What a Waste

I come from an older generation than the president, but my memory for some things is still dependable. One thing I remember about adolescence was the growing interest in things sexual, as nature knocked us together, a common phrase at the time. My experience as a physically maturing adolescent male was quite similar to the experience of others at the time, and similar, I'm sure, to those between that day and this. I know that I washed millions of potential babies off my hands, my shorts and my sheets. I find it impossible to believe that our current president did not experience something similar. What was discarded so casually amounted to half the ingredients that make up an embryo, the subject of so much concern at the moment. Nature has provided ways to eliminate overloads on the seminal vesicle, and a method for disposing of unfertilized eggs. But, have wet dreams and tampons instilled in us the need for funeral services? Do we make a big deal out of discarded surplus embryos formed in petri dishes and stored in fertility clinics?

The president, of course, was well past his adolescent years when he experienced the transforming religious experience that has informed his decision-making. I think it is safe to say, however, that he had that religious experience and its associated commitments by the time he became governor of Texas. In that role he presided over the closest thing to a production line execution system ever known in these United States. In fact, he boasted of it during a debate with Al Gore. He had no trouble denying requests for clemency from death row. He mimicked, in a sharp little voice, a women asking for mercy while he told of his role in the process. He obviously does not see the culture of life as being contradicted when he says no to the many among us with debilitating injuries or illnesses, denying them the possibility of a quality life and a cure for the incurable.

His political record belies his commitment to life. Vetoing the bill to fund embryonic stem cell research did nothing to save the unwanted embryos. They will simply be discarded, and whatever life they contain will be gone. He surrounded himself with a few of the 128 babies who were grown from "adopted" embryos, but failed to make mention of the almost 400,000 that were not adopted.

We may picture the baby as being formed when the embryo is introduced into the welcoming womb of an adoptive mother, but do we picture the brain, heart, lungs, stomach, liver, spleen, intestines, or any of the other organs formed from stem cells in a frozen embryo? Are they not just as important to the culture of life as the personality of the baby in the mother's arms? When embryonic stem cells grow into muscle, spinal bone, brain or nerve tissue to replace that damaged by injury or illness, they become just as much a part of the culture of life as babies born from them.

It was good to see that some of the Republican lawmakers have themselves grown backbones, and are now showing a willingness to think for themselves. The upcoming election may have something to do with this sudden spurt of growth and I'm sure the veto was as much political in nature as it was religious. The legislators apparently have a different assessment of their base than does the president. I could understand him playing to his base if he planned to run for office at some time in the future, but he's already a lame duck with no place to go. At this point he could get away with thinking for himself, even if Dick Cheney didn't like it.

His disastrous war in Iraq has added many to the Army of the Needy, those with debilitating injuries or illnesses whose best hope for a decent life is the proper use and research of embryonic stem cells. With the current veto, he may feel like he's washed some blood off his hands—he's only added more. What the president needs is to get a life.

Finding the Middle

We are a nation facing an obesity problem, yet finding our middle seems beyond us. The one-sided forces of nationalism and religion are behind most of the turmoil and killing in the Middle East, but finding a balance point, a middle ground, seems almost impossible. In my dealings with the religious right, I find we have many similar concerns, but emotional issues such as gay marriage and flag burning occupy such enormous positions for them that there seems no way around them. They trigger responses that do not allow for a middle ground. As one who grew up when it was perfectly acceptable to call homosexuals fags, queers, fairies, and other such cruel terms, when mistreatment of them (physical or emotional) was also acceptable, it is impossible for me to think of their lifestyle as a choice. I think we are just wired differently. Also, I doubt that homosexuals will reproduce fast enough to become a major problem to the world. Global warming, on the other hand, threatens more than our lifestyles, it threatens our species, ours and others as well. On this I find much agreement, but not nearly enough interest.

Our leaders have focused on free elections, equating them with democracy, but the results so far have shown remarkably little interest in self-government, at least in the Middle East. The big winners in those elections have been theocrats, Imams making the decisions for everyone else—hardly a democratic society. In the developing nations of our own hemisphere, the movement has been toward the left, again with powerful leaders taking over. The average person continues to be guided by the persuaders in power, and nationalism, as with our neighbors to the east, continues as a motivating factor for our neighbors to the south.

The only real democracy in the Middle East is Israel, where its citizens have been influenced by generations in Europe. Most of the developing countries we are dealing with have had no such experience. They tend to go with the known, the familiar, rather than risking the responsibility of democracy. Yet, even in Israel religion and nationalism pull most of the strings.

Our situation is somewhat different. We are moving from a truly democratic society of long standing toward a theocracy. We have lost most of our friends and thousands of our youth because of cowboy diplomacy—another way of saying belligerent nationalism. The findings of science continue to be questioned by the religious right and the merely greedy refuse to look much beyond their own life span. Under such conditions, finding a middle ground is well nigh impossible.

Iraq is in a state of civil war, a war that bears little resemblance to our Civil War because the combatants do not wear uniforms and march into battle, they simply take turns executing each other. They may well find themselves killing relatives and friends, but otherwise there is little outward resemblance to our established picture of civil war.

Israel's response to Hezbollah has moved world attention away from Iraq for the moment, but the problems haven't gone away, they've just grown more complicated. At home and abroad we find people more willing to fight than to talk. We have systems of communication enormously more convenient than ever before in the history of mankind, yet we can not talk our way out of a fight. If there is a middle ground, few are interested in finding it, and there is a middle ground in almost every argument, someone just has to look for it. Our theme song would seem to be Billie Holiday's "All, or Nothing at All." It wasn't a sad song in its day, but you have to be my age to remember it. That's sad enough.

Ever the Unpopular

If I read the Supreme Court decision on the treatment of prisoners correctly, it says they can either be treated as prisoners of war (POWs) or else be accused as criminals. In either case we have long established methods and procedures for their treatment. The Court said there is no such category as enemy combatants. According to news reports, some within the Republican party think they can turn this into a "weak on terrorism" issue by forcing Democrats to vote against unthinkable legislation that would make the present illegal behavior legal. I think any time a party can say it is defending the law of the land, it is standing on safe and patriotic ground. Apparently, several influential Senators and Representatives in the Republican ranks have similar concerns. The term "strict constructionist" is still popular in parts of the GOP. We should remember that in the course of our great history thousands have died either to gain or retain the same rights that now hang in the balance.

It is often politically popular to deal with ugly realities in harsh and often illegal ways. John Wayne justice we call it. History shows, however, that the manner in which we treat the probably guilty determines, in the long run, how we treat the probably innocent. Demagoguery is often popular with the masses… until it comes full circle. Sooner or later the indiscretions of the mob come back to haunt them, especially those who applauded early on. The ACLU is roundly hated by many with limited vision. They take the side of unpopular causes with regularity. I've often hated them myself for sticking their noses into other people's business. Being right, it would seem, is seldom appreciated.

Rush Limbaugh, the epitome of hot air patriotism, had hardly recovered from his most recent brush with the law—trying to sneak medication for the Bob Dole disease into the country—before flaming Nancy Pelosi's response to the Supreme Court decision. In his youth, Limbaugh passed on an opportunity to serve in Vietnam. Now that we find ourselves in a similarly undeclared war, he's all for tough treatment of the enemy. Does middle age do this for everyone? Does it somehow bolster their courage and toughen their stance? From the examples of leadership in the White House, it would seem so. I don't really blame anyone for choosing to miss Vietnam, but I do prefer consistency among politicians… and others.

I've made this point before, but it bears repeating. This administration has pretended to defend us against terrorism by stomping on the rights and freedoms we are supposedly defending. If we do away with the rule of law, what exactly are we defending? If there's an acceptable answer to this question, I haven't heard it.

The Rise of the Doormats

There is still hope that the nation's government will again be a three part arrangement. For the last five years it has mostly been run by the Executive branch, with the implicit consent of the Legislature and the Judiciary. We have been fed the line that any limitations placed on Executive power is unpatriotic and works to the benefit of terrorists. The collective backbones of the elected members of the House and Senate, as well as those in the Judiciary, seem to have dissolved. Now there is a stirring, and hope that the Phoenix will rise from its ashes.

A large segment of the populace has been willing to give up its guaranteed rights and freedoms to the support the machinations of the current White House. When the Vice President, with a permanent sneer, speaks out of the left side of his mouth, he receives standing ovations, no matter how badly he distorts reality. Early in his tenure, the president said things would be a lot easier if he were a dictator. Ever since the Twin Towers came down he has acted like the war powers he assumed made him one. The brakes needed to be hit for a long time, but no one in government seemed willing to apply the pressure.

Finally, the Supreme Court has said that the laws of the nation, the Constitution and binding treaties, such as the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners, must be followed. The myth of enemy combatants concocted by the White House cannot stand. The kangaroo court system established to deal with them must give way to established law. It is more than Congress and the Judiciary reasserting their powers. It is America recognizing that too much has been given away in the name of safety. We cannot allow the things that help to distinguish us from the rest of the world to erode, and still expect to remain a democracy within a republic.

Senator Specter has raised his sonorous voice to challenge some of the invasions of privacy. He intends to demand answers from the White House on the practice of monitoring our bank accounts and financial transactions as well as eavesdropping on our phone calls. The expected cries and crocodile tears from the Executive branch have been no surprise, but I don't think he will ultimately be deterred. It matters not so much that anything specific in terms of legislation come from these hearings. What matters is, that the unfettered power claimed by the President stands challenged.

We are supposed to be a nation of checks and balances, but for the last five years there has been no balance—since the Supreme Court declared the 2000 election over. It wasn't noticeable because the President spent the first eight months of his term vacationing on his Crawford ranch. Beginning with the bullhorn moment, however, he assumed powers totally out of step with the Constitution. It's a little early to celebrate, but you might want to just hum a few bars of "Happy Days Are Here Again." They just might be.