Saturday, March 03, 2007

McCain: the honeymoon is so over

John McCain was once a media darling. The last time he ran for President, long ago and far away in 2000, the press couldn't restrain itself from slobbering over him.

Slobbering? Don't blame me, it's not my word. No lesser light than the august Haley Barbour (former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Bush supporter way back then) declared it to be the case, and former Senator Warren Rudman (McCain's campaign manager at the time) as well as WaPo columnist Mary McGrory, concurred that "slobber" well described the press attitude towards McCain.

It's like looking back at the loving courtship letters of a couple whose marriage ended up in the bitterness of divorce court. Here's Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek at the time:

Yes, [the media] are totally in love with John McCain...He gives great access [to the press]. He gives great quotes. He's funny-he's teasing. He's a fellow subversive in some ways. And they're all sort of united against the establishment. And he's a great story.

(Interesting, by the way, that the press--or at least Evan Thomas--saw [sees?] itself as "subversive.")

So, what's happened to the budding romance? To be blunt, McCain--once so bright-eyed and cuddly--is past his pull date.

Seven subsequent years of sloshing around in DC have meant that, if elected, he'd be the oldest President to ever win. And the years have not aged him like a fine wine (kicking around in Congress rarely does). Some of his pet projects--such as the McCain-Feingold bill--have turned out rather disastrously. And now, to top it all off, he's saddled by being perceived as a sort of Bush Lite on the war in Iraq. It must be galling to him, since there didn't used to be that much love lost between McCain and Bush.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in yesterday's Opinion Journal, McCain's obstinate personality, combined with his support for the Iraq War, may have cost him in subtle ways, even (or perhaps especially) among Republicans, who:

...don't precisely want another W. for president, another man who seems just as convinced, stubborn, single-minded, invested.

I'm not so sure I agree with Noonan, but perhaps she's correct. I think it's important to remember that McCain's biggest support never really came from paleoconservatives; he was perceived long ago as a Republican who leaned more to the middle, and therefore appealed to moderates. And that position in the Republican Party has been taken over by a younger, fresher face: that of Rudy Giuliani.

The two have something in common that most of the other candidates lack: the public perception that they have personal courage. No, "perception" isn't quite the right word--"knowledge" is. Both have been tested under fire--in very different ways--and come through with valor.

McCain's test was much longer and harder (look here under "Vietnam" if you're not familiar with this part of McCain's history). No one can question his extraordinary personal heroism; it's probably the most salient feature of his biography. But it occurred in what's now, politically speaking, the distant past--and was, for the most part, out of the US public eye at the time. Therefore it doesn't seem as relevant as Giuliani's recent performance in the immediate post-9/11 era, a public demonstration of his leadership in the face of terrorism and the threat of chaos following the attack.

It seems that, in psychological terms, Americans nationwide bonded with Giuliani during a time of grave crisis. A person perceived as being an anchor in a ferocious storm, a cool head under pressure, and a reassuring presence in a time of instability engenders trust and affection. Whether or not you like Giuliani's politics, or approve of the way he's led his private life, or think he's an opportunistic SOB, there's still that core truth: he demonstrated extraordinary grit during one of the most difficult times in the life of our nation.

Giuliani's emotional honesty was part of it. He wasn't afraid to show sorrow, and he rose to heights of eloquence time and again in his speeches and eulogies of the time. In sum, he seemed sincere and emotional without ever becoming maudlin, while preserving and conveying a sense of strength. One of the traits Americans are looking for in a President right now seems to be leadership, and Giuliani showed that trait right after 9/11 in a manner that could be felt deep within the gut.

How can McCain compete? And the MSM, in time-honored fashion, which once upon a time jumped on his bandwagon en masse, has now jumped off in unison.

Oh, can I identify: middle ages tech support

After wrestling with the transfer to my new blog site, I identify very strongly with this You Tube video on middle ages (or perhaps middle-aged) tech support. Whichever side of the tech divide you're on--the puzzled questioner or the patient explainer--it's a hoot.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Tornados and other tragedies: the accidental death of young people

Yesterday I wrote about those who purposely place children’s lives in jeopardy in war.

But children and young people also die accidently, and not only in war. Witness the twin tragedies two schools have just endured.

This morning a bus carrying the baseball team from Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University in Ohio fell off a bridge, killing four students as well as the bus driver and his wife. And yesterday in Enterprise, Alabama, the high school roof was torn off in a direct hit by a tornado, killing eight students.

The accidental deaths of young people are always tragic, but they usually occur in a seemingly random fashion—a family is hit here, a family is hit there. But with the bus crash of a college team and the collapse of a school buidling, each institution must deal with an especially heartrending group event: the death of a number of young people at one time in a single community. And if there are opportunities for extra support because nearly everyone in that group is bereft of someone known and loved, there are also opportunities for the deepest of grief and the most anguished of questions: why?

Why us, why now, why these particular young people?

Those who are deeply religious answer one way, rationalists answer another. Thornton Wilder gave it a go in his Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of those books that used to be required reading in high schools across the land but probably aren’t any more.

I’m not going to attempt an answer; I don’t have one. But hearing about these events conjured up memories for me--in particular, the first time I ever heard of tornados.

I was very young, perhaps six years old. While watching TV one Saturday morning I saw something on the screen that caught my eye--a bunch of children laughing uproariously at a puppet show. Alone at the time, I sat down to watch, and as the plot progressed (was it a movie? a made-for-TV special? a documentary?), scenes of the laughing children were interspersed with shots of an ominous and darkening sky.

And then, in the middle of it all--boom! What turned out to be a tornado hit those happy children, killing them.

I'd experienced some tragic deaths already in my family, and perhaps that's why this program affected me so deeply. But this was the first time I was made aware of mass tragedy, and especially one involving children. The Pied Piper had made me deeply uneasy, with his luring the children of an entire town to disappear into the side of a mountain. But that was a fairy tale--and, what's more, who's to say what the children found there? Maybe they really experienced the wonderful visions the Piper had promised.

But this was different. This was no fairy tale; even though it was TV, I felt it to be real. And for some time--it seemed nearly forever, but it was probably only a couple of days, if that--I walked around gazing at the cloudy skies and wondering when the tornado would strike. The sensation was particulary vivid in school, when I looked out the window.

A teacher in whom I finally confided dispelled those thoughts by telling me in no uncertain terms, "Nothing to worry about; we don't have tornados here." And, although that turned out not to be true (as a six-year-old I didn't have Google handy to invalidate what she'd said), I breathed a sigh of relief. I was safe.

But the thought of those other children struck down in the midst of laughter remained with me, somewhere deep inside.

Such events are distinguished by their accidental and random, rather than intentional, nature. They are so-called “acts of God” (a term I dislike, not because of its religiousity but because of the image it conveys of a deity purposely wreaking havoc) as differentiated from “purposeful acts of human beings.” Nature’s fury is one thing (although, again, “fury” indicates a malevolence for which there is no evidence whatsoever), human error and/or accident is another. But both are very different from the sort of human malevolence that causes mass murder.

In that sense we can say that another tragedy (although with greater loss of life), the blasting of Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was in some ways similar to the Ohio bus crash and the Alabama tornado (or even that puppet show tornado of so long ago)--but very different in others. It is sometimes forgotten, in the much greater loss of life the Lockerbie incident involved, that thirty-five of those killed on that flight were students from a single college, Syracuse University, returning home for Christmas vacation from time spent abroad.

I vividly recall the news of the Lockerbie explosion. And later, when it was clearly determined that it was the purposeful act of terrorists--and even though I had no special interest in terrorism and no special knowledge of it at the time--the crash seemed an ominous sign of the ever-increasing ruthlessness and scope of terrorist aims.

Although all the Lockerbie deaths were horrible, amidst the general shock and mourning the deaths of the students felt especially horrific to me. Their parents’ grief seemed nearly unendurable--even when glimpsed for only a few brief moments on television.

To this day, nearly twenty years later, Syracuse holds an annual service in honor of its dead students. There’s a somber memorial there as well; I’ve been to it, while visiting a nephew who attended the school:

Time passes, and although they say it heals all wounds, I don’t think these particular wounds really heal at all; they just become less raw. My heart goes out to all who mourn--today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

[For posts on a related topic, see this and this, my series on grieving parents in war.]

Emily Litella here: never mind

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. I did have a post up earlier today announcing my official move to the new blog site.

But now I get to say "never mind"--at least for now. My tech support has just informed me that in the process of transferring the old posts and comments, there remain a few more glitches to be ironed out, which will delay the move a little bit.

Both sites are operational right now, however.

Weather: housebound

We're having one of those wretched winter storms in the far northeast, giving those of you who are not living here the opportunity to crow and tell me how much nicer it is where you are. Be my guest.

I tried to take some photos that conveyed how very nasty it is right now, but they just don't (of course, maybe if I suited up suitably and ventured outside to take them it would be different. But I draw the line there).

The front garden:

From the back deck (imagine lots of wind):

Not only howling wind and lots of snow, but little icy pellets on top of it. As you can see, despite the wind the trees are heavily laden, always a worrisome sight where I live because the power goes out if you so much as breath heavily and/or a feather drops on a tree limb.

I'm planning to post on the new blogsite later today. If I don't, it will mean I'm sitting here powerless in the cold and the dark, with only my ipod and a candle to keep me company.

[ADDENDUM: By the way, this site is now officially on New Blogger, for all you techies out there. The transfer was relatively smooth.]

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Strategies for children (Part II): killing them

[Part I, "saving them," is here.]

Children are the future of any society. This makes them a double-edged sword: since most cultures are devoted to the protection and nurturance of their own children, most societies are uniquely vulnerable when those children are threatened; and therefore children can become effective weapons, tools, and hostages.

Today we see an increasing number of children used as soldiers in the traditional sense, especially in Africa. This strange phenomenon is only possible because advances in weaponry make physical strength far less necessary now than it was in the days of Achilles and Hector. But soldiering itself is by no means the only use of children in war.

Children have often been unintended victims in modern wars which (since World War II) have been fought not only on battlefields (now almost obsolete) but through aerial bombardments that have become more and more refined but still unavoidably kill many noncombatants. During World War II children were never purposely targeted (except, of course, by the Nazis when they killed disabled children and Jewish children in an effort to eliminate those groups). So, although plenty of children died during World War II, most of them were considered regrettable collateral casualties of the technique of total war that featured attacks on civilian populations.

In addition, during World War II children were never purposely placed in harm's way by their respective countries--except for Germany and Japan, who needed to recruit younger and younger soldiers as the war went on and their populations of available young men were greatly reduced. But this recruitment was done with reluctance, and was a measure of a desperate situation rather than a decision that drafting children would be a good strategic move in and of itself. The above lithograph, made by the German graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz in 1942--the last one she ever completed--was entitled "Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground," a quote from Goethe referencing the fact that children represent the future and cannot be cannibalized by the present if a society wishes to prosper.

But Islamic totalitarians and terrorists have gone beyond the use of children as conventional fighters, or the killing of the enemy's children in acts of war that have other intended targets or strategic purposes. Islamic totalitarians and terrorists have not invented the practice of purposely using their own children as perpetrators and tools, to be sure; a precedent occurred during the Vietnam War, for example, when children were pressed into service to throw grenades and to lure GIs into various traps. But they have certainly raised it to a fine art.

This fact raises a terrible and ironic paradox: this phenomenon can only arise in a war against a humane fighting force. The value of using children in this way comes solely from the fact that the soldiers involved would hesitate to kill the children deliberately, and would feel terrible guilt about doing so--and he who hesitates is often lost. So, the more humanely a fighting force operates, it seems that the more likely it will be to encounter an enemy willing to sacrifice its own children in an attempt to foil that enemy.

Golda Meir famously said: Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. And if "love" can be measured as the desire to protect from harm, it could be argued that at this point Israeli society "loves" Palestinian children more than the Palestinians themselves do, since the Israelis kill them only reluctantly, and Palestinians send them and encourage them to purposely kill and be killed (sometimes both simultaneously). I've written about this phenomenon before, likening the Palestinians to the Pied Piper, luring their own children to seek death while promising them beautiful rewards.

It's an almost inescapable but horrifying conclusion that if US and Israeli and other fighting forces were less intent on protecting children, fewer children would be purposely sent into harm's way by the fanatics of the Moslem world. And, likewise, if the western MSM were not so intent on publicizing their deaths and criticizing those who kill them more than than they criticize the people who send those children out to be killed, the propaganda value in the West of the whole operation would be nil, and there probably would be less reason for the adults to put them in harm's way. This represents a conundrum of major proportions.

Of course, their killings would still retain propaganda value in the Arab world; the deaths of children are excellent for stirring up rage against the West in the so-called Arab street; just watch al Jazeera if you don't think so. Thus we have the strange (and, I believe, unprecedented) phenomenon of leaders who sacrifice their own society's children in order to inflame their own populace against an enemy. This could not be done without the cooperation of the mass media in those countries.

But the violent use of children by Islamist totalitarians and terrorists is hardly limited to the above. They also know that most societies--and Israel is certainly an example of this--love their own children and are especially outraged and wounded by their deaths. And so, in recent years, Israeli children have been purposely targeted more and more in suicide bombings. My own recollection of the beginning of this particular strategy was the Sbarro pizza bombing of August 2001, in the first year of the bloody second intifada (and if you follow that link and scroll down a bit you'll find some moving photos and short biographies of the victims of that bombing).

At the time, it seemed an odd and ominous--and puzzling--turn of events to target a pizza place, where families and children were likely to congregate. Now, of course, we've lost whatever innocence we had back then about the intentions of an attack such as this, or its frequency; it now seems to be business as usual, losing none of its horror but most of its surprise through frequent repetition.

What’s the point of such an act? The point, or course, is terror; there are few things more heartbreaking to a society than the loss of its children, and it can demoralize a country.

But terror of this nature—or any nature—is a double-edged sword. The London blitz during World War II, for example, probably served more to stiffen the spine of the British than to cause them to lose heart and think about giving up. The more implacable and heartless an enemy seems to be, the more hated it can become, and the more the public might become mobilized and energized to fight that enemy.

Although aerial bombardment of civilians occurred prior to World War II, it came of age during that conflict and was heavily used by both sides. Some of the bombardment was strategic and aimed at military and industrial targets, but some (on both sides--and the extent of this is on our side a hotly contested issue) was definitely aimed at weakening the will of the civilian population to fight (and see this, an interesting discussion of how the factor of civilian expectations play into this calculus). But no aerial bombardment specially targeted children. At any rate the technique of aerial bombing now has become so refined now that casualties are relatively limited compared to the bad days of World War II.

It appears that modern warfare of the insurgency/terrorist variety, particularly in the Arab world, has brought new features to the use of children's lives as pawns and consolidated some old ones. Advancements in the humaneness of warfare by the West have had the paradoxical effect of leading to a war in which that morality is turned on its head and used against those countries who attempt to practice it.

What's the answer to the dilemma? There is no good one, I'm afraid. The desire to be humane is at odds with the waging of war itself, it would seem. But even that answer --the answer given by pacifists, which is to avoid war--is no solution at all, and allows the strong and immoral to dominate the weak and moral (see this for my thoughts on the subject). Even the international rules of war are designed for a different place and a different time, and for an enemy playing a different game.

Sanity Squad podcast: movies, culture, abortion

The Squad's new podcast uses the Oscars as a springboard to ponder the influence the movies have had on culture, sexuality, politics, and our perception of history. This segues into a consideration of abortion on demand's effect on society and on the individual.

Join my inimitable Squad colleagues Shrink, Siggy, and Dr. Sanity in our usual freewheeling (and, no doubt, fascinating) discussion.

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