Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Yet another (sigh) letter to Senator Cornyn

First a word of explanation. Senator Cornyn is certainly in the running for the worst of the worst in the Senate, with competition only from selected contenders from Oklahoma and Alaska. Maybe Pennsylvania. Well, maybe some others. Senator Cornyn's current mission is to abolish habeas corpus. He is on the Judiciary Committee. Anyway, Senator Cornyn hates to hear from constituents, unless they come bearing major campaign contributions, and so he makes it as hard as possible to send him an email. You have to take a Republican IQ test to send it to him. Really. ("Select the third word in the list from bottom to top.") Generally I don't bother. I know they go unread in his office, and his office rarely replies, so I make a point of putting them up on my blog, whenever I actually do go the trouble of sending him a constituent viewpoint.

In this email, I ask a simple question. And who knows, maybe one of his aides will clarify the Senator's views in the comments here.


Dear Senator Cornyn:

I am glad to see that Tom Sullivan, in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, turned the proceeding around a little and asked _you_ a question, concerning your defense of the Star Chamber proceedings that have been going on in Guantanamo. He described in some detail the total absence of fairness in the trials: the fact that the detainees had no lawyers, did not speak English, had no ability to cross examine, had no access to the alleged evidence presented by the Government, the total absence of physical evidence, and the seeming absence even of any rules of evidence.

So he asked you, "Now, you call that due process?"

You didn't answer.

Well, I'll ask it again. Do you call that due process?


Jim McCulloch

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What does that mean, "human dignity"?

Since I read the news less than I should (but more than I like) I was unaware until recently that George Bush actually said, in defending his torture proposals, that the concept of human dignity is too vague, and must be discarded. "What does that mean," he said, "outrages upon human dignity?"

When you learn a language, the way you acquire the meaning of words is not by reading a dictionary, but by listening to actual usage.

Thus Mr. Bush could perhaps begin to apprehend the meaning of "human dignity" by referring to the words of his speech writers, which, of course, by convention are considered Mr. Bush's own words, since Mr. Bush actually read them aloud in various venues not so long ago, most notably in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2004, when he used the phrase no less than ten times. Here are some of Mr. Bush's own words (emphasis supplied.)

"Because we believe in human dignity, America and many nations have established a global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria."

"Because we believe in human dignity, America and many nations have joined together to confront the evil of trafficking in human beings."

"Because we believe in human dignity, we should take seriously the protection of life from exploitation under any pretext."

"Because we believe in human dignity, America and many nations have changed the way we fight poverty, curb corruption, and provide aid..."

"Because we believe in human dignity, America and many nations have acted to lift the crushing burden of debt that limits the growth of developing economies, and holds millions of people in poverty."

"Because we believe in human dignity, the world must have more effective means to stabilize regions in turmoil, and to halt religious violence and ethnic cleansing."

On April 2, 2005, Mr. Bush spoke of Pope John Paul as follows: "Pope John Paul II was "a faithful servant of God and a champion of human dignity and freedom."

And in June of this year he said, “We’re after the terrorists not only by staying on the hunt, but we’re after them with an ideology of hope, an ideology of life, an ideology that recognizes human rights and human dignity.”

I have also seen a theory--propounded by crackpots on the Internet--that Mr. Bush is suffering from some kind of progressive cognitive disorder, to explain an alleged deterioration in his fluency in public speaking between 1991, when he was pretty sharp in some gubernatorial debates, and now, when...well, he isn't.

So maybe he is simply forgetting his native language. That would be sad, if the problem is neurological, but--and this, I am afraid, is far more likely--it would be chilling, if it is the inevitable consequence of six years of total immersion in doubletalk. Chilling, because it implies he had no more idea what the words meant when he read them 2 years ago, or last year, or in June of this year, than he does today.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Torquemada redivivus

The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation.
Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.
--Washington Post, 9/22/06

It seems the Good Germans have decided to go along with torture after all. Unless some miracle occurs and enough real Americans, as opposed to the Good Germans, are unexpectedly found in the Senate to thwart this unfortunate scheme, our so-called President will be given authority to continue what he seems to have a desperate psychological need for, torturing those he determines to be enemies. I should insert here the standard "first they come for the Jews, then they come for the queers, etc...then they come for you" warning, which of course mutatis mutandis is relevant here, but the eventuality of Democrats eventually being the victim of Disappearances and the thumbscrew is less the issue than the absolute depravity of torture as official government policy, which, regardless of the Orwellian doubletalk the Republicans choose to clothe the decaying corpse of America's honor in, the stench of the indecency cannot be obscured with any words, even those coming from Clever Karl's propaganda mill, regardless of who the designated-to-be-tortured are, or will be.

The enthusiasm of the right-wing in this country for torture as policy seems to me to spring not just from the Bush Administration hysteria-mongering, but from the more fundamental pathology of right-wing extremists--upon which the hysteria-mongering builds--which is a limited-good view of the world. People who think you must struggle against others to have anything, whether it be happiness or money or political power, that there must always be absolute winners and losers, tend to have a harsh and punitive take on the world in general, and are more than ready to embrace policies that assuage their fears by bringing misfortune to others (thereby, given the magical thinking prevailing in such minds, removing or reducing the likelihood of it for themselves.) Torturing their enemies makes them feel safer, regardless of its inherent immorality or its provable ineffectiveness as a means of extracting information.

All the ticking bomb scenarios advanced by torture apologists are stupid, and conceal--not very well--a profound bad faith. The real historical use of torture has always been to intimidate and terrify, not to extract the location of little Nell, kidnapped and tied to the train tracks, before the train comes. Successful interrogation, according to those who have experience in such matters, plays on the values and hopes and fears of the person interrogated as the most useful, and perhaps the only, tools to extract information. Anybody capable of a millisecond of self-reflection, which seems to exclude much of the Republican Base, can see that if you were being tortured you would say whatever it would take to get it to stop. The likelihood of that being the truth depends entirely on the remorse or second-thoughts or sense of guilt of the interrogated, which is far less likely to be operative in the soul of someone who has just been tortured than in the heart of someone who has been treated more intelligently, not to mention decently.

And the dishonor this obscene and duplicitous policy brings to America (which at this point in the Bush Administration a cynic would pronounce as more coals to Newcastle) is a cause of sorrow, if not dispair, for any person who loves what this country has, at its best, stood for, and ought to stand for now. I still hope that the better elements in the American character, which I suspect are still found, however residually, even among the Republican Base, will ultimately move us away from Bush's Holy War, and Bush's Inquisition.

Let us hope.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Summer doesn't want to let go

It's been quite dry for the last 3 months in Austin. All the prickly pear cactus are withered from drought and look as if they might die, though they are in no danger of that. I guess I could provide visuals, but face it, a picture of a shriveled-up cactus lacks universal appeal. Some of the deciduous trees are shedding their leaves early. The flame-leaf sumacs, which (along with a native oak) provide about the only fall color around here, have already turned brown and lost their leaves. On my walks in a Searight Park I see few bicyclists and fewer joggers. After a brief respite, afternoon temperatures are back in the 90s.

The dry weather also seems to have reduced the number of dragonflies. On my walk today I saw only four species, but--and here is the good news, for me at least--I got reasonably good photos of two which I had not gotten decent pictures of before, a band-winged dragonlet and a female blue dasher. (I've gotten lots of good photos of male blue dashers, but this female is a first.)

Female blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

Band winged dragonlet, Erythrodiplax umbrata

click photos to enlarge

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Live oaks at Searight Park

I like the light yesterday in the late afternoon under the live oaks at Searight Park in Austin.

click to enlarge

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wednesday wildlife at Hornsby Bend

Hornsby Bend is a bend in the Colorado River near Austin named after an early settler, Rueben Hornsby, who built a log house nearby. It's presently the site of several large sewage treatment ponds, and is a premier place to go birdwatching--but mainly in the winter, when the smelly ponds are full of ducks. There are several miles of trails along the river and in the woods near the sewage ponds.

I went there to take pictures of dragonflies. I didn't see many, but I did get shots of a couple of black saddlebags, plus a butterfly and a snake. And it was a nice day for a walk.

Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata)

Another black saddlebags

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, (Papilio glaucus), on a lantana flower

Eastern Yellowbelly Racer, (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)

(click any photo to enlarge)

Monday, September 11, 2006

The tragic imagination

Five years ago today someone at work told me that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York, and that the Pentagon was on fire. This had little emotional effect on me. My mind was elsewhere.

My wife Kay was in the hospital having been diagnosed with acute leukemia 11 days before. I had just come back to work, and only during the mornings. The rest of the day, and the nights, I was spending at the hospital at Kay's bedside. She had just started chemotherapy. There was still a chance that she could die very quickly from the progression of the disease, before the chemo began to work, assuming it was going to work at all. She could also die from the chemo itself. It was kind of touch and go.

So, as I said, my mind was elsewhere.

I excused myself from work and went to the hospital. Kay had a TV in her room, which was--uncharacteristically--on. The twin towers were burning. There was some confusion as to what was going on in Washington. The TV talkers were frantically excited. The green sticky plastic reclining chair I spent so many nights in was beside her bed and faced the TV set, and I sat down beside her and watched.

It seems like we watched a long time, Kay and I. Days, maybe. Like anyone and everyone else. The only difference was that Kay was dying, although she didn't die that day, or during the next few days--it was 8 1/2 months later--and we were both trying to adjust that that possibility. Actually, possibility was the wrong word--near certainty was more correct. I had been doing some reading, and discovered that the oncologist, whose social skills were inversely proportional to his expertise (which is not as bad as it sounds, social-skillwise, as we were to discover WRT his expertness), had perhaps failed to be convincing in claiming Kay had a 50/50 chance of eventual recovery, because, in her case, those were not the true odds. The odds, in reality, were much, much worse than that.

I guess he thought it would make us feel better to lie, and it would have, had he been a better liar. He would probably have been correct in saying that Kay had a 50/50 chance of surviving the week, and in fact Kay turned out to be in the lucky 50 percent, that week. But we didn't know that in advance.

Anyway, this sudden threat of death, which had come out of nowhere, gave us an odd detachment as we watched people jump out of windows, some of them holding hands. We held hands as we watched. I think we both felt like we had a kind of empathy that other people did not. On the other hand, we felt distant from it, with our own very real worries.

We watched the fall of the towers over and over--like everyone else. But it was not my main focus. It's in the background, for me, in my memory of that day, and the days afterwards.

Though we did talk about it. It wasn't that day itself, but it was very soon after, that Kay began to feel troubled about the talking heads' use of the word tragedy. I remember her saying something to the effect that it's not tragic for America. Not for us. It's only tragic for the people who jumped, and who died in the buildings, and for their families. For people who knew them. Not for the rest of us. You are watching this on TV, for God's sake.

I think she sense an orgy of false emotion being unleashed, or being deliberately stirred up. It was terribly real, and it was also a media event. It was all very confusing. Still is.

In retrospect, I think Kay was wrong, in a certain sense. It has turned out to be America's tragedy, exactly to the extent that genuine feelings of horror and empathy--which legitimately existed in the hearts of those of us who watched only on TV--have been contaminated, polluted in some way by the media, and most of all, of course, by the Bush administration.

Those people have stolen what was a real and terrible catastrophe for 3000 people and their families and friends, and turned it into a different and needless tragedy for all of us. For the world. And they have done it without thought or remorse or shame or regard for the payoff awaiting those who are thoughtless and remorseless that always comes at the end of a classical tragedy. And I fear the play is not over.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

And we should remember Katrina, too

George Bush's scheduled grandstanding on this Sept.11 as we approach an important national election appears in stark contrast with his behavior on the same day five years ago, when, after being filmed in a state of paralysis clutching My Pet Goat with that deer-in-the-headlights look he gets when faced with crisis, whether it be a national tragedy or a hostile question in a press conference, he then disappeared for the rest of the day to hide in a hole in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, of course, Mayor Giuliani, a man whose political ideology is nearly as deplorable as George Bush's, showed himself to be a leader and a mensch--everything our so-called president is not. It serves to remind us that there are Republicans who, unlike our so-called president, deserve our respect even if we disagree with them. Let us hope that someday such Republicans take their party back from the Gadarene swine who have taken it over and who, unless stopped, are rushing as fast as they can to their destruction, which would be well-deserved if it did not include, as it unfortunately does, (sorry, the metaphor breaks down here) our own destruction as well.

The depths to which this beyond-belief and beneath-contempt psychopath and his co-conspirators have dragged our country is illustrated by watching a few minutes of Fox News, where the alternative-reality world of the Bush gang finds its truest expression--which I did recently by accident when it was unavoidable without impolitely demanding that my host turn off his tv.

On Fox News America learns, and a good part of America has apparently come to believe, that we are winning the war on terror, that George Bush is a personal friend of the weary and smoke-begrimed fireman Bush draped his arm over in a photo-op when he did show up belatedly at the scene of the tragedy five years ago, and that Democrats are responsible for 911 after all. These are but a few of the many other equally absurd notions that a regular viewer of Fox would imprint on. If you tell the public the world is flat long enough, I would guess that 24 percent would come to believe it, which I believe is the exact percentage of our people who strongly approve of our President. Watching Fox news is like taking LSD without joy or insight. A bad trip.

I mean, anyone with any remaining expectation of a molecule of civilized behavior from the Bush-Cheney-Rove bunch is going to be perpetually pole-axed with astonishment and disbelief at their effrontery. The balls-out cynicism of their using a national tragedy to gain political advantage is still hard to come to terms with.

But they have used it for five years, and plan to use it, as best I can tell, for the next fifty.

And they show every sign of lining up another war-of-convenience, this time against Iran and/or Syria, to take people's mind off the fact that our war in Iraq has turned to shit and the reasons for it have turned out to be fiction--not that watchers of Fox are aware of either fact.

And now, before our very eyes, ABC is turning into Fox News, with a planned 5-hour miniseries which is packaged as a documentary but which is full of events which never, in reality, happened. In the miniseries, Clinton is to blame for 911, having called off our on-the-ground forces at the point they were about to capture bin Laden.

This is complete fantasy, like the weapons of mass destruction. But millions of people who know nothing of actual history and who do not attend closely to the fine-print that might clue them in that the miniseries is no more a documentary than the west wing is, will come away believing it's true, and will, naturally, forget that someone actually did let bin Laden get away when we had forces in place who could have captured him at Tora Bora.

That someone was George Bush. Why would George Bush try to capture his greatest political benefactor, after all?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Some recent dragonfly photos

Roseate skimmer

Another roseate skimmer. Females and young males are dull orange. Males as they get older develop a rosy red color, hence the more-often-than-not non-descriptive name.

A nicely perched red saddlebags

Click any photo to enlarge

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eastern pondhawk eating a damselfly

The damselfly is a powdered dancer. This is at McKinney Falls on Onion Creek near Austin, yesterday.

Click to enlarge.

The terror campaign

George Bush is making speeches around the country saying that the War on Terror is "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century." So here we have our President, a deeply thoughtless man, believing, or pretending to believe, as he reads the teleprompter and nods and smiles when it tells him to do so, that terrorism is a creed, like Communism.

But terrorism is a method, not a belief-system. Mr. Bush does not want to dwell on that fact. If you are an apologist for partisan murder you will quickly realize that you need to find a way to speak of terrorism as the other guy's murders, not your own. If terrorism is someone else's ideology, then by definition your own murders are, well, not terrorism. Thirty thousand+ civilian dead in our Iraq war are, by such definition, something else. (The better estimates are well over a hundred thousand civilian dead, but not even the most committed Neocon denies the 30,000 as a minimum figure. So let's use that.)

The trouble is, at this point it becomes very tricky to even use the word meaningfully. These 30,000 people were innocent of any crime. Some of them were killed by the civil war we have brought them. Some were killed directly by our own military actions. Very few were killed by our soldiers with the outright purpose of murdering civilians to terrify those who remained alive. Thus, by the terrorism-as-method standard rejected by our President, we have certainly killed far fewer civilians for terroristic purposes than Osama did, and, if nothing else, we could be exempted from accusations of terrorism.

But if terrorism is an ideology, our effort to exempt our own butchery, a butchery which springs from Republican ideology, seems, well, arbitrary. Any objective person who accepted Bush's definition but not his frame of reference, would have every reason to consider us far greater terrorists than Osama was, or is. By a factor of ten, at a minimum.

None of this enters into Mr. Bush's head. His motives are simple and his goals are clear. He reads his words. He relies on the public not to closely examine those words. Exactly like the al-Qaida terrorists he derives so much benefit from, Mr. Bush, under the tutelage of Karl Rove, is doing everything he can to further the seepage of fear through our population, and he does so for the simplest of reasons: it benefits the Republican Party, or at least it has up until now.

Every reflexive shudder of horror at the unfathomable wickedness of our adversary becomes a reflexive Republican vote, in Mr. Bush's view. It has worked for five years, and Karl Rove likes to stick with the tried-and-true.

I hope my optimism that the public is finally catching on to this is not premature. When the President and Don Rumsfeld go around the country insulting the 60% of Americans who now have some doubts about the Iraq war, you'd think the effect of this would not be to bring them back in the fold, but to drive them further out of it. We'll see, I guess.