The best read this morning is this amazing piece by Rolf Potts titled "Death of an Adventure Traveler" (via Arts and Letters Daily). The narrative traces his decision as a writer for what he describes as "a Major American Adventure Travel Magazine" to abandon his trade. The immediate reason: the disappearance, and perhaps death of a beloved Burmese friend.
The article delineates the stark and shameful contrast between the faux adrenalin-raising thrills sought by adventure tourists and the very real dangers faced by the people who call these "exotic" destinations home.
Here are some excerpts to encourage you to click through and read the article:
"Readers of Major American Adventure-Travel Magazines, [my editor] told me, didn't want to read about journeys that were obscure or complicated; they wanted exotic challenges wherein they might test -- or, at least, imagine themselves testing -- the extremes of human experience. ... The Major American Adventure-Travel Magazine, it seemed, wanted me to create a tantalizing recipe for the exotic and the unexpected, but only the kind of 'unexpected' that could be planned in advance and completed in less than three weeks. ...
Every time I researched some upscale mountain trek in the Nepal Himalayas or two-week scuba diving excursion off the coast of Papua New Guinea, I couldn't help but ponder how pointless it all was. I began to e-mail my editor pointed questions about how one should define the 'extremes of human experience.' How was kayaking a remote Chinese river, I asked, more notable than surviving on its shores for a lifetime? How did risking frostbite on a helicopter-supported journey to arctic Siberia constitute more of an 'adventure' than risking frostbite on a winter road-crew in Upper Peninsula Michigan?"
All good questions we should ask ourselves when we make our holiday plans.
Idaho Senate Larry Craig is fast becoming the inconvenient truth of Capitol Hill. The senator who first said he would resign after pleading guilty to charges related to an alleged bathroom-sex solicitation and then said he was going to try and beat the rap and stay now seems to be intent upon remaining in the Senate indefinitely.
This creates a big political problem for Senate Republican leaders. Already facing the prospect of losing as many as a half dozen seats -- in Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Virginia, Colorado and Alaska -- in a 2008 election cycle that is shaping up as their nightmare scenario, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his compatriots are terrified that Craig will extend his stay for months.
Craig's refusal to relinquish his grip on the Idaho seat creates trouble in that state, as it prevents Republican Governor Butch Otter from filling the vacancy with a Republican who would be set up to claim the seat in 2008. The longer the delay, the harder it is for Idaho Republicans -- a notoriously contentious lot -- to get their affairs in order and secure a seat that ought not be vulnerable.
But Idaho is not McConnell's biggest concern. He and his aides are more worried that the sordid stories associated with Craig, as well as his continued presence in the GOP caucus, will further erode enthusiasm among evangelical Christians and social conservatives for the party's candidates. The fear a scenario similar to the one that played out when Florida Congressman Mark Foley's page-boy scandal highlighted hypocrisy in the GOP ranks shortly before the 2006 election.
The threat faced by McConnell -- himself up for reelection in 2008 -- is real. And so to is the threat they are now preparing to direct at Craig. According to the Washington Post, McConnell is "threatening to notch up the public humiliation" in order to force the Idaho senator to quickly quit. What does that mean? Republican strategists quietly acknowledge that McConnell is talking about ginning up an open-to-the-media ethics committee inquiry with full public hearings designed to examine the many allegations regarding Craig's sexuality and sex life.
It's a sleazy scenario, especially in a Senate that has traditionally kept such matters cloaked. But if it is openness that McConnell wants, perhaps the Senate Democratic majority should give it to him. The Craig inquiry could come right after the public hearings regarding the sexuality and sex life of Senator David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican and McConnell confidante whose penchant for patronizing prostitutes -- an illegal act that some Republican stalwarts might even consider immoral -- has been much in the news of late.
If Larry Craig's bawdiness in bathrooms is worthy of an ethics investigation then, surely, an turn-the-TV-cameras-on inquiry regarding David Vitter's frequenting of a house in New Orleans will help to usher in Mitch McConnell's new era of openness.
The ongoing fallout over Bill O'Reilly's recent racial comments is stoking tensions between Fox News and NPR. Both channels employ Juan Williams, who got O'Reilly talking about race during their now-infamous radio interview, and Mara Liasson, who regularly appears on Fox to debate Republicans. Media Matters blogger Eric Boehlert argues that by aggressively defending O'Reilly, Williams is compromising NPR and his own journalistic integrity:
Williams, a prominent African-American journalist, strenuously defended O'Reilly on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and accused his critics of launching a smear campaign. Then later in the week, Williams made news when he complained that NPR had turned down the White House's offer to have him interview President Bush and discuss race relations. Officials at NPR were uncomfortable having the White House handpick the interviewer, so they passed. Fox News though, quickly accepted the invitation, complete with restrictions, and Williams conducted the interview for the all-news cable channel.
With his often over-excited and misleading defense of O'Reilly, as well as his need to publicly side with Fox News and badmouth NPR's decision regarding the Bush interview, it seems Williams no longer straddles [his] peculiar media divide. Instead, he's deliberately marched over into the Fox News camp and in the process has stripped away some layers of his journalistic integrity. Worse, real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and are "harmful to the reputation of NPR."
Boehlert offers a detailed critique of Williams' recent campaign to defend O'Reilly -- which included a Time magazine essay, a spirited radio segment with Fox's John Gibson and the follow-up appearance on The Factor -- and emphasizes that Fox has not even aired the parts of the pilfered Bush interview addressing race. So Williams is getting played by Fox, in Boehlert's narrative, and now NPR should force the commentator to "choose between the two media outlets."
Boehlert's critique is solid, but not his solution. The usual problem with Fox's NPR contributors is that they are too restrained. It would be absurd to fire them for a rare outburst of opinion. Williams can leverage his reputation to defend a coworker if he chooses; he would probably act similarly if an NPR colleague was worried about getting Imused.
Yet Boehlert is right about how this episode reveals a more fundamental problem with the Fox-NPR tension. Every week, Williams and Liasson appear opposite Republicans to present a "liberal" counterpoint on Fox News. Yet as employees of the strictly nonpartisan, government-funded NPR, they cannot endorse positions or take sides. When appearing on other channels, in fact, NPR guidelines limit employees from expressing views which "they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." So while a Republican operative like Bill Kristol offers partisan screeds, Williams and Liasson are contractually bound to present nonpartisan analysis with their NPR hats on. Yet in a sad stroke of irony, their weekly presence debating Republicans affirms the conservative attack that NPR has a liberal bias.
To steal a line from an Indiana blogger, with James Brown dead, John Mellencamp may now be the hardest working man in show business. The early fall saw him headlining Farm Aid, opening the NFL season, playing small benefits, rehearsing for a major tour opening on October 26 and recording a new album with T Bone Burnett.
Featured on the still un-titled new album is a powerful song called "Jena." Mellencamp, always one to keep up on the news, wrote the tune in August after he heard about the travesty of justice involving six African-American teenagers in a small Louisiana town. Thanks to Howie Klein of the DownWithTyranny blog for transcribing the lyrics below.
An all white jury hides the executioner's face
Is this how we are, me and you?
Everyone needs to know their place
And here we thought this blackbird was hidden in the flue
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
So what becomes of boys that cannot think straight
Particularly those with paper bag skin
Yes sir no sir wipe that smile off your face
We've got our rules here and you've got to fit in
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
Hey some way sanity will prevail
But no one knows when that day will come
A shot in the dark, well it might find its way
To the hearts of those who hold the keys to kingdom come
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
The populist singer wants to get the song out to the public before the album's release so he created an evocative accompanying video and is just starting to release it over the internet. It's not even yet on YouTube but you can click below to become one of the very first people anywhere to watch it. (The video takes a few seconds to load so be patient.)
After you watch it, click here to see how you can help the Jena Six.
And, as a bonus, here's a classic Mellencamp video always worth watching!
As I listened to Magic, the new (and maybe last?) album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I thought of a buddy and a movie.
A few days ago, a pal of mine, who had spent about a year in Iraq in a nonmilitary but intense position, told me about a recent episode. He had gone to a bar on a weekend night and had fallen into a dispute with a bouncer--a big bouncer. My friend, who's not that young and not that fit, surprised himself by becoming highly aggressive with the bouncer. He was ready for a fight--eager for it--knowing damn well that if one came his way, he would end up on the downside of the deal. Fortunate for him, the moment was defused, and he moved on intact. "That's not me," he told me. "That's Iraq. After being there, you feel you don't have to put up with anything here and what happens here is nothing compared to what happens there."
In Paul Haggis's new film, In the Valley of Elah, GIs come back from Iraq with a different attitude toward violence and death. The war has changed them--not by robbing them of limbs, but by stealing them of innocence (yes, a cliche) and, more important, by undermining their sense of decency. To say too much would be to give away the mystery in the movie. But Haggis's point is that besides the obvious impact of the war--the death count, the physical wounds, the mental injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), there are other costs--subtle but deep--to turning young men and women into killers forced to make choices no one ought to have to face.
As Haggis's film and my friend's experience illustrate, there is a consequence of war that does not fit into the box scores of lives lost, troops hospitalized, and money spent. It's what warring turns us into. And that seems to have been on Springsteen's mind when he penned the foundational songs of Magic.
Much of the album is imbued with a melancholy and a sense of loss, even when Springsteen deploys the power chords, searing guitars, and cascading piano that once (oh so long ago) underscored themes of youthful exuberance, rebellion and escape. This loaded-with-hooks album has its obvious moments. On "Last To Die," Springsteen sings, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" It's John Kerry's once-famous line rock-and-rollified. (In the last election, Springsteen campaigned with Kerry.) "The wise men were all fools," Springsteen wails, as drums pound. Neocons, take note.
But on other tracks, Springsteen eschews the big picture for the nitty-gritty, chronicling broken souls and detailing lovers lost in grief, all apparent victims of a faraway war. On the elegiac "Devil's Arcade," a gravely wounded soldier lies in bed at home and feels "the glorious kingdom of the sun" on his face, as the song's narrator--probably his wife--asks him to "just whisper the word 'tomorrow' in my ear." In the pop-infused (maybe too infused) "Livin' in the Future," a fellow who's received a letter saying "somethin' 'bout me and you never seein' one another again" feels untethered from the present moment. "My faith's been torn asunder," he says, "tell me is that rollin' thunder/Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?"
Well, the answer is clear. The ship's gone down, and folks are left to deal with the wreckage on their own. And the grand sum of all these individual tragedies marks a societal demise. On the title track--a somber, violin-draped number--Springsteen sings of a magician who moves from making a coin disappear to sawing a volunteer into two. "I'll cut you in half," the sly trickster says, "while you're smiling ear to ear. And the freedom that you sought's driftin' like a ghost among the trees." As Springsteen has acknowledged, this song is about the Bush administration, and the Bush-Cheney magic act ends apocalyptically:
Now there's a fire down below
But it's comin' up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin' low
There's bodies hangin' in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.
There's a lot more than darkness on the edge of town. There's ruin. Yet overall the album's music does not match it's downhearted view. Springsteen creeps along a tight rope, balancing his musical brightness with his belief the nation has lost its soul at the hands of deceivers.
He ties it all together, though, in "Long Walk Home." Against Springsteen's long-perfected anthemic bar-band sound, he sings of returning--that is, trying to return--to his home town. But things ain't the same. The place is full of strangers. The veterans hall is closed: "The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said 'gone.'" He recalls his father once telling him,
Son, we're luck in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
it just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That you know flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.
It's no secret; he's talking not about a fine ol' town but about the romanticized American ideal. Whether it ever truly existed on the ground can be debated. (Remember "Born in the U.S.A"?) But what's for sure is that it's promise has been trampled by the current gang. And the war's one helluva tipping point. In this song, Springsteen's narrator sings, "Hey pretty Darling, don't wait up for me/Gonna be a long walk home."
Springsteen, whose last album was a romping collection of pumped-up versions of songs associated with Pete Seeger, is not wallowing in nostalgia. (Bodies hanging in the trees? We're way past nostalgia, he seems to be saying.) He's expressing a desire. Rock and roll has always been about yearning. In earlier days, it was about longing for sex, love, a fast car, flight. You know, "it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap," and so on. But as he surveys the horizon and sees a nation in trouble, that small town Springsteen wanted to flee as a young man doesn't look so bad now--that is, as a symbol of America's best values: community, compassion, the rule of law. So he's brought the band together and called upon the rock idiom he knows so well to share his present-day yearnings. At the age of 58, Springsteen knows that it's not about running away, it's about walking back. And though the music soars, his message is mired in realism: this walk is not going to be easy.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman finally got to the heart of the Blackwater contract-killing scandal when he reviewed emails detailing how the U.S. State Department worked with the private security firm to hide bloody trail of its mercenaries.
Noting that after an intoxicated Blackwater thug shot and killed an Iraqi guard last December, the State Department counseled the corporation on how much to pay the family of the Iraqi to keep silent and then arranged for the Blackwater employee to exit Iraq without facing any consequences for his actions, Waxman produced records of internet communications detailing the cover up.
"It's hard to read these e-mails and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler," Waxman told a hearing that saw Blackwater founder Erik Prince claim with a straight face that his company "acted appropriately at all times" during an incident last month that left 11 Iraqis dead and inspired an effort to force the country to withdraw its mercenaries from Baghdad.
Prince's brazen claim that his teams of paid killers "acted appropriately" begged the question: Who is defining the word "appropriately"?
Waxman pointed to the answer. Blackwater, which has collected more than $1 billion in U.S. government contracts since 2001 to do security work once assigned to Marines, may be indefensible operation. But the firm has not operated in a void.
Blackwater is an extension of the U.S. government.
Blackwater operates at the behest of the U.S. departments of defense and state.
And when the State Department helps the company pay off the families of its victims and helps to extract killers from circumstances in which they might be arrested and prosecuted, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her cronies become for more appropriate subjects of scrutiny than Erik Prince.
Every indication is that Prince is a very bad man.
But evil done by Prince and his employees has been committed on the government dime, and with the advice and consent of the government.
How interwoven are the operations in Iraq of the Department of State and Blackwater? The initial State Department report of last month's killing spree involving Blackwater employees was written by a Blackwater contractor working in the U.S. Embassy's Tactical Operations Center in Baghdad. The report was distributed under the letterhead of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
The lines of distinction between the State Department and Blackwater no longer exist.
Yes, of course, it is appropriate to hold Erik Prince to account.
But it is even more appropriate to ask: What did Secretary of State know and when did she know it?
Waxman opened Tuesday's hearing by declaring, "I know many of you believe that Blackwater has been unaccountable to anyone in our government. I want you to know that Blackwater will be accountable today."
That's a great start. But this investigation will not be done until Condoleezza Rice and her top aides have been placed under oath and required to testify about the high crimes and misdemeanors that enabled Blackwater and its employees to kill without consequences.
Today, Senator Barack Obama will propose setting a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world. This proposal should be be celebrated. It is a sign of Obama's commitment to a sane security and foreign policy -- consistent with an understanding that the US is safer when it respects international rule of law and cooperation.
This is not a radical proposal--a characterization you're likely to hear from many inside-the-beltway pundits and security analysts. They may try to label Obama as a candidate disconnected from reality. But then they could level the same charges at Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. All four men, earlier this year, called for a revival of Ronald Reagan's vision of " a world free of nuclear weapons" in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.
As our Peace and Disarmament correspondent Jonathan Schell wrote, "the oped marks a sea change in established opinion, which previously (with the hugely significant exception of Reagan) had formed a solid phalanx of opposition to nuclear abolition." What is increasingly clear, Schell goes on to point out, is how "the nuclear danger is ripe and overripe for public rediscovery, which has in fact already begun. This time, it's clear that the goal of all efforts would not just be amelioration--a freeze or reduction or a test ban--but the long-deferred holy grail of all who have struggled against the danger for more than 60 years: the abolition of nuclear arms."
Obama is a leader who appears to understand what is at stake if the US squanders the post-post Cold War opportunity to build a nuclear-free world. What is encouraging is that he is not alone. According to Peace Action, more than 70 percent of Americans support the global abolition of nuclear weapons.
And in May, Senator John Edwards, in an under-reported event at the Council on Foreign Relations, announced his support for a nuclear-free world. Obama and Edwards understand the imperative of ridding our planet of weapons of mass destruction. Isn't it time to ask the other leading Presidential candidate where she stands on the issue?
The long-awaited publication of Clarence Thomas's memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," out Monday, makes you wonder: how come none of the presidential candidates have said a word about the Supreme Court in any of their debates? Three sitting justices are expected to resign in the next four years--and they're all on the liberal side: John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The publication facts behind Thomas's book ought to be discussed by all the candidates: he received an advance of $1.5 million in 2003 from HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. If you thought the Court dealt with any issues of relevance to Murdoch, you might call it a conflict of interest for Thomas to accept that payment--far more than any sitting justice ever received from any single source. At least you might mention the fabled "appearance of impropriety." You might call the $1.5 million a thank-you gift from Murdoch for services rendered. You might even wonder if it might be a subtle suggestion to other justices who will be ruling on Murdoch-related issues in the future.
Of course Thomas could avoid that "appearance of impropriety" by recusing himself for the rest of his career from any case raising issues concerning Murdoch, Fox, the First Amendment, copyright law, libel, or any other issues in media or communications law. That would give him a lot of time off.
Yes, it was the first President Bush who nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall - but it was Democrats in the Senate who put him on the court. The teeth-gnashing facts about Clarence Thomas's confirmation can be found in the new book by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas." The vote in the Senate on Thomas was 52-48 - the smallest margin for any justice in more than a century. A shift of three votes would have kept Thomas off the court.
Here's the horrible part: at least four senators who voted for Thomas came to regret their vote within a year or two. Merida and Fletcher report that the senators who changed their mind about Thomas after voting for him include David Boren, Democrat of Oklahoma; John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana; Fritz Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, and Warren Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire.
Even some of Thomas's most avid defenders stopped saying he told the truth about Anita Hill; Orrin Hatch told Merida and Fletcher that, even if Anita Hill told the truth, what she said about Thomas sexually harassing her wasn't really all that bad.
As for Thomas's memoir, it's a long howl of outrage against the liberals who opposed his confirmation 16 years ago. The book was treated by HarperCollins as if it were the next Harry Potter - "embargoed" until Oct. 1, the first day of the Supreme Court's fall term -- a total clampdown that made it impossible for anyone to buy the book until Monday morning. I tried to buy it at my local Barnes and Noble Sunday night at 10 pm, and was told by a nervous manager that if they sold it to me even two hours before the "embargo" ended, "the publisher would see it on the computer and we'd be fined."
Yet somehow Rush Limbaugh managed to get hold of a copy - Thomas appeared on his show for a full ninety minutes Monday morning. (Maybe the fact that Thomas presided at Rush's wedding was a factor here - an unprecedented act for a sitting Justice.) Murdoch's Fox News was next in line, with a Sean Hannity interview Tuesday.
On the other hand, Nina Totenberg, NPR's Supreme Court reporter, who broke the sexual harassment story during Thomas's confirmation hearing back in 1991, did a piece on the book on Saturday. She's one of Thomas's nemeses; somebody will definitely be in trouble for the fact that she beat the embargo.
Yes, of course, we are all supposed to be very excited above Barack Obama's fund-raising prowess. And the fact that the freshman senator from Illinois raised more than $20 million in the last contribution cycle is impressive. It is even more impressive that the contributions toward his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came from 93,000 separate donors – suggesting a breadth of grassroots support unparalleled in the current contest.
But politics ought to be about a good deal more than the ability to shake the money tree. And it often is, a fact that can be attested to by presidential also-rans such as former Texas Governor John Connolly -- who spent the then astronomical sum of $11 million on a bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination that yielded him one convention delegate: Mrs. Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas.
What should be at least as intriguing about Obama's campaign as its largesse is the conscious effort by the candidate and his aides to grasp for another form of political gold: the Kennedy connection.
It is no secret that Obama is striving for a Camelot vibe. His speeches are thick with the calls to unity and higher purpose that were the essential themes of John Kennedy's stump speeches when, as the even-younger-than-Obama senator from the even-smaller-than-Illinois state of Massachusetts, he grabbed the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 from the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. And, at their best, Obama's addresses echo the moral message employed by Bobby Kennedy's in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1968.
How conscious is Obama's Kennedy vibe?
On Tuesday, as he arrives in what for him is shaping up as the essential state of Iowa, Obama will be joined by Ted Sorensen, the JFK and RFK speechwriter and aide who is one of the last politically active members of President Kennedy's inner circle.
Sorensen, who JFK referred to as his "intellectual blood bank," will introduce Obama in Des Moines and Coralville, Iowa, on a day when the Illinois senator will be highlighting his vocal opposition of five years ago to congressional authorization of an attack on Iraq.
Having Sorensen, who broke with Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, over the issue of ending the Vietnam War, will portray Obama's opposition to going to war with Iraq as a Kennedy-esque "profile in courage" – even as the candidate's current stance on ending the occupation of Iraq remains disappointingly squishy in the eyes of anti-war activists.
Now almost 80, the man who crafted both words and strategies for President Kennedy, is making the sort of comparisons that no one – save Senator Ted, who has yet to endorse – can conjure with such legitimacy.
"He is more like John F. Kennedy than any other candidate of our time," Sorensen says of Obama, arguing that "the parallels in their candidacies are striking."
"Obama is opposed, as Kennedy was opposed, for being young, for being in his first term in the Senate and, sad to say, for having qualities from his birth on – such as his skin color – which people say will make him tough to support. Well, they said that about Kennedy's religion… That's nonsense," says Sorensen. "The times are too important. We have got to have someone with judgment leading this country."
How much will a Sorensen swing count through Iowa, where new polls suggest that Obama is moving into a position from which he might be able to best both New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, until recently the Iowa frontrunner, influence the state's first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses?
There is no question that, in eastern Iowa, a heavily Catholic, blue-collar region where the Kennedys remain iconic figures, Ted Kennedy's campaigning for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry before the 2004 Democratic caucuses played a significant role in the renewal of Kerry's candidacy.
Ted Sorensen is no Ted Kennedy. But he is a vibrant and articulate link to the Kennedy legacy. And Sorensen's campaigning on Obama's behalf will suggest a historical connection that money can't buy.
Sometime during the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, which renominated George W. Bush in August 2004, I went on a media protest march down the Valley of the Imperial Media, Sixth Avenue, in the Big Apple. I had certainly been on enough marches in my life, but I was amazed. Back in the Vietnam era, when the police photographed peaceful demonstrators, they tended to do it surreptitiously and out of uniform. Here, police in uniform with video cameras were proudly out in the open shooting what looked like continuous footage of us all. And that was the least of it. We demonstrators were surrounded by a veritable army of police, on horseback, on motorbike, on foot. As I wrote at the time:
"The 'march,' which you might want to imagine as a serpentine creature heading south on New York's Sixth Avenue, had actually been chopped into a series of one-block long segments by the New York Police Department. Each small segment was penned on its sides by moveable wooden barricades and on either end by the wheel-to-wheel bikes of a seemingly endless supply of mounted policemen backed up by all manner of police vehicles… To 'march,' that is, actually meant to step from pen to pen, hemmed in everywhere, your protest at the mercy of the timing, tactics, and desires of the police."
As a light would turn red, your group on your block would be cut off from the group behind and in front of you. There was never a moment when we weren't, quite literally, penned in. If this was the "freedom" to demonstrate, it managed to feel a lot like being jailed right out on the street.
And that was a modest experience indeed. Jennifer Flynn lived through something far more intense, as Newsday revealed only last week. "Jennifer Flynn is not a rabble-rouser," was the way the Long Island newspaper's story began. "She's not an aspiring suicide bomber. She doesn't advocate the overthrow of the government. Instead, she pushes for funding and better treatment for people with HIV and AIDS. Better keep an eye on her. Wait! Somebody already did."
The organization Flynn co-founded was organizing a rally near the Republican convention. The day before it was to be held, while visiting her family in New Jersey, she found her parents' house staked out and then herself followed by no less than three unmarked cars. She wrote down the license plate of one which, according to Newsday reporter Rocco Parascandola, was traced "back to a company -- Pequot Inc. -- and a post office box at an address far from the five boroughs [of New York City]. Registering unmarked cars to post office boxes outside the city or to shell companies is a common practice of law enforcement agencies to shield undercover investigators."
The New York Police Department has denied involvement, but as Nick Turse points out at Tomdispatch.com today ("NYC, the NYPD, the RNC, and Me"), in the year before the convention, the Department's undercover teams had traveled the country, Canada, and Europe, conducting covert surveillance of quite peaceful activists. In practice, this is part of what the Global War on Terror has meant here -- the granting of an endless license for the draconian to become part of normal life, of what passes for "safety." And as Turse reveals, when it comes to "zero tolerance" policing, surveillance, and planning for the suppression of peaceful dissent, things have actually gotten a lot worse since 2004. In the Big Apple where police surveillance from mobile "Sky Towers" to stealth helicopters has become a way of life, fear drives a new, exceedingly profitable industry that feeds off protection money.
"All we want are the facts, Ma'am," Sgt. Friday of Dragnet used to say on the TV screen of my childhood. Well, the facts now are that surveillance and "homeland security" add up to a massive, booming business (and not just in Iraq). Already our second defense department, the Department of Homeland Security, has sprouted a second, mini-military-industrial complex -- and it's not just a domestic matter either. When it comes to the profits associated with surveillance and the crackdown, Chinese surveillance companies, already raising money from U.S. institutional investors, are reportedly about to get their first foothold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Today, a world of "safety" that involves techniques and technology once associated with Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 is fast becoming life as we know (and accept) it. And there's more to come.