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Alexander Cockburn

Columnist

Alexander Cockburn, The Nation‘s "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America’s best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. He graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language.

After two years as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, he worked at the New Left Review and The New Statesman, and co-edited two Penguin volumes, on trade unions and on the student movement.

A permanent resident of the United States since 1973, Cockburn wrote for many years for The Village Voice about the press and politics. Since then he has contributed to many publications including The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and the Wall Street Journal (where he had a regular column from 1980 to 1990), as well as alternative publications such as In These Times and the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

He has written "Beat the Devil" since 1984.

He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St Clair, of the newsletter and radical website CounterPunch(http://www.counterpunch.org) which have a substantial world audience. In 1987 he published a best-selling collection of essays, Corruptions of Empire, and two years later co-wrote, with Susanna Hecht, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (both Verso). In 1995 Verso also published his diary of the late 80s, early 90s and the fall of Communism, The Golden Age Is In Us. With Ken Silverstein he wrote Washington Babylon; with Jeffrey St. Clair he has written or coedited several books including: Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press; The Politics of Anti-Semitism; Imperial Crusades; Al Gore, A User’s Manual; Five Days That Shook the World; and A Dime’s Worth of Difference, about the two-party system in America.

 

 


  • Foreign Policy October 17, 2002

    Starring Jimmy Carter, in War and Peace

    Now they've given Jimmy Carter the Nobel Peace Prize. Looking at the present, wretched incumbent, Democrats feel smug about their paladin of peace.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Economy October 3, 2002

    October Surprises

    October surprises are built into our system, since elections come in November. Cliffhanger movies in Hollywood's old days could not have staged it better.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Politics September 19, 2002

    An Entire Class of Thieves

    When Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose back in 1986 Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan raced each other to show the world who could punish the poor quickest and hardest.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Society September 5, 2002

    The Tenth Crusade

    Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance, seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?

    The Taliban are out of power. Poppies bloom once more in Afghan pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day, as judges thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.

    On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of blue-collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a generation ago in such songs as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From Muskogee." Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big hand...[pause]...right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, "The way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya'll will bail me out."

    It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access to a lawyer is an old strikebreaking decision. The government's August 27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court decision that dates back to 1909.

    The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor and payment in money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to crush the union, the governor of Colorado declared a state of insurrection, called out the state militia and detained Moyer for two and a half months without probable cause or due process of law.

    In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the "captain of the ship" metaphor), the Supreme Court upheld Moyer's detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how could Moyer complain about a mere detention? The government now cites the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor can do, the President can do better.

    Right under our eyes a whole new covert-ops arm of government is being coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting offical US policy on Israel's occupation of and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new under secretary of defense overseeing all defense intelligence matters, also requesting that the department be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops. Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus Act (1878), which forbids any US military role in domestic law enforcement, and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in the crystal ball.

    The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances, all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden. They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the United States as Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians. They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian population of Iraq.

    A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign that will plunge civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.

    Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration. We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8 billion people, live on less than $2 a day. The richest 25 million people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in crisis.

    Can anything stop the war cries against Iraq from being self-fulfilling? Another real slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a hike in energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a kidney blow when it least needs it.

    How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The Administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret, the claim that Iraq was complicit in the attacks of September 11. Aside from the Taliban's Afghanistan, the prime nation that could be blamed was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists on the planes.

    Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for Arab opinion, then yes. But no one should doubt that if the Bush Administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad, this will truly be a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan the embers of Islamic radicalism, which actually peaked at the end of the 1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11 were far more a coda than an overture.

    Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad? And would not the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?

    Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago, and here we are with a terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their dream of the recovery of the Holy Land. War on Terror? It's back to the thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with the ninth crusade.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Politics August 15, 2002

    Sour Thoughts for Dog Days

    Let's start with Cynthia McKinney. Don't you think that if Arab-American or African-American groups targeted an incumbent white, liberal, maybe Jewish, congressperson, and shipped in money by the truckload to oust the incumbent, the rafters would shake with bellows of outrage?

    Yet when a torrent of money from out-of-state Jewish organizations smashed Earl Hilliard, the first elected black Representative in Alabama since Reconstruction, you could have heard a mouse cough. Hilliard had made the fatal error of calling for some measure of evenhandedness in the Middle East. So he was targeted by AIPAC and the others. Down he went, defeated in the Democratic primary by Artur Davis, a black lawyer who obediently sang for his supper on the topic of Israel.

    At that particular moment the liberal watchdogs were barking furiously in an entirely different direction. Ed McGaa, a Green candidate, has had the effrontery to run in Minnesota for Paul Wellstone's Senate seat. Such an uproar! Howls of fury from Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson lashing McGaa for his presumption. Even a pompous open letter from Steve Cobble hassling the Minnesota Greens for endangering St. Paul. Any of these guys think of writing to Artur Davis, telling him to back off, or to denounce him as a cat's-paw of groups backing Sharon's terror against Palestinians? You bet they did.

    Then it was McKinney's turn. A terrific liberal black Congresswoman. Like Hilliard, she wasn't cowed by the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby and called for real debate on the Middle East. And she called for a real examination of the lead-up to 9/11. So the sky has fallen in on her. Torrents of American Jewish money shower her opponent, a black woman judge called Denise Majette. Buckets of shit are poured over McKinney's head in the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Here's how it's been working. McKinney sees what happened to Hilliard, and that American Jewish money is pumping up Majette's challenge. So she goes to Arab-American groups to try to raise money to fight back. This allows Tom Edsall to attack her in the Post as being in receipt of money from pro-terror Muslims. Lots of nasty-looking Arab/Muslim names fill Edsall's stories.

    Now just suppose someone looked at names in the pro-Israel groups funding Majette, who by mid-August had raised twice as much money as McKinney. Aren't they supporting the terror that has US-made F-16s bombing kids in Gaza? What's the game here? It's a reiteration of the message delivered to politicians down the years, as when Senator Charles Percy and others went down: Put your head over the parapet on the topic of Israel/Palestine, and we'll blow it off. And when blacks denounce the role of outside Jewish money in the onslaughts on Hilliard and McKinney, there'll be an avalanche of hysterical columns about the menace of black anti-Semitism. Just you wait. It's a closed system.

    Next sour thought: Yes, Katha, you did raise a little stink re McKinney, in overly decorous but still commendable terms right here in The Nation. Which reminds me, here's what I wrote to a fellow angered over a piece by Ellen Johnson we'd run in CounterPunch, criticizing you for saying Dennis Kucinich's position against abortion rendered him ineligible as the progressives' future champion:

    "Hi Matt, I'm forwarding yr note to Ellen, but allow me to say that I think your reaction is too hasty. Ellen raised some very serious points about the monoptic way NOW and leading feminists address the abortion issue. I think it is right to emphasize that we should battle for social conditions where abortion ceases to be regarded by many progressives as a prime indicator of freedom and liberation for women.

    "Surely you cannot regard the killing of fetuses as somehow an intrinsically 'good thing.' The real friends of abortion are the Malthusians who want to rid the world as much as possible of the 'over-breeding' and disruptive poor, particularly minorities....

    "More generally, I think liberal women's groups gave Clinton the pass on savage assaults on the poor because the Clintons unrelentingly preached commitment to abortion.... we ran the piece because we think it's high time to get beyond bunker liberalism, where progressives huddle in the foxhole, holding on to 'choice' as their bottom-line issue, with a sideline in telling black teen moms that they are socially irresponsible. Best, Alex Cockburn"

    More sourness: The ILWU? That's the West Coast longshoremen. Their contract expired on July 1. The contract is being extended on a daily basis. The employers are playing tough, well aware that the Bush high command has told ILWU leaders that Bush will not hesitate to invoke Taft-Hartley, bring in troops if necessary and destroy the ILWU as a bargaining agent for the whole West Coast. Tom Ridge, calling in his capacity as chief of Homeland Security, has done some heavy breathing in the ear of ILWU leaders about the inadvisability of a strike at this time.

    The ILWU's coastwide contract was won in the 1934 strike, along with the hiring hall, which replaced the old shape-up system, in which the boss could keep out organizers and anyone else. These are bedrock issues, for which strikers fought and died that year in San Francisco and Seattle. The West Coast longshoremen stand as a beacon of what union organizing can do. Of course, the Bush White House yearns to destroy it, maybe using the War on Terror as pretext. If ever there was a time for solidarity, this is it.

    Final sour thought, on Paul Krugman. Krugman? He has just conceded that maybe neoliberal policies haven't worked too well in Latin America. Look it up. It's in his New York Times column for August 9, "The Lost Continent." He spent 184 words on the matter. "Why hasn't reform worked as promised? That's a difficult and disturbing question."

    Gee Paul, since you constitute the entirety of the Democratic Party's opposition to Bush, I know you're busy as hell. But since your crowd supervised a good deal of the economic destruction of Latin America, and your economic faction offered the basic rationales for that devastation, I sure hope you return to the problem. Maybe you won't be so snooty about opponents of "free trade." Maybe you'll even have a quiet word with Tom Friedman.

    Alexander Cockburn

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  • Corporations July 18, 2002

    The Hog Wallow

    When did the great executive stock option hog wallow really start? You can go back to the deregulatory push under Carter in the late 1970s, then move into the Reagan '80s, when corporate purchases of shares really took off with the leveraged buyouts and mergermania, assisted by tax laws that favored capital gains over stockholder dividends and allowed corporations to write off interest payments entirely.

    Between 1983 and 1990, 72.5 percent of net US equity purchases were bought by nonfinancial corporations. At the end of this spree the debt-laden corporations withdrew to their tents for three years of necessary restraint and repose, until in 1994 they roared into action once more, plunging themselves into debt to finance their share purchases. This was the start of the options game.

    Between 1994 and 1998 nonfinancial companies began to load themselves up with yet more debt. The annual value of the repurchases quadrupled, testimony to the most hectic sustained orgy of self-aggrandizement by an executive class in the history of capitalism.

    For these and ensuing reflections and specific figures, I'm mostly indebted to Robert Brenner's prescient The Boom and the Bubble, published this spring with impeccable timing by Verso; also Robin Blackburn's long-awaited book (now being released by Verso) on the past and future of pensions, Banking on Death.

    Why did these chief executive officers, chief financial officers and boards of directors choose to burden their companies with debt? Since stock prices were going up, companies needing money could have raised funds by issuing shares rather than borrowing money to buy shares back.

    Top corporate officers stood to make vast killings on their options, and by the unstinting efforts of legislators such as Senator Joe Lieberman, they were spared the inconvenience of having to report to stockholders the cost of these same options. Enlightened legislators had also been thoughtful enough to rewrite the tax laws in such a manner that the cost of issuing stock options could be deducted from company income.

    It's fun these days to read all the jubilant punditeers who favor the Democrats now lashing Bush and Cheney for the way they made their fortunes while repining the glories of the Clinton boom, when the dollar was mighty and the middle classes gazed into their 401(k) nest eggs with the devotion of Volpone eyeing his trove. "Good morning to the day; and, next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."

    Bush and Cheney deserve the punishment. But when it comes to political parties, the seaminess is seamless. The Clinton boom was lofted in large part by the helium of bubble accountancy.

    By the end of 1999 average annual pay of CEOs at 362 of America's largest corporations had swollen to $12.4 million, six times more than what it was in 1990. The top option payout was to Charles Wang, boss of Computer Associates International, who got $650 million in restricted shares, towering far above Ken Lay's scrawny salary of $5.4 million and shares worth $49 million. As the 1990s blew themselves out, the corporate culture, applauded on a weekly basis by such bullfrogs of the bubble as Thomas Friedman, saw average CEO pay at those same 362 corporations rise to a level 475 times larger than that of the average manufacturing worker.

    The executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some complicit bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices, thereby inflating the value of their options. Brenner offers us the memorable figure of $1.22 trillion as the total of borrowing by nonfinancial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum, corporations used just 15.3 percent for capital expenditures. They used 57 percent of it, or $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich themselves. Surely the wildest smash and grab in the annals of corporate thievery.

    When the bubble burst, the parachutes opened, golden in a darkening sky. Blackburn cites the packages of two departing Lucent executives, Richard McGinn and Deborah Hopkins, a CFO. Whereas the laying off of 10,500 employees was dealt with in less than a page of Lucent's quarterly report in August 2001, it took a fifteen-page attachment to outline the treasures allotted to McGinn (just under $13 million, after running Lucent for barely three years) and to Hopkins (at Lucent for less than a year, departing with almost $5 million).

    Makes your blood boil, doesn't it? Isn't it time we had a "New Covenant for economic change that empowers people"? Aye to that! "Never again should Washington reward those who speculate in paper, instead of those who put people first." Hurrah! Whistle the tune and memorize the words (Bill Clinton's in 1992).

    There are villains in this story, an entire piranha-elite. And there are victims, the people whose pension funds were pumped dry to flood the hog wallow with loot. Here in the United States privatization of Social Security has been staved off only because Clinton couldn't keep his hand from his zipper, and now again because Bush's credentials as a voucher for the ethics of private enterprise have taken a fierce beating.

    But the wolves will be back, and popgun populism (a brawnier SEC, etc., etc.) won't hold them off. The Democrats will no more defend the people from the predations of capital than they will protect the Bill of Rights (in the most recent snoop bill pushed through the House, only three voted against a measure that allows life sentences for "malicious hacking": Dennis Kucinich and two Republicans, Jeff Miller of Florida and the great Texas libertarian, Ron Paul). It was the Senate Democrats in early July who rallied in defense of accounting "principles" that permitted the present deceptive treatment of stock options. Not just Joe Lieberman, the whore of Connecticut, but Tom Daschle of the Northern plains.

    Popgun populism is not enough. Socialize accumulation! Details soon.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Death Penalty June 27, 2002

    Death, Juries and Scalia

    Amid all the recent assaults on the Bill of Rights, including the latest trashing in the USA Patriot Act and the denial of habeas corpus to citizens, amid all this, in the span of one week, the Supreme Court has issued rulings almost beyond the dreams of the most ardent civil libertarians.

    Listen to the exultant cry of Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who said this is "the most favorable term in a quarter of a century, in terms of death penalty jurisprudence."

    For those who have gazed aghast over the past generation as jury rights have been trampled by tough-on-crime fanatics and liberal elites, there are paragraphs in certain opinions in the Court's rulings that are as momentous as any in the Warren Court. From whose pen did these sentiments issue?

    "My observing over the past twelve years the accelerating propensity of both state and federal legislatures to adopt sentencing factors determined by judges that increase punishment beyond what is authorized by the jury's verdict, and my witnessing the belief of a near majority of my colleagues that this novel practice is perfectly OK, cause me to believe that our people's traditional belief in the right of trial by jury is in perilous decline. That decline is bound to be confirmed, and indeed accelerated, by the repeated spectacle of a man's going to his death because a judge found that an aggravating factor existed. We cannot preserve our veneration for the protection of the jury in criminal cases if we render ourselves callous to the need for that protection by regularly imposing the death penalty without it."

    John Paul Stevens, you guess? No, Antonin Scalia. His emphasis on the fundamental role of the jury as guardian of our rights under the Constitution runs entirely counter to the trend of the past couple of decades, when judges have, with either the approval or indifference of legislatures and the press, been allowed not only to deprecate the jury's fundamental right to nullify and set the law aside but also to set jurors' verdicts aside and impose their own, often with lower standards of proof.

    By and large, liberals have been the architects of these erosions of fundamental popular rights, whether it was Tip O'Neill rushing through totalitarian drug laws in the mid-1980s; or Clinton's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which, among other horrors, junked the doctrine of habeas corpus); or the hate crimes statutes written into many state codes at the behest of gay, feminist and liberal civil rights groups in the wake of the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard killings.

    Scalia exposes the contradictions tellingly in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, where the Court struck down, 7 to 2, an Arizona statute that allowed judges rather than juries to impose the death penalty. He rightly chides Justice Stephen Breyer for inconsistency in endorsing the right of judges to overrule the jury in tacking on enhanced punishment under hate crimes statutes, and then, in Ring v. Arizona, for tacking the other way. Scalia's term for this kind of pirouette is "death-is-different jurisprudence."

    Another momentous Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia, concerns a case in which a man with an IQ of 59 was sentenced to death for committing a robbery and murder. The Court has ruled 6 to 3 that times have changed and that it's not OK these days to put the retarded to death.

    Scalia, dissenting, made an argument in consonance with his view of the jury's paramount role, as expressed in Ring. Why, he asked, should the determining of a person's mental competence be allotted to the social scientists, the IQ testers, the battery of so-called experts so memorably stigmatized in the works of the late, great Stephen Jay Gould? Liberals don't want to execute the mentally retarded; they just want to abort or sterilize them. In the Atkins trial, Scalia noted, the jury had been given testimony on the murderer's mental capacity but had regarded it as insufficient in detaining the defendant from the death cell.

    Scalia asks, How can one exempt people from the capital penalty on the grounds of mental incapacity to recognize the concepts of punishment and retribution, and then put them away in prison for their rest of their natural lives?

    Where Scalia is caught in an obvious contradiction is in his endorsement of the notion that only those prepared to vote for the death penalty should be allowed on a jury, and that appeals court judges opposed to the death penalty should recuse themselves in capital cases. "There is something to be said," Scalia writes in his dissent in Atkins, "for popular abolition of the death penalty; there is nothing to be said for its incremental abolition by this Court." Again, it's a good argument, but abolition of slavery began in part with the refusal of juries to abide by statutes endorsing slavery. Ditto with religious freedom, starting with William Penn, whose jury refused to convict him for flouting the Conventicle Act.

    If he were consistent, Scalia would recognize that jurors should be rejected only if they have a material interest in the outcome of the case. And given that some 30 percent or more in the United States are opposed to the death penalty, such juries would more than likely have a death penalty opponent among the twelve. On the role and rights of the jury I strongly recommend Godfrey Lehman's Is This Any Way to Run a Jury?

    Meanwhile, we should honor the tremendous efforts of the defense teams who fought these cases to the Supreme Court and who have been rewarded by two decisions that overturn the death sentences of hundreds. But the fact remains that it is the death penalty itself that needs to be abolished, and this is a peerless moment of opportunity for death penalty activists to press forward.

    The Court majority said in the Atkins decision that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment reflects social values, which change from century to century and decade to decade (notwithstanding Scalia, who gazes back nostalgically 2,000 years to St. Paul). What an excellent springboard for an invigorated campaign to end the barbarism of judicial killing.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Politics June 13, 2002

    Terrorism as Normalcy

    Gangbangers with dirty bombs! Now we're talking. The big news about the latest suspected terror bomber is not that he now calls himself Al Muhajir but that he was formerly José Padilla, a Puerto Rican raised in Chicago. Padilla became a son of militant Islam in the slammer, same way thousands of other young denizens of our gulag do.

    In the normal order of business, suspected gangbangers don't have much purchase on the Bill of Rights. Their rights of assembly and protection against unreasonable search and seizure were curtailed long since. Padilla's current status could foreshadow a trend. Pending challenge in the courts, he's classed as an "enemy combatant" and locked up in a Navy brig in Charleston, with no rights at all.

    Tuesday, June 11, all the way from Moscow, Attorney General Ashcroft fostered the impression that Padilla/Muhajir had been foiled pretty much in the act of planting radioactive material taped to TNT in the basement of the Sears Tower or some kindred monument of Chicago. "US: 'Dirty Bomb' Plot Foiled," exulted USA Today.

    Next day came a modified climb-down. "Threat of 'Dirty Bomb' Softened" muttered USA Today's front-page headline. It turned out Muhajir had ten grand in cash and maybe big dreams but nothing in the way of radioactive dirt or even TNT. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the press, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk." He should know.

    But at least we're now sensitized to the "dirty bomb" menace. It seems that ten pounds of TNT, wrapped around a "pea-size" piece of cesium-137 from a medical gauge, would give anyone within five blocks downwind a one in a thousand chance of getting cancer. We should be worried about this? I'd say it should come pretty low on the list of Major Concerns. Suppose Al Qaeda were to plan something really nasty, like shipping spent nuclear fuel by rail from every quarter of the United States to a fissured mountain in Nevada not that far from one of America's prime tourist destinations. That's the Bush plan, of course.

    What a gift to the forces of darkness the War on Terror is turning out to be, as a subject-changer from the normal terrorism inflicted by the state. Right now, across the United States, the final cutoffs for people on welfare are looming. The guillotine blade ratcheted into position by Clinton's 1996 welfare reform is plummeting.

    Take Oregon. It has a terrible recession, the worst unemployment rate in the country and the largest deficit in the state's history. Back in 1979, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, 39 percent of poor Oregonians were getting public assistance. These days it's under 10 percent. Does that mean the previously destitute are now in regular jobs? No. It just means you have to be a lot poorer to get any sort of handout. It means the usual story: exhausted mothers scrabbling for petty cash, doing occasional starvation-wage work. Over the first fourteen months of the current recession, the combined number of unemployed in eight Oregon counties grew by 92 percent. At the same time, the number of welfare cases went down by 16 percent.

    This is the Terrorism of Everyday Life, at the most elemental level, aimed at the weakest in our midst: no money for food, for shelter, for the kids, and a President who actually wants to stiffen the work requirements. Thus do we nourish the next generation of Enemy Combatants on the home front.

    Dershowitz: Baby Slaughter Plan Flawed

    Nathan Lewin, a prominent DC attorney often tipped for a federal judgeship and legal adviser to several Orthodox organizations, has told the Forward, as reported there on June 7, that the families of Palestinian suicide bombers should be executed, arguing that such a policy would offer the necessary deterrent against such attacks.

    According to the Forward, Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, argue that Lewin's proposal represents a legitimate attempt to forge a policy for stopping terrorism. Foxman refused to take a stand on the actual proposal, instead deferring to Jerusalem on Israeli security issues. Exhibiting his habitual moral refinement, Dershowitz--also an advocate of judge-sanctioned torture here in the United States--argues that the same level of deterrence could be achieved by leveling the villages of suicide bombers.

    Lewin cites the biblical destruction of the tribe of Amalek as a precedent for measures deemed "ordinarily unacceptable." Those who consult the first book of Samuel will find the Amalekite incident vividly described. First, the divine injunction: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts.... Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."

    King Saul hastens to obey. "And Saul smote the Amalekites...and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword." But Saul spares Agag, king of the Amalekites, "and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs." Even though the animals were scheduled for sacrifice to Him, God is furious at the breach of orders and prompts the prophet Samuel to berate Saul: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft....

    "Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."

    Now that's what I call getting back to fundamentals!

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Politics June 6, 2002

    Letters

    NOT AN APOLOGIST FOR ISRAEL

    Brookline, Mass.

    His justifiable zeal to defend Palestinian rights leads Alexander Cockburn to call me an apologist for "policies put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct" ["Beat the Devil," June 3]. Since I share Cockburn's criticism of reflexive support for every Israeli policy and I agree with much of what he says about false claims of anti-Semitism, I wish he'd accompanied his identification of my possible inconsistencies with accurate reporting of what I actually wrote. Ascribing to me words I'd never say and views I reject is either sloppy or dishonest.

    My essay in Salon suggested the pro-Palestinian left should address, where it exists, anti-Semitism, superficial argumentation and difficulties of communication. I end with this: "The justice-based left must seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression inevitable."

    I also say this: I march to protest Israeli policy; Israel has committed past massacres and West Bank atrocities; ending Palestinian oppression is central; the occupation must end; expulsion of Palestinians would amount to ethnic cleansing; the pro-Israel explanation of how Palestinians became refugees in 1948 is unsupported; armed resistance (though not against uninvolved civilians) is legitimate; a Palestinian call for militant nonviolent resistance is welcome. And I say clearly that opposing Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.

    Cockburn's absolutism is matched by his opposites. A letter to my local newspaper, for which I write a column, claimed that my views would lead to "the destruction of Israel and create a danger to Jews throughout the world." That writer, too, sees only what he wants to see.

    I continue to advocate justice-focused discussion. Please see people.uis.edu/dfox1/politics/israel.html for more.

    DENNIS FOX


    COCKBURN REPLIES

    Petrolia, Calif.

    There was nothing sloppy or dishonest about what I wrote. The third paragraph of Fox's letter is fine, and if my column pushed him to make it clear, it served its purpose. I wish he'd written it in his Salon piece.

    ALEXANDER COCKBURN


    NOT AN ON-THE-RECORD SOURCE

    Tucson

    Jason Leopold's "White Should Go--Now" [May 27] is built upon lies and unethical reporting. Not only did Leopold unethically list me as an on-the-record source, he attributed comments to me that were never discussed and are absolutely not true.

    In reference to energy contracts signed with major California customers in 1998, the article incorrectly states, "Jestings said he told [Thomas] White that EES [Enron Energy Services] would actually lose money this way, but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling electricity on the spot market...which Enron had bet would skyrocket in 2000." The article continues the lies by stating that "Jestings said he continued to complain to White that the profits declared by the retail unit were not real." These statements were never made to Leopold and are absolutely false. I had significant responsibility for these 1998 contracts and believed that they would be profitable, and therefore I would never have made such statements. Furthermore, if Enron believed the spot market would skyrocket in 2000, it would never have signed long-term, fixed-rate contracts with these California customers in 1998!

    Leopold then states that "Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000 because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits." Again, this is not true. I resigned in early 1999 for personal reasons and not because of the way EES reported profits. In fact, EES was not making profits when I left.

    It is clear that Leopold is trying to build a picture of cover-up and manipulation by White using statements falsely attributed to me. This is irresponsible reporting at its worst. In my short tenure at EES, I developed great respect for White. He is an honest and ethical man and deserves fair reporting.

    LEE JESTINGS


    LEOPOLD REPLIES

    Los Angeles

    During my hourlong conversations with Lee Jestings on not one but three different occasions leading up to the publication of this story, I reminded Jestings that I would be using his comments in print. Simply put, Jestings was well aware that he was on the record. He cannot retract his statements after the fact and then accuse me of being unethical and a liar. I sought out Jestings, and when I found him he chose to respond to my numerous questions about EES and Thomas White. I did, however, mistakenly report that Jestings left EES in 2000.

    Jestings says that EES did not show a profit when he left. However, EES under White's leadership reported that the unit was profitable in 1999 after Jestings left the company. But Enron was forced in April to restate those profits because they were illusory. Moreover, Jestings said during the interview that he had taken issue with EES's use of "mark to market" accounting, in which the unit was able to immediately book gains based on contracts signed with large businesses. Jestings never said during the interview that he believed these contracts would eventually become profitable. But that's beside the point. Jestings said EES's use of aggressive accounting tactics during White's tenure left shareholders believing the company was performing better than it actually was.

    Jestings says White was honest and ethical while he was vice chairman at EES. My report indicates otherwise.

    JASON LEOPOLD


    NOT SMALLER THAN A DAISY CUTTER

    West Orange, NJ

    There was a critical error in "Relearning to Love the Bomb" by Raffi Khatchadourian [April 1]. Khatchadourian says that so-called mini-nukes of about five-kiloton yield have smaller explosive effects than the US conventional "daisy cutter" bombs. This is clearly wrong. A five-kiloton explosion is equal to 5,000 tons of TNT, while the daisy cutter weighs only 7.5 tons. Even allowing for the development of modern explosives more powerful than TNT, the difference between the weapons, and their relative destructive potential, is of several orders of magnitude. The following excerpt from the Federation of American Scientists' Military Analysis Network (www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/blu-82.htm) directly addresses that point.

    "The BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan, is a high altitude delivery of 15,000-pound conventional bomb, delivered from an MC-130 since it is far too heavy for the bomb racks on any bomber or attack aircraft. Originally designed to create an instant clearing in the jungle, it has been used in Afghanistan as an anti-personnel weapon and as an intimidation weapon because of its very large lethal radius (variously reported as 300-900 feet) combined with flash and sound visible at long distances. It is the largest conventional bomb in existence but is less than one thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb."

    No useful analysis of nuclear policy can be made by equating large conventional bombs with even the smallest nuclear bombs in any way. An analysis of policy and decision-making regarding the conventional/nuclear threshold demands a clear understanding of how very powerful and devastating nuclear weapons are. The author seems to be blurring the lines of allowable nuclear-weapons use far more than the Administration he criticizes.

    MICHAEL HAILE


    KHATCHADOURIAN REPLIES

    New York City

    Let me begin by pointing out that I said "five kilotons or less." Some proponents of new nukes have pushed for weapons of lower tonnage. Others argue that five kilotons is roughly optimal.

    C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, demonstrates the debate: "I'm not talking about sub-kiloton weapons...
    as some have advocated, but devices in the low-kiloton range, in order to contemplate the destruction of hard or hidden targets, while being mindful of the need to minimize collateral damage." In April, Benjamin Friedman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, wrote: "What is revolutionary about current proposals is the idea of reducing the yield of tactical nuclear weapons to levels approaching those of conventional explosives, to around one-tenth of a kiloton, which would theoretically bridge the gap between a conventional and a nuclear weapon."

    The United States has developed "sub-kiloton" atomic weapons before. One such weapon, the Davy Crockett, contained warheads weighing only fifty-one pounds, with explosive yields near 0.01 kilotons (roughly 10 tons of TNT). We made 2,100 of those between 1956 and 1963.

    When my article was written, it was unclear what size the Bush Administration's defense team envisioned for its nuclear bunker buster. To a degree it still isn't, although some now suggest it could be above five kilotons. However, this doesn't change what's being contemplated: a weapon that appears to avoid the kind of casualties that put current nukes outside the boundary of political acceptability.

    I regret if I seemed to suggest that a five-kiloton nuclear warhead could be smaller in explosive power than the world's largest conventional weapon. That is inaccurate. I attempted to illustrate that on the continuum of weaponry, a gap that appeared inconceivably wide not so long ago is now being pushed closer. As the recent Nuclear Posture Review demonstrates, narrowing that distance is as much a matter of ideas as a matter of tons.

    Raffi Khatchadourian


    NOT THE GREAT WHITE HOPE?

    Brooklyn, NY

    Katha Pollitt is right on about great white hope Dennis Kucinich ["Subject to Debate," May 27 and June 10]. The boys who disparage abortion rights as a foolish, single-issue orthodoxy don't have a clue. Here's a hint for you guys. "Abortion" is about equitable reproductive health services for women, obviously including the ability to end a pregnancy, but it's also about how we think of women, and how we treat them. Are women valued as the sum of their reproductive parts, or as human beings?

    We know where the fundamentalists stand: Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalisms, as well as secular dictatorships, are united on the need to control women's bodies. And now, thanks to Pollitt, we know where Kucinich stands. He moves or he loses.

    MATTHEW WILLS


    New York City

    As co-directors of an organization of the economic left, we second Katha Pollitt's admonition that Dennis Kucinich cannot claim the mantle of an economic progressive while being virulently anti-choice. Reproductive freedom is not just a matter of personal morality, it is a fundamental element of economic justice. No woman can determine her own economic destiny without the freedom to choose whether to bear a child. Progressives looking for champions cannot be so desperate as to overlook such a fundamental right. There are numerous other members of Congress--of course, we'd like a lot more--who understand that reproductive rights are part of the fight for economic justice.

    RICHARD KIRSCH, KAREN SCHARFF
    Citizen Action of New York


    BLOW-DRIED NATION?

    Media, Pa.

    My weekly ritual of reading the Nation cover to cover on Monday was stymied last week when my postman left my mailbox door open on a soaker of a day. I got home eager for the week's insights only to find a soggy Nation limp in the box. Eek! I ran upstairs and spastically looked for options. My girlfriend with astonishment: "What the heck are you doing?" when she saw me using the hair dryer to dry my coveted pages one by one. Did you ever know how important your work is!

    CHRIS DIMA

    Alexander Cockburn, Raffi Khatchadourian, Jason Leopold and Our Readers

  • Political Figures May 30, 2002

    The Future Wellstone Deserves

    Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge? Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004 to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year. Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the potency of progressive politics in America."

    Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to hold himself to two terms.

    But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May 18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.

    Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000 in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts, backstabbing McGaa.

    For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans" charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at," he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you Wellstone people can just calm down."

    McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.

    A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy, remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."

    So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health care, campaign finance, or anything else."

    Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.

    No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991 but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find something in common with Palestinians!)

    So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left, even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he mostly opted for a compliant insider role.

    You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies to within three votes of passage in the Senate.

    Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed. He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.

    The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America? Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement, then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some supposed Green irresponsibility.

    Alexander Cockburn