Nation Topics - Media Analysis
News and Features
The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit's sexual escapades or Elián González's emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense--where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public--its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a "successful test in all respects" over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say "student deferment."
In a column titled "The 'Smart People' Were Wrong," the Washington Post's Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: "In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as 'weapons that don't work.' It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable." Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the "resounding success--putting the lie to the it-can't-be-done crowd."
I don't know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful "kill ratio" for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly's conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot's alleged success proved that "we need SDI." Patrick Buchanan declared: "The debate is over." Then-President Bush "ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument." Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, "The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received."
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when "protected." In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe's sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, "But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon." Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire's description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.
Any journalist with even a hint of historical memory would know better than to accept at face value what Pentagon officials claim for Star Wars technology. A year ago William Broad of the Times quoted a top Star Wars official admitting that "none of the tests address the reasonable range of countermeasures." It found a retired scientist who had worked on the program at Lockheed who explained, "The only way to make it work is to dumb it down. There's no other way to do it.... It's always been a wicked game."
In 1984, in an instance of fraud that remained a secret for a full nine years, a test of Lockheed's Homing Overlay Experiment turned out to have been rigged by the placement of a beacon in the target missile so that it could easily signal its location to the interceptor missile. In 1996, Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked for TRW, sued her employer because, she said, she was being forced to misreport her data on the crucial matter of whether the interceptor missile could discern the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Denials ensued, of course, but she was backed up by other witnesses. After reviewing the classified data on these and other tests, MIT missile expert Theodore Postol concluded that Pentagon officials "are systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the United States from nuclear attack."
Even the July 14 "successful" test that sent Kirkpatrick, Kelly and others into such rapture hardly stood up to a single day's scrutiny. In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times, but followed up by few others, the program's spokespeople were forced to admit in the test's aftermath that its radar system proved unable to tell ground controllers whether a kill vehicle had destroyed its target, falsely reporting that the interceptor had missed the dummy warhead. In the event of a genuine attack, this failure would cause a system to waste missiles on targets already destroyed, making it even easier to overwhelm. No surprise there, I'm afraid. In May, after fighting ferociously to keep it secret, the Pentagon reluctantly released its own internal study reporting that despite an investment of more than $70 billion, Star Wars technology remains so elementary that "a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made."
The public is not clamoring for this silly science fiction project and, should they ever notice, will not appreciate throwing another $300 billion down this sinkhole. Yet the Bush Administration continues to push it in the apparent hopes of abrogating the ABM treaty, undercutting NATO, sparking a new cold war with Russia and China and inspiring a rash of nuclear proliferation on the Asian subcontinent. Meanwhile, "smart" pundits like Michael Kelly and William Safire cheer this insanity like drunken frat boys at a college football game. It's almost enough to make one despair of the value of the First Amendment, to say nothing of the alleged benefits of higher education.
Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.
Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.
Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."
Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia?
Browne: Because I'm a psychic.
Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.
But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?
Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."
It's called a pager.
And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?
The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?
During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?
On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.
Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:
Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.
Clayson: You do know the answer?
Martin: We do know the answer.
The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.
Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."
Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.
Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.
The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.
Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.
In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.
Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don't think she ever forgave labor; and that strike helped set Mrs. Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.
In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 percent of the Post's B stock and who was then riding high as America's most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.
The best evidence of the Post's decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who "for six months followed the Vice President everywhere" and "spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr. Quayle," discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s I used to get copies of letters sent to the Post's editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told me the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.
Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent to ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.
No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a younger 'un on the way up. The Post's basic instincts have almost always been bad.
Former Mayor Marion Barry had some pro forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death, but I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post's performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and I've no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs. Graham had an excessive number of friends.
So if you managed to endure CBS's three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart's lame commentary, the lip-synced perfor
WILLIAM KRISTOL KIDNAPPED BY ALIENS--
REPLACED BY SILLY, DISHONEST IMPOSTER
"I admit it. The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."
--The real William Kristol,
The New Yorker, May 22, 1995
"The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias.... There's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes."
--William Kristol imposter, in a Weekly Standard subscription pitch, June 2001
NEW YORK TIMES WRITERS/EDITORS
LOVE-BOMBED INTO BRAIN DEATH
Remember when the Times's Frank Bruni thought George Bush's boots "peeked out mischievously" from beneath his trousers in Mexico? Well, Bruni's condition--enabled by apparent narcolepsy on the part of his editors--appears to be deteriorating. First, there's the prose. Bruni noted that upon meeting Tony Blair, Bush "broke into a smile, indulged a mischievous impulse and offered him a greeting less formal than the ones the British leader usually hears. 'Hello, Landslide!' Mr. Bush shouted out. It was a reference--an irreverent, towel-snapping one at that--to Mr. Blair's recent re-election, and it recalled the playful dynamic...when he cracked during a news conference that he and Mr. Blair liked the same brand of toothpaste." An "irreverent, towel-snapping" reference? Methinks Bruni spent too much time in the sauna. Recalling the "playful dynamic" of the toothpaste "crack"--how about "doltish" dynamic? And, hello, Blair did actually win in a landslide. (And so should have Gore!) Now, if the Prime Minister had greeted the Court-appointed Bush as "Landslide," that might qualify as "irreverent."
Perhaps the Times editors might also be willing to offer us a short seminar on the rules and purpose of the official "background" quotation in their newspaper. Two days before he began snapping presidential towels, Bruni quoted a "senior administration official" offering up the following explanation of the European reaction to Bush's missile defense proposal, in language identical to that frequently used by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "It was, 'We very much appreciate the President's decisions to consult fully, we understand that there is a threat, we want to work with the United States.'"
We have a few problems here. First off, the statement is false. One paragraph earlier, French President Jacques Chirac, who, after all, is one of the people reacting, is quoted condemning the idea as a "fantastic incentive to proliferate" (which Vladimir Putin proved almost immediately by promising to "reinforce our capability by mounting multiple warheads on our missiles" should Bush go ahead with missile defense). Second, Bush, who presumably outranks said "senior official," offered up virtually the same quote on the record. "Still pumped up," according to Bruni, Bush professed to detect "a willingness for countries to think differently and to listen to different points of view." The Times rolls over because someone in the Administration finds it convenient to spin reporters and readers while avoiding responsibility for her (?) misleading comments. I know why "senior officials" do this, but why does the Times allow it?
And finally, before bidding adieu to Mr. Bruni, how long are we going to keep reading stories celebrating the fact that the President did not pick his nose in public? "Rarely," Bruni wrote, "have the two nations' leaders so surpassed the limited expectations of their meeting." Oh really? How rarely? Whose expectations? How limited? Limited to what? I guess Bush surpassed the expectations of those who didn't know he could see into people's souls, but I don't think pandering to viewers of the Psychic Friends Network is going to help much when it comes to missile defense.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT GEORGE WILL, THE MAN HAS GOOD TASTE IN PLAGIARISM...
George Will...calls Chris Matthews "half-Huck Finn, half-Machiavelli."
--New York magazine, June 18, 2001
"Imagine if you will, a guitar-wielding political synthesis of Huck Finn and Machiavelli..."
--Eric Alterman, "GOP Chairman Lee Atwater: Playing Hardball,"
The New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1989
MORE LIBERAL MEDIA MUSH: THE NUMBERS SPEAK
Number of weeks the New York Post's new editor took to fire Jack Newfield, its most distinguished and only liberal columnist: six. Weeks it took same to fire the Post's only black editor, who, by the way, has breast cancer: same.
While we're on the topic of the Post, Rupert Murdoch, who has already been granted more than his share of waivers to hold on to his extremist, Republican/Chinese Communist-pandering scandal sheet, is now back before the Senate communications subcommittee, seeking yet another special antidemocratic dispensation to allow him to become the first mogul to control, in addition to the Post and The Weekly Standard, a major broadcast network (Fox), a major cable network (FNC) and soon, a fast-growing satellite distribution system that already has 10 million subscribers (DirecTV). If this sounds like an Orwellian nightmare to you, to say nothing of the onslaught of right-wing sleaze, sensationalism and suck-ups to torturers it will likely produce, contact the committee at (202) 224-5184 (phone) and (202) 224-9334 (fax), and get on their case.
The census makes clear about Latinos what many of us have known for a long time: The power of culture and character is now reinforced by demographics. From a small minority struggling to achieve legitimate power, Latinos have become a very important group politically, one that must now learn how to use power. At this point the role of Latinos in the public world changes. They begin to appear more often in the general media, although not yet in what anyone would consider equitable proportion, and the marketers pay even greater attention to Spanish-language media. Democrats want to know what Latinos can do for them and Republicans want to know what Latinos are willing to trade for their votes. The question of what Latinos want for themselves is seldom raised. Even in the left/liberal press, coverage of Latino issues has been sparse. And what has appeared has been limited mainly to reportage.
There should, of course, be more reporting about Latinos rather than less, but there must be other kinds of writing as well. The reason for this seems obvious: The use of power is more complex than the struggle to obtain power. The dialogue among Latinos--rather than merely about them--on issues that affect the Latino community and the rest of the world should now appear with some regularity in the national left/liberal press.
There are many questions best debated by Latinos: What are the intergenerational conflicts, and how do they affect politics? Should ethnic loyalties trump political values at the polls? What is gained and what is lost by assimilation? Should Latinos criticize Latino elected officials? Will such criticism strengthen the community or tear it apart, vitiating its hard-won power? How can people of differing national origin within the community link with each other, and how can Latinos link with blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans and other minority groups? How should left/liberal Latinos deal with the growing Latino middle class and its rightward turn? These and other issues should be debated openly by Latinos, in a way and in publications that will also inform the thinking of non-Latinos.
Unfortunately, Latino voices have been little more than a whisper in the left/liberal press, including The Nation. And the kind of essayistic pieces born of the desire to influence the use of power are virtually unknown. Yet, there are more than enough good Latino writers, with an interesting variety of opinions. What must happen, in my opinion, will require some effort from Latino writers and from the national left/liberal press. The writers must make their ideas known to the editors, and the editors must try to discern the importance of the work presented to them.
In the great tradition of the left/liberal press, the result will be rages and rancors, but there will also be some incremental advance toward freedom and social justice. Perhaps the disagreements over the language and timing of this piece will provide a useful beginning.
The Kerrey revelations raise anew issues of morality and military power.
Christ killing has been back in the news. It seems that my ancestors are once again catching hell for their alleged betrayal of God's son, this time from fundamentalist Christian basketball player Charlie Ward and fundamentalist Christian political organizer Paul Weyrich.
Speaking to The New York Times Magazine, the New York Knicks' point guard set off a controversy in April when he informed a Jewish reporter, "Jews are stubborn.... why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?" and added, "They had his blood on their hands."
If you read about this and thought, Who cares what some basketball player says about who killed Christ?, I'm with you. And if you were wondering whether the New York Knicks organization, the National Basketball Association or Madison Square Garden also blame the Jews for the Crucifixion, well, you can relax about that too. All three have helpfully issued statements putting that rumor to rest. But two people who have seemed oddly sympathetic are Florida Secretary of State Katherine (Cruella De) Harris and Governor Jeb (Fredo) Bush.
Cruella chose Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy playing college football in Florida, as the state's "Born to Read" literacy campaign spokesman. When the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee asked her to reconsider in light of the fact that the guy was spreading what used to be called a "blood libel"--one that has led, historically, to the murder of countless Jews, who happen to make up a significant portion of the state's citizenry--she demurred. That's when Fredo stepped in: "If we're going to become so rigid as a country to be able to disallow speech, even though it may not be politically correct, I think we're in danger."
Strictly speaking, the First Little Bro was absolutely right. But his statement had nothing to do with the controversy it purported to address. Nobody is denying Ward's right to speak as an ignorant anti-Semite, or even to play point guard in this highly Jewish metropolis as one. The issue is whether, in light of his comments about Jews, he remains the best possible representative of Florida's literacy campaign. Bush seems to have taken to its logical extreme the conservative habit of labeling any community standards of speech, no matter how sensible, "political correctness" gone mad, unless they involve protecting a citizen's right to threaten the lives of abortion doctors or to own assault rifles. If Democrats in the land of King Condo can't beat this anti-Semite-enabling creep next year, they should find another country.
Another staunch defender of the anti-Semites' right to blood-libel Jews is David Horowitz. When Paul Weyrich announced on his Free Congress website that "Christ was crucified by the Jews who had wanted a temporal ruler to rescue them from the oppressive Roman authorities.... He was not what the Jews had expected so they considered Him a threat. Thus He was put to death," a previously obscure right-wing pundit named Evan Gahr denounced him quite sensibly as an anti-Semite. The denunciation went up on Horowitz's website, which, like Weyrich's Free Congress movement, is heavily funded by conspiracy nut Richard Mellon Scaife. But it was ordered expunged by the same fellow who can currently be found whining at your local college about his own victimization at the hands of something he calls "the fascist Left."
While an unhealthy proportion of the far right has always had a soft spot for this kind of theological anti-Semitism, virtually all mainstream Christian churches have explicitly repudiated it. But Gahr was not only informed that his work would no longer be welcome on Horowitz's generously funded site; he was kicked off the masthead of The American Enterprise, the magazine published by the Scaife-funded think tank of the same name. Next, the Scaife-funded Hudson Institute, where Gahr had been employed (and Norman Podhoretz still is), also sent him packing. Stanley Crouch, the neo-neoconservative, compared the right's treatment of Gahr to a Stalinist purge ("Horowitz and Stalin: Together Again").
Personally, I can live with the injustice done to Gahr, who first came to attention as a media gossip/hatchetman for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Live by conservative attack-dog tactics, die by them, I say. But what does it reveal about modern-day American conservatives that they cannot countenance a denunciation from within their ranks of the kind of ignorant anti-Semitic remark that has historically led to mass murder?
Horowitz notes, allegedly in Weyrich's defense, that he made his statement in his "capacity as a Melkite Greek Catholic deacon." He might have made it in his capacity as the Pillsbury Doughboy for all the difference it makes. Weyrich, as Joe Conason pointed out, has long been swimming in anti-Semitic sewers. There's his early involvement with George Wallace's American Independent Party, along with his foundation's long association with Laszlo Pastor, who was convicted of Nazi collaboration for his World War II role in the violently anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and who was tossed off the Bush/Quayle campaign in 1988. Conason notes that another longtime Weyrich aide served on the editorial board of the Ukrainian Quarterly, an ethnic rightist publication strongly influenced by former Nazi collaborators.
All in all, it's rather odd that somebody--however deluded--who claims to be both a Jew and a champion of free speech should be censoring a writer who condemns the most disgusting kind of anti-Semitism, but then again, it's a bit counterintuitive to find a governor who also happens to be the President's brother defending his state's right to choose the same type of anti-Semite to represent it to children and others trying to learn to read.
No wonder Jim Jeffords wanted nothing to do with these goofballs. One Republican, writing on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, has already accused the Vermonter of a "pattern of betrayal." I sure hope Jeffords has a good alibi for Good Friday, 33 AD.
Strange as it may seem, Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush shared the same analysis of McVeigh's execution Monday morning, June 11, in Terre Haute. The Oklahoma City bomber, intoned Bush, "met the fate he chose for himself six years ago"--the perfect mirror of McVeigh's own vision of himself as "the master of my fate," in his citation of William Ernest Henley's "Invictus."
The notion of "fate"--a predetermined outcome--sanitizes state-sponsored killing even as it fulfills McVeigh's megalomaniacal delusions. But fate had nothing to do with it. Death sentences are a matter of caprice rather than legal predetermination, as evinced by the twenty-one of twenty-three federal death-row inmates remaining in Terre Haute whose "fate" was to be born nonwhite. Myth: "The severest sentence for the gravest of crimes," as Bush declared that Monday, employing McVeigh as a handy fig leaf for a federal death row even more racially out of kilter than its state counterparts. Reality: The capital trial norm remains "the death penalty not for the worst crime, but the worst lawyer," in the words of litigator Stephen Bright.
One salient political and legal fact received scant consideration Monday: Because it was a federal execution, McVeigh's killing was the first in two generations on behalf of all of us. But "all of us," or even the majority of us, no longer support the death penalty. The government has gone back into the killing business at the very moment when the national capital punishment consensus has eroded, as indicated by polls showing support for death sentences slipping below 50 percent if replaced by life terms without parole. McVeigh's execution was supposed to turn this trend around. Instead, the FBI's documents blunder and the generally sordid spectacle from Terre Haute only fed public unease.
Sanitizing was pretty much the universal order of business Monday. The news media made much of their sensitivity to Oklahoma City's survivors. But only the Daily Oklahoman consistently noted the diversity of survivor opinion on McVeigh's execution, and among broadcasters only KWTW, an Oklahoma City station, reported that nearly a third of the 325 people who had reserved chairs for the closed-circuit telecast elected not to show up. And only the Chicago Tribune has bothered to report--in an interview with an anesthesiologist shortly before McVeigh's original execution date in May--that lethal injection deaths like McVeigh's are often far more painful than they may appear to witnesses. The closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's killing also offered powerful ammunition against the argument from some leading abolitionists that public broadcasts of executions would lead to widespread outrage against them. "It was such a peaceful death. That made it more palatable," witness Archie Blanchard said on NBC, after confessing that before the telecast it had been "hard to think about being there."
Also missing from press coverage was any recognition of McVeigh's forgotten conspirators. Not John Doe #2, but the wide range of "mainstream" right-wing politicians and broadcasters and publishers and gun lobbyists who exploited the Branch Davidian deaths in Waco with wild conspiracy theories, ratifying McVeigh's delusional rage and naming his enemy. Just a few of those sharing collateral guilt: the National Rifle Association, which not long before Oklahoma City called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "jack-booted government thugs, federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens"; Representative Helen Chenoweth, who declared that America's national parks had been taken over by the United Nations; Senator Bob Smith, who temporarily dropped his GOP affiliation in favor of the paranoid, antigovernment populists of the US Taxpayers Party; and antichoice fanatics who pointed the way to Oklahoma City with their abortion clinic bombings in the early nineties. It is easier to treat Tim McVeigh as an inexplicable aberration who can be evicted from history than to recall just how widely evident were obsessions like his.
President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft now turn their attention to Juan Raul Garza, scheduled for execution on June 19. In between, Bush traveled to Europe, arriving in Spain, which was in an uproar over a falsely convicted Spanish citizen recently released from Florida's death row. America's death penalty has for years baffled our European partners, but it is only now becoming a serious diplomatic and political issue. France is refusing to extradite Buffalo abortion doctor shooter James Kopp until prosecutors agree to spare him from capital charges, and Germany is suing the United States over the execution of a German national who was never informed of his consular rights. In Ireland, voters on June 7 overwhelmingly approved a referendum permanently abolishing capital punishment from the country's Constitution. Capital punishment now isolates the US abroad as it divides Americans at home. The McVeigh execution, instead of marking a new era of federalized capital punishment, may turn out to be the high-water mark before the long-overdue retreat of the capital punishment tide.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.
But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.
It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.
It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."
Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.
Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.
There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. McVeigh's "nonracial" fate, moreover, will surely be invoked highhandedly in all those more routine, less highly scrutinized cases. The fact that of the remaining federal death row inmates only two are white is, according to John Ashcroft, merely "normal." For more on this aspect of the debate, I recommend reading Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and The Nation's own Bruce Shapiro. Forthcoming from The New Press, it is an eloquent argument against the inequity of the death penalty's administration and makes a compelling case against its violent irreversibility, its unredeemable finality as pursued by prosecutors, judges and juries who are, after all, far from all-knowing or divine.
One of the saddest parts of the McVeigh saga was listening to the endlessly amplified testimonials of those survivors and family members whose sentiments were premised on vengeance being "mine" rather than the Lord's. One woman wished the electric chair had been used, because it would have been more painful. Another said, "I think bombs should be strapped on him, and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen."
Such traumatized expectations led to predictable disappointment. "I really wanted him to say something," said one witness. "I wanted him to see me," said another. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said a victim's son. "For him just to have gone asleep seems unfair." This sort of desire for "more" leaves us poised on the edge of an appetite for re-enacted violence and voyeurism. Given the horrific losses McVeigh's crime incurred, this primal hunger can be almost seductive--a howl of mourning very hard to resist, never mind debate. But it is dangerous if it allows us to lose sight of the fact that the debate we must have is, again, about the limits of state force, not about devising the perfect mirror of each victim's suffering.
But the bottomlessness of that individual trauma is not something we can afford to ignore either. For a wise and extremely moving reflection on this dimension, I recommend Susan Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, forthcoming from Princeton. Brison, a Dartmouth College philosophy professor who was raped, strangled and left for dead, analyzes the post-traumatic stress syndrome that still colors her life and reflects on the resilience needed to carry on. "Trauma," she writes, "destroys the illusion of control over one's life. It fractures the chronology of a life's narrative--not in the way a stopped watch makes time look like it's standing still, but like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock that throws everything that came before into question."
"9:03" reads an inscription on the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Would that we could undo that awful moment in Oklahoma City by sacrificing McVeigh's one life for all the others, but the difficult paradox of healing is having to live on and through that wilderness of grief with no illusion of control.
Facebook Like Box