Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Death in Vain

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton of the Department of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School has an excellent article entitled “Americans as Survivors”in the June 2, 2005, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Lifton points out how survivors feel a sense of debt to the dead, a need to placate them or carry out their wishes in order to justify their own survival. This psychology applies even to distant survivors, as in the case of Americans in general in regard to those who die in our nation’s wars.

This need to honor the fallen heroes of yesterday has been used throughout history to motivate survivors to fight on or to support those doing the fighting, not only in the same war, but also in some possible future war. Indeed as Dr. Lifton points out, “There are probably few wars in history that were not fought on the basis of meanings given to the trauma of a previous war — that is, in relation to a mission to undo, reverse, or in some way alter the earlier outcome.”

If Iraq was not like Vietnam when we invaded, it has become increasingly like Vietnam since the invasion. As in Vietnam, our military is becoming frustrated by the inability to suppress the insurgency in spite of superior force, and our citizenry is growing weary of the cost of the war in terms of lives and money. The Bush Administration is attempting to use the psychological “debt to the dead” mentality, as Johnson and Nixon did regarding Vietnam, by saying withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would mean the almost 2,000 American troops killed in Iraq would have died in vain. Abraham Lincoln used the same argument in the Gettysburg Address, when there was growing opposition in the North to the War to End the Rebellion by the South.

In every war, many soldiers and even more civilians have arguably died in vain. Supposedly every death on the “losing” side was in vain. Yet many such dead “losers” are in fact honored by their defeated constituencies, as in this example regarding monuments to dead Confederates. Many wars are fought for unclear reasons which often become even more confused as the war continues. The confusion is sometimes carried over into the terms of the treaty ending the war, and the combined confusion often leads to future conflicts.

If you tend to think of all wars as having a winning side and a losing side, here are some American wars to think about further:

American Revolutionary War - the law abiding American colonists who remained loyal to the Crown did not consider themselves winners because America won the war. In fact, many “died in vain” at the hands of other Americans during the war and many others left for Canada and Britain.

War to End the Rebellion by the South - that the South lost the so-called Civil War is obvious militarily and by the Appomattox paperwork, but many in the South seem to still be fighting it.

Korean War - as this time line shows, this war is only in cease fire status, with 33,741 American battle deaths.

Vietnam - when all the stated goals and objectives are abandoned and the enemy is allowed to achieve all his objectives and goals, that is a loss.

Gulf War - many Americans who were unable or unwilling to admit that we lost in Vietnam were thrilled to have a chance to prove America is still capable of winning a war, when Bush the First, with UN and international support, got us into the Gulf War. We were clearly on the victorious side, yet the stated and achieved goals of the War were not enough to satisfy American war hawks.

Invasion of Iraq - one still viable reason we got into this war is to satisfy war hawks by giving another chance to salvage their pride from the Vietnam loss and to expand the goals of the Gulf War, even without UN and international approval.

The best time to consider the vainness of war deaths is before entering into a war. It the goals are not clearly stated and reasonably capable of attainment, then the war cannot be won and the war deaths will be in vain. This is the lesson of the Vietnam War which we ignored in invading Iraq. In invading Iraq, we also ignored a lesson from our own Revolutionary and Civil wars - that disputes between citizens of the same nation need to be resolved by those citizens themselves and not by outsiders.

Cut and Run

In another throwback to the Vietnam War era, the Bush Administration has resurrected the phrase”cut and run”, used as a pejorative to malign the viewpoint of those who believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that we should withdraw our troops.

Cutting losses in a losing situation is considered wise action in most contexts, as for example where an economic investment has proven to be a bad one and will most likely only get worse. But “cut and run” in the context of a war or battle actually has a more precise historical origin than just reducing losses. As the July 21, 2004, issue of the Word Detective points out [about half way down the page], perhaps as long ago as the 17th century, the phrase referred to a situation in which an anchored war ship was facing overwhelming attack and needed to flee to have any hope of being saved. With no time to spare hoisting the anchor, the order would be given to “cut and run”, whereupon the anchor line would be severed and the ship would depart in haste.

The “cut and run” tactic was historically considered acceptable, but the phrase was used during the Vietnam War and now in the Iraq invasion aftermath to denote some sort of unacceptable and shameful betrayal. Gregg Trimb, Webmaster of the Progressive USA News and Views has an excellent personal commentary explaining why the Bush Administration is using the phony “cut and run” attack to obscure the realities in Iraq and why we need to withdraw our troops and turn the Iraq problem over to the United Nations. Gregg points out such a course would not be a betrayal, but rather an honorable acknowledgement of the mistakes made by the Bush Administration and an honest recognition of the reasons we need to withdraw our troops.

That this phrase can likewise be used pejoratively against the Bush Administration is demonstrated by this August, 2005, report entitled “Cut and Run”, by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, criticizing the EPA betrayal of Butte, Montana, the largest Superfund site in the US.

Cut and Run is also the name of a British board game, which is promoted thus: “You travel the world building an empire of casinos, betting big bucks outwitting and bluffing your opponents - then, when the time is right...Cutting and Running for victory!” Too bad Tony Blair did not send George Bush this game to play instead of sending him erroneous encouragement to invade Iraq.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Unlikely Angel

Oprah’s show yesterday featured an interview with Ashley Smith, about whom I wrote the Sense piece, “Purpose Driven Hype?”, raising questions about the veracity of her story about the circumstances of her leading Atlanta police to escaped killer Brian Nichols. Ashley’s book about her hostage ordeal, “Unlikely Angel”(not to be confused with the Dolly Parton movie of the same name) has just been published. Since she collected several reward funds a few weeks after the arrest of Nichols, Ashley has been advised to keep quiet, apparently in part to maintain the curiosity about her story, in order to enhance book sales.

Ashley’s interview with Oprah confirmed many of my suspicions and answered many of my questions. She admitted that she has a history of crystal meth addiction and that she had used the drug the day before the ordeal began. She briefly, but convincingly, explained the strong hold the drug has on her. Only 25, she has done three stints in rehab trying to kick the habit and had once been placed in a mental institution by her family.

It was obvious from the start Ashley has a quick mind and knows how to handle herself, and that seems to be what she did effectively with Nichols, especially when she realized he had a decent side. When he put a towel on her head while she was tied up during his shower, so she would not have to look at him, Ashley began to talk to Nichols about family and especially about her daughter. She eventually convinced him to let her go see her daughter as scheduled the next morning, by convincing him if she did not go, her family would get suspicious and maybe send someone to check on her.

The biggest problem people had with Ashley’s story was why she did not call the police when Nichols let her drive alone with her cell phone, while he ditched a stolen truck. She originally said she was concerned he would get away and kill more people, but on Oprah she gave a more convincing answer, saying she was concerned she might get killed in police gunfire.

It seems to me that Ashley has followed some good advice, to stop talking and collect the reward money she earned and then write an honest book about her ordeal. Hopefully she is also doing everything in her power to kick the habit and get her life more under her control. She should have money to help her, with the reward money and book advance probably amounting to about $500,000. I wish her well.

Oh, what about the book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, that supposedly was the savior of both Ashely and Nichols? On Oprah, Ashley only said that shortly before the ordeal ended, she picked up the book to read and Nichols asked her to read some to him and then they had a brief exchange about their life purpose. By then, the outcome of the ordeal had already essentially been determined, so it sounds like the book was not really a factor. Nevertheless, Oprah surprised Ashely by parading out the book’s author, Rick Warren, at the end of the show, affording him an opportunity to plug his book. I doubt whether Nichols is going to be come a prison preacher for the Lord. Contrary to what she reportedly told Nichold during the ordeal, Ashley told Oprah she does not plan to visit Nichols in prison.

Friday, September 23, 2005


George W. Bush’s ineptness at the job of President of the United States and in particular his inability to communicate intelligently was on display Thursday in remarks he made about the so-called war on terror and about paying for hurricane relief, and in his answers to the few questions he took from reporters, as shown by the transcript, which I encourage everyone to read in full.

Since his pretexts for invading Iraq have proved to be false, Bush continues to misleadingly play what he considers to be his main trump card - the so-called war on terror. [His born again trump card is being held in reserve until hurricane season is over - this is not a good time to be too strongly aligned with The Man Upstairs].

Bush seems to have been acting a little more goofy than usual lately, which is especially peculiar considering the increasing number of serious problems our country is facing. One aspect of his performance on Thursday that is being discussed on a few blogs is his unsuccessfully seeking out a reporter named Bianca during the question session following his talk. As you can read in the transcript, he was quite interested in finding Bianca so she could ask him a question. Some wonder whether she is another softball thrower like Jeff Gannon. Apparently the reporter is Bianca Davie, a young journalist from the University of Illinois, now employed by Bloomberg.

If you did not take the time to read the transcript linked above, here is a summary of excerpts regarding Bianca: "Bianca?" Bush inquired, looking down at a list of White House press poolers (notably Bloomberg reporter Bianca Davie). "Nobody named Bianca? Well, sorry Bianca's not here. I'll be glad to answer her question." Bush explained: "Just trying to spread around the joy of asking a question." "Are you Bianca?" he asked another young woman. "No, I'm not," the woman answered. "Anita - Fox News." Bush responded with determination: "Okay. I was looking for Bianca. I'm sorry."

According to early reports, Bianca either had headphones on and was not aware Bush was calling for her, or else she heard him, but did not have a question to ask, so did not respond. I don’t think she was a plant, or she would have responded and asked her prepared question, unless she chickened out. I wonder if it might be something more like someone in the Bush staff likes her and wanted to give her an opportunity to be in the spotlight, but she shied away. As I pointed out in a post here last February, Bush uses a seating chart with pre-selected reporters to call on, so either the chart was in error or Bianca sat in the wrong spot.

Google did not find much on Bianca Davie, but it did locate this picture from a Presidential Leadership Seminar, with a Bianca Davie in the middle. She apparently is a quite young reporter and not well known to the White House press corps, or they would have pointed her out to Bush.

As long as I am speculating about Bush’s recent behavior, take a look at this piece from the National Enquirer [hey this gives equal time to the profane, since I used a Christian source for the Bush transcript], indicating all the current stress may have returned George to the bottle.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Judge Roberts Hearing

Though I was not able to watch as much of the confirmation hearings on Judge John Roberts as I wanted, I did see enough to formulate some opinions, both on Judge Roberts and on the confirmation process itself.

Roberts is a very impressive lawyer and judge. He has an excellent knowledge of the law, detailed and expansive in principle and practice. During the hearings, as apparently in his life, he displayed no particular passion, except for his deep respect for the law and for our Constitution. Some even said Roberts displayed no heart. He is a man whose mind is definitely in control of his body. Roberts appears to be a classic legal advocate, able to represent either side of a case and to put forth the best arguments possible for that side, without regard to his personal belief. Specializing in appellate work, Roberts argued his cases to judges instead of juries, so histrionics were of little or no use in his arguments.

When I practiced law, Judge Roberts was the kind of judge I wanted to have hear my cases, because I knew he would render a correct decision based on the facts and law, unaffected by his heart and passion. I would also have wanted him for an appellate judge if I had to appeal what I thought was an error of fact finding or a mistaken application of the law by a trial judge.

During the hearings, Judge Roberts emphasized he has no political or ideological agenda, describing himself as “my own man”. Maybe someday a nominee will decide that judicial independence should not start after confirmation, but rather after nomination, and will thank the President for the nomination and then announce that no preparation or coaching will be accepted henceforth from the Executive or Congressional branches of our government [many of the people seated behind Roberts at the hearings are actually a “confirmation team” assembled by the Administration to support Roberts in the hearings, led by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie].

Roberts did an excellent job of explaining why ethically he could not give an indication of how he would rule in specific cases that might come before the Court. He also artfully dodged hypotheticals, pointing out that real cases have an entire set of facts instead of the limited set presented by the hypothetical. I think nominees should be asked to present what they think would be the most effective arguments on both sides of an issue, for example, the best argument to keep Roe v. Wade as the law and the best argument to modify or overturn it. As each such argument is presented by the nominee, questioners could then interrogate the nominee on specifics of the argument and maybe thereby get a sense of whether the nominee does have an ideological viewpoint on the issue.

Presidents and Senators are partisans who choose Supreme Court Justices we would like to think are non-partisan. The Supreme Court may occupy somewhat of an ivory tower, but before inhabiting it, all Justices have lived in some part of the real world and have acquired some philosophy of life. Judge Roberts has lived the life of a conservative and is expected to bring that philosophy with him to the Supreme tower. My hope is that his love of the law and our Constitution, rather than his personal conservative philosophy of life, will guide his decisions on the Court.

Judge Roberts is exected to be confirmed. The only question is how many Democrats will vote against him, perhaps partly to send a message to Bush that the nominee to replace Justice O’Connor should definitely be a moderate.

Television coverage of the Roberts hearings was shamefully inadequate. I understand many people are more interested in watching Judge Judy, the TV small claims judge whose salary is greater than the combined salaries of the entire Supreme Court. I also realize that, absent anything like the pubic hair on the Coke can in the ClarenceThomas hearings, the cable news channels would stick with cases like Michael Jackson molestation charges and the teen missing in Aruba. But you would think PBS would have provided full coverage for the first confirmation hearing in 36 years of someone nominated to be Chief Justice of the United States who was not already sitting on the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Chief Justice - Some History

When I first heard Bush was now nominating John Roberts for Chief Justice, I thought it would be considered out of line to have a young outsider move into the Chief position. Looking over the data on the office at Wikipedia, showed me otherwise. Here are some historical facts on the office.

In 216 years, we have had 16 Chief Justices, or 15 if you exclude George Washington’s recess appointment of John Rutledge, who was rejected by the Senate after 4 months. The Chiefs have therefore served an average of 14 years, the equivalent of three and a half Presidential terms. Of the 43 Presidents, only 15 have appointed a Chief, with Washington being the only President to appoint more than one [three counting Rurledge].

Rehnquist was Chief for 18 years, but three Chiefs have served for longer terms, including Melville Fuller who served for 21 years until 1910, and John Marshall and Roger Taney, who served back to back for 34 and 28 years respectively. That 62 year [actually 63 when the extra months of both are added] span from 1801 to 1864, is offset at the short end by Washington’s three Chiefs serving for only 11 years total and by Chiefs Stone and Vinson who served from 1941 to 1953, just 12 years. Taney’s appointment in 1836 broke the “Catholic” barrier, though I believe Roberts, if approved, will only be the second Catholic Chief.

Like Rehnquist, most Chiefs die in office or shortly after leaving for health reasons. The exceptions are: John Jay, the first Chief, who was appointed at age 43 and only served 5 years, though he lived to age 83; Earl Warren, the conservative California Governor appointed by Ike, but who became a liberal leader of the Court before retiring after 15 years in 1969, and lived six years after retirement; and Warren Burger a conservative appointed by Nixon, who served 17 years as an ineffectual Court leader, before being pushed into retiring by Reagan in 1986, so a more effective conservative could replace him, that being Rehnquist.

Rehnquist served as an Associate Justice for 14 years before being elevated to Chief. Only two other Associates have ever been elevated to Chief, Edward White in 1910, and Harlan Stone in 1941. Some people had expected Justice Scalia to be elevated to Chief whenever the Rehnquist time ended, but Scalia is 69 years old. A healthy man of age 50, Roberts, if approved as Chief, has a life expectancy of at least 78 years, so he could equal the Taney term of 28 years, or possibly even challenge the Marshall record of 34 years.

If approved as Chief, Roberts, at 50, will serve as Chief with Justices Stevens 85, O’Connor (until replaced) 75, Ginsburg 72, Kennedy and Scalia, both 69, Breyer 67, Souter 65 and Thomas 57. The youngest Chief ever, John Marshall, was 45 when appointed, and served as Chief initially with five Associates [the Court having only six Justices back then], ages 67, 59, 55, 45 and 38. During his 34 years as Chief, Marshall’s Court established clearly the constitutional principle of judicial review, effectively insuring the Court would truly serve as one of the three branches of our government. To some back then, judicial review was considered unacceptable judicial activism, but now it is considered a sacred part of our constitutional framework.

I expect to watch the Roberts confirmation hearings in detail and to share some comments here later.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

The magnitude of the Katrina storm catastrophe and the ensuing disastrous relief failure is overwhelming. After the first few days of watching the cable news coverage, I wrote a page of notes for use in this blog. More days of news watch has added to my mental notes. There is so much I could say, but much of it is being said elsewhere. I expect to comment on various aspects as the tragedy plays out, but for now here are a few comments and questions I have not heard covered in the mainstream media.

The negative fallout from the rush of Bush (who cut short his vacation at “the ranch”) and Congressional Republican leadershift into emergency mode to “save” Terry Schiavo from her legalship to right to die, pales in comparison to their failure to promptly shift into emergency mode to save thousands of trapped Katrina victims.

Why does a homeless storm trapped parent who takes food from a flooded store to feed his starving baby risk getting shot as a looter, while a gouging oil speculator seeking to profit from Katrina emerge unscathed? [Jesse Jackson spoke out on the Katrina relief failures, and he did speak to this question, but I have not been able to find the quote].

When Bush ordered Air Force one to drop low to fly over the devastation for 35 minutes, air space had to be cleared for security reasons. How much did that disrupt the helicopter relief efforts?

Who negotiated the deal for the Carnival cruise ships, was this part of a previous plan, and how much money is carnival making, or are they losing more money on the cancellations (which somehow I doubt)?

The building code for New Orleans should require every home to have an escape hatch to the roof.

Why was the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet program used in both the Gulf War and the Iraq invasion, but not in the Katrina disaster?

Should the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster play a greater role in disaster relief, such as unified fund raising and coordination of non-governmental volunteer efforts?

For an interesting perspective on the political ramifications of the Katrina relief failure, read the transcript and listen to this discussion from the News Hour on PBS last Friday, and note especially the comments of conservative David Brooks.

The word “hurricane” comes from the language of the extinct Taino people of the Greater Antilles and Bahamas, to whom it meant evil spirit. The word “loot” is Hindustani and traditionally meant the taking of booty by soldiers in war and by corrupt officials. It is now also commonly used to refer to thefts of works of art and antiquities. I am not sure when it started being applied to civilians in disaster situations. The Washington Post published an interesting article on the semantics of looting as used in the Katrina coverage and on the etymology of the word.