Archive for December, 2009

Adjoining Plots

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Suppose that the president of the United States received intelligence that a very dangerous man was hiding in a house in a foreign country. Would it be OK for the president to get in touch with the authorities in that country and ask them to drop a bomb on that house? That’s pretty much what our president did with the government of Yemen, where two attacks from the air killed dozens of people, including a number of children and possibly also including an associate of the Army psychiatrist who shot several of his comrades at Fort Hood several weeks ago. Barack Obama hasn’t admitted that he OK’d the assassinations in Yemen, but his Department of Defense congratulated that nation’s government on its boldness and initiative in the wake of the second attack.

Certainly, there’s nothing in Article 2 of our constitution that empowers the president to engage a foreign leader (or any other foreigner) to kill one or more of his countrymen for the USA. The president does have the power to command an army and navy, but our charter is meant to refer to an American army and navy and not any foreign force. If there were a declaration of war, he might make a formal alliance that involved the application of military force by a foreign government, but there’s been no such declaration, and there is no such alliance, and it would be extraordinary for a party to such an alliance to launch missiles against its own people.

If Barack Obama had no constitutional authority to order or request an attack on residents of Yemen, might he have had some moral authority to do so? He did win the Nobel peace prize, after all, an honor in which all Americans can justly bask. That prize says that all of the killing, all of the destruction, all of the displacement, all of the desecration in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Yugoslavia and, yes, Vietnam, have been in the interest of peace and not motivated by hubris or arrogance or, God forbid, profit. Universally acknowleged as the world’s only superpower, America has and will always have the moral authority to kill people, even children, in the interest of peace. Because we can, acting through our president, wield this awesome power, we must.

Should we be concerned that the killings in Yemen run counter to our laws? After all, when the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces “asks” you to bomb one of your neighborhoods, you would be well advised as a head of state to take that as a threat. Threatening a person to compel him to kill somebody is a felony in every state and in most foreign countries. When a government authority does it, it’s a war crime. But not to worry. Government officials are above the law. Our president may be a war criminal, but his motives are as pure as his his smile is bright, and he deserves a medal for standing up to the constitution. That old thing, not near tough enough to deal with our terror-ridden times.

But if there’s no law for our president and for us, what law shall we use to prosecute the Detroit bomber, who claims to have been driven to his crime by the attacks in Yemen? He would probably say, if he could, that he had as much legal right to blow up that airplane as the US and Yemeni governments had to incinerate a neighborhood. An American official plots with a Yemeni official to launch missiles on civilians (in Yemen, mind you: you’d like to think they’d send a policeman with a warrant in these parts, but who knows?). In the interests of peace, they kill some bad guys, along with many other people. In reply, and to deter further attacks, a fanatic plots with a bombmaker to kill passengers on an airliner in Detroit. Is there a legal distinction between these two plots?

There is no legal distinction, The Detroit bomber and the Washington bomber should be subjected to the same legal process. In fact, the cases should probably be tried together, since they arise out of single chain of events. But there is no case against the US president. That’s because he is acting on the moral authority of the American people and not on his own account, and this places him above the law. As for the Detroit bomber, why put him on trial at all? We would just be giving him a soapbox from which to spout accusations against us, moral exemplars in a dangerous world. Why not just string him up?

Cold Comfort on Warming from Mass Media

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Discussions in the media of a possible climate treaty emphasize, without urgency, the unlikelihood of real progress, mostly because of the gulf separating rich nations, which emit most of the pollutants, from poor ones, which are in line to suffer most of the early consequences. Less prominent in the media is any detailed discussion of the consequences of sudden climate change or of the imminence of the danger.

What we should be getting from our news media, along with the sterile discourse they now offer on the political implications of a treaty, is a systematic exploration of what we can expect 10 and 20 and 50 years from now if we continue burning fuel. Some people still think they’re going to get better weather. They’re not. Rather, the balance of nature will be upset. Predictions can’t do justice to the disaster that will come with a climate that is warmer by even two or three degrees. If the embedded mass media would only tell us, we would know that plants and animals we now take for granted–food crops, birds that eat insect pests, trees that furnish a habitat for other species, for instance–won’t be able to survive under the altered conditions of a warmer climate. And that’s not the half of it.

New-mongers would have us believe that Al Gore started this discussion a couple of years ago when he made a documentary about warming. In fact, the media have been censoring information about climate change for 30 years, and they’re still doing it. Read, watch and listen carefully for any mention of these items of bad news:

  • When massive chunks of ice now covering Greenland begins to slide into the sea, possibly as soon as 50 years from now, large parts of Florida will be engulfed, along with coastal cities worldwide, and much of the world’s farmland will be ruined by salt, as the ocean backs up into every river and stream. The timeline is uncertain, but the event is a certainty if we continue doing what we’re doing for another ten years or so.
  • When the forests of the world die because of pests that couldn’t survive a 20th century winter, a process that seems already to be under way in our own Pacific Northwest, birds will find nowhere to perch and nest, and the silent spring that Rachel Carson predicted 50 years ago, will finally come to pass.
  • When the numbers of miscroscopic creatures that populate the coldest reaches of the oceans are so reduced by slightly warmer waters that the marine food chain is put out of balance, billions will starve. The earliest manifestations of this phemonenon are already evident, with the death of huge, ancient coral reefs in the South Pacific. And as arable lands become arid, a process that has been accelerating in this new millennium, famine will proliferate, and people will find themselves in constant conflict over food, land and water.
  • With each degree of warming, vast stretches of permanently frozen land will thaw and begin emitting greenhouse gases, now trapped in the ice, causing further warming.
  • For every species that becomes extinct in this process, the species that depend on it for food, shelter, hygiene, and other basic needs will be threatened, and our grandchildren will witness a cascade of extinctions, as they decide whether to bring children into a degraded, defiled and doomed world.

The press used to call this “doom-saying.” Many news-mongers still do. For all the confidence they have in the predictions of their resident weather scientists, they can spare precious little for climate predicters, and they are always happy to provide a forum for climate-change “skeptics.” The press won’t tell you that this isn’t rocket science, but common sense. Put a dog in a fenced yard for a week and see what collects on the grass. Smoke 10 cigarettes in your bedroom and have a sniff. Empty your dishwater to your well and take a gulp. Even animals have the sense not to foul their own nests. People, apparently, not so much. We’ve been blessed with the capacity to calculate with some accuracy just how much filth the earth can safely handle, and yet we continue to defile this fragile, life-giving biosphere far beyond its limit.

This is a continuing story that the media refuse to cover. In fact, there is so much to report that a cursory inquiry could fill a daily paper for years to come. Only one reporter I know of, a satirist by the name of Harry Shearer, covers climate change with any regularity, and he’s not heard beyond a few noncommercial radio stations. It may be that the future is so bleak that the rest of the media feel compelled to keep it from us, if only to stem panic. I don’t think so. I think they keep it from us because their owners are the real beneficiaries of fuel-burning. The media are owned by business. Business expands and contracts with the welfare of humanity, but business survives human catastrophe. Business exists in and for the present, and business doesn’t reckon with the long-term survival of mankind. Business, for the good of business, dictates to the media and to us news-consumers that the welfare of Americans takes precedence over the future of the planet.

The embedded mass media ought to remind people that the atmosphere doesn’t recognize national borders. When a powerplant sends carbon dioxide up a smokestack, it’s released to all the world. It joins the other carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere and does what this gas does: keeps the heat in like a blanket. Over the entire planet. We know this, but we don’t really know it, because we’re not permitted to believe it. Maybe we’ll catch on somehow, even as all forces conspire to keep us in denial, but it could be too late by then. Maybe it’s too late already. Maybe an asteroid will hit us and render the whole discussion moot.

Winners Take All

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Life in these United States is a zero-sum game. Your gain is my loss in most transactions. People recognize this, and that awareness may be the cause of our current paralysis. Consider the resistance to national health insurance.

The people who have access to health care have been sitting pretty for a good long time. Many have grown accustomed to empty waiting rooms and prompt access to care. So-called “Cadillac” plans could continue to offer such privileges, but the health care “haves” would, with universal insurance, suddenly be forced to share medical resources with tens of millions of additional patients.

And so it’s not the high cost of national health insurance that’s scaring the insured population. It’s that the costs, paid for through premiums, would be so low that millions of new people would suddenly be allotted a share of scarce health care resources.

A just and enlightened nation would design a practical health care system and execute it. The people would enact laws to ensure a sufficient supply of medical people and materiel and the means to finance a universal system. The beneficiaries of the system being replaced would be provided for.

But not here. In the USA, we let the markets decide what sort of life we lead, and the health care markets are working adequately for a heck of a lot of people. Those people simply aren’t ready to give up their privileges. Put yourself in their place. It may be that some of the insured crowd would be willing to share with the have-nots if they believed everybody would get a fair deal, but nobody believes that, because it almost never happens in 21st Century America.

Instead of fairness, we’re forced to rely on self-interest, and it’s dog-eat-dog under that regime. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser, and this prospect seems to have changed us. For instance, most Americans—if we can credit the political acumen of our president—are now content to sacrifice young lives in foreign combat in the superstitious belief that this will somehow preserve them and their families. And polls tell us that, for the first time in our history, most Americans now believe torture can be justified if it saves innocent life. It’s a brutal ethic that allows us to see things this way—one that works only in fiction, as history attests—but we seem ready to embrace it. Because life in these United States is a zero-sum game.