirement." There were also folders filled with yellowed newspaper stories he'd saved about the death penalty. In a few cases, these stories were about the same men he had executed.
On a recent Saturday, several other execution-related files turned up, labeled "New Jersey," "Massachusetts," and "Connecticut." Unbeknownst to Gladys, all three states had asked her father to work for them. He'd agreed, but in the end only New Jersey needed him. Unlike Elliott, Hover did not write a memoir. Nor did he leave a diary. The only documents he left behind are those in his home and a few letters hidden in prisoner files from Sing Sing's death house, which are now housed at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Most of what's known about Hover's work as an executioner is stored in the memories of his children. His son, Dow, 73, lives across town from Gladys, in a second-floor apartment on Main Street, above a former gas station. While Gladys still works�she has been Germantown's tax collector for the last 20 years�Dow is too sick to hold a job. A former electrician, he suffers from Huntington's disease. He spends his mornings watching The Price Is Right and waiting for his lunch to arrive from Meals on Wheels.
Seated in his living room on a recent afternoon, Dow shared what he could remember about his father's decision to become an executioner. "He got paid pretty good," Dow says. "I'm sure that had something to do with it." The way Dow tells the story, his father was conflicted about his work. "He felt bad about it," Dow says. "He'd go see a minister and straighten himself out." Did he think his father's struggle with migraines was related to his work as an executioner? "I'm sure it was," he says.
Gladys disagrees. About the Sing Sing job, she says, "He enjoyed doing it." She describes her father as cold and unemotional. "You know how some fathers hold your hand?" she says. "I don't remember that we ever held hands or told each [other] that we loved each other. He just wasn't that kind of person." Taking a job in which he had to execute people "wouldn't have been an issue for him."
She adds: "I don't think he was emotional about it, but how can you know what someone feels inside?"
In recent years, the death penalty in New York State has seemed increasingly abstract, more a political slogan than an actual occurrence. Although Gov. George Pataki reinstated the death penalty in 1995, nobody has been executed in New York State since 1963. Among some politicians, the death penalty remains a favorite issue. A few weeks ago, in his State of the State speech, Pataki credited the death penalty with helping lower crime rates. He has vowed to bring it back, and the debate over its future continues to roil the state.
If Pataki signs another death penalty bill, and if New York does have an execution, of course he and the state's legislators will not be the ones carrying it out. They are not the ones who will be strapping the condemned prisoner to a gurney, rolling him into the execution chamber, preparing the syringes, searching for a vein to stick an I.V. in, starting the flow of the lethal drugs, eyeing the cardiac monitor, and unbuckling the straps once the prisoner is dead.
The machinery used to execute prisoners has changed, but the ritual is fairly similar. If the death penalty returns to New York, the last person who carried out an execution here will not be around to give pointers. Dow B. Hover died in 1990, at the age of 89, five years after his wife died. According to his death certificate, the manner of death was "undetermined circumstances." The story his family tells seems more conclusive.
On June 1, 1990, in the middle of the afternoon, Gladys' son, Jack, stopped by the house to check on him. "Granddad!" he shouted, as he entered the breezeway. No answer. Jack heard the hum of a car's engine. He twisted the handle of the door leading to the garage and discovered that the garage was full of exhaust.
Dow B. Hover sat in the front seat of his Plymouth, the driver's window rolled down, his arms folded across his chest. At first, Jack yanked at the garage door, trying to pull it open, before remembering that he needed to push a button. It was already too late; Hover's skin was cold to the touch. Here, in the same garage where he had once changed his license plates before driving off to Sing Sing, it appears that the state's last executioner ended one more life: his own.
While George W. Bush is being inaugurated in Washington, D.C., this Thursday, the annual Sundance Film Festival will kick off in Park City, Utah. The two events may seem unrelated, but as we saw in 2004, American politics and independent cinema go hand in hand.
Of course, indie powerhouses The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 represent the most partisan products of the contentious last 12 months, but as we enter Bush's second term, the country's extreme rightward turn could ignite the type of movie renaissance not seen since eight years of nuclear proliferation, HIV discrimination and materialist greed helped produce the American independent film movement of the late '80s and early '90s. If the careers of Todd Haynes, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh were all launched during the Reagan-Bush regime, imagine what's possible over the next four years.
"You see a lot of strong filmmakers working this year, and I find that an encouraging sign," says Alexander Payne, director of this year's top critics pick, Sideways. "And combined with our worsening political situation and the effect that will have on our culture, I think we may see a change for the better in our cinema."
An ardent fan of the '70s American New Wave, Payne would like to recapture that moment when the film industry embraced more personal, human dramas reflective of American life. "At a time when, as a society, we don't really know who we are or what we're doing, that's a useful time for cinema to be a mirror," he says. "It's like when Tony Curtis catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror in The Boston Strangler and triggers that change from one of his personalities to the other. We need that, too."
Payne is more hopeful than most. "I haven't yet seen cultural repression," he says. "It's not like Germany in the '30s where the big jackboot is coming down on degenerate art." Still, many in the film industry feel deeply disturbed by the censorship-inducing "moral values" mandate and believe a backlash is imminent.
"It's clear to me from the projects I'm looking at that there will be a cultural response to the impending, much more deepened conservatism of the next few years," says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer on Gregg Araki's upcoming Mysterious Skin.
But what exactly will make up this response? Levy-Hinte says it won't be "necessarily a film that's a direct rant against Bush," but rather "an exploration of estrangement, alienation, personal responsibility, and the questioning of oppressive and authoritarian characters and attitudes."
Todd Solondz's latest, Palindromes, already presents a blunt challenge to conservative mores, both in subject matter (the abortion debate) and in style (multiple actors across age and gender play the same character). But Solondz says he never intended the film (opening this spring) to so acutely capture the blue/red divide. "Certainly the film's subject matter is inherently charged, but it takes an administration like ours to ignite it into something much more troubling," he explains. "I've always felt Bush winning a second term would make for better material for filmmakers to work with. It's all just too rich – like living in a real live Kubrick movie."
But Christine Vachon, the New Queer Cinema pioneer who produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon, doesn't see the same urgency today that existed in the early '90s when she and filmmakers like Haynes and Kalin participated in ACT UP and Gran Fury protests while they were making movies. "I hope that there are filmmakers out there who are where I was 15 years ago, and they are trying to tell their stories in a way that is countercultural," she says, "but I don't know who they are and I haven't come across them yet."
"But on the face of it," continues Vachon, more hopefully, "there have been some cool movies recently and people are going to see them." Speaking of Kinsey, for example, Bill Condon's biopic about the infamous sex researcher, Vachon says, "The take on the material was much fresher than I thought it would be."
Vachon's current projects also tackle aesthetically and politically fertile ground: Todd Haynes' I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan ("It's a radical reworking of a traditional biopic," she says); Douglas McGrath's Every Word Is True, a look at Truman Capote's days researching In Cold Blood; and Mary Harron's The Ballad of Bettie Page, about the sex pinup and devout Christian, which has been in the works since the mid '90s.
Vachon can thank financier HBO Films for helping to bring Bettie Page's story to American audiences. Shot largely in the commercially risky format of black-and-white, Bettie Page provides further evidence of HBO's reputation as a haven for experimental and political work. Whether it's Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Mike Nichols' Angels in America, or the Harvey Pekar Sundance hit American Splendor, produced by New York indie stalwart Ted Hope, HBO is trying to make movies that "embrace the complex," says HBO Films president Colin Callender, a Brit who got his start in the '80s during the "height of Thatcherite England," he says, when there "was a whole slew of filmmaking that was informed by that political climate."
While Callender denies any direct parallels with his work at HBO, he holds up Angels in America as a prime example of a contemporary film that explores the way people's lives are "affected, impacted, and impinged by the social, political, economic, and cultural pressures that come to bear on them."
If HBO is willing to take on risky work, will Hollywood follow suit? It may have to. With soaring budgets and diminishing attendance, the studios saw a 6.2 percent drop in box office in 2004, according to Variety. And just as a failing Hollywood system in the '60s produced risquÃ© films for the counterculture like The Graduate and Easy Rider to save their shirts, this year's indie blockbusters kept a sagging Hollywood in the black: Passion and Fahrenheit helped push overall ticket sales up $48 million over the previous year.
Even within Tinseltown, the studios continue to take note of offbeat hits such as Napoleon Dynamite (which made over $44 million at the box office) and pour money into their "art house" divisions to spur the acquisition and production of more idiosyncratic work. While director David O. Russell (I * Huckabees) admits, "I don't think Warner Bros. would make Three Kings today," he says, "my bet is that Warner will funnel everything over to [their specialty arm] Warner Independent. I think there are going to be studio divisions that are happy to make movies for the blue states. That's a lot of people."
Also, ironically, Bush policies may help fuel indie production more directly: A provision in last fall's $136 billion corporate tax-cut bill allows independent producers to write off the costs of films budgeted between $1 million and $15 million, as long as 75 percent of the budget is spent in the United States.
And yet, on the other hand, the consolidation and corporate takeover of artistic production could leave fewer places for truly groundbreaking work to emerge. And under the Bush administration, conglomeration is sure to be exacerbated; as Variety's Peter Bart writes, "Say bye-bye to meaningful media ownership caps."
"You have to think about the situation on the ground, and the situation on the ground is very different than it was before," says producer-screenwriter and Columbia professor James Schamus, who executive-produced 1991's Poison and now co-runs Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures. According to Schamus, the cultural trends that allowed for the early-'90s American indie revolution – the 1980s' popularization of semiotics and pornography, and a network of B-movie filmmaking – have been replaced by film schools, film festivals, and the Indiewood industry to which he belongs. "And I think that's a taller order," he says. "To get a political film out there through that thicket is difficult."
"The one place you've got a shot," continues Schamus, "is internet culture and open source culture. That's the thing to track." Schamus, like many in the industry, points to Jonathan Caouette's no-budget digital scrapbook Tarnation as evidence of a new type of innovative indie cinema, perhaps a contemporary parallel to the post-structuralist hipness of Haynes' Poison. "You're seeing a lot of work dealing with found images and personal narratives," explains Schamus. "But you're not seeing a lot of that coming out of film school."
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte agrees. "So much of the way people have expressed their dissent about the current politics is via the internet and sending around pieces of media that are very direct, very pointed, and the gloves are completely off, because you're not restrained in any way," he says. "For me, that's really wonderful, and I can see that begin to infiltrate and inform filmmaking as it's conventionally known."
Whether a Bush II cinematic renaissance arises out of technology-based grassroots movements or from within the studio system itself, Callender places the onus on today's culture creators. "What is an independent movie?" he asks. "Is it about the artist as agent provocateur or the artist as apologist for the status quo?"
At 77, Dr. Harry S. Jonas can still pinpoint the exact moment when he understood the importance of making abortion legal. The year was 1952 and he was an eager, young obstetrics-gynecology intern in Independence, Miss.. The specialty promised exciting pregnancies and bouncing babies, but his very first patient entered the hospital extremely sick. A mother of 12 children, she had tried�unsuccessfully�to induce an abortion. "She came into the hospital with her intestines hanging out her vagina," recalls Jonas. "Then she died."
For Mildred Hanson, the belief that abortion laws had to change came more gradually, even after she first learned about the danger of illegal abortions as a girl in rural Wisconsin. In 1935, when Hanson was 11, a woman on a neighboring farm died at home after having an illegal abortion. Hanson remembers her mother going next door to help the ailing woman, holding her while she died. The widower was left with six children, two of them in diapers.
By the time she finished her medical training in 1959, Hanson was seeing many patients with complications from illegal abortions. Some had gone to illegal practitioners. Others attempted the procedure themselves using rubber tubes, knitting needles, or potassium permanganate�a corrosive substance that could end a pregnancy but all too often only caused bleeding, ulcers and burns. And of course there were the wire hangers. Hanson eventually developed a reputation for being among a minority who would treat these women. She tended to their infections, bleedings, and wounds for almost two decades. And by the time abortions became legal, Hanson knew she would perform them.
Eugene Glick's first experience with illegal abortion was personal. His wife, who was then his girlfriend, was 19 when she got pregnant in 1951. Neither was ready to have a baby�she wanted to finish college and he was planning on going to medical school. They thought they were lucky to find an OB-GYN willing to perform the procedure illegally, but "he didn't even sterilize the instruments," as Glick remembers. Glick's wife got a serious infection and wound up needing major surgery.
When he got to medical school, Glick noticed his teachers willfully ignored the consequences of illegal abortions. "They didn't want it to even appear that they knew what to do," he remembers. But Glick couldn't overlook the desperation�and began finding ways to perform abortions even before they were legal. His hospital had an abortion committee, which would approve the procedure if a doctor determined that a pregnancy threatened a woman's physical or mental health. "We all knew which psychiatrist to send them to," says Glick. "All of us sort of bent the rules." Eventually, in 1977, after delivering 5,000 babies as an obstetrician, Glick started performing abortions full-time.
If their paths toward providing abortions were different, Hanson, Glick and Jonas have a few things in common. Like many other doctors committed to choice, they witnessed the devastating consequences of illegal abortions firsthand. This week, the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, will occur just two days after our anti-abortion president celebrates his inauguration. With several Supreme Court appointments potentially at stake, it's worth remembering what those pioneering physicians learned through treating thousands of women who'd had unsafe abortions: Outlawing the procedure doesn't make it go away.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Abortions were common well before New York decriminalized them in 1970 and Roe made them legal in the rest of the country in 1973. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which does research on reproductive issues, reports that in 1930 almost 2,700 women died from illegal abortions�and that's just the number who had abortion recorded as their official cause of death. Almost one in 10 low-income women in New York City reported having attempted to end a pregnancy with an illegal abortion, according to one study done in the 1960s. In 1962 alone, almost 1,600 women were treated for incomplete illegal abortions in at Harlem Hospital. And there's plenty of current evidence showing the danger of outlawing the procedure. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 80,000 women around the world still die each year of complications from illegal abortion.
Roe v. Wade quickly cleared up this country's illegal-abortion mess, almost overnight. Deaths from botched abortions slowed dramatically. The number of women admitted for unexplained miscarriages dropped precipitously. And doctors could finally spare their patients the dangers of untrained, illegal practitioners or self-inflicted injuries without risking jail time or their medical licenses.
Yet some physicians, especially younger ones, don't seem to grasp the grim situation women faced before 1973. "Doctors who weren't practicing before Roe don't fully understand about the kind of degradation and death that really resulted from illegal abortion," says Wendy Chavkin, chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, and a professor of OB-GYN and public health at Columbia University. "As a result, they're more likely to be vulnerable to the attacks on abortion and decide that performing them is too much trouble. What they don't know is that, without legal abortions, their patients will suffer, die, or have drastically reduced life options."
The fading of collective memory helps explain why the number of doctors willing to perform the procedure is falling. There were only 1,819 abortion providers in 2000, down 11 percent from the 2,042 abortion providers in 1996, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And these days, as legal restrictions on abortion mount, most doctors who do abortions are over 65. Rather than performing the procedures in their offices or in hospitals, they've been forced to do them in freestanding clinics, where they and their patients are exposed to violence and harassment.
Hanson, who lived through darker times, has noticed the shift. "To perform an abortion in a hospital is harder today than it was before Roe," says Hanson.
"Before 1973, I had no trouble scheduling them. You just had to find two doctors to sign the form," she says, referring to the paperwork declaring that a pregnancy threatened a woman's mental health. "Now if you want to do an abortion in a Minnesota hospital, you have trouble finding an anesthetist and a circulating nurse who will do it. There's more anti-abortion sentiment." Nevertheless, Hanson still performs abortions at 81 because of "personal commitment," as she puts it.
In New York, William Rashbaum, a 78-year-old obstetrician and gynecologist, also continues to work well past what many think of as retirement age. As with other veteran abortion doctors, Rashbaum's career has spanned many eras. He saw "gobs and gobs" of women with complications from illegal abortions during his training in New York City in the 1950s. Then Rashbaum went on to provide medical advice and backup to illegal abortionists before Roe. (One, in New Jersey, sent a limousine containing a pale, bleeding patient and the piece of her intestine he had accidentally cut off to Rashbaum's office.) And after abortions became legal, he provided them. Now as his practice winds down, Rashbaum worries that the right to safe, legal abortion is slipping away. "You'd be crazy not to worry," says the white-haired physician. "Abortion has always had a stigma. And now, instead of things getting better, they're getting worse."
You might wonder – were you someone unfamiliar with or in denial about the ways of the Karl Rove Mafia – how George W. Bush could blunder into nominating someone as attorney general so obviously implicated in the most legally questionable and morally indefensible practices of his administration. You might wonder, too, how the administration seemed to be caught unawares by the bottomless pit of scandal in the past of its initial nominee for Homeland Security secretary.
Or you could realize that such nominations were not blunders, but intentional: that they were made not in spite of Alberto Gonzales' and Bernard Kerik's unsuitability for high office but precisely because of them. Keeping embarrassing facts on file about confederates is the best way to grip them into loyalty like a vise.
It would seem an incredible notion to contemplate, until you examine who it was Bush chose to replace Kerik once his nomination fell through: Michael Chertoff, who as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division engineered the plan to preventively detain immigrants of Arab descent after 9/11. In 2003, the Justice Department's own inspector general warned that the program raises serious legal liability questions, and Justice Department officials apparently recommended that Chertoff hire a lawyer. Now he's been promoted. Sopranos fans will recognize the maneuver: Taking someone with skeletons in his closet close to your breast is just like Tony's embrace of the apparently upstanding suburban New Jersey sporting goods dealer with the secret gambling addiction, specifically to have someone to pick clean when the necessity arose.
Forcing a guy who knows he's dirty but knows his bosses are dirtier to sweat out a congressional hearing is a perfect way to test his loyalty. It's also a great way to test Congress's mettle – to probe just how atrophied the opposition party's willingness to oppose has become. What's more, once you've got them through the ordeal, you've stockpiled one more scapegoat to toss into the fire in case Congress ever gets hot on the trail of the higher-ups who issued the orders. And it establishes a record for a future defense: Once Congress has confirmed a Gonzales or a Chertoff, how can it then turn around and call the things done by a Gonzales or a Chertoff unlawful?
Then there's the implicit dare, which frames the issue in the administration's favor whether they "win" or "lose" the proximate fight: Go ahead, Democrats, make our day. Vote against them. Then we can show you up as the obstructionists to America's national security you are.
The administration may even have made plans for when the bottom drops out – for when the inevitable indictable offenses see the light of day. That's where Alberto Gonzales, White House Ã¼ber-loyalist, comes in. Formally, any investigation of a federal criminal offense is conducted by the Justice Department, and no indictment can go forward without Gonzales' say-so. Under the old set of rules, we might have been able to count on political pressure to force the appointment of a special prosecutor, as occurred in the investigation of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the media. But that's exactly the set of rules this gang has set its sights on upending.
Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, welcome to the Next Four Years: to George Walker Bush's revolutionary second term, where nothing is done by accident, and no sin can be too brazen.
"For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win ... "
That phrase is a gun, and it's smoking. Written by Karl Rove deputy Peter Wehner in a leaked memo, it establishes as intention what administration officials have heretofore been most eager to cover up. What the Republican Party failed to do 60 years ago is to stop any federal program of guaranteed old-age insurance from existing. Social Security established a principle unacceptable to many Republicans: that government economic programs help people, and can become wildly popular. Now, however, Wehner writes, "We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government. ... We can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of our country."
The smoking gun isn't pointed just at your grandmother.
When Americans have at a minimum almost a third of their retirement contribution in corporate investments – we now send 6.2 percent of our income to Social Security, and Bush's plan would have us putting four of those 6.2 points into the stock market – we will all be part of, in the apparently benign coinage of Republican propagandist Grover Norquist, the "investor class."
Blogger Nick Stoller describes the consequences thus:
When someone like Eliot Spitzer uncovers a major corporate scandal, a Republican will be able to say, 'He's attacking your retirement fund.'
When the employees of a company try to unionize, a Republican will be able to say, 'They are attacking your retirement fund.' " (He will also be able to say they are attacking their own retirement fund.)
When a community refuses to let a Wal-Mart build in their neighborhood, a Republican will be able to say, 'They're attacking your retirement fund.'Environmental regulations will be framed as an attack on your retirement fund. Liability law, too. Corporate taxes, certainly. Maybe even, someday, child labor laws (that's the brazenness: Conservatives never shy from putting forth agendas that seemed unimaginable a year ago). People will presume it is in their interest for the companies in which they hold a temporary position to goose their stock no matter the long-term cost to the corporation, to our institutions, to society as a whole – no matter the long-term cost for all the other classes we belong to, as consumers, as workers, as citizens. All but a tiny group of big-ticket investors would benefit far more on a net basis, as they do now, from the maintenance of a strong welfare state. No matter: The propaganda may prove irresistible.
Breaking Social Security is central to passing Bush's "tax reforms," which will remove taxes on investment income and shift the tax burden to wage earners who can't afford to save any money – thereby creating newly outraged tax-hating constituencies bent on decimating government's legitimacy yet further. Absent unrelenting Democratic resistance, in fact, the next four years will establish the leverage to fulfill another of Grover Norquist's coinages: to get the federal government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
That's just how the Bushies do things: They plan. Every action is calculated to set in motion a cascade of consequences, to change the world. Take "No Child Left Behind," the education "reform" so brilliantly named you can't be against it without betraying some perverse desire to, well, leave children behind. It is a stone hustle, meant to lay the groundwork to destroy the entire American public school system.
Look at it this way. You've heard of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the one that produces those anguished news reports every four years about all the countries American schoolchildren lag behind in basic skills. But according to the TIMSS, if Minnesota were a country, it would have the second-best science scores and the seventh best in math. By No Child Left Behind's statutorily required benchmarks of "Adequate Yearly Progress," however, only 42 percent of Minnesota fourth-graders were proficient in math. And NCLB's test targets increase every year. So by one estimate, in 2014, some 80 percent of the schools in Minnesota's world-class education system will be rated "failures."
The benchmarks are insane, you see. If one group within a school out of the 37 categories NCLB measures "fails," the entire school does. Which means, according to the president of the American Educational Research Association, 12th graders should be proficient in math in exactly 166 years.
Which serves the administration's purpose admirably. Failure, glorious failure: In Chicago, the city must now offer 200,000 students the chance to move out of "failed" schools – but there are only 500 spaces in which to place them elsewhere. So now the public school system must be destroyed.
It's only politics. It was the first George Bush who tried to initiate the privatization of American education but failed; in 2000, Michigan and California pro-voucher ballot initiatives lost by at least two to one. But that was back when 43 percent of American parents gave their children's schools a grade of "A" or "B." By 2004, that number was cut in half. "The tests mandated by NCLB had ripped back the curtain and exposed a major national problem," explains Phyllis Schlafly – even, apparently, in noble Minnesota.
The money has already begun changing hands. "Classroom methods long believed to work are tossed out in favor of those that a few selected groups have tested and approved," The Nation recently reported in a story buried – it's hard to get people to pay attention – on the magazine's web site. Bush's multibillion-dollar reading grants, the weekly found, are doled out by "a panel that includes many people with ties to various commercial curriculums."
Public education "is an ossified government monopoly," explains conservative intellectual Chester Finn. So it is time to drown it in the bathtub.
The fantasy of total control has emerged as central to the Bush administration imagination. It comes out in the unguarded utterances: the aide who blurts to a New York Times reporter that he was just one more sad-sack member of the "reality-based community." ("That's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.") The president demanding during the Iraq debate to congressional leaders, "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." A White House aide, to a congregation of Pentecostal ministers, the "current government is engaged in cultural, economic, and social struggle on every level."
It shows up in the tautological narcissism of Bush's National Security Strategy document, which actually uses the phrase "the best defense is a good offense," and artfully constructs a vision in which whatever the United States does to preserve its interest is always already "peaceful," even when it requires war, is always already "democratic," even when it requires installing governments by fiat, is always already selfless, even as it establishes only two categories of states, those who cooperate and those who do not, in a situation of crisis defined unilaterally and whose time horizon stretches to infinity.
"In the new world we have entered," it avers, "the only path to peace and security is the path of action." The manifesto takes on ominous overtones when read alongside the famous post-9/11 draft Pentagon report that establishes a royalist conception of "sweeping" executive power as the only way to keep us safe: because "national security decisions require the unity in purpose and energy in action to characterize the presidency rather than Congress."
"Unity in Purpose, Energy in Action" – more than one commentator has noted its resemblance to slogans of fascist movements throughout history.
And of course out of fantasies of perfect control have always sprung the world's greatest human catastrophes. There will always be things even the most energetic executive cannot come even close to controlling. Conservatives used to warn us about the dangers of such utopianism – of the unintended consequences of hubristic attempts to "socially engineer" brave new worlds conjured in the heads of liberal intellectuals. Now Americans are once again learning that lesson, but the perpetrators are ... conservatives.
And their utopia, heaven help them, is Iraq.
What comes next there? For the subject who fantasizes total control, chaos is only an injunction to more radically confident maneuvers that enlarge the struggle for control. As always, the parallel is Vietnam. "The administration's reluctance to recognize the Iraqi resistance as largely homegrown pushes it to exaggerate the role of foreign terrorists, to blame anti-American feeling on meddlers from abroad," which spells expansion of the conflict into Syria and Iran, according to Thomas Powers in The New York Review of Books. A "radical map change," he convincingly speculates, this American encirclement of the world's productive oil resources could unify all our present allies against us in a conflict that "might last fifty years."
The next four years? Anticipate another possible terrorist attack, certainly. Tommy Thompson, leaving his post as secretary of Health and Human Services, used his newfound freedom to wonder aloud why his bosses hadn't done anything to prevent an attack on "our food supply, because it's so easy to do." The EPA said an attack on any of 123 chemical plants would threaten over a million people – then the Department of Homeland Security took over the job, changed the measurements, and found that only two would do that. The chemical industry gives a hell of a lot of money to the Republicans.
Although the wholesale collapse of the American economy would be worse. Nikita Khrushchev used to call the divided city of Berlin, because of its military strategic value, "the testicles of the West," which he only need squeeze to make America scream. Now the testicles of the U.S. are the billions of dollars of American currency held in reserve by countries that do not necessarily wish us well, like China – in effect, it's the money we borrow to keep our economy afloat. China is one of those countries that would likely object to our encirclement of the world's petroleum supplies. Soon enough, China's oil demand will approach our own. If Beijing chooses to call in its loans to us and make the dollar a worthless currency, sensible folks might be looking for someone to impeach. Would Bush's kept Congress be able to do the job?
At that pass, reflects John Dean, Richard Nixon's legal counsel, who served time for Watergate, "only the attorney general can select a special counsel to prosecute." Which takes us back to the beginning, and last week's hearings. "As attorney general," Dean says, "Gonzales can resist any and all efforts to prosecute high officials of the Bush administration, absent photographs of Dick Cheney choking Condi Rice and dangling her off the Memorial Bridge for messing with his policies."
Welcome to the eve of destruction.
"U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world [under international law]."
Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch, Dec. 27, 2002
"U.S. Navy documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal that abuse and even torture of detainees by U.S. Marines in Iraq was widespread. ... ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero [said] "this kind of widespread abuse could not have taken place without a leadership failure of the highest order."
American Civil Liberties Union, Dec. 14, 2004
The president insists that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will remain in office, and on Dec. 19, Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card Jr., said on ABC News' "This Week" that "Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job and the president has great confidence in him."
However, on Dec. 9, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, wrote Rumsfeld to express his "deep concern over issues related to detainees being held in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Recent reports indicate that not only were detainees mishandled and interrogated in a manner inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions, but that subsequent internal reports of abuse appear to have been suppressed. ..."
"While the abuse of detainees is unacceptable under any circumstance, reports of the suppression of evidence regarding abuse are extremely disturbing. ... Please inform me of the actions you intend to take." As of this writing, there has been no response.
For two years�in this column, as well as from human rights groups and the press, particularly the reporting of Dana Priest in The Washington Post�there has been mounting evidence of torture of prisoners by American forces, including "ghost prisoners" in secret CIA interrogation centers.
These reports include stories of "extreme interrogation techniques" used by Special Operation Forces (Navy SEALs, Delta Force, et al.) under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld and his close associates in the Defense Department. Rumsfeld has long encouraged the use of Special Operation Forces.
But now, with the release by the ACLU of actual government documents not intended for the public to see, the president is confronted with irrefutable evidence of continued violations of not only the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture, but also our own torture statute forbidding such practices.
As for the suppression of evidence, there is this Dec. 8 report in The New York Sun by Paisley Dodds of the Associated Press on the documents released by the ACLU:
"[U.S.] Special Forces [accused of abusing prisoners in Iraq] ... monitored e-mail messages sent by [troubled Defense personnel in the field] and ordered them 'not to talk to anyone' in America about what they saw."
U.S. Navy documents released by the ACLU include "interviews with Navy personnel [about] routine abusive treatment of detainees by U.S. Marines in Iraq. ... In one interview, a Navy medical officer described the regular process by which Iraqis classified as Enemy Prisoners of War would be taken to an empty swimming pool, handcuffed, leg-cuffed, and have a burlap bag placed over their head.
"They would then remain in kneeling position for up to 24 hours awaiting interrogation. Despite this description, the [navy medical] officer stated that he 'never saw any instances of physical abuse' towards the detainees."
And from Richard Serrano in the Dec. 15 Los Angeles Times:
"Marines in Iraq conducted mock executions of juvenile prisoners last year, burned and tortured other detainees with electrical shocks, and warned a Navy corpsman they would kill him if he treated any injured Iraqis."
That was one of the stories based on documents released by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that was joined by Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, Veterans for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The latter organization has compiled a massively documented indictment of Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet, and other U.S. officials and military personnel for war crimes perpetuated against Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.
The charges have been filed at the German federal prosecutor's office at the Karlsruhe Court in Karlsruhe, Germany, where, "under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, suspected war criminals may be prosecuted irrespective of where they are located." (Also see James Ridgeway's "'War Crimes' Murmurs," Mondo Washington, Dec. 22-28, 2004.)
After the photographs of the repellent Abu Ghraib abuses were circulated around the world, the president attributed those atrocities to "a few bad apples" in the lower ranks of the military.
One of those "bad apples" is Lynndie England, the soldier smiling, pointing to the genitals of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, and holding a naked prisoner by a leash. She could face a prison term of up to 38 years. But how long will Donald Rumsfeld and other august officials in the Defense Department, along with administration lawyers who have provided contorted permission to these crimes, avoid accountability?
How many members of Congress will join Sen. Jeff Bingaman in his attempt to open the Defense and Justice departments to the rule of American law? Will we hear from New York Senators Schumer and Clinton, who have been silent on the question of torture? Or will a judgment on Rumsfeld et al. be made only in Germany?
Will the president speak about an FBI agent's account, released by the ACLU on Dec. 20, of interrogations at Guantánamo in which detainees were shackled hand and foot in a fetal position on the floor and kept in that position for 18 to 24 hours at a time until most had "urinated or defacated [sic]" on themselves?
One afternoon last week, Randy Credico sat in a friend's apartment in the West Village and sifted through a plastic bin packed with photos. There were hundreds of them – each representing another chapter in his seven-year struggle to convince New York legislators to change the state's ultra-punitive drug laws. There Credico was, holding a press conference in front of City Hall, protesting outside a Pataki fundraiser at the Yale Club, rallying on the steps of the state capitol in Albany.
"I don't like looking at these pictures," he says, "because I realize how much time has gone by." Indeed, Credico, now 47, looks much younger in these early photos – fewer wrinkles and more boyish features.
"Who thought it was going to be seven years?" he says. "I thought it was going to take a year, and the laws would be changed. I was naive. I thought it was crystal clear that the laws needed to be changed."
He knew little about New York politics in early 1998, when he helped organize his first vigil to protest the state's drug laws, which were named for their creator, Nelson Rockefeller. Scheduled to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the laws, the event was held on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Center. Some of the rally's organizers thought it should be a one-time event; Credico disagreed. He packed up the posters and banners, brought them home, and over the next several years, organized more than 100 events.
On Dec. 7, the state legislature finally voted to change the laws by softening some of the most severe penalties. While other activists received more attention in the media – most notably Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Recordings, who organized an anti-drug-law rally in the summer of 2003 – Credico played a crucial, behind-the-scenes role. "Randy Credico really, really, really deserves a lot of credit," says State Sen. Thomas Duane, a Democrat from Chelsea.
News of the modest changes in the laws did not put Credico in a jubilant mood. "The whole thing was a small payoff for seven years of street work," he says. He supports full repeal of the laws – dismantling mandatory sentencing and allowing judges to determine the severity of each defendant's punishment. For now, mandatory sentencing remains intact, with judges handing out prison time based on the weight of the drugs involved.
Will Credico continue his battle? Duane hopes so. He called Credico last week and told him, "Please don't give up." To keep chipping away at the laws, Duane says, "We're really going to have to ramp it up." Credico, a stand-up comedian, insists he plans to quit being an activist and instead revive his comic career. (He was once a regular at clubs in Las Vegas, and performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at age 27.)
But giving up his addiction to the political fight will not be easy. All last week, his cell phone was buzzing with reporters looking for prisoners' relatives to interview, and with relatives asking when their loved ones will get released. For some, the news was good. If a first-time inmate is serving a sentence for an A-1-level felony, the changes are retroactive. Inmates with sentences of 15 to life can now apply to a judge to have their minimum sentence reduced to eight years.
The news for others was not good; prisoners convicted of a lesser B-level felony cannot be resentenced. Credico knows many mothers of inmates in this predicament. "It's hard to leave women like Flora King and Cheri O'Donoghue, both of whom were up in Albany this year," he says. "I hate to tell them that it's all over, that I'm not going to be able to do this next year. I always say it's all over, but I guess it's like being in the mob: You're in for life."
For years, it seemed Credico would do just about anything to get the drug laws repealed. Take, for example, his most recent trips to Albany. When 10 state legislators met this summer to hold public discussions about the drug laws, Credico made six or seven treks north – showing up with family members in the hearing room every day. He sat prisoners' relatives in the front row, a few feet from the legislators, and armed each of them with a poster.
It was a sympathetic sight – elderly women, some hobbling in with canes, another in a wheelchair, all clutching oversize pictures of their imprisoned kids. When Credico had trouble collecting a crowd for these trips, he didn't cancel. Instead, he recruited two older blind women he knew, both African American, and he parked them in the front row too, with a poster on each of their laps. Never mind that neither of them had a relative in prison.
"I thought it would add to the panache," Credico says. "All's fair in love and war, and this was a war."
He works for the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice and helped start the Mothers of the Disappeared, a group of prisoners' relatives. But he has no staff, no office, no job description. All he really has are his zeal and his tenacity. In the past, activists fought against the drug laws using words and numbers: op-eds, reports, editorials, statistics. Credico brought families into this public debate.
Over the last seven years, he has generated more than 100 media stories about drug prisoners serving at least 15 to life. He can rattle off the cell phone numbers of reporters at a dozen news outlets, including The New York Times, El Diario and the Times Union of Albany. Now, however, some of his best examples of injustices have been eliminated.
"You're not going to get these heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stories like Melita Oliveira anymore," he says. Oliveira, a single mother of five children, was sentenced to 15 years to life after she got caught at JFK International Airport with a package of cocaine. She said she thought the package contained diamonds. Credico convinced the Times and El Diario to cover her case.
Now Credico says that if he continues his work, he will shift his focus to people convicted of B-level felonies, who are 5,156 of the state's 15,600 drug prisoners. Sale of just one vial of crack constitutes a B felony. The new mandatory minimum sentence for this crime is three and a half years – down from four and a half to nine years – for individuals with a prior nonviolent felony on their record.
In recent years, Credico has been collecting cases of individuals he thinks are doing too much time for a B felony. These include John Martino – 59 years old, first-time offender, Vietnam vet – who is in prison with a sentence of 15 to 30 years for selling drugs. Martino's case stands out, but Credico admits it's hard to find sympathetic cases of people convicted of B felonies.
"How do you keep the fire burning here?" he says. "Now that they took out a lot of the steam from this movement, how do you keep the fire going? You have to look for these B cases, and they may be few and far between. Let's be honest – who's going to be sympathetic to someone doing three to six years for selling drugs? I'm sympathetic, but I don't know if it's going to get a lot of people off their asses and up to Albany to demonstrate."
New York's laws remain the toughest in the nation. Politicians eager to see more reform hope Credico will continue his activism. On Jan. 6, Sen. Duane is convening a hearing in Albany to assess the state of the drug laws. Its success will depend in part on whether Credico shows up with a busload of good examples of how the laws are still unjust.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do," Credico says. "Obviously this needs a lot of energy. I thought it was going to be a one-year job, and it turned out to be seven fucking years. I don't know what direction to go. I'm at a huge fork in the road."
The problem with Gonzales is that he has been deeply involved in developing some of the most sweeping claims of near-dictatorial presidential power in our nation's history. These claims put President George W. Bush literally above the law, allowing him to imprison and even (at least in theory) torture anyone in the world, at any time, for any reason that Bush associates with national security ...
� Stuart Taylor Jr., former New York Times Supreme Court reporter, "America's Best Choice?," Legal Times, Nov. 15, 2004
In a scathing lead editorial (Nov. 22), "Mr. Gonzales' Record," The Washington Post challenged the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will soon hold a confirmation hearing on the president's appointment of Alberto Gonzales to be this nation's chief law enforcement officer, the daily protector of the Constitution: "Above all, Mr. Gonzales should answer this question [before the Senate Judiciary Committee]: Why is a lawyer whose opinions have produced such disastrous results for his government�in their practical application, in their effect on U.S. international standing and in their repeated reversal by U.S. courts�qualified to serve as attorney general?"
As I wrote in my last two columns, the editorial summarized some of the disastrous advice from this man without any law enforcement experience, who always tells George W. Bush what he wants to hear: authorization for torture of noncitizen detainees; approval of violations of international law; and the breathtaking assertion that the president, without going to the courts or to Congress, can imprison American citizens indefinitely, without charges, and without access to lawyers.
Actually, The Washington Post's challenge is to the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Republican members will vote, in lockstep, for Gonzales. But I have found out that most, if not all, of the Democrats will also cave in�after harrumphing at Gonzales for some hours.
I know this from an inside source whom I cannot name. I very rarely use blind sources, but there are times when to report on what's actually going on, I have to protect a source. The Democrats on the committee know what I, and others, have been telling you about Gonzales. In their possession, for instance, is a copy of the July/August 2003 Atlantic Monthly article by Alan Berlow that documents how Gonzales, as legal counsel to then Texas governor George W. Bush, sent 56 death row inmates to be executed after giving three-to-seven-page memos on their cases to Bush that rubber-stamped the lethal decision of the notoriously murderous Texas courts.
Even the Democrats' attack dog on the Judiciary Committee, Charles Schumer, has said he prefers Gonzales to John Ashcroft. That's like saying you prefer Torquemada to Attila the Hun. Indeed, the ranking minority member on the committee, Patrick Leahy, has said that with Bush re-elected, if he sent up Attila the Hun to replace Ashcroft, he'd get his way.
The Democrats prefer to hold their fire until the next Supreme Court nominee. As a result, for the next four years, the manipulative Alberto Gonzales will be finding additional ways to expand the Patriot Act, integrate the further surveillance of us all into government data banks, and, as he already has, make the Bush administration the most secretive in American history.
In a recent detailed summary of Gonzales's record as White House counsel, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (I'm on its steering committee) emphasized: "Alberto Gonzales has been an active defender of what is best described as a quasi-executive privilege, invoked repeatedly by the Bush administration in attempts to keep government information from public scrutiny."
So, as we are abandoned by the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, what can we do? For one thing, keep in touch with the Web site of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (bordc.org). It has a continuing record of cities and towns passing resolutions pressuring their members of Congress to pass liberating anti�Patriot Act (and future anti-Gonzales) legislation. (A number of such bills will be reintroduced in the next session of Congress.) And the website includes organizing strategies and useful news reports.
Also, while I have substantial differences with certain American Civil Liberties Union policies and with the quality of some of its top leadership, the ACLU staff is persistently effective in countering, through communication and lawsuits, the administration's subversion of the legacy of Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Eugene Debs, Bayard Rustin, and other freedom defenders.
The ACLU membership has increased in direct ratio to the ascendancy of Bush, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, et al. And the more members it gets, the more it can accomplish. I suggest you join the ACLU (the national office is in New York: 125 Broad Street, 18th floor; Attention: Membership Department; NY, NY 10004; 212-549-2585).
Whenever I speak at a school, or at any gathering, I bring the late Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas into the conversation. As a defender of constitutional liberty, he was the direct opposite of Alberto Gonzales. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Douglas once wrote to a group of young lawyers, are not self-executing.
He warned: "As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air�however slight�lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."
The changes in the air have become much more than slight. The twilight is deepening, but so is the resistance�despite the retreat of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The fatuous Michael Moore will not save us. Only we can. All through our history, dissent and resistance have beaten back the darkness. Tom Paine and Martin Luther King knew that, and like Joe Hill, their lives still resonate.
When Assemblyman Richard Gottfried proposed a bill legalizing marijuana for sick people in 1997, his odds of success seemed slim. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, vowed to defeat Gottfried's bill. And even Gottfried, a Democrat from Chelsea, admitted that turning his bill into law would be "an uphill battle." Back then, only two states permitted sick people to smoke pot legally.
Fast-forward seven years and the cause of medical marijuana has become a full-fledged political movement, with two national organizations running campaigns across the country. Medical marijuana is now legal in 11 states. And in New York, the cause has grown in popularity. Now even Bruno, who battled prostate cancer last year, has begun to sound much more receptive.
The battle over medical marijuana was back in the news again last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of two sick women from California. Their case seeks to stop federal law enforcement agents from arresting pot-smoking patients who are obeying the laws of their own state. A ruling is not expected for months.
Even if the court decides against the two women, the medical-marijuana laws in states like California would not change; they would still permit patients to smoke pot (though these patients would be vulnerable to arrest by federal agents). "Nobody ever expected this case to get this far," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped finance this lawsuit as well as medical-marijuana campaigns in eight states. "If we win this, it would be a very significant step forward. If we lose, it's just a tiny step backward."
Whatever the court's final decision, it will certainly affect the movement's momentum, and may determine the fate of Gottfried's bill in Albany next year.
For New Yorkers with long memories, the debate over medical marijuana may feel like old news. During the 1980s, New York was one of seven states in the country that distributed marijuana cigarettes. The pot came from a federal farm down South. Through a research program, it was dispensed at hospitals around the state to people with glaucoma or cancer. (According to doctors and patients, marijuana relieves eye pressure in glaucoma sufferers and fights nausea induced by chemotherapy.)
New Yorkers had former assemblyman Antonio Olivieri to thank for this program. In 1979, Olivieri discovered he had a brain tumor. He underwent chemotherapy, and smoked marijuana to battle the side effects. Along the way, he became an outspoken crusader for legalizing medical marijuana. From his hospital bed, he lobbied the chair of the senate health committee by phone. The bill passed in 1980, and Olivieri died shortly afterward.
Between 1982 and 1989, the New York State Department of Health handed out almost 6,000 joints, to more than 200 people. Eventually the availability of Marinol capsules – which contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana – decreased the demand for the cigarettes. (Many people do prefer marijuana, however, which they say is more effective.) At any rate, by the end of the decade, New York's medical-marijuana program had shut down, as had all the programs in other states.
California kicked off the recent wave of medical-marijuana victories in 1996, when Proposition 215 prevailed, with 56 percent of the vote. Now, with a doctor's recommendation, people in California who suffer from AIDS, cancer, or glaucoma can legally grow and smoke marijuana. Over the next four years, several states followed California's lead: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Nevada. Each state put the issue on the ballot, and every time voters approved it. Last month, voters in Montana approved yet another medical-marijuana ballot initiative, this time by 62 percent.
Meanwhile, in 2000, Hawaii became the first state to remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana by using a different method: passing state legislation instead of putting an initiative on the ballot. Campaigns for ballot initiatives can be incredibly costly; given a choice, medical-marijuana activists usually prefer to achieve their goals through legislation. While it can be much more difficult to win over state legislators than regular voters, this strategy has begun to work. The Maryland state legislature passed a medical-marijuana bill in 2003, and Vermont did the same earlier this year.
A legislative victory in New York State – getting Gottfried's bill through the assembly and the senate, and then signed by Governor Pataki – would represent yet another substantial victory for the pro-pot movement. The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that spent $3 million on campaigns this year, will be targeting New York in 2005, as well as Rhode Island, Illinois, and a few other states. Already, the group has a lobbyist working in Albany.
Gottfried's bill would permit people to smoke marijuana legally with a doctor's certification if they have a "life-threatening condition." These include cancer, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and hepatitis C. Doctors who certify patients to obtain pot would be required to send a copy of their certification to the state health department. Patients would be allowed to receive a month's supply of marijuana at a time.
The bill has 45 sponsors in the assembly; seven are Republicans. One of the first Republicans to join the cause was Patrick Manning, who represents Dutchess County. A close friend of his has cancer, and has been smoking marijuana to battle the effects of chemotherapy. "If this could help someone make their life a little bit better, a little more pleasant, while they're going through such a horrible disease, then it would be wrong for me not to stand up," Manning says. "I started talking to my colleagues and asked them to join me, so we can really make it a bipartisan bill."
The talk show host Montel Williams traveled to Albany to lobby legislators in May. Williams, who uses pot to combat the pain caused by multiple sclerosis, met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bruno, and others. In June, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau met with Williams, then announced his support for legalizing medical marijuana. A few weeks later, the New York City Council passed a resolution supporting Gottfried's bill. And in September, Williams returned to Albany to have a meeting about the issue with Governor Pataki.
For any state that does legalize medical marijuana, the crucial question is always: Where does the pot come from? The federal government grows marijuana on a farm in Mississippi, and supplies joints to seven patients across the country through a research program run by the University of Mississippi. But this farm does not supply pot to new patients in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. These patients must either grow their own weed, or else buy it on the black market.
One idea that has been floating around for years is to redistribute marijuana that has been confiscated by the police. In past years, in New York State, this pot has been handed over to the state health department. Workers placed it on a conveyor belt, which delivered it to an incinerator. (The process wasn't always seamless; in 1986, workers took 63 pounds of marijuana for themselves, lifting it off the conveyer belt.) Gottfried's bill suggests a few possible sources of medical marijuana, including the state's confiscated stash.
While some legislators will likely want to wait to make a decision about Gottfried's bill until the Supreme Court makes its decision, Gottfried is pushing for faster action. "I think the fact that the Supreme Court decision is pending creates one argument for passing a bill at this very moment, because state action helps send a message ... to the Supreme Court," he says. That message, of course, would be that the public wants to permit sick people to smoke pot without having to worry about a phalanx of police officers bursting through their front door.
Bush's re-election ensures that he and John Ashcroft's designated successor, Alberto Gonzales, will press Congress hard to retain the Patriot Act in its entirety, and enact a Patriot Act II that will further disable the Constitution.
There are two primary roadblocks to further assaults on our liberties. Despite continued Republican control of Congress, there is still a firm alliance there between civil-liberties Democrats and conservative Republican libertarians, especially in the Senate. That coalition will continue to oppose Bush's determination to fight the Patriot Act's "sunset clause," which permits reconsideration of parts of the act by December 2005.
During the presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly urged Congress to ignore the "sunset clause" and enshrine the Patriot Act permanently. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee resolutions in nearly 400 cities and towns, and four state legislatures, will keep the pressure on Congress to resist this expansion of executive powers.
Our second hope is the awakening lower federal courts, which are now challenging sections of the Patriot Act. But even if these judicial curbs on Bush and Ashcroft grow, any such victories can be overturned by the Supreme Court, to which Bush is going to make at least one appointment, and possibly more, by the end of his second term.
These are obviously perilous times for constitutional freedoms. But attention should be paid to the strongest blow yet against Bush and the Patriot Act – the September 28, 2004, decision by Federal District Judge Victor Marrero in New York in John Doe, American Civil Liberties Union v. John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Judge Marrero struck down as unconstitutional on Fourth and First Amendment grounds section 505 of the Patriot Act that had greatly increased the government's capacity to secretly get large amounts of personal information by sending out National Security Letters, which do not require a judge's approval.
During one of the presidential debates, Bush flatly told an untruth – as Ashcroft often has on this subject – when he said that any action taken under the Patriot Act requires a judicial order. No judge is involved in National Security Letters under the Patriot Act.
The ACLU, which brought this lawsuit, explains that before the Patriot Act, a 1986 law allowed the FBI to issue these National Security Letters "only where it had reason to believe that the subject of the letter was a foreign agent." Section 505 of the Patriot Act, however, removed the individualized suspicion requirement and authorizes the FBI to use National Security Letters to obtain information about groups or individuals not suspected of any wrongdoing.
"The FBI need only certify – without court review – that the records are 'relevant' to an intelligence or terrorism investigation." (Emphasis added.)
Who decides what "relevant" means? The FBI, all by itself. That's why its headquarters are still named after J. Edgar Hoover. You can trust the FBI.
Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU involved in this case, told me both why the National Security Letters are so dangerous, and what the effect of Judge Marrero's ruling will be – if it is upheld by the appellate courts all the way up.
"The provision we challenged [that the judge struck down]," says Jaffer, "allows the FBI to issue NSLs against 'wire or electronic service communication providers.' Telephone companies and Internet service providers [are included.]" As Judge Marrero noted, the FBI could also use an NSL "to discern the identity of someone whose anonymous web log, or 'blog,' is critical of the Government."
Jaffer adds that by requiring information from telephone companies and Internet providers, "The FBI could . . . effectively obtain a political organization's membership list, like the NAACP or the ACLU, [and could] obtain the names of people with whom a journalist has communicated over the Internet."
Furthermore – dig this – every National Security Letter comes with a gag order. The recipients are forbidden to tell any other person that the FBI has demanded this information, and can't even tell their lawyers that the long hand of the government is scooping up their data.
As Judge Marrero said in his decision, this omnivorous invasion of privacy is so broad that it mandates this gag rule "in every case, to every person, in perpetuity, with no vehicle for the ban to ever be lifted from the recipient."
The scope of this court's setback to Big Brothers Bush, Mueller, and Ashcroft is underlined by Jaffer's point that if Judge Marrero's decision is upheld, it could "apply with equal force" to other dimensions of National Security Letters that allow the FBI to get personal information from financial institutions, including credit card companies and banks.
Furthermore, the much publicized and dreaded section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the FBI authority to search your personal data from your visits to libraries, bookstores, and other sources of information, could also be overturned.
In striking down the noxious National Security Letters section 505 of the Patriot Act, Marrero wrote: "Under the mantle of secrecy, the self-preservation that ordinarily impels our government to censorship and secrecy may potentially be turned on ourselves as a weapon of self-destruction . . . "
Marrero then emphasized a truth that ought to be kept in mind as George W. Bush, having won the popular vote, unlike in 2000, uses national security even more forcefully against the Constitution. Judge Marrero warns:
"Sometimes a right, once extinguished, may be gone for good."
But for now, as Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox News Channel's resident – and admirable – constitutional analyst, says of the Marrero decision: "This stops the FBI from writing their own warrants."
During the campaign, John Kerry said nary a word about National Security Letters.
If they're not outright poor as a class, young adults in this country are at least very, very broke. The average collegian graduates with more than $20,000 in debt, headed for a job market where real hourly wages have kept pace with neither inflation nor the cost of living. Young adults are broke in part because of their unprecedented schooling – in the latest census figures, 28 percent of those between 25 and 29 reported holding a bachelor's degree – which promised to pluck them away from the constellation of problems plaguing America's underclass, whether it was trouble with housing or inadequate medical care.
Yet there they are, these latest inheritors of the American dream, lined up in emergency rooms for toothaches and the flu, not because they're having emergencies, but because they don't have health insurance, and emergency rooms, unlike private doctors, are obliged to give them care. Since 1987, the number of uninsured young adults has grown at twice the rate of older adults, even though the demographic itself is shrinking. One-quarter to one-third of adults under 35 went without insurance for all of 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available – an increase of 1.2 million from the year before. Half were uninsured for some part of 2002. Of the 43.6 million uninsured adults in the U.S., 41 percent are young.
Of all the rationales John Kerry and George Bush will give this year as they stump for their individual visions of helping the nation's uninsured, one of the most pragmatic is that those little plastic cards can make the difference, for a crucial group of consumers, between having a financial parachute and cratering into debt.
Maria Davidson, of Meriden, Connecticut, was 26 and working for low pay with no benefits when her seven-year-old son tried to kill himself. The ambulance took him to Yale-New Haven Hospital. She had no private coverage for herself and her family. Her children were not eligible for public plans, and she wasn't aware of programs that could have covered the hospital expenses. Her son amassed $3,900 in bills that Davidson just couldn't pay. That was nine years ago. By the time the bill was resolved as the result of a lawsuit, she owed, with interest, over $6,000. Collection agencies were garnishing her wages and had put a lien on her condo.
Much of her story is sadly typical. A survey published in May by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit based in New York City, found that of the uninsured between 19 and 29, half had trouble making payments, had been contacted by a collection agency, or had modified their lifestyles to pay off medical bills.
And the cost hardly stops with lost purchasing power. The Commonwealth Fund's survey found that more than half of those young and not covered had gone without needed medical care in the last year, which included not seeing a doctor, failing to fill a prescription, or skipping a recommended medical test, treatment, or follow-up visit.
Long Islander Fred Gumm, 26, now has health insurance through his job at Starbucks, which, he said, is "pretty much the only reason I work there." He went without coverage for two and a half years, during and after school at SUNY-New Paltz. While uninsured, he broke a few fingers and injured his shoulder and his back. He didn't go to the doctor because he couldn't afford the bill, and as a result, the injuries healed badly and still trouble him.
The story for middle-class kids these days is that you're covered by your family's insurance until you graduate college, and then you're on your own. For those not in school, the cutoff comes even sooner. "You turn 19 and lose your parents' coverage," said Sara Collins, an economist for the Commonwealth Fund.
In theory, you quickly get a job that comes with insurance. That's the way our system is designed to work, with employers rather than the government providing coverage. But as premiums have risen, companies have begun to consider forgoing health plans. In September, the trade journal BenefitNews.com reported that among companies with 10 to 49 workers, the percentage of those offering insurance dropped from 66 percent to 62 percent. That four-point dip may not sound like much, but the journal estimated it could represent some 200,000 businesses. What's more, young people tend to work for smaller firms – think entrepreneurial start-ups – and only 55 percent of companies with fewer than 10 workers carry health plans. A May 2003 report by the Commonwealth Fund found that 65 percent of working young adults are eligible for an employer-sponsored plan, compared to 77 percent of older adults.
What looked like a relatively seamless transition for your parents looks for you like a rickety bridge. You're not making much money, you've got student debt, the job market stinks, and what jobs exist aren't promising much. "The kinds of jobs you're eligible for are the kinds that often don't come with health insurance," Collins said.
America's approach to paying for medical care stretches back to World War II, when regulations made accident and health insurance for employees tax-exempt. Meanwhile, a simultaneous wage freeze and worker shortage encouraged employers to offer insurance as a perk to attract labor, explained Ken McDonnell, a research analyst with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
During the same period, England instituted universal coverage. The reasons we didn't are a complex knot of social and political influences now nearly impossible to untangle. "I think part of it is who's being served here. In more homogeneous societies, like in Scandinavian countries, [universal health care] came as a no-brainer," said David Jones, the president of the Community Services Society, a New York nonprofit. "But we're not homogeneous. There's a sense that 'We've got ours, I'm not sure I want to give it to those guys.' "
As employer-sponsored insurance took hold, the number of uninsured dropped steadily, reaching an all-time low of 23 million in 1976. But the very availability of good care quickly drove premiums up. In the 1980s, health care costs exploded, with annual increases peaking at 18 percent in 1989, before slowing briefly in the 1990s. Increases hit the double digits again in 2001, and reached 13.9 percent last year.
Perhaps not surprising, companies began to balk at providing benefits, leading individuals – the self-employed, the unemployed, the employed but not covered – to go it alone. Reforms designed to help the older and sicker buy private insurance served to further squeeze the able-bodied but vulnerable. Prices today are all over the map. A young, healthy adult in California can find basic catastrophic coverage for under $100 a month, but the same person would have to pay $280 for a similar plan in New York, largely due to differing state regulations.
For Lars Russell, in his early twenties, the cost of health insurance came as a shock. He graduated last year from the University of Michigan and moved to New York. "It's not really anything I can afford," he said in November. "I don't even have car insurance right now."
Russell would get little sympathy from McDonnell, the benefits research analyst. "That's life," he said, when asked about the huge number of uninsured young adults. "If you're young and healthy, you're going to take risks. It's life everywhere."
McDonnell cited an unwillingness to pay for insurance as a big reason young adults go without coverage.
It's a fine line, however, between being unwilling to pay even $100 a month and being unable to. And it's significant that when offered health insurance by an employer in exchange for a deduction from each paycheck, 74 percent of young adults take it, just a hair less than the 79 percent of older adults who do the same. "The argument is that if it's that important to you, then get a job that offers health insurance," said McDonnell, who, like so many experts on health care issues, is over 35 and has long had jobs with good benefits.
Janet Murray – who asked that her name be changed because of pending litigation – followed McDonnell's advice. Now in her late twenties, she was born with hypothyroidism and takes daily medication. During her first year of college in upstate New York, she contracted Lyme disease. Because she caught it early, she doesn't need constant treatment, though she is prone to exhaustion and respiratory infections like pneumonia. Her health problems don't prevent her from working, but they make it impossible for her to do without good insurance. Murray studied film in college but gave up on her dream of working in movie production. Instead, she took an office job with a media company because it came with benefits.
"I think the biggest thing for me was, if I had the stamina and I didn't have the general expenses of being on a bunch of medication, I would have taken more risks," Murray said. "I feel like I don't really have that luxury."
Maybe her dreams wouldn't have panned out, but the American health care system has made it nearly impossible for her even to try.
Or maybe Murray is lucky. At 21, Pedro Jimenez of South Williamsburg said he has never had health insurance at all. "I don't really know anything about it, to be honest," he said. When necessary, he has gone to the emergency room and tried to pay off the bills in installments. Otherwise, he has avoided going to the doctor. But basically, he has avoided thinking about the dangers, focusing instead on looking for work, getting his GED, and going to college.
It's important to note that degrees of coverage vary greatly by race: African Americans were nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic white people to be uninsured in 2002, and Latinos three times as likely.
Not having a job with benefits can mean being forced to choose between health insurance and other expenses, some of them critical to building a so-called life. Young adults "are in a stage where people have debts from school, they are trying to buy a house, and that seems more important than paying for health insurance, which might cost multiple thousands each year," said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.
The types and prices of plans for sale vary dramatically by state, largely according to regulations. Premiums nationwide for those under 35 average about $136 per month, according to eHealthInsurance, a website that sells individual and family insurance. Many states have plans with premiums below $100 for young, healthy adults without any pre-existing conditions. Cheaper plans are usually for emergencies only, don't cover routine doctor visits, and carry four-digit deductibles.
At age 22, Kristen Gass had minor outpatient surgery to remove pre-cancerous cells from her cervix. At the time, she was working as an actress and had health insurance through the Actors' Equity Association, a union that represents actors and stage managers working in theater. Soon after, she moved back home to Los Angeles, took a break from acting, and lost her coverage. When she looked into buying a policy, insurers quoted monthly premiums hundreds of dollars higher than she was able to afford, citing her recent surgery and a family history of cancer. They told her she would have to be without symptoms or treatment for at least two years before premiums would drop. So she went without.
"I just didn't go to the doctor," Gass said. "I went once for a checkup and that was it. I realized how much it would cost."
Had she been in New York, the cost of individual insurance would have been the same regardless of her history. But she still couldn't have afforded it.
Only one New York insurer has posted a plan on eHealthInsurance, at a monthly premium of $280. The plan covers hospitalization but not doctor visits. According to the New York State Insurance Department, basic HMO plans start at $320 a month. The self-employed may be able to get insurance at group rates through organizations in their field. One of the more popular comes from the Freelancers Union – part of Working Today – which offers HMO coverage, including vision and dental, for $286 through Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York.
Just as race plays a factor, so does gender. By the time he reaches age 34, the average Joe earns $30,677, and could expect to pay 11 percent of that gross for the cheapest plan in New York. The average Jane, earning $21,649, would fork over 4 percent more.
If the cost of insurance is unbearable, so is the cost of not having it. Even common injuries can be financially debilitating for people still trying to get on their feet. Manhattan resident Drew Brown, uninsured and unemployed, went to the emergency room at Beth Israel for a toothache and left with a prescription and a $500 bill. Brooklynite Andrea Craig had to pay $2,000 for surgery to treat a mouth infection before she got insurance through her current job.
Some people have almost gotten used to it. "If I get sick, I go to the emergency room. I usually give them my real name. I get bills. If they are reasonable I pay them. If not – if they're, like, four or five grand – I ignore them," said a 35-year-old Manhattan photographer who refused to give his name. "The emergency room is the only place I go. It's the only place that's free."
High numbers of uninsured strain hospital budgets because emergency rooms can't deny care to those who can't pay, Harvard professor Blendon said. Disease outbreaks are worsened when a significant fraction of the population doesn't have insurance. "We've lucked out because we haven't had any big epidemics, but with SARS and anthrax it really struck experts that you are going to have people getting sick and not going to the doctor," Blendon said. "Canada didn't have that problem."
The only real fix is universal health care, said Ken McDonnell, and with the current political climate, he says, such a policy has "a snowball's chance in hell." Estimates of the cost range from a net savings to a new burden of trillions. A study published by the journal Health Affairs estimated that extending coverage to the uninsured would lead to extra spending on the order of $33.9 billion to $68.7 billion each year as the newly insured sought additional medical care.
Short of universal health care, most reforms still leave young adults at risk. For now, many go it alone, scrounging up care where possible and resigning themselves to the hope that lighting won't strike. After all, millions of people do it.
Here are some things that Christopher Nunneley, a conservative activist in Birmingham, Alabama, believes. That some time in June, apparently unnoticed by the world media, George Bush negotiated an end to the civil war in Sudan. That Bill Clinton is "lazy" and Teresa Heinz Kerry is an "African colonialist." That "we don't do torture," and that the School of the Americas manuals showing we do were "just ancient U.S. disinformation designed to make the Soviets think that we didn't know how to do real interrogations."
Chris Nunneley also believes something crazy: that George W. Bush is a nice guy.
It's a rather different conclusion than many liberals would make. When we think of Bush's character, we're likely to focus on the administration's proposed budget cuts for veterans, the children indefinitely detained at Abu Ghraib, maybe the story of how the young lad Bush loaded up live frogs with firecrackers in order to watch them explode.
Conservatives see it differently.
"He's very compassionate," says Chris, an intelligent man who's open-minded enough to make listening to liberals a sort of hobby. "If you look at the way he's bucked the far right: I mean, $15 billion for AIDS in Africa!" He speaks at the church services of blacks, and "you don't fake that. That's not just a photo op."
Of course, two years after Bush made his pledge, only 2 percent of the AIDS money has been distributed (in any event, it will mainly go to drug companies). And appearing earnest in the presence of African Americans has been a documented Bush strategy for wooing moderate voters since the beginning.
So what does a conservative say when such "nice guy" jazz is challenged? Say, when you ask whether a nice guy would invade a country at the cost of untold innocent lives on the shakiest of pretenses? Or, closer to home, whether he would (as Bush did in late 2000) go on a fishing trip while his daughter was undergoing surgery, and use the world's media to mockingly order her to clean her room while he was away? Doesn't signify with Chris. "If you're in one camp, the idea of being firm, 'tough love,' is very popular. If you're in another, you can say, 'Well, that's just mean!' On my side, well, I like the whole idea of 'tough love.' "
This is a journey among the "tough love" camp. The people who, even in the face of evidence of his casual cruelty, of his habitual and unchristian contempt for weakness, love George Bush unconditionally: love him when he is tender, love him when he is tough – but who never, ever are tough on him.
On July 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign organized 6,925 "Parties for the President" in supporters' homes nationwide. I chose to attend in Portland, Oregon. The right love to believe the whole world is against them. In a county where Ralph Nader got a quarter of the votes of George Bush and Al Gore well over double, the sense of martyrdom is especially fragrant: Portland's conservatives are like others anywhere, only more so. One leader told me that here, it's the conservatives who are oppressed by the gays.
They certainly love them some George Bush.
Twelve people gather on the houseboat of Bruce Broussard, a perennially failed candidate popular among local conservatives for, well, his race: He is African American. First the group hears Laura Bush on a conference call. ("All of us know what makes George a great president. He has the courage of his convictions, the willingness to make the tough decisions and stick with them.") Then, they get a bewilderingly disjointed address from their host (he hits some key points from his recent Senate platform: presidential terms of six years instead of four, a cabinet-level Department of Senior Citizens with himself as secretary). Finally, beef-and-cheese dip loading down a plateful of Mrs. Broussard's homemade tortilla chips, I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.
Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it's too obvious to take seriously. "Honesty. Truth. Integrity," he says upon recovering. "I don't think there's any difference between the governor of Texas and the president of the United States."
Gingerly, I offer one difference: The governor ran for president on a platform of balanced budgets, then ran the federal budget straight into the red.
Responds Larry (of the first president since James Garfield with a Congress compliant enough never to issue a single veto): "Well, it's interesting that we blame the person who happens to be president for the deficit. As if he has any control over the legislature of the United States."
Larry's wife, Tami Mars, the Republican congressional nominee for Oregon's third district, proposes a Divine Right of Eight-Year Terms: "Let the man finish what he started. Instead of switching out his leadership – because that's what the terrorists are expecting."
Larry is asked what he thinks of Bush's budget cuts for troops in the field. He's not with Bush on everything: "I hope he reverses himself on that."
I note that he already has, due to Democratic pressure.
Faced with an existential impossibility – giving the Democrats credit for anything – he retreats into a retort I'll hear again and again tonight: Nobody's perfect. "I don't think we're going to find a situation in which we find a person with which we're 100 percent comfortable."
Then he reels off a litany of complaints about Bush. "Horrible underemployment situation . . . the big-business aspect of the Republican Party I have some issues with."
The next thing I hear is the last refuge of the cornered conservative: a non sequitur fulmination against the hippie Democrats.
"Having said that, what's your option? To have more bike trails?"
The vibe at my next stop is different. None of the people at Kitty and Tom Harmon's bungalow are stupid. Instead they are the kind of "well-informed" that comes from overlong exposure to conservative media: conservatives who construct towers of impressive intellectual complexity on toothpick-weak foundations. My hosts are Stepford-nice (Mom sports "Hello Kitty!" seat covers in her car and loads me down with shortbread for the flight home; Dad shows off the herb garden he'll use to season my eggs if I consent to stay the night). But everyone present shows a glint of steel when their man's character is challenged.
"One of the reasons I respect this president is that he is honest. I believe that after eight years, the dark years of the Clinton administration, we finally have a man in the White House who respects that office and who speaks honestly."
The speaker is Christina, an intense, articulate, and passionate publicist.
"Such a refreshing change for the country. People believe in the president."
I don't mention recent poll figures suggesting that more Americans believe John Kerry than Bush when it comes to terrorism.
After affirming "I still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction" – the commonplace is beyond challenge – Christina displays another facet of the conservative fantasy: Going into Iraq, she says, "is not the sort of thing one does if one wants to be popular. . . . He doesn't stick his finger in the wind." I don't challenge that point, either – though if I did I might ask why Bush scheduled the divisive debate over the intervention for the height of the 2002 campaign season, more certain of what Andrew Card called "new products" than his father, who held off deliberation on the first Iraq war until after the 1990 congressional elections.
Instead I challenge the grandmotherly lady sitting on the piano bench.
Says Delores: "There is an agenda – to get rid of God in our country."
Chirps the reporter: Certainly not on the part of John Kerry, who once entertained dreams of entering the priesthood.
I'm almost laughed out of the room.
I ask why Kerry goes to mass every week if he's trying to get rid of God. "Public relations!" a young man calls out from across the room. "Same reason he does everything else." Cue for Delores to repeat something a rabbi told her: "We have to stand together, because this is what happened in Europe. You know – once they start taking this right and that right. And you have the Islamic people . . . "
She trails off. I ask whether she's referring to the rise of fascism. "We're losing our rights as Christians: yes. And being persecuted again."
I ask why so many liberals believe the administration lies, if there might be anything to the suspicions. What about the report of the Los Angeles Times that morning, that the State Department dismissed 28 of the claims the White House demanded Colin Powell bring before the U.N. as without foundation in fact?
Delores: "You make mention of a paper in Los Angeles that made such and such a report; well, that doesn't mean it's accurate or complete or unbiased."
I respond that the report came from a memo reproduced in the recent report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican-dominated. I'm not sure whether she hasn't heard me or just has decided to change the subject. "John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language, bad humor, being evidenced in all quarters!" she cries. Kitty chimes in: "And Kerry said it reflects American values!"
I ask Tom what role he sees in America for nonbelievers. "Well, if people are of an opinion that their God is supreme and are willing to burn your house down to prove it or dismantle your car to prove it or make all sorts of loud noises, disturbing the peace, and say that they have a right to do that in the name of God. . . ." he begins, in his best Mr. Rogers voice. Later I parse out what the hell he was talking about. I was asking about atheists. But Tom understood "nonbeliever" according to the premise that God is exclusively Judeo-Christian. It wasn't about whether you believe in anything, but whether you dared diverge from his belief.
Walking me to my car (he insisted), Tom, who works for a construction conglomerate, reaches for a favorite metaphor to describe George Bush: linoleum. "You know: Usually you get a microfilm of the color, and if you drop a plate on it you discover it's an ugly-looking floor. Then linoleum came out – the pattern goes through the entire one-eighth of material. You can drop a plate on it, and the color is true all the way down!"
His face glows. He gets a far-off look in his eyes. That's his Bush.
It's like a scene from a John Waters movie.
What all does it mean? The right-wing website Free Republic is infamous for galvanizing harassment campaigns against ideological enemies, but it also has a lighter side: a robust culture of George W. kitsch. "Freepers" display and study the famous photograph of Bush embracing Ashley Faulkner, whose mother perished on 9-11, a woeful, iconic look on his face ("The protective encirclement of her head by President Bush's arm and hand is the essence of fatherly compassion," Freeper luvbach1 writes); the ladies exchange snaps of the president in resolute pose, rendering up racy comments about his sexiness; they reference an image of Bush jogging alongside a soldier wounded in Iraq like it's a Xerox of his very soul. "He's the kind of guy who's going to remember to call a soldier who's lost a leg," one citizen of the Free Republic reflects, "and go jogging with him when he gets a replacement prosthetic." Revering Bush has become, for people like this, a defining component of conservative ideology.
Once I interviewed a Freeper who told me he first became a committed conservative after discovering the Federalist Papers. "I absolutely devoured them, recognizing, my God, these things were written hundreds of years ago and they still stand up as some of the most intense political philosophy ever written."
I happen to agree, so I asked him – after he insisted Bush couldn't have been lying when he claimed to have witnessed the first plane hit the World Trade Center live on TV, after he said the orders to torture in Iraq couldn't have possibly come from the top, all because George Bush is too fundamentally decent to lie – what he thinks of the Federalists' most famous message: that the genius of the Constitution they were defending was that you needn't base your faith in the country on the fundamental decency of an individual, because no one can be trusted to be fundamentally decent, which was why the Constitution established a government of laws, not personalities.
"If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary . . . "
Conservatives see something angelic in George Bush. That's why they excuse, repress, and rationalize away so much.
And that is why conservatism is verging on becoming an un-American creed.
More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Put it this way, they're no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. – President George W. Bush, State of the Union address, February 4, 2003
These are people who were captured in different places in the world – in Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, Indonesia – handed over to the U.S., and never heard from since. In some cases, we know that they are being held and being questioned; in other cases, we simply have no idea what may have become of them. – Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch, National Public Radio, June 19, 2004
It's essential [for Bush to bolster his position with a national address affirming that] the U.S. will not tolerate abuse of helpless people [even if they] happen to be our mortal enemies. – Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2004
Battered by national and international outrage at photographs of the naked, contorted bodies of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration selectively released hundreds of classified documents on June 22, purporting to show that the previously leaked Justice Department and Defense Department memoranda justifying torture were just "scholarly" ruminations never to be actually implemented on human beings.
The next day, deep into a front-page New York Times story on this bumbling three-card-monte ploy by the Bush team, there was this key paragraph:
"None of the documents released Tuesday sheds any light on the legal thinking behind the detention of a small number of high-level Qaeda operatives who have been detained by the Central Intelligence Agency at secret locations around the world and who have been subjected to coercive interrogations without access to lawyers or human rights groups."
A major error by the Times limits these ghost prisoners to "a small number." I too was at fault in a previous column, "Disappearing Prisoners" (July 7-13), because, when writing it, I had not yet seen a 43-page, painstakingly annotated report, "Ending Secret Detentions," by an invaluable organization, Human Rights First (formerly named the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).
The group's previous extensively detailed analyses of the Bush administration's shadow Constitution that is bypassing the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers have been vital to my research for these columns and for my book The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press).
The headline on Human Rights First's press release about this new report, which is now reverberating in news media around the world, is "U.S. Holding Prisoners in More Than Two Dozen Secret Detention Facilities Worldwide." It adds that "at least half of these operate in total secrecy." These offshore prisons are "beyond the reach of adequate supervision, accountability, or law [and the Geneva Conventions]. . . . Human Rights First calls on the Administration to give the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) immediate access to all those it is holding in custody in the 'war on terror.' "
On June 18, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg reported, on National Public Radio (a persistently useful source on these abuses of international law): "The Red Cross, according to knowledgeable sources, has repeatedly warned administration officials that they were not complying with international law in the treatment of prisoners."
But Donald Rumsfeld, echoing the commander in chief's hollow homilies, said at the Pentagon on June 17: "I have high confidence that I have not seen anything that suggests that a senior civilian or military official of the United States of America has acted in a manner that's inconsistent with the president's request that everyone be treated humanely."
What about the more than 24 secret interrogation centers around the world? Agence France-Presse, having seen Human Rights First's report, noted on June 19: "The U.S. has refused to confirm or deny the report on secret detention cells" – not wanting, said an official in Afghanistan, to give "our enemy too much information." The news agency quoted – from Geneva – Erof Bosisio of the International Committee of the Red Cross:
"We are more and more concerned about the lot of the unknown number of people captured . . . and detained in secret places. We have asked for information on these people and access to them. Until now we have received no response from the Americans."
But on June 1, Republican senator John McCain, for many years imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese, reminded the president and the defense secretary: "It is critical to realize that the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions do not endanger American soldiers, they protect them. Our soldiers enter battle with the knowledge that should they be taken prisoner, there are laws intended to protect them and impartial international observers to inquire after them."
By hiding what may very well be intensely coercive interrogations – torture? – of these ghost prisoners, the Bush administration is giving added license to forces that capture American soldiers and also have no regard for international law.
In addition to hundreds held in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights First emphasizes, "thousands [are] held in more than a dozen locations in Iraq, some officially undisclosed, and an unknown number in Pakistan, Jordan, Diego Garcia, and on U.S. warships at sea."
Where are the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees who have insisted on implementing the Supreme Court's ruling that anyone held in our custody be given due process – the right to defend themselves publicly?
Since 9-11, the president and other leading figures in his administration have piously pledged that whatever they do to make us secure from homicidal jihadists is, and will be, within the bounds of the Constitution.
The actual mind-set of the Bush team, however, was disclosed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Newsday, September 15, 2002): "Anything that comes up in the United States tends to be looked at as a law enforcement matter . . . 'decide whether or not he's guilty or innocent and give him due process.'
"Of course," Rumsfeld continued, "if . . . you've got the risk of terrorists . . . killing thousands or tens of thousands of people, you're not terribly interested in whether or not the person is potentially a subject for law enforcement."
And even when arguing before the Supreme Court on April 28, 2004, Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement told the justices, "Where the government is on a war footing, you have to trust the executive."
On June 28, ruling on American citizen Yaser Hamdi, held without charges for two years, incommunicado, in a navy brig in South Carolina as "an enemy combatant" – put away solely by the president – the Supreme Court vigorously instructed George W. Bush:
"We reaffirm today the fundamental nature of a citizen's right to be free from involuntary confinement by his own government without due process of law."
No president, said the Court, is above the Constitution, and while George W. Bush is commander in chief of the armed forces, he is not commander in chief of the rest of us.
The decision that Hamdi has the right to appear personally before a court or some other "neutral decision maker" and rebut the government's evidence against him was 8-to-1. Only Clarence Thomas is still willing to trust the government.
Antonin Scalia, in a scholarly partial dissent, said the majority had not gone far enough. Either charge Hamdi with treason, he said, or get Congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (the fundamental right of any imprisoned citizen to go to a court and have the government prove the lawfulness of his or her incarceration). Otherwise, Scalia said to the Bush teams, release Hamdi.
Since Antonin Scalia is not a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, his rejection of the president's assertion of unfettered executive powers in the war on terrorism is particularly resounding. He wrote:
"Many think it is not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis. . . . Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it." (Emphasis added.)
On a technicality, the Jose Padilla case has been sent back to a lower court; the Hamdi decision will apply to him as well.
In another June 28 Supreme Court decision, Rasul et al. v. Bush, Justice John Paul Stevens – writing for a 6-to-3 majority, including Sandra Day O'Connor – gave the administration another stinging setback. The hundreds of noncitizens imprisoned at Guantanamo, Cuba, without charges, also, said the Court, have been denied due process (fundamental fairness).
The president never went to law school, but his White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and his attorney general, John Ashcroft, have law degrees. But they never told George W. Bush that, as William O. Douglas once emphasized, "the history of liberty is the history of due process."
Said Justice Stevens: "[These detainees] have never been afforded access to any tribunal, much less charged with and convicted of wrongdoing; and for more than two years they have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercised exclusive jurisdiction and control."
All of them now have the right to a hearing in our court system, or before a neutral official body, to make the government lay out the evidence against them and prove they are being legally imprisoned.
The day after the decision, the Bush team declared proceedings would begin for some prisoners in military tribunals at Guantanamo. But the Defense Department's rules are so weighted in favor of the prosecution that even a number of military lawyers assigned to defend prisoners have publicly insisted these trials cannot be fair, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has advised its members not to participate in the tribunals.
A far-ranging impact of the Guantanamo decision – as Adam Liptak noted in The New York Times – "may be the apparent extension of the right to habeas corpus to other non-citizens held abroad." And Joseph Margulies of the Center for Constitutional Rights told Financial Times, "The lesson of this decision is that there is no prison beyond the reach of domestic law." And that should include U.S. military tribunals, which, as of now, deny convicted defendants the right to appeal to our civilian courts. Also potentially entitled to due process are the hundreds of noncitizens imprisoned in more than 24 impregnably secret American detention centers around the world.
At least, finally, our constitutional separation of powers has been rediscovered by the Supreme Court. But much more sunlight is urgently needed from the courts and Congress.
"The person who is locked up, doesn't he have a right to bring before some tribunal . . . his own words?" --- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, during oral arguments in the Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi cases, April 28, 2004
After two years during which Jose Padilla has been imprisoned in a windowless cell in a navy brig on American soil without charges--and in the final days of the Supreme Court's arriving at a decision in his case--Deputy Attorney General James Comey suddenly hurled a list of detailed accusations against this "enemy combatant" as designated by George W. Bush.
Comey was not speaking in a court-room but rather in a nationally televised press conference. Padilla could not reply to those denunciations in his own defense. Nor could his lawyers. The government had at last allowed them to speak to their client twice after the Supreme Court had surprised the Bush team by taking Hamdi's case. But their meetings with their client were listened to and videotaped by the government.
Moreover, one of Padilla's lawyers, Andrew Patel, tells me that the government has ruled that Padilla's attorneys cannot tell anyone what Padilla would say in answer to any government accusations because everything he told his lawyers is classified. Nor could his lawyers ask him about what he said in his interrogations.
James Comey, therefore, was free to say anything he wanted as he claimed that during the two years of interrogation Padilla "admitted" to certain assignments from Al Qaeda. Also, said Comey, those "admissions" were corroborated by a number of high-level Al Qaeda terrorists who have been interrogated about Padilla while in United States custody. But some of those sources told conflicting stories.
Was there any coercion to get those admissions? Keep in mind how information was extracted from our prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo, and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Are there any photographs of Padilla--or his alleged co-conspirators--before and during their "admissions"?
Comey insists Padilla was not mistreated. Trust your government! Accepting Comey's stories of plots to blow up apartment buildings in New York, Florida, and Washington, among other plans, the Daily News--which trusts the government--titled its June 2 editorial headline "American Traitor."
But even the government's documents, to which Comey referred, concede in a footnote, as The New York Sun reported, that "Padilla tried to downplay or deny this commitment to Al Qaeda and the apartment building mission. He said he never pledged an oath of loyalty and was not part of the Al Qaeda. He said he and his accomplice proposed the dirty bomb plot [for which he was first arrested at O'Hare Airport] only as a way to get out of Pakistan and to avoid combat in Afghanistan. He said he returned to America with no intention of carrying out the apartment building operation."
How many Americans who heard or read Comey's extrajudicial public indictment of Padilla know about that footnote, to which Comey only barely referred? But Comey did admit that all of Padilla's connections to Al Qaeda that were "admitted" by Padilla could not be entered as evidence in an American courtroom because they took place without the presence of one of Padilla's lawyers. Again, trust your government!
In his statement, Comey insisted that the release of this "information" was in no way intended to influence the Supreme Court's decision as to whether American citizen Padilla should be entitled to the basic due process of appearing for himself in an American courtroom. The government, said Comey, just wanted to clarify for the public the reason for George W. Bush's most controversial unilateral decision, to take away from this American citizen the right to habeas corpus. This is the oldest act in the English-speaking world, to have a judge decide whether someone is being lawfully detained. Had he been actually tried, said Comey, his lawyer would have told him to be silent.
I do not believe Mr. Comey. I believe this last-minute Hail Mary plea was in fact aimed at the most powerful woman in the country. During Supreme Court oral arguments in the Padilla and Hamdi cases, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seemed likely, as often happens, to be the fifth and deciding vote, and of all the justices, she was the most conflicted as to how to rule. Will the government strategy backfire because the sudden fusillade against Padilla was so transparently an attempt to manipulate the Supreme Court?
I'm not so sure. O'Connor, unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg, can be swayed. However, the essential question before the court--which will decide whether future presidents have the authority to follow Bush into creating legal black holes for "enemy combatants"--was made clear during the oral arguments in this exchange between Justice John Paul Stevens and Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement.
Stevens: "Are there any cases in the international field, or the law anywhere, explaining that the interest in detaining a person incommunicado for a long period of time for the purpose of obtaining information from them is a legitimate justification?"
Clement: "I don't know that there are any authorities that I'm aware of that address exactly what you're talking about."
This definition of "enemy combatants" was a totally lawless act by George W. Bush. And as for Comey's devotion to the rule of law in this case, James Gordon Meek of the Daily News reported that during the Comey press conference, Comey, when asked about Padilla's future, said:
"We could care less about a criminal case [for Padilla] when right before us is the need to protect American citizens and to save lives. We'll figure out down the road what we do with Jose Padilla."
Where is that place "down the road," Mr. Comey, in the Constitution of the United States?
Cheri O'Donoghue usually spends her days inside an office in Manhattan, working as an editor at a glossy magazine. But last Wednesday, the mother of two took the day off from work and at 7:30 a.m. boarded a bus to Albany, NY. Almost every passenger on the bus had a family member who had been imprisoned for a drug crime. Cheri settled into a seat near the back.
In the last row was Wanda Best, whose husband, Darryl, is in the third year of a 15-to-life sentence for his first offense. James Gantt, 84, sat near the front; his son Ronald was recently released after spending 14 years in prison. By now, most of these activists had made many trips to Albany. They greeted one another with hugs.
Cheri sat alone, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist. She had never imagined she would someday become an anti-drug-law activist. In fact, until seven months ago, she had never even heard of the Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate hefty sentences for drug sales or possession. She did not know these laws are 31 years old, or that they are among the toughest in the country.
But then her son, Ashley, was arrested, and she got her first lesson in how New York's drug laws work. Last October, Ashley, then 20, traveled from New York City to Oneida County with a package of cocaine. He planned to sell it to two students at Hamilton College. At the time, he didn't know they had been arrested a few days earlier with seven grams of coke. To reduce their own punishment, these two 18-year-old freshmen had agreed to set up an acquaintance: Ashley.
Outside the Amtrak station in Utica, the police arrested Ashley with 72 grams of cocaine. The two students did not go to prison; their cases have been sealed. Ashley pleaded guilty to a B-level felony and received a prison term of seven to 21 years.
Cheri heard about the Rockefeller drug laws for the first time when Ashley's lawyer mentioned them on the phone. To learn more, she scanned The New York Times and typed "Rockefeller drug laws" into Google. Then she sent letters to Governor Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bruno, Assembly Speaker Silver and also to Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who has led the charge to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Aubry's office hooked her up with a local activist group, and now she was riding along with the group to Albany.
"I'm a private person, and I don't like doing things like this," she said as the bus barreled along the New York State Thruway. "But because it's my son, I have to do it." About the state's drug laws, she said, "I never would've known about them if this hadn't happened."
At noon, Cheri and the other activists entered the New York State Capitol and filed into a hearing room with crimson walls and a royal blue carpet. Cheri found a seat near the front; her son's face stared up from the chair beside her. The night before, her husband had made a cardboard poster with their son's picture. It showed Ashley's hair braided in cornrows, and his lips curled in a smile. Cheri had written his name with a red marker at the bottom of the poster.
Ten legislators sat around a table at the front of the room. These five senators and five assembly members had been charged with trying to come to an agreement on a bill that would reform the drug laws. The hearing marked the first-ever convening of a conference committee to discuss the Rockefeller drug laws. Eighty-five people had shown up to witness the historic event.
The co-chairs of the committee were Assemblyman Aubry of Queens, who used to oversee a drug treatment program, and Senator Dale Volker of western New York, an ex-cop who has seven prisons in his district. Cheri listened as the legislators staked out their positions, paying close attention whenever the conversation turned to B felonies.
The debate during last year's legislative session focused largely on those drug prisoners with the longest sentences: people convicted of A-1 felonies. These men and women all have sentences of at least 15 years to life. Last year, state legislators created a new provision, which enables A-1 inmates to reduce their minimum sentences by up to a third if they follow the rules and take part in certain programs. As of last count, 56 A-1 drug prisoners had been released; 474 are still locked up.
This year, there is increased attention on inmates convicted of B felonies, who make up 5,263 of the state's 16,397 drug prisoners. "It's the issue of the class B felons that I think are really the tone and the credo of the need to reform the Rockefeller drug laws," said Senator David Paterson of Harlem.
The hearing lasted a little longer than an hour, and by 1:30 the room was empty. In the hallway outside, the activists held a press conference, with each family member telling his or her story. When it was Cheri's turn, she stepped forward, clutching Ashley's poster in front of her. "I just want to say that the Rockefeller drug laws need to be changed," she said, her voice strong and confident. "When you send someone to prison, you send their entire family to prison, in a sense. This is a young man who has a lot of potential. He doesn't deserve this."
The reporters scribbled down her words. Cheri felt a little better, and a little more hopeful, than she had felt in months.
Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice, is the author of "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett."
The objective of the Patriot Act [is to make] the population visible and the Justice Department invisible. The Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people's lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions that make our inner lives transparent and the workings of government opaque. - Elaine Scarry, "Acts of Resistance," Harper's Magazine, May 2004
The Patriot Act makes it able for those of us in positions of responsibility to defend the liberty of the American people. - George W. Bush, quoted by the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, May 2004
In March, at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, I debated Chuck Rosenberg, chief of staff to James Comey, John Ashcroft's second-in-command at the Justice Department. A former counsel to FBI director Robert Mueller, Rosenberg, a former prosecutor, has specialized in counterintelligence and counterterrorism.
The next day, the headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on the debate (March 22) was "Ashcroft Staffer Admits Patriot Act Is Unpopular." And Chuck Rosenberg was quoted in the story: "We're losing this fight."
The reporter, Doug Moore, told me Rosenberg had made that admission during the intermission in our debate. It wasn't my eloquence that deflated Rosenberg, but rather my focus that afternoon on the insistent resistance to the Patriot Act around the country--and in Congress.
By May, 311 towns and cities--and four state legislatures (Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, and Maine)--had passed Bill of Rights resolutions instructing the members of Congress from those areas to roll back the most egregiously repressive sections of the Patriot Act, subsequent executive orders, and other extensions of the act.
According to Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the primary organizer and coordinator of this campaign to preserve the Constitution, "Hundreds more communities and states are considering resolutions. Last December, the National League of Cities approved a resolution calling for amending the Patriot Act."
And on May 12, The Hill, a Washington publication that gets inside congressional maneuvers, ran a report by Alexander Bolton ("Presidential Push Fails to Quell GOP Fear of Patriot Act"): "A group of libertarian-minded Republicans in Congress is blocking President Bush's effort to strengthen domestic counterterrorism laws and reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, which the president has made one of his top domestic priorities this year."
Not the whole Patriot Act, but sections of it, come up for congressional renewal by December 2005. Bush is pressing hard for Congress to renew those parts now. Standing in his way, however, is Republican conservative James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. According to The Hill: "Sensenbrenner has made it clear to colleagues that he will not consider reauthorization of the bill until next year."
On April 20, Wired News (wired.com) quoted constitutional law professor David Cole, of the Georgetown University Law Center, on the resistance to the Patriot Act. Since 9-11, Cole has been the Samuel Adams of our time, a one-man version of the pre-Revolution committees of correspondence. Said Cole:
"One year after 9/11, National Public Radio did a poll and found that only 7 percent of Americans felt they had given up important liberties in the war on terrorism. Two years after 9/11, NBC or CBS did a very similar poll and they found that now 52 percent of Americans report being concerned that their civil liberties are being infringed by the Bush administration's war on terrorism. That's a huge shift."
And on April 14, in Salt Lake City, when the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, came home to harvest support for the Patriot Act, among his fiercest critics was Scott Bradley of the Utah Branch of the ultra-conservative EagleForum. Bradley reminded Hatch--Ashcroft's premier cheerleader in Congress--of a prediction by Osama bin Laden in a BBC interview after 9-11. The arch-terrorist said:
"The battle has moved to inside America. . . . Freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people and the West in general into an unbearable hell and choking fire."
Scott Bradley went on to tell Hatch: "The United States is stronger and braver than that," but "we must make absolutely certain that the rush for security does not . . . destroy what we really cherish about this great nation."
Then, this libertarian conservative confronted Orrin Hatch with a grave warning by James Madison in 1788:
"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."
The next day, as if to confirm Madison's prophecy, the Associated Press reported, "The number of secret surveillance warrants sought by the FBI has increased by 85 percent in the last three years, a pace that has outstripped the Justice Department's ability to quickly process them."
They'll process these warrants, which are authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the AP notes, for "wiretaps, video surveillance, property search and other spying on people believed to be terrorists or spies." And we'll never know if our records are being included in the databases. These are secret searches.
It was an e-mail we weren't meant to see. Not for our eyes were the notes that showed White House staffers taking two-hour meetings with Christian fundamentalists, where they passed off bogus social science on gay marriage as if it were holy writ and issued fiery warnings that "the Presidents [sic] Administration and current Government is engaged in cultural, economical, and social struggle on every level" -- this to a group whose representative in Israel believed herself to have been attacked by witchcraft unleashed by proximity to a volume of Harry Potter. Most of all, apparently, we're not supposed to know the National Security Council's top Middle East aide consults with apocalyptic Christians eager to ensure American policy on Israel conforms with their sectarian doomsday scenarios.
But now we know.
"Everything that you're discussing is information you're not supposed to have," barked Pentecostal minister Robert G. Upton when asked about the off-the-record briefing his delegation received on March 25. Details of that meeting appear in a confidential memo signed by Upton and obtained by the Voice.
The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and Solomon's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.
Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."
Three weeks after the confab, President George W. Bush reversed long-standing U.S. policy, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank in exchange for Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
In an interview with the Voice, Upton denied having written the document, though it was sent out from an e-mail account of one of his staffers and bears the organization's seal, which is nearly identical to the Great Seal of the United States. Its idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation tics also closely match those of texts on the Apostolic Congress's website, and Upton verified key details it recounted, including the number of participants in the meeting ("45 ministers including wives") and its conclusion "with a heart-moving send-off of the President in his Presidential helicopter."
Upton refused to confirm further details.
Affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, the Apostolic Congress is part of an important and disciplined political constituency courted by recent Republican administrations. As a subset of the broader Christian Zionist movement, it has a lengthy history of opposition to any proposal that will not result in what it calls a "one-state solution" in Israel.
The White House's association with the congress, which has just posted a new staffer in Israel who may be running afoul of Israel's strict anti-missionary laws, also raises diplomatic concerns.
The staffer, Kim Hadassah Johnson, wrote in a report obtained by the Voice, "We are establishing the Meet the Need Fund in Israel--'MNFI.' . . . The fund will be an Interest Free Loan Fund that will enable us to loan funds to new believers (others upon application) who need assistance. They will have the opportunity to repay the loan (although it will not be mandatory)." When that language was read to Moshe Fox, minister for public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, he responded, "It sounds against the law which prohibits any kind of money or material [inducement] to make people convert to another religion. That's what it sounds like." (Fox's judgment was e-mailed to Johnson, who did not return a request for comment.)
The Apostolic Congress dates its origins to 1981, when, according to its website, "Brother Stan Wachtstetter was able to open the door to Apostolic Christians into the White House." Apostolics, a sect of Pentecostals, claim legitimacy as the heirs of the original church because they, as the 12 apostles supposedly did, baptize converts in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ronald Reagan bore theological affinities with such Christians because of his belief that the world would end in a fiery Armageddon. Reagan himself referenced this belief explicitly a half-dozen times during his presidency.
While the language of apocalyptic Christianity is absent from George W. Bush's speeches, he has proven eager to work with apocalyptics -- a point of pride for Upton. "We're in constant contact with the White House," he boasts. "I'm briefed at least once a week via telephone briefings. . . . I was there about two weeks ago . . . At that time we met with the president."
Last spring, after President Bush announced his Road Map plan for peace in the Middle East, the Apostolic Congress co-sponsored an effort with the Jewish group Americans for a Safe Israel that placed billboards in 23 cities with a quotation from Genesis ("Unto thy offspring will I give this land") and the message, "Pray that President Bush Honors God's Covenant with Israel. Call the White House with this message." It then provided the White House phone number and the Apostolic Congress's Web address.
In the interview with the Voice, Pastor Upton claimed personal responsibility for directing 50,000 postcards to the White House opposing the Road Map, which aims to create a Palestinian state. "I'm in total disagreement with any form of Palestinian state," Upton said. "Within a two-week period, getting 50,000 postcards saying the exact same thing from places all over the country, that resonated with the White House. That really caused [President Bush] to backpedal on the Road Map."
When I sought to confirm Upton's account of the meeting with the White House, I was directed to National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones, whose initial response upon being read a list of the names of White House staffers present was a curt, "You know half the people you just mentioned are Jewish?"
When asked for comment on top White House staffers meeting with representatives of an organization that may be breaking Israeli law, Jones responded, "Why would the White House comment on that?"
When asked whose job it is in the administration to study the Bible to discern what parts of Israel were or weren't acceptable sacrifices for peace, Jones said that his previous statements had been off-the-record.
When Pastor Upton was asked to explain why the group's website describes the Apostolic Congress as "the Christian Voice in the nation's capital," instead of simply a Christian voice in the nation's capital, he responded, "There has been a real lack of leadership in having someone emerge as a Christian voice, someone who doesn't speak for the right, someone who doesn't speak for the left, but someone who speaks for the people, and someone who speaks from a theocratical perspective."
When his words were repeated back to him to make sure he had said a "theocratical" perspective, not a "theological" perspective, he said, "Exactly. Exactly. We want to know what God would have us say or what God would have us do in every issue."
The Middle East was not the only issue discussed at the March 25 meeting. James Wilkinson, deputy national security advisor for communications, spoke first and is characterized as stating that the 9-11 Commission "is portraying those who have given their all to protect this nation as 'weak on terrorism,' " that "99 percent of all the men and women protecting us in this fight against terrorism are career citizens," and offered the example of Frances Town-send, deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, "who sacrificed Christmas to do a 'security video' conference."
Tim Goeglein, deputy director of public liaison and the White House's point man with evangelical Christians, moderated, and he also spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage. According to the memo, he asked the rhetorical questions: "What will happen to our country if that actually happens? What do those pushing such hope to gain?" His answer: "They want to change America." How so? He quoted the research of Hoover Institute senior fellow Stanley Kurtz, who holds that since gay marriage was legalized in Scandinavia, marriage itself has virtually ceased to exist. (In fact, since Sweden instituted a registered-partnership law for same-sex couples in the mid '90s, there has been no overall change in the marriage and divorce rates there.)
It is Matt Schlapp, White House political director and Karl Rove's chief lieutenant, who was paraphrased as stating "that the Presidents Administration and current Government is engaged in cultural, economical, and social struggle on every level."
Also present at the meeting was Kristen Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. (None of the participants responded to interview requests.)
The meeting was closed by Goeglein, who was asked, "What can we do to assist in this fight for these issues and our nations [sic] foundation and values?" and who reportedly responded, "Pray, pray, pray, pray."
The Apostolic Congress's representative in Israel, Kim Johnson, is ethnically Jewish, keeps kosher, and holds herself to the sumptuary standards of Orthodox Jewish women, so as to better blend in to her surroundings.
In one letter home obtained by the Voice she notes that many of the Apostolic Christians she works with in Israel are Filipino women "married to Jewish men -- who on occasion accompany their wives to meetings. We are planning to start a fellowship with this select group where we can meet for dinners and get to know one another. Please Pray for the timing and formation of such." Elsewhere she talks of a discussion with someone "on the pitfalls and aggravations of Christians who missionize Jews." She works often among the Jewish poor -- the kind of people who might be interested in interest-free loans -- and is thrilled to "meet the outcasts of this Land -- how wonderful because they are in the in-casts for His Kingdom."
An ecstatic figure who from her own reports appears to operate at the edge of sanity ("Two of the three nights in my apartment I have been attacked by a hair raising spirit of fear," she writes, noting the sublet contained a Harry Potter book; "at this time I am associating it with witchcraft"), Johnson has also met with Knesset member Gila Gamliel. (Gamliel did not respond to interview requests.) She also boasted of an imminent meeting with a "Knesset leader."
"At this point and for all future mails it is important for me to note that this country has very stiff anti-missionary laws," she warns the followers back home. [D]iscretion is required in all mails. This is particularly important to understand when people write mails or ask about organization efforts regarding such."
Her boss, Pastor Upton, displays a photograph on the Apostolic Congress website of a meeting between himself and Beny Elon, Prime Minister Sharon's tourism minister, famous in Israel for his advocacy of the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled lands.
His spokesman in the U.S., Ronn Torassian, affirmed that "Minister Elon knows Mr. Upton well," but when asked whether he is aware that Mr. Upton's staffer may be breaking Israel's anti-missionary laws, snapped: "It's not something he's interested in discussing with The Village Voice."
In addition to its work in Israel, the Apostolic Congress is part of the increasingly Christian public face of pro-Israel activities in the United States. Don Wagner, author of the book Anxious for Armageddon, has been studying Christian Zionism for 15 years, and believes that the current hard-line pro-Israel movement in the U.S. is "predominantly gentile." Often, devotees work in concert with Jewish groups like Americans for a Safe Israel, or AFSI, which set up a mostly Christian Committee for a One-State Solution as the sponsor of last year's billboard campaign. The committee's board included, in addition to Upton, such evangelical luminaries as Gary Bauer and E.E. "Ed" McAteer of the Religious Roundtable.
AFSI's executive director, Helen Freedman, confirms the increasingly Christian cast of her coalition. "We have many good Jews, of course," she says, "but they're in the minority." She adds, "The liberal Jew is unable to believe the Arab when he says his goal is to Islamize the West. . . . But I believe it. And evangelical Christians believe it."
Of Jews who might otherwise support her group's view of Jews' divine right to Israel, she laments, "They're embarrassed about quoting the Bible, about referring to the Covenant, about talking about the Promised Land."
Pastor Upton is not embarrassed, and Helen Freedman is proud of her association with him. She is wistful when asked if she, like Upton, has been able to finagle a meeting with the president. "Pastor Upton is the head of a whole Apostolic Congress," she laments. "It's a nationwide group of evangelicals."
Upton has something Freedman covets: a voting bloc.
She laughs off concerns that, for Christian Zionists, actual Jews living in Israel serve as mere props for their end-time scenario: "We have a different conception of what [the end of the world] will be like . . . Whoever is right will rejoice, and whoever was wrong will say, 'Whoops!' "
She's not worried, either, about evangelical anti-Semitism: "I don't think it exists," she says. She does say, however, that it would concern her if she learned the Apostolic Congress had a representative in Israel trying to win converts: "If we discovered that people were trying to convert Jews to Christianity, we would be very upset."
Kim Johnson doesn't call it converting Jews to Christianity. She calls it "Circumcision of the Heart" -- a spiritual circumcision Jews must undergo because, she writes in paraphrase of Jeremiah, chapter 9, "God will destroy all the uncircumcised nations along with the House of Israel, because the House of Israel is uncircumcised in the heart . . . [I]t is through the Gospel . . . that men's hearts are circumcised."
Apostolics believe that only 144,000 Jews who have not, prior to the Second Coming of Christ, acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah will be saved in the end times. Though even for those who do not believe in this literal interpretation of the Bible -- or for anyone who lives in Israel, or who cares about Israel, or whose security might be affected by a widespread conflagration in the Middle East, which is everyone -- the scriptural prophecies of the Christian Zionists should be the least of their worries.
Instead, we should be worried about self-fulfilling prophecies. "Biblically," stated one South Carolina minister in support of the anti-Road Map billboard campaign, "there's always going to be a war."
Don Wagner, an evangelical, worries that in the Republican Party, people who believe this "are dominating the discourse now, in an election year." He calls the attempt to yoke Scripture to current events "a modern heresy, with cultish proportions.
"I mean, it's appalling," he rails on. "And it also shows how marginalized mainstream Christian thinking, and the majority of evangelical thought, have become."
It demonstrates, he says, "the absolute convergence of the neoconservatives with the Christian Zionists and the pro-Israel lobby, driving U.S. Mideast policy."
The problem is not that George W. Bush is discussing policy with people who press right-wing solutions to achieve peace in the Middle East, or with devout Christians. It is that he is discussing policy with Christians who might not care about peace at all -- at least until the rapture.
The Jewish pro-Israel lobby, in the interests of peace for those living in the present, might want to consider a disengagement.
The moment Donald Rumsfeld had been warning about -- the worse-to-come moment -- arrived last Wednesday (May 12), when new images of atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison were released. The Pentagon brought this closely guarded evidence to safe rooms in the Capitol for viewing by a very select audience: members of Congress. The legislators trooped out looking undertaker grim. "Disgusting" was their most common reaction. They were more forthcoming with another select group: well-sourced journalists. And so we learned that the hidden booty included images of a man banging his head (apparently involuntarily) into a wall over and over, until he collapsed. And that another picture reportedly showed an Iraqi boy being raped by a private contractor hired by the U.S. military.
We got this news thirdhand. It was fit to print but not to see.
Why the discretion? The line was that these images would inflame the Arab world even more, and put our troops in greater danger. If that's the case, why not accuse the press of committing treason by publishing photos from Abu Ghraib in the first place? To my knowledge, no reporter pointed out this contradiction to any lawmaker. Too close -- on all sides -- for comfort, I suppose.
In this week's New Yorker, Sy Hersh moved the story with a piece on the Pentagon's attempt to stop Iraqi insurgents by unleashing a special force under the rubric "Grab whom you must. Do what you want." The response chez Rumsfeld was vehement. A spokesman called Hersh's findings "outlandish" and "conspiratorial." (A journalist can stake his claim to a Pulitzer on that sort of official rhetoric.) Meanwhile, other publications noted growing evidence that brutality was common in American detention centers. Then came reports that a high-ranking suspect had been subjected to "water boarding," a practice that has little to do with what goes on at Zuma Beach. Finally, we learned that no records were kept on the whereabouts of certain "enemy combatants." They had simply disappeared.
This terrifying revelation resonated with memories of the Argentinean and Chilean military's victims, the so-called desaparecidos, and raised dire fears of what our government might be capable of after another terrorist attack. But all these frightening intimations were confined to the spoken and printed word, and they appeared in so many different venues that it was hard to piece them together. A picture is different. Whenever you show it, the image remains the same, and its meaning can usually be understood without much mental mediation. Hide the photos and it's much easier for right-wing pundits to pound home the government's claim that this was just the work of a few pervs in khaki. That's why the images of life at Abu Ghraib were so stunning -- and no doubt why the new evidence was quarantined.
Recall the pictures of people falling from the stricken Twin Towers. They were broadcast live and printed with some day-one stories, but then they pretty much vanished. A year later, an Eric Fischl sculpture of a tumbling woman was deemed offensive and removed from Rockefeller Center. This reticence is not unlike the belief that people must be protected from obscene images -- though there's always a certain group that can be trusted to see the awful stuff. During the National Endowment for the Arts debate in 1989, Jesse Helms asked that women (and pages) be escorted from the Senate chamber when certain Robert Mapplethorpe photos were displayed. Only grown men could take such a sight in stride. Back in the Victorian era, it was believed that only wealthy gents could be trusted to possess pornography. Things have changed, sorta.
Now that violence and porn march dick in hand, every editor must wrestle with the issue of how much gore-cake readers or viewers can tolerate. But even when the image is the story, it's not always left up to us to look or look away.
Of course, the Internet is changing the rules of discretion, as The New York Times pointed out in a Week in Review piece on Sunday. Armed with the secrets of Googling, you, too, can join the illuminati. I did just that, courtesy of Al Qaeda, which had posted footage of Nicholas Berg being beheaded. The cable news networks announced that this video was too graphic to show in its entirety. But it was obvious that many commentators had seen it. Greta Van Susteren and Aaron Brown said so, and both described it as hideous. If only to prove that I'm a member of this charmed circle, I decided to take a look.
I found the footage at annoy.com, and this was my reaction. As the victim's screams turned to gurgling, I felt nauseated and started shaking. When his severed head was held up, I fled from the room. Within 10 minutes, I had only an intellectual memory of what I'd witnessed. I couldn't recall the sounds, except for the killers' repeated cries of "Allahu Akbar." This mantra was their way of distancing themselves from the evil deed; my way was repression. Over the next 10 hours, my memory gradually returned -- along with feelings of intense guilt. I had come to understand that reportorial duty was my excuse for voyeurism.
I wonder whether those cable anchors really needed to see the Berg footage in order to comment on it. I suspect they were drawn by the same curiosity that had motivated me. Like most people, journos want to see something transgressive, no matter how horrible. Then they edit the awful images so that other people who want to see them are spared. I believe that's called sensitivity.
Susan Sontag holds that photos of death before our eyes numb us to the suffering of others. I get what she means. I can look with considerable aplomb at such extreme images, but not when they move and scream. I suppose even that acuity could erode with repeated exposure, but not as long as the pictures show me something I don't already know.
That's why the beheading footage didn't enrage me. I expect that sort of thing from a ruthless enemy like Al Qaeda. As a gay American Jew, I know exactly what they have in mind for me. But the images from Abu Ghraib revealed something I hadn't wanted to confront. It was the real-world manifestation of the snarl-behind-the-smile that Rummy wears so well. Thanks to those leaked photos, we're closer to understanding why most of the world reads this leer as the look on America's face.
Pictures of the unfathomable force us to see. That's why all the evidence of prisoner torture must be released.
Richard Goldstein is the Executive Editor of the Village Voice.
Today is different: You're speaking to a psychiatrist -- not in a sterile, fluorescent-lit hospital, but in a residential office on a peaceful, tree-lined street. You suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and you've talked for hours in this very room, but always skipping the violent chapter that keeps you up at night, giving you flashbacks and causing you to feel estranged from your loved ones. Now an emergency room doctor and nurse are stationed inside the house. You've brought an overnight bag. Today, you've been given 125 milligrams of Ecstasy, and maybe, just maybe, you'll finally be able to face your demons.
On February 24, the DEA issued Dr. Michael Mithoefer a Schedule I license to legally obtain Ecstasy for a study of its potential therapeutic effects in the treatment of PTSD. Researchers hope that the drug, which melts anxiety, will help PTSD patients talk openly about the experiences that scarred them. It is the first study of Ecstasy-enhanced psychotherapy ever green-lighted in the United States, one that's been in the making for almost two decades. "There's been so much struggle over this approval process," says Rick Doblin, director of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the organization sponsoring the research.
Doblin's group stands to create a new landscape for Ecstasy, which has been at the center of the nation's war on drugs. The old one -- with its hidden agendas, career-obsessed scientists, powerful patrons and switched pills -- has only recently been scorched. It all began in September, when the journal Science published a retraction from a group of Johns Hopkins scientists who'd discovered that a bottle they thought contained Ecstasy was in fact filled with methamphetamine, commonly known as speed. The mix-up corrupted the results of a study, published in Science in September 2002, which found that a single, recreational dose of Ecstasy was so damaging it could lead to Parkinson's disease. Another study, published in the European Journal of Pharmacology, would also be recalled.
The British journal Nature promptly published an editorial dubbing the incident "one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of drug research." Colin Blakemore, head of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council (the British equivalent of the National Institutes of Health), demanded that an independent inquiry be conducted into the affair. And The New York Times' Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote a scathing indictment of the study's lead scientist, George Ricaurte, alleging "a pattern of shaky research supporting alarmist press releases."
Ricaurte did not respond to repeated messages left on his voice mail at Johns Hopkins or to an official request through Johns Hopkins representatives, but he has long been dismissive of his work's critics. In 2001, he told the Village Voice, "Everyone in the field has accepted [MDMA] is a neurotoxin. I think those [dissenting] arguments have to be put in perspective." It is this unyielding conviction that has been the hallmark of Ricaurte's career as the nation's foremost Ecstasy researcher.
But critics say the science has been less than convincing. Ecstasy promotes strong feelings of empathy by flooding the brain with serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter manipulated by drugs like Prozac. Once the high wears off, users register markedly depleted serotonin levels for about two weeks. What is not known -- and thus is hotly debated -- is whether these changes presage permanent brain damage.
That debate seemed settled when Science issued a press release in September 2002 announcing the devastating results of Ricaurte's study: After taking doses of Ecstasy akin to what teens might take at a rave, 60 to 80 percent of dopamine-related neurons in the test monkeys' brains were destroyed. The release was picked up in headlines around the globe. But some of those who got around to reading the actual study say what they found troubled them.
"The press release deliberately misrepresented the data," says Colin Blakemore. "There was no evidence of the 60 to 80 percent cell-death claim." There were other red flags: 20 percent of the monkeys had died; another 20 percent had gotten so sick they had to be withdrawn. Yet, there simply aren't thousands of people dying from Ecstasy every weekend. Then there was the problem that the drugs were injected -- not administered orally as suggested in the paper's introduction.
"The more I looked at it, the more I felt there was an agenda," says Blakemore, who immediately fired off a letter to Science editor in chief Donald Kennedy, complaining of "flaws so radical, so deep, they would have been picked up by any referee." But Science maintains it did everything right. "This study was peer-reviewed according to the same rigorous system used in all articles published in Science," says Ginger Pinholster, spokesperson for the Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal. According to Pinholster, the prompt retraction proved that "science is self-correcting."
Public policy, however, is not so mutable. Weeks after the botched study was published, its conclusions were repeatedly invoked by witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing on the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (RAVE Act). The bill was quietly passed last April as the slightly reworded Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. Aimed at quelling club drugs like Ecstasy and GHB, the law permits the prosecution of venue owners and club promoters for drug use on their premises. Only a month after it became law, it was used by a federal agent to shut down a benefit for Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. And last weekend, it was used to shutter the Sound Factory nightclub in Manhattan.
As easy as it is to paint Ricaurte as a rogue scientist motivated by ambition, the scientific establishment and its patrons also played key roles in the wider scandal, from merely ignoring critical flaws to blatantly promoting problematic studies. Alan Leshner, publisher of Science and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has come under fire for endorsing the botched study at its time of publication. "It isn't clear why an officer of the AAAS should be involved at all in publicly promoting a particular result published in its journal, least of all one whose outcome was questioned at the outset by several experts," wrote Nature. Pinholster says she called upon her boss "to serve as an expert source as a service to reporters," adding, "There was no conspiracy." Leshner declined to be interviewed.
Leshner has long railed against the dangers of Ecstasy. In 2001, when he was director of NIDA, he told the Village Voice, "We've known since the late '80s that MDMA can damage serotonin neurons, and if you give enough of it, they're blown away."
Rick Doblin, on the eve of his own study, says the payoffs for such shoddy science have been immense. "Leshner was willing to exaggerate findings to pander to politicians for money," he says. Leshner did help NIDA bring home the bacon: NIDA's budget for Ecstasy research has more than quadrupled over the past five years, from $3.4 million to $15.8 million; the agency funds 85 percent of the world's drug-abuse research. In 2001, Leshner testified before a Senate subcommittee on "Ecstasy Abuse and Control"; critics say Leshner manipulated brain scans from a 2000 study by Dr. Linda Chang showing no difference between Ecstasy users and control subjects. But NIDA insists it's independent from political pressures. "We don't set policy; we don't create laws," says Beverly Jackson, the agency's spokesperson.
NIDA wasn't the only benefactor of Ricaurte and wife Una McCann's research. "George and Una are cash cows for Johns Hopkins," says Doblin, who points out that every time a scientist receives a grant, money indirectly goes to the affiliated institution. While both NIDA and The New York Times have clocked Ricaurte's NIDA grant money at around $10 million, Doblin believes that's a low-ball figure. "Just this one study was $1.3 million, and he has done loads and loads of them." Johns Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stevenson declined comment beyond the official statement.
Another consequence of the retracted study and other discredited NIDA-funded findings is that they've helped obstruct legitimate research into the possible medical benefits of Ecstasy. Doblin believes Ricaurte and others are threatened by such research because it doesn't square with their drug-war agenda. In the past, Leshner has balked at those accusations. "It frankly bugs me," he told the Village Voice in 2001. "It's easy to say that the government isn't approving studies because they're politically incorrect. The government may say yes."
Now that the government -- more specifically, the FDA -- has indeed said yes, Doblin's research into the benefits of Ecstasy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder is under way. The $300,000 MAPS project, which is funded by private individuals and family foundations, has had some major setbacks since it initially received FDA approval in November 2001. The study was to have been conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina before that institution backed out; it will now be held in a private doctor's office. While Doblin believes the program would have gotten off the ground without Ricaurte's retraction, he says it's made all the players, including the institutional review board and insurance company, "feel a lot more comfortable."
A study under way in Spain examining the potential therapeutic effects of Ecstasy in rape victims hasn't fared as well. The Madrid Anti-Drug Authority pressured the sponsoring hospital to shut the study down in May 2002. Doblin largely blames Ricaurte for the mounting difficulties the research team has faced since then: Ricaurte, who was born in Ecuador, is fluent in Spanish, and gave four talks in Spain presenting his bungled findings.
As for the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, Margaret Aitken, press secretary for Senator Joseph Biden, who sponsored the bill, said, "Senator Biden will not change his position based on this one [retracted] study." A Senate aide also confirmed the legislation would not be revisited, and that there's "no official process to go back and correct the record."
Blakemore, meanwhile, is still calling for a "full and open discussion" from Science, including the disclosure of the paper's referee reports. "If the referees didn't spot what I noticed right away, then what does that say about the quality of [Science's] referees?" asks Blakemore. "And if the referees did make negative comments [that went unheeded], what does that say about Science?" At press time, Blakemore and Leslie Iversen, an Oxford University pharmacologist, were drafting a letter that Don Kennedy has promised to publish in Science. That journal, NIDA and Johns Hopkins insist there's been no evidence of foul play; no investigations were being conducted at any of these institutions at press time.
In the end, the ones most negatively affected by the studies may be those they purport to help. "I'm very concerned about drug use, but the way to tackle it is not to misrepresent scientific evidence," says Blakemore. "What's going to be the impact of these studies? Young people won't believe anything they read."
Carla Spartos is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.
There Donald Rumsfeld was, fielding unfriendly fire on Tuesday over the military's torture of Iraqi prisoners. This time, his usual pose of barely concealed contempt seemed more like scarcely repressed rage. Every muscle in his body was tensed, and his shoulders looked like wire hangers were holding them up. It was Rummy's Strangelove-ian attempt to keep from shrugging.
Hey, the voice within him longed to say, those fuckers are lucky to have their fingernails. But Rummy is a master of extenuation. When Baghdad was looted while the U.S. army stood by, he uttered his most famous euphemism: "Stuff happens." Now he was saying something even more elliptical: Torture? Don't call it that.
The military report that describes forced masturbation and anal rape, threats of electrocution, and terror inflicted even unto death? Rummy hasn't finished reading it yet. The failure to inform Congress? He cited a memo issued last January that was as oblique as the fog of war itself. The probe of similar conduct at some 20 U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The guilty will be punished, Rummy vowed -- but surely not the intelligence officers who devised this "softening-up" process or the two private companies contracted to perform interrogations (because they are exempt from military law). Or the secretary of defense.
Two immigrants held in New York after 9/11 have filed a suit charging guards -- supervised by intelligence officers -- with subjecting them to casual violence and repeated body-cavity searches. (As in Iraq, large objects were allegedly inserted in the rectum.) But don't call it torture; why, that would be against U.S. law. The events at Abu Ghraib prison are an aberration, Rummy insisted, even though there are dark accusations of prisoner abuse by our British allies. For that matter, many of the 3,000 men detained since 9-11 were shipped to countries whose governments are known to practice interrogation methods anyone but Rummy would consider a bit much.
What if the military had stuck to the "rule book" of prolonged sleep deprivation, protracted isolation in a small space, and a severely limited diet that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, says he was subjected to? What if we contented ourselves with variations on the old rubber hose? These techniques are so acceptable that you can see them in many cop movies, even though they're against the law. The truth is that most Americans are willing to tolerate such acts, and far worse, in the name of safety -- especially today. We just don't want to have the evidence shoved in our faces. And we sure don't want to see pictures of our heroic troops acting like pervs.
Or do we?
One reason why these photos are such a sensation is that they are stimulating. Especially the image of that woman grinning over a pyramid of naked men. She's the Phallic Female, watching guys parade around naked and jerk off before her. This really gets the kitten-with-a-whip crowd drooling. And when it comes to sadistic pleasure, there's nothing like forcing a man to give a simulated blowjob or take a peg-leg-sized anal probe. Shit, you won't even see that on Oz.
But that's the great perk of war. You can unleash the darkest reaches of your libido. Murdering, mutilating, and raping are all part of the adrenaline rush -- and nothing feels better than that forbidden thrill in the name of God and country.
The most distressing thing in those photos from Abu Ghraib was also the least remarked upon. That soldier standing over his prostrate prisoners, holding his thumb up, was wearing surgical gloves. Was he afraid of being contaminated by his victims' blood, feces, semen -- or just their humanity? We'll never know. But it's an astonishing symbol of what America is becoming: a nation where suffering is tolerable -- even pleasurable -- as long as the shit doesn't get on our hands.
Sure it was a publicity stunt. When Courtney Love gave David Letterman a peek, and later did the same and more for some guy outside Wendy's, she certainly had the sales of her latest album in mind. But I'm willing to cut Courtney a lot of slack. No woman in music today gets closer to Janis Joplin when it comes to channeling the primal.
Though she was much too shy to show her breasts, Janis definitely let it all hang out. She was one of the great hunger artists of the '60s. In performance, she tore her insides out and offered them up to her audience in the (usually vain) hope of pleasing and attracting men. I don't surmise this from a rockumentary. I got about as close to Janis as a rock writer could, and in those days you could get pretty close. I saw her neediness and confusion, and I watched as she was allowed to slip away. Her death from an overdose was a major reason why I stopped writing about music in the early '70s -- but that's another piece.
When I watch Courtney, I see the same failure to distinguish between persona and self, the same refusal to draw a boundary between expressiveness and excess, the same insistence on showing pain that made rock music in the '60s so intense.
Of course, Janis wasn't gratuitously violent, if only because she didn't have the ego strength to project her anguish onto anyone but herself. Nor was she capable of the sleazy stylizations that Courtney can't resist. Janis was too badly damaged to be a narcissist -- and the industrial tropes of rock were nowhere near as binding as they are today. Janis grew up in an era when there were young ladies and sluts like her, but by the time Courtney came along, bad girls were invited to kick out the jams. Watching her flail about, I can see the world my generation created, for better or worse.
I'll leave it for dude nation to rate Courtney's rack. Instead, I want to focus on breast baring as an act of power. It has a rich history in Western culture, one that merits mentioning at a time when female flashing has become a line of demarcation in the culture wars.
I'm not thinking of those naked majas and nurturing Madonnas that grace the realm of art. When you enter a museum, bare boobs are all around you. This hallowed setting sanctions the root reverie of heterosexuality that involves possession, domestication, and control of the female body. That's why the male nude is usually standing while the female nude is passively posed. But there's another, more active role for women in art. By the time Eugène Delacroix got around to painting Liberty Leading the People in 1830, the bare-breasted woman warrior was a signature of civic strength. Blame it on the Romans and their goddess Justicia (a/k/a Dike, if you want to get Greek about it). Her nude figure stands in the lobby of the Justice Department. When John Ashcroft had it draped so he could hold his press conferences in decency, he attested to the enduring power of women who expose themselves -- and the anxiety they provoke in the religious right.
You don't have to tell that to Karen Finley, the performance artist who poured chocolate over her naked body and stuffed food up her butt while incanting a poetry of pain and rage. Perhaps you remember how the pussy-chasing gents of Congress reacted to this gesture in the '80s. I still vividly recall the first time I saw Finley perform, and the reaction of men in the audience. This was a club crowd, and they threw lit matches at her. It was a supreme gesture of male terror and revulsion. So it isn't just the right that fears a naked woman what won't lie still.
Because female exhibitionism carries this aura of violation, it unleashes all the demons of gender. That's why breast baring has been utilized by generations of rebellious American women. Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, was the Karen Finley of her time, never more so than when she let her drape drop before a stunned audience. So, in a sense, was Sojourner Truth, the freed slave who became a powerful preacher -- and one of the first activists to link the oppression of slaves and women. She was so imposing that she was often accused of being a man. In order to stop such slander, she exposed her breasts before a crowd in Indiana. It was one of the most important moments in American history, though you'll never see it on a commemorative stamp.
Flash forward to the Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson stepped into the sexual maelstrom by allowing Justin Timberlake to rip her possibly pre-torn top. Consider the penalty the partners in this faux apache dance incurred and you'll see the meaning of breast baring in a conservative time. Janet is cast in the slut role and punished accordingly, while Justin sails along on the unspoken assumption that boys will be boys where the bodice is concerned. In this rapine charade, Justin butches up his icon, and a wan apology is all the shame his sin requires. But the bad girl can't say she's sorry. She must suffer the contempt of those who relish watching her disgrace in slo-mo on every channel. I can only wonder why the boom landed on Janet while Britney can flog the scarlet letter.
Thank God, for Courtney's sake, that she is white. She can play the wild woman without frightening the horses. What's more, she chose to grin and bare it at an hour when all good children are asleep, having whacked off in their beds. The mic-stand mayhem that followed was the ideal addendum to this piece of performance art, and the climax came when she emerged from jail to the timeless glare of the cameras. It was a perfect tabloid moment.
If you step back a bit from this vaudeville, it's hard to ignore the evidence that Courtney is a woman in crisis. She faces drug possession charges. Her daughter has been removed from her custody. The 10th anniversary of her husband's suicide is coming up. Sure she markets her madness, but the primal currents that course through her act are real. That's what makes her a hunger artist. And she doesn't just put her personal pain in your face. In the tradition of Joplin and Finley, her art answers Sojourner Truth's fearsome, if rhetorical, question: Ain't I a woman?
But Courtney's 'tude also evokes a much less salutary tradition. Entertainers like her are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement accelerates their downward spiral. That's what happened to Janis, and for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion against this sacrificial rite. It's a gesture of agency. Check out the manual of psychological disorders and you'll see that exhibitionism is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it, they lay claim to the phallus.
There's something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by Courtney's desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal man's defense against the phallic potential of women. Don't try to repress it -- that's for Republicans.Just sit back and enjoy the show.
If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring Break, I'll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately the joke is on desire.
Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of the Village Voice.
Five feminists committed a crime in broad daylight Sunday afternoon before some 100 cheering accomplices at Rockefeller Plaza, and they blamed the Food and Drug Administration for making them do it. The offense? Giving a friend the emergency contraceptive known as the "morning-after pill," which still is available only by prescription. It remains off-limits without a doctor's note despite 20 years of scientific data showing it to be "safer than aspirin," according to activists.
"Women should not have to rely on luck to control their reproductive lives," declared Erin Mahoney, one of the chief conspirators of the post-Valentine's Day action and co-chair of the NOW-NYS (National Organization for Women) Reproductive Rights Task Force. Mahoney then raised a pill in her fist, demanded that the drug be available over-the-counter, and handed it (illegally) to the next speaker.
"We're just making public what women already do," said Alexandra Leader, another organizer and chair of the feminist group Redstockings Allies and Veterans, in an interview prior to the action. Mahoney, Leader, and a dozen others spoke out to the crowd of women and men about doctors refusing to prescribe it, pharmacists refusing to carry the drug, and the ordeal of getting a quick appointment at Planned Parenthood just to obtain a prescription. Stephanie Morin, a law student and member of the task force, recalled an ex-boyfriend's "annoying habit" of "losing the condom" during sex and being deemed irresponsible when appealing to the campus infirmary. Beyond simply demoralizing women, such obstacles mitigate the effectiveness of the drug, which works best in preventing an egg's fertilization and implantation within 24 hours of intercourse.
More than 400 other women around the country joined the conspiracy, said organizers, signing a pledge to "give a friend the morning-after pill on February 15 -- or any day they need it," and Dr. Linda W. Prine was on hand at the New York rally to aid and abet. She wrote out prescriptions -- with twelve refills -- to anyone who asked, including this reporter. "I also provide abortions," said the local family practitioner, "so I know what women go through when they have an unplanned pregnancy. I'm here because I want to prevent that in any way I can."
The "MAP Conspiracy" pledge was delivered last week to FDA commissioner Mark McClellan, who had been due to grant or deny over-the-counter status to "Plan B," manufactured by Barr Laboratories, by February 20 but announced on Friday that he was delaying the decision for 90 days. The pill, not to be confused with the home-abortion drug RU-486, is essentially a megadose of the same hormones contained in ordinary birth-control pills, but is much safer, with nausea as the only common side effect. It's stocked on drugstore shelves in 38 countries, including Canada.
On December 16, 2003, two separate FDA advisory committees recommended that Plan B make the leap to being over-the-counter; they are supported by the editorial pages of some 60 newspapers, 76 members of congress, and more than 70 feminist groups and health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "How often do you get organized medicine saying 'You shouldn't have to come to us to get this drug,'" said Richard Gottfried, chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee, at today's rally.
The committee has sponsored a bill that would make MAP over-the-counter in New York, but it has yet to survive the state Senate. Also supporting the action was Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who relayed through a spokesperson: "It seems that the FDA has thrown the cold, hard, scientific facts out the window to bow to political pressure. They've injected ideology into a scientific matter, and it's going to hurt women's health in the long run."
I meet Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich on December 18 at Cornell College outside of Iowa City. The peace walkers are there. One of them, an emaciated kid with a beard, gives a short speech about hope and stars and enlightenment. There are close to a hundred people. A woman screams from the balcony, "What are you going to do about the unfair way we treat immigrants in this nation? Also Indians? I'm half Indian myself." She continues for five long minutes, explaining her own solution to these problems, and claps loudly as Kucinich repeats her platform with a little more restraint. There is definitely a moment where I think she is going to twist over the rail and fall to the ground. If I were up there, and I were a more violent person, I might push her over myself.
There is no other press traveling with Kucinich. ABC apparently pulled their full-time reporter after Kucinich made a mockery of Ted Koppel at the debate in Durham, New Hampshire.
I climb into the van with Kucinich and Paul, his deputy campaign manager and head of security. We're going to travel to Mount Vernon and Moline, a factory on the edge of a cornfield where they're building vehicle tracking systems, a library, and a bookstore. We'll finish at a house party where a young girl will play an accordion as 60 grown-ups sing the "Dennis Kucinich Polka."
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kucinich knows how to go off the cuff with the timing of a spoken-word poet. It's great to listen to a politician who can really give a speech. And he's got nothing to lose, because the establishment has already written him off. And probably with good reason. Why cover a candidate who won't win? Kucinich will tell you that's a self-fulfilling prophecy and maybe it is, but it doesn't give him any more of a chance. Kucinich refers to the mainstream media as "the Great Mentioner." And you can tell it personally offends him that he's so ignored. I feel that way too when they don't review my books. I don't even believe in bad reviews, but there's nothing worse than being ignored and if Dennis wants to take on The New York Times I'm right there with him. Those elitist bastards have never once given me so much as a mention.
Kucinich's campaign office in Davenport, Iowa, is two blocks away from a riverboat casino. It's a small office, as one might think, right next to a gigantic undeveloped suite that resembles a concrete ice rink. The gathering is upstairs, in the building's cafeteria. I make a ham sandwich at the small spread on the edge of the room. Several tables are set up and Kucinich walks among them talking mostly about the war in Iraq. When he's done, a man asks him what he intends to do about drug addiction. "Something I have personal experience with," he says smugly. Kucinich takes a while answering and the junkie regularly interrupts him with comments like "That's me," "You got that right," "OK."
This is always a problem with progressive candidates. The people who show up at their events are often crazy, lonely, and starved for attention. Drug addicts are common. As are shamans, witches, and congressional candidates. And what they really want to do is talk about their own issues. They see a spotlight and an opportunity to steal it. And because the lefties are so p.c. nobody says, "Hey, shut up you crazy bastard." You can bet that wouldn't happen at a Bush rally, or a John Edwards rally for that matter, where press secretary Jennifer Palmieri would throw a full-body tackle on the junkie before the nightly news was ready to reposition its cameras. And everyone would pretend nothing happened.
If you were to really just get down to the issues, you would know that Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate--unless you take into account Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton, something I'm not inclined to do--who is in favor of universal health care, as opposed to universal health insurance. He's rabidly anti-privatization. He's also the only candidate suggesting we leave Iraq within 90 days. I don't know how I feel about Iraq. I think if it came down to it, Saddam would have beaten the shit out of Kucinich. It would have looked like a scene from the South Park movie.
But on health care he's clearly right, and that's important. I mean, why give all this money to the insurance companies whose profit margins are increased every time they don't answer the phone? He's probably right on Iraq too.
Late at night before the house party, I experience a deep connection with Kucinich. I can't believe there is no other press covering him. They assign 10 press people to watch John Kerry implode. Why ride in the back of the death bus when the front seat is open and waiting in the happy van? You want to get to know a candidate, this is the way to do it, with your knees touching. At first we were a little cold on each other; after all, I've called him a kook in print before, and I made fun of his veganism, which is ironic considering our moment of connection comes while talking about diets. I confess to Kucinich I drink too much coffee and I've been eating a hamburger a day for the last week. He shakes his head, because he knows writers, and writers always push their emotions too far and their diets reflect that. He explains how he used to drink six cans of Pepsi a day, and how he originally became a vegan to impress a girl.
"That's what I do!" I say, overjoyed. "I do things to impress girls too!" At the second-to-last stop of the day, at a public library, one of his supporters shows up with a huge home-cooked vegan meal. Dennis insists on splitting it with me. "Are you hungry?"
"No, that's OK." But he knows I'm lying. We eat side by side in the van. I'm tired and feeling a little emotional after listening to Kucinich talk about love and peace all day. "Your whole life can change in one moment--that's what people are looking for. They spend their whole lives searching for that." He hands me a bottle of water. I didn't realize how dehydrated I was. The stars are so brilliant that even at 50 miles an hour it looks like the sky might explode.
And I suddenly really think I will cry. "Envision the world as one. We need to think about reparations for all the innocent victims." I think I see a fog bank coming east from Nebraska but I know that's not even possible. I think, look at the telephone lines between Des Moines and Davenport. No way, man. Look at America, just look at it. Would you shed an American tear for the innocent victims? When the collateral damage is counted, will it touch your patriotic heart? Will they pray for us, to save our souls, while we pray for them? Radio Iowa, can you hear me?
It's the best food I've ever had. When it's over I am in an entirely different place and Dennis is splitting his apple pie with me. We are friends. "You're more in touch with your humanity than the other journalists," he says. But he has no idea how in touch I am in that moment. Then there's the house party and the polka. One woman suggests loudly, when asked about vice presidential candidates, "How about a black woman?" I wonder if she is talking about any one in particular or suggesting a constitutional amendment. In the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, we sit for twenty minutes while Dennis speaks with a Christian radio station. Man it's cold outside. In the lobby we hug and have our picture taken together. I realize that I have really been compromised. I don't know how. But when that AP reporter told me not to eat from the John Kerry buffet, that was nothing. That was just baked beans and bacon salad. Kucinich didn't even charge me transportation. He split his meal with me. I love the guy. Could he be president?
Just before I go to sleep I ask myself, Why not love your fellow man, why not peace on earth? In the morning the sun has risen over the enormous Coral Ridge shopping mall, the biggest in Iowa. And the shoppers from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are pulling in like ants returning to a hill. I ask myself the same question, Why not peace on earth? And the answer occurs to me immediately--because the other guy wants to rape your women and kill your children.
When considering Kucinich one has to also consider Cleveland. It's the only way to frame the debate. When I think about Cleveland I think about the canal district and my third week of college. I was sober at the time. I took six years off of drugs and alcohol from the age of sixteen to twenty-two, but in Cleveland I made an exception at the Crazy Horse II. We had driven all the way from the University of Illinois and at first they wouldn't let us in because we didn't have identification and we weren't old enough to drink but then we went back to the car and put on sweaters. We were young and the women were beautiful and we stuffed hundreds of dollars of precious college money into their undergarments. It was my first time in a strip club and I still remember a woman with platinum hair, silver stockings, and five inch heels which she took off to allow me to massage her feet. When it was all over, four a.m., and the Crazy Horse II was closing we asked where a couple of young guys should go to have a good time and the strippers told us to go to Popeye's. But Popeye's turned out to be a gay club.
Dennis Kucinich threw away his political career to save Cleveland's electricity grid. You want to talk about integrity, that's some heavy shit. The city was trying to privatize its electricity. It was all very corrupt, as you would expect. So Kucinich ran on the platform of killing the contracts. He was twenty-six years old, and he won the mayor of Cleveland. But then the big boys stepped in. They said he had to privatize the electric system or they were going to cancel Cleveland's credit. A city with no credit. Political suicide. Everyone, including both parties, told him he had no choice. But he held his ground and the banks cancelled Cleveland's credit so for the remainder of his term he had to run the city on a cash basis. The middle class was embarrassed. The big interests, the fat cats, put a million into ousting the boy mayor and exiling him to a political wasteland. After they got rid of Kucinich they let the issue drop, it had become too much of a hot potato. Cleveland held onto its electricity and Kucinich wouldn't be able to hold office again for fifteen years.
"Those were hard years," Dennis told me, and you know he means it, because all he wanted in life was to hold political office. "Those were lean times, I had to scrape to get by... I taught some classes, did some consulting... Tough times... Fifteen years in the void... You have to keep it together, man." Then he gave me the 'that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger' stuff. But his smile was bitter when he said it. In fact, it wasn't a smile at all.
Fifteen years later people started talking about the success of Cleveland's municipal utility. Kucinich was vindicated. The young mayor had been right. According to Cleveland Magazine between 1985 and 1996 Kucinich's gambit saved taxpayers $185 billion. He was invited to run for office again and won a seat in congress that he held for four terms, that he still holds today, which is why he has two Blackberries, one for campaign email and one for congressional business. So that's the thing. If you're going to understand Kucinich you first have to understand Cleveland.
Stephen Elliott is the author of four novels, including "What It Means to Love You" and "Happy Baby." He is currently working on a book about the 2004 presidential election. More of his writings are at www.stephenelliott.com.
Who is Walter Benjamin, and why is he haunting HBO?
For those who didn't major in cultural studies, Benjamin was Europe's greatest criticmake that apprehenderof modernity. But he couldn't escape the Nazis, and when he was caught trying to flee them he killed himself. You can regard Benjamin's suicide as proof that politics has the power to crush perception. But the real meaning of his desperate gesture is contained in the figure that was his most audacious creation. Benjamin called it the angel of history, and this is how he described its helpless majesty:
"His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Meeting Tony Kushner at Starbucks is a little like running into Walter Benjamin at Disney World. In his black fedora, schlepping a sack of books, Kushner looks like a refugee among the latte lappers. "Let's get out of here," he hisses over strains of a premature Christmas carol. Something about this place cries out for Benjamin's apparition to come crashing through the ceiling, as it does in Kushner's best-known play. "Angels in America" is the most stunning evocation of Benjamin's concept of change ever to grace the stage, and now it is about to reach the home screen.
On December 7, HBO will begin a two-part, star-studded production of the drama that shattered the rules of Broadway in 1993. The new version, directed by Mike Nichols, is a breakthrough event in television. Even as it shows how much has been lost in the Will & Grace-ing of gay entertainment, it also announces an opening in the mainstream for real queer culture in all its quicksilver complexity.
Tony Kushner is one busy yidl. While jiggering with the screenplay for Angels over 10 months of filming, he co-edited a new anthology of critical writing on Israel ("Wrestling With Zion") and finished the book for a new playa musical, no less. He spends most of these days toiling at the Public Theater, where "Caroline, or Change" opens on Nov. 30, directed by the man who made "Angels" come alive on Broadway, George C. Wolfe.
"It was my first Broadway piece," Wolfe says with no nostalgia in his recollection. "The play was living in all our bodies back then. We had all lost friends to AIDS; we all had the energy of struggle and the muscles of defiance. So this wasn't in any way a memory play." The epidemic may not inspire the visceral horror it once did in gay men of Wolfe and Kushner's class and generation, but Angels still grabs you by the gut and bores into your secret yearnings. The screenplay homes in on the characters without losing the metaphysical street-speak that is Kushner's signature. But it's those characters and their conflicts that carry the major wallop now. The play's sexual politics seem more sexy than political, and the spiral of contradiction that surrounds its every theme seems less terrifying than dramatic.
Maybe it's the iconic cast, under Nichols's fluent direction; maybe it's the play's interaction with a cinematic medium. "Film is about stories, theater is about ideas," says Wolfe with a small smirk. Given Kushner's commitment to radical theater, he must have agonized over balancing both. In the end, he insists, "I'm a playwright, not a politician or a theorist. Like Brecht said, the highest function you can expect from art is that it teaches you to move through the world with pleasure." As with the didactic Bertolt Brecht (who wrote a crowd-pleaser called "The Threepenny Opera"), the pleasure of Kushner's plays depends on your willingness to be entertained by ideas that subvert even themselves.
In "Angels," every character you expect to be good is capable of evil, and everyone who ought to be evil can love. Never have there been so many caring, sexy Mormons in a work by a card-carrying lefty. As for the Angel, she has eight vaginas and the means to use themeven on the dying faggot she transforms into a prophet through an orgasmic act. He ascends to heaven on a golden ladder, and just when you think you're in a Christian potboiler about the rapture, it turns out that God has disappeared and the bureaucrats who run paradise want this prophet to end the human quest for change. But he rejects this temptation and demands "life . . . more life" instead: life as rebellion against celestial stasis; change as ecstatic, unmanageable pain. This is what the pioneer woman in "Angels" says when she pops out of a diorama at the Mormon Visitors Center: People change when God rips out their intestines, stuffs them back in a different way, and "it's up to you to sew yourself up." Benjamin tried to describe that ineffable process, and Kushner admits, "I'm indebted to Benjamin to the point of larceny."
If Angels is a drama about change, change has fucked with the play in unforeseen ways. We've become accustomed to the face of ambiguity; it's the hallmark of upscale entertainment and a specialty of HBO. With its flights of magic realism, "Angels" fits snugly in the pay-cable repertoire alongside "Six Feet Under" and 'Carnivale." In the wake of Showtime's "Queer as Folk," Kushner's bold depiction of homosex feels like something Mike Nichols would otherwise have had to invent to hold an audience that doesn't think it's experiencing modern drama unless the male leads kiss. That once forbidden, now expected homo moment is an emblem of what has changed.
The category of the sodomite is still a social necessity, as the ferocious battle over gay marriage attests. But in liberal America, the status of gays has changed. It's possible to lead a decent life as a friend of Dorothy or a sister of Sappho as long as you're white and well-off, and you act like a regular Dick or Jane. (Everyone else better be entertaining.) This new situation has altered the meaning of the words "gay' and "queer." The former now refers to a sexual orientation; the latter is a social position, a place at the margin as opposed to at the table. Where you sit depends on more than who you shtup.
"Angels" was one of the first popular plays to draw a connection between race, gender, and sexuality. It took the new identity politics incubating in the academy and brought it to Broadway. At the same time, it performed a critique of identity politics by portraying the complexities and multiplicities that come with simply existing. "Angels" anticipated the attitude that would emerge from the shadow of AIDS, as it became clear that deviance from the norm is the true basis of a queer identity. By now, that concept has expanded beyond homosexuality. Any woman whose libido violates the expectations of her gender can consider herself queer. Then there's the increasingly porous boundary of race, a subject Wolfe's productions at the Public often address. "There's a whole new conversation out there," he says, "a new crop of people who don't consider themselves black or white." Are they queer? It depends on what that is.
If this isn't enough to bust your balls, queer is also a verb. To queer something is to mess with its assumptions. Let Kushner elaborate: "Queering is a critique of the homogeneity that works menacingly within the heart of liberalism. The thing that makes liberalism fascism in slow motion is its sense of coherenceand queering is there to say, a lot is being given up in this process and these things must be articulated, explored, recovered. The queer project is about digging and digging and finding those moments that the liberal project can't afford to admit."
But the liberal project is a hungry beast. It gobbles up dissent like Bill Clinton at Mickey D's, and it can easily digest the radical vision of a decade ago. The image of white gay men struggling to survive is a bit overripe these days. It's apparent now that every character in Angels (and probably in the audience) is what the prophet calls them in his final speech: "fabulous." And most people who die of AIDS these days aren't fabulous. The play's power now resides in its astounding theatricality and philosophical reach, but to the extent that it's "a gay fantasia on national themes," as Kushner dubbed the original, "Angels" feels like what it wasn't in 1993: a memory play.
Since his big breakthrough, Kushner has written several dramas that will never be optioned by Rosie O'Donnell. "I love it that fans of Angels in America had to suffer through a three-and-a-half hour play about Afghanistan," he snorts. He's thinking of a wonderful, thorny piece called "Homebody/Kabul" that will be revived at BAM next spring. Kushner's current opus is even more unexpected: a sung-through musical scored by Jeanine Tesori and written almost entirely in verse. It's set in the fall of 1963, when the civil rights movement surged toward powerand when everything orderly exploded along with John F. Kennedy's skull. "It was a tinderbox moment," Kushner says, "an epistemological break. Suddenly there was something new." Hence the title: "Caroline, or Change."
But those words have a double meaning. Change also refers to the petty cash a Jewish family living in Louisiana doles out to its black maid (powerfully played by Tonya Pinkins). In order to teach the young boy of the house not to leave change in his pockets, the family allows Caroline to take whatever she finds there. For her, these throwaway coins mean dental work or clothes for her three children, and the pain of scrounging for white people's leavings leads to a horrifying confrontation, when Caroline turns on the eight-year-old who is deeply attached to herand grieving for his dead mother. Answering his impetuously racist outburst, she tells him that all Jews burn in hell.
Unlike Kushner's other plays, this one is loosely autobiographical. He did grow up Jewish in Louisiana, and though his mother didn't die during his childhood she struggled with breast cancer. Like the boy in "Caroline," Kushner was drawn to the family maid. "She had one remarkable characteristic: She didn't smile a lot and she wasn't nice like other people's maids. I loved her and she loved us, it turns out now." But love is warped by stigma, and in the '60s the racial order positioned Southern Jews and blacks in an uneasy hierarchy: the not-quite-white just above the never-to-be. These two spoiled identities produced a certain solidarity along with a special hostility. The conflict was shaped not just by religion and race but by money. "These are tenuous but affectionate relationships that become almost unworkable when money is introduced," says Kushner. "It's the 'Moby Dick' moment when they nail the doubloon to the mast and everything changes."
In a sense, "Caroline" is Kushner's attempt to queer "Angels" by putting cash back into thinking about race and gender. After all, money is a major signifier of status, and fear of falling even further is what keeps stigmatized people from uniting against the order that oppresses them. It stops white women from identifying with black men, and prevents gay gents from relating to butch dykes and trannies. In challenging sexist assumptions on the left, identity politics has obscured the significance of cash. Now it's time to make the analysis whole, and "Caroline" announces that change. "The '80s and '90s were about an illusion of abundance," says Wolfe. "But more people are like Caroline today. And $30 a week ain't enough."
"Caroline" departs from the domain of Angels in another important respect. All the men in this musical are absent, archaic, or too depressed to communicate. This is a play about women and children, and that creates another layer of complexity, reflected in Tesori's propulsive score, which includes music for the washing machine and radio in the basement that is Caroline's world. In this character, Tesori sees many issues she tackled in women's studies: "slicing off parts of yourself, not wanting to take up much space, living in an emotional basement with four walls around you at all times.
"This story could have been 'Medea,'" Tesori says, "but it's not. It's about a woman who understands that there's nowhere to deposit her talent and intellect. She kills them off so she can advocate for the going-forward of her children." As the daughter of Sicilian immigrantsanother not-quite-white group in AmericaTesori found much to connect with in Caroline's struggle. "The idea of moving beyond the generation before you produced a lot of rancor and misplaced aggression in immigrant households. I understand that legacy."
Two sorta white folks collaborate to create a poor black woman. A black director depicts the ways of Southern Jews. The director and author are gayand if you listen closely you'll find evidence that the eight-year-old protagonist of this play will grow up to be that way. These permutations speak to a new identity politics of "subtlety, sophistication, and complexity that reflects the world we're experiencing now," to quote Kushner. This resonance with the present makes "Caroline," which presumes to be a memory play, seem oddly more contemporary than "Angels." After 9-11, America is closer to the unfathomable feelings that the JFK assassination unleashed. "We're at the same point now," Wolfe maintains, "and war as a tactic of heroics has only intensified the fragility and vulnerability."
What does this have to do with Walter Benjamin? Everything, Kushner insists. "Caroline is a woman who loses her mobility. She can't stop grieving over losses, and, like Benjamin's angel, her face is turned to the past. She wants to go back, but the terrible lesson of history is that she can't." Her brazen teenage daughter who won't take shit from white folks propels the playand the world forward. Violence, struggle, and backlash will follow, but she sees only the world as it is and must not be. She will be fabulous.
All this talk about the angel of history has made me think about my first reaction to the Twin Towers falling down. Unable to process this terrible event, I was exhilarated. I felt weirdly giddy in the face of something so unimaginable and uncontrollable. Before horror set in, there was a primal pleasure at the storm of change. "Ah," Kushner says softly, almost reverently, "the apocalypse."
Richard Goldstein is the Executive Editor of the Village Voice.
At his post-victory press conference, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked whether he would keep his promise to investigate the charges of sexual harassment made against him. "Old news," the governator replied. It was a dismissal Bill Clinton could envy.
Of course, Clinton was the nemesis of angry white men, while Arnold is hardly that. Sexual solidarity is the main reason why he prevailed. Unlike most California elections, where women are the majority of voters, this one was a white-boy jamboree. Exit polls revealed that female voters were evenly divided on the recall. If they had come out in their usual numbers, it might well have failed. But many women sat this one out, perhaps because they were appalled by every option. On the other hand, white men were fired up, and they voted overwhelmingly for the candidate who made them feel empowered: the Human Hummer.
For this constituency, it's quite possible that the groping allegations made Arnold seem even more like The Man. No exit poll can measure that kind of perception. Nor will we know how many women were turned on by fantasies of Arnold's prowess. But the polls did show that women under 30 were the least likely to buy his apology. Their mothers were more amenable. They had been taught to accept this explanation, or even to collude in the joke.
Take the woman on the 'Total Recall' set who was fondled by Arnold and was told that her breasts needed realignment. "Though she was visibly embarrassed," wrote one reporter who saw the incident, "she ended up laughing along with a dozen or so crew members." That's the typical grin-and-bear-it reaction to unwanted tactile attention from a powerful man. To complain is to risk ridicule or worse. The woman who accused Arnold of pulling up her T-shirt and sucking on her breast (a photo of this magic moment was displayed on the set) was called a prostitute by the Schwarzenegger campaign.
So deep is the reflex to avoid further humiliation that even U.S. Senator Patty Murray kept silent when Strom Thurmond groped her in an elevator. Another senator, Bob Packwood, was forced to resign in 1995 after he was accused of harassing 17 women. But as Steven Sack, author of 'The Working Woman's Legal Survival Guide,' notes, in order for groping to be legally actionable, "it has to be hard enough to leave a mark." If it's done in private and nothing shows, or if the perp isn't in a supervisory role, there may be no recourse. Still, serial groping can be prosecuted, and if all the women who were hit on by Arnold had filed charges, they might have had a case. Instead, they kept their silence for years. That's why it's unlikely that Arnold will be indicted. "You have to come forward when it happens," says Sack. "There's a statute of limitations -- in some states it's six months -- and the only way to stop the clock is to complain."
It wasn't even possible to do that until 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. We're still working out the definition of that crime -- and groping is right on the boundary between boorish and illegal behavior. As the California election shows, when it comes to guys who grab girls, we're living in the days of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' Remember the moment when Stanley smacks Stella on the butt because she has annoyed him? "I hate when he does that," Stella tells her sister, with a twinkle. That's how the voters treated Arnold.
Tolerance of male sexual aggression that stops short of rape is the main reason why Schwarzenegger got away with groping for three decades. In liberal Hollywood, he earned the affectionate nickname "The Octopus." In the wake of his victory, we're told that Americans have come to think of a politician's sex life as irrelevant. Clinton gets blamed for that, as well. But this libertarian attitude applies only to men. What if an actress running for office had a history of grabbing men's crotches? Would the voters overlook it? The answer speaks to the politics of groping.
In 'Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder,' Schwarzenegger gave us his credo: "A certain amount of people are meant to be in control." Aside from its authoritarian vibe, this is the perfect groper's code. The right to manhandle women is part of the time-honored system that allows one sex to express its impulses while the other must be constrained. Babes may get to wield the sword in vanguard entertainments, but in life a woman with a weapon is not just dangerous; she's a pervert.
Who knows what effect modulating her sexual impulses -- and putting up with men who don't -- has on a woman's sense of personal power? Women who rebel against this code must struggle against a lifetime of training in restraint and assertion along strictly defined lines. I'm not just talking about sex but about the larger consequences of keeping your energy in check. If men are given greater expressive leeway, they will always have an advantage over women, if only because they don't have to cope with the anxiety of violating a gender role every time they act out.
This is why women's sports are so important (and why cutting funds for those programs has become a cause for conservatives). Physical agency is the best preparation for having an impact on the world. To the extent that women play ball, wear less binding clothing, drive big machines, and enjoy freedom from sexual subordination, they are more likely to wield power -- and to feel good about it. Groping is a remnant of the old order, in which men get to be "playful" and women are expected to enjoy being played.
Maybe some women do dig it, but that doesn't change the fact that groping is a one-way transgression. What if it were otherwise? What if both sexes felt free to reach out and touch someone? At the least, groping would be taken much more seriously if it worked both ways. Women who are tempted in this direction may think grabbing a guy would only add to his pleasure. But that's because when a man imagines being "victimized" this way, the perp is Uma Thurman. They don't think of the female equivalent of Strom Thurmond fondling their nuts in an elevator. Or a middle-aged spinster reaching under men's shorts to pinch their butts. Or a serial groper who is the boss! That's the plot of a male-paranoia movie starring Michael Douglas.
If you want to stop gropinators in their tracks, grab them back. Not as a romantic response, but as a preemptive action when a guy is known for this m.o. Some people may shrink from the thought of mutually assured harassment, but there's another possibility. Women might feel less humiliated by erotic touching if they could respond in kind, and men might not get off on groping if it were no longer a sign of macho. When you change the power relations, an aggressive act takes on new meaning. A predatory male practice can evolve into a tacitly consensual rite. And when it comes to human sexuality, that may be the most you can expect.
Richard Goldstein is executive editor of the Village Voice.