March 31, 2005 | 2:00 PM ET | Permalink

I think I'll do a Nation column on this, but in the meantime, here are few quotes for Altercation readers to keep in mind when examining the just-released intel report that sticks the blame for the lies the administration told about Iraq on the professional intelligence community, rather than with the Bush administration where it so clearly belongs: They are all drawn from The Book on Bush: and the original citations can be found therein.

An Army intelligence officer quoted in TIME. "Rumsfeld was deeply, almost pathologically distorting the intelligence."

A former defense intelligence official who attended some of the meetings in which Wolfowitz and others pressed for a different approach to the assessments they were receiving, quoted in The Washington Post, "They were the browbeaters…In interagency meetings," he said, "Wolfowitz treated the analysts' work with contempt."

Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle Eastern affairs in the Defense Intelligence Agency, in The New Republic, on conclusions that did not jibe with administration war aims, “They were encouraged to think it over again."  Moreover when analysts warned that the Iraqi people might not welcome an invading force and that the Shiite clergy might cause particular problems, "The guys who tried to tell them that came to understand that this advice was not welcome."

A former staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee quoted in The New Republic: "People [kept] telling you first that things weren't right, weird things going on, different people saying, 'There's so much pressure, you know, they keep telling us, go back and find the right answer,' things like that.

A former military intelligence officer quoted in The Washington Post, “It was a foregone conclusion that every photo of a trailer truck would be a `mobile bioweapons lab' and every tanker truck would be `filled with weaponized anthrax.”

A former CIA agent quoted in The New Yorker: who resigned over his “sense that they were using the intelligence from the C.I.A. and other agencies only when it fit their agenda. They didn’t like the intelligence they were getting, and so they brought in people to write the stuff. They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with—to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God.”

A Defense Intelligence Agency quoted in The New York Times, "The American people were manipulated."

Remember all of these quotes have been available for between eighteen months and two years. I found them during the summer of 2003 when I was drafting the book.  So could have any writer, reporter, senator, (or Secretary of State) who cared enough to look.

I just returned from an hour at the gym, where CNN proved unavoidable. And what a disgusting sight it was; non-stop exploitation of Terri Schiavo’s horrific death, followed by commentary after commentary of only people who shared the view of that small minority of Americans who believe the federal government ought to be intervening in the most intimate decisions imaginable, overturning individual’s wishes and those of their spouses to suit their ideological proclivities.  During the hour I was there, every word on CNN, save the commercials, focused on this individual’s physical death—she died long ago mentally and emotionally-- and not one second was devoted to the release of the Intel report regarding a war that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and the injuries and ruined lives of hundreds of thousands more.  And they have the chutzpah to call this a “news” network, (though of course, I can’t imagine Fox or MSNBC were any better).  I suppose “shame” is irrelevant word amongst those in the cable news network, but I am beginning to think that “Jeff Gannon” was in a far more honorable business before he pretended to be a “news” man.

Quote of the Day:  “This is not the homo land, this is the Holy Land."   Rabbi Yehuda Levin

Correspondents’ Corner:

Name: Ben
Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Hey Doc,
As always, thanks for the work.  For those of us on the Hill, who are barraged and harrangued by the Right all day, it's nice to have a haven and a voice to call our own in the blogosphere.

I'm writing today about what I think is a disturbing trend.  In all the debates about what the Donkey needs to do to take back that lovely office space on 1600 Penn NW in 2008, I have tried to remain open to any and all suggestions.  I've been specifically interested by the national security gap argument.  I think there's truth in both what Beinart wrote in "Fighting Faith" and what you have written on the subject.  But I am troubled by the increasingly rosey allusions to hawkish Dems of yesteryear, who lead our country into the debacle of my parents generation (Vietnam) and who most likely would have supported the debacle of my generation (Iraq).  When I hear the name Scoop Jackson, I don't smile, but I do recall a man who went to all lengths to derail George McGovern, a true national hero and patriot, in 1972.

I guess what I am trying to say, is that we in the loyal opposition, are right to examine where we came up short in 2004.  Like you and others have said, the inability of KE 04 to articulate an alternative security strategy was a massive flaw, and one that must be addressed, but in addressing this we all need to remember that merely adopting the message of the neocons, or trying to outflank the Right on the right won't win elections, and if it does, I am somewhat scared to see what the resulting foreign policy would be.  My generation has already had all it can take in the way of foreign misadventures.

Name: James daSilva
Hometown: Baltimore, MD

Dear Dr. Alterman,
While I think that it's certainly worth looking into the oil-for-food programs (albeit, why didn't we do that years ago), I think that it will ultimately show that, at most, Kofi Annan made mistakes of who to trust, rather than deliberate actions of greed or malfeasance.  Even if I'm incredibly wrong, there's no need to call for his resignation right now.  Let the process work through and have everyone calm down.

Although I suppose I would lean conservative in that I'm not a fan of much of the UN structure (largely anything outside its humanitarian works) I would have to say Annan often has a much tougher job than Bush (or any president).  He's almost required to answer on virtually every global or regional issue in the world with authority, understanding and depth, but without being able to implement policies or change beyond using the power of influence.  At least the Pope has his spiritual leg to lean on when he's ignored.

Conflict between the U.S. and the UN are inevitable, and I think some of the investigation into Annan, etc. is not just a move to try and get him.  But as always, there's going to be those who get worked into a frenzy at the thought of toppling someone they don't like.

Name: Tim
Hometown: Notre Dame, IN

Eric,
Let me be one of presumably hundreds of U2 fans to write in and tell you that I  managed to get tickets for not one, but two shows on the upcoming tour for about fifty dollars each.  One set of these tickets is general admission floor seating, or, if you're scoring at home: "the best seats in the house."

Contrary to popular belief U2, unlike similar big name acts, routinely price arguably their best seats at extremely reasonable price levels.  Fifty bucks (plus ticketmaster fees) really ain't that bad in the concert world, as you surely are aware.

March 30, 2005 | 11:36 AM ET | Permalink

Kofi’s innocent
-The pundits are guilty.

If Kofi Annan's [and here (WSJ)] critics demanded the same level of accountability from George W. Bush they profess to want from the UN General Secretary, he would have been impeached in his first week of office.  And if he were president, we be a healthier, safer, saner and far more honest nation.  (Come to think of it, if we had a similar standard for Wall Street Journal pundits, they’d be out of work, too.)  Remember this piece when you hear the pundits whine….

Speaking of which, hey John Fund, (WSJ) buddy, might you have mentioned that before his career imploded over yet another adultery episode, Gingrich offered you the job as his spokesman when you review his book for an unsuspecting public?

And hey Mr. New York Times critic guy, would it kill you to mention how much money U2 fans had to shell out to see their famous, impossibly wealthy but oh-so-socially-conscious heroes?  $165 plus ticket master, if I’m not mistaken.  No way these working class Irish kids could have afforded to see a band like U2 at these prices when they were young.

We, seventy percent of Americans, are worse than Mengele.  So says Jay Nordlinger of National Review.

And gee, I didn’t realize that Joe Scarborough had a medical degree and specialized in interpreting the results of CAT scans regarding signs of life of those in a vegetative state.  My bad.

Police State Update: Think the wrong thoughts, get kicked out of a Bush event.

Comics, for and agin’.

Quote of the Day:  "You were at school and you were pimply and no one wanted to know you.  You get into a group and you've got thousands of chicks there." – ERIC CLAPTON, who turns 60 today.

This Just In:

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 4
LENGTH: 70 words
HEADLINE: THE JUDGE & THE DOORS
BYLINE: BY HELEN KENNEDY
BODY:
PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - Brooklyn-born Judge George Greer, who gave the order to
remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, was once rocker Jim Morrison's college
roommate.    Greer told the St. Petersburg Times that he, Morrison and four other guys
shared a house as Florida State undergraduates.

Alter-reviews:

Sal notes of the new Solomon Burke, Make Do with What You Got, here, “The new millennium has seen an artistic rebirth for one of the original kings of soul music. Burke tackles songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, Dr. John and many more, and enlists producer Don Was to create one of the finest albums of 40-plus year career."  I  prefer Burke better on record to his live performances because that schtick with the throne and the royal trappings strikes me as silly.  The album is great, too.  Shout Factory has also released a DVD of a 1981 New Jersey performance of the Marshall Tucker Band, recorded shortly after the death of Tommy Caldwell.  Now, I like Marshall Tucker as much as the next seventies-style slacker, but these guys are really a band that should be heard and not seen.  It’s great with the picture off though.  Want to know who Marshall Tucker was, and was he related to Jethro Tull?  That’s here.

I never pay attention to anything Nat Hentoff has to say about politics anymore, but he’s still a fine writer about jazz.  Long live long lost Ben Webster/Joe Williams tapes (WSJ).

Correspondents’ Corner

Name: Kevin Head
Hometown: Lawrence, KS

Dr. Alterman;
You really need to address this new trend.  This is incredibly disturbing.  When a pharmacist can decide whether or not you "deserve" to get a drug that a doctor has already discussed with you, counseled you, and written a script for, based on "conscience," then we have ceased living in a free country.

While I am not a female (and thus need not obtain these pharmaceuticals), I still feel for the millions of young women who must gamble--what else would you call it?--on any particular pharmacy filling a script.  To envision a world where a medical doctor can issue a prescription, only to have a pharmacist hold it hostage by both refusing to fill it AND refusing to transfer it seems patently illegal.  And most disturbingly is the justification --that it goes against their "conscience"...

This is astounding.  Imagine a doctor unwilling to terminate a pregnancy that's endangering the mother's life because of pro-life views.  Since when did it become allowable to disregard one's professional responsibility by claiming religious beliefs?

And by the way, as a Prof, I cannot believe you haven't discussed/highlighted this topic....holy Jesus, imagine the mess just a few students could (intentionally?) cause....

Eric adds:  I made an exception this time, in part to make this point, but I should like to note that beginning a letter, “You really need to address this…” or any related form of  obnoxious  instruction is a sure way not to get your letter printed, unless you happen to be paying my salary.  I don’t tell you how to do your job, bub.

Name: Bob Evans
Hometown: Sarnia, Ontario Canada

Dear Dr. Alterman:
I have an irony to illuminate.

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time at a nursing home keeping my elderly aunt company as she faded gently to black.  My sister and I had the privilege of holding her and singing her to sleep in her final hour.  We had no wrenching decision to make - Mavis was very clear with us about heroic measures.

During many long visits I came to know a lovely man named John who spent many of his waking hours at the home keeping his beloved Christine company.  "Steen", as she was known was lost forever to the impenetrable fog of Alzheimer's.  Many years ago, John and Steen worked for the Dutch Underground in their efforts to hide Jews, gather intel for the Allies and give the Nazis all possible grief.  As John asserted, "Steen was the hero."  As a courier, she had to smuggle all manner of stuff from town to town, evading German patrols and getting through checkpoints and roadblocks undetected.  Had she been caught, she would have faced down a firing squad.  John told me blushingly and proudly that Steen was a world-class flirt and voluptuous 16yr old beauty with long golden hair who could wiggle, tease and giggle her way out of any situation.

And so she did, saving countless lives and contributing to the great victory.

After the war, John and Steen came to Canada, declared themselves unhyphenated Canadians and gave generously to their new homeland.  Steen died recently with John at her side in grieving silence.  She was the love of his life; his rock and his heroine.

And so the irony.  The whole world knows who Terri Schiavo is.  We know the details of her medical condition, the sounds she makes, the minutiae of her marriage and have seen unflattering photos of her wasted limbs and vacant visage.  We even got to see a picture of the now iconic feeding tube protruding from her navel.

Terri Schiavo, the innocent sufferer is the unwitting center of a huge and ugly morality play that demeans us all.  Steen, the intrepid heroine to whom many still living owe their lives died quietly in a small Canadian town.  Not even the local paper managed to note that a woman of extraordinary grace and courage passed this way and made the world a better place.

Irony.

March 29, 2005 | 3:59 PM ET | Permalink

It’s here, The Fox Blocker.

It’s not just a David Kelly fantasy. Sam Kimery says he's sold about 100 of the little silver bits of metal that screw into the back of most televisions, allowing people to filter Fox News from their sets, since its August debut.  Of course, he has also received death threats from Fox fans, who naturally wish to kill anyone who does not share their views.

"Apparently the making of terroristic threats against those who don't share your views is a high art form among a certain core audience," said Kimery, 45.

We note that Kimery is formerly a registered Republican...

even a precinct captain, but says he became an independent in the 1990s when he said the state party stopped taking input from its everyday members. Kimery now contends Fox News' top-level management dictates a conservative journalistic bias, that inaccuracies are never retracted, and what winds up on the air is more opinion than news. "I might as well be reading tabloids out of the grocery store," he says. "Anything to get a rise out of the viewer and to reinforce certain retrograde notions."

We also note, for fairness’ sake...

that Kimery doesn't use the device himself; his remote is programmed to only a half-dozen channels. Plus he occasionally feels the need to tune into Fox News for something "especially heinous." 

Want one? It’s here.

And if you want to make money off of Terri’s death?  Here's how.

All purpose Altercation: Want to learn how to be a stripper?  (Thanks Petey)

Why does Paul Krugman hate himself?

Air America: “Let’s keep going and see what happens…”  I thought this documentary was pretty good, and it’s amazing what Air America has managed to survive, but I would have liked it better with a lot less of that Mark guy, who is kind of a nightmare of what liberals are imagined to be—as well as with less of Randi Rhodes worrying about how much attention she is receiving in the media.  (Reliving the 2004 election is also not my idea of a good time, but it is dramatic.)  Janeane and Al come off quite well, however.  Nader, by the way, does not.

Speaking of whom, has everybody seen the company Nader is keeping now?  Or is there any longer a point in beating this particular extremely dead horse?  It’s here.

Quote of the Day, or How Bruce earned his parental advisory sticker:

“'Two hundred dollars straight in, two fifty [deleted deleted deleted],’ she smiled and said.” (We, on the other hand, do not want a parental advisory sticker on Altercation.)

Alter-review:  The kid and I caught a performance last week of the revival of On Second Avenue by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater at the Manhattan JCC on 77 and Amsterdam. Folksbiene claims to be the only operating professional Yiddish theater company in America, and if that’s true, then I guess it’s a good thing they are so terrific at what they do. This American/Israeli actor Mike Burstyn, would be a star in any language. And the jokes, which are in English, are bearable between the songs, which are wonderful. The cast does not feel semi-pro at all and it’s great to see this material being so well taken care of.  Like the times reviewer, I am partial to any joke that begins, "Two Jewish cannibals," though I admit to imagining Cathy Young as the one who gets eaten. Ticket prices are a manageable $35 to $45.

Correspondents’ Corner:

Name: Rosa Lee Miller
Hometown: Goose Creek, SC

Beautiful well thought out article. 

I believe that a lot of us feel "violated" in an underlying way by the mass exploitation of the Terri Schiavo case.  It really scares me to think that I could, someday, have my face and condition flashed across the world, that my medical condition and life could be talked about and known to the world, that I could be exploited for political and religious gain.  It is very scary...and I feel exposed and very vulnerable by this case.

Name: Bill
Comments:

Eric,
I wonder what Tom from Rhode Island thinks now that he knows that Tom DeLay and family went through the same ordeal that Michael Schiavo is going through. Change the father to the wife and it is pretty close, even down to the lawsuit filed by the family. Funny thing, Mr. DeLay supports tort reform to prevent frivolous lawsuits. You know the type, filed by grieving families trying to hold some company responsible. The type Mr. DeLay (and fellow Republicans would like to do away with).

Anyhow, the DeLay family (Tom included) was allowed to make the heart wrenching decision without the interference of the Federal government, FOX News (how can it be news when they make it up), and the Far Right.  But now Mr. DeLay and company wanted to prevent Michael Schiavo from making the SAME DECISION.  So, Tom in Rhode Island, and Mr. Delay, can we say HYPOCRITE?

Name: Darren Franzen
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Dr. Alterman,
I've been asking myself a question for the past few days...how many of the people gathered around the hospice in Florida have signed up for a week or a month of volunteer duty inside that hospice?  How many are willing to volunteer to sit at Ms. Schiavo's bedside for a month or two?  How many are willing to be there for Ms. Schiavo if her parents can no longer care for her?

Would answering those questions help better define "burdensome"?

Would asking those questions help quiet the political debate?  Hope so.

Name: Eric David
Hometown: Elizabeth, NJ

Dr. A,
Here's why I think a major increase in the gas tax is coming, sooner rather than later:

1. The coming spasm of bond-market and currency-market discipline will make even the most brain-dead supply-side fanatic admit by the next budget cycle that the US Treasury is broke and something needs to be done, immediately.  But that something won't be to raise upper-income marginal tax rates, increase corporate taxes, or revive the estate tax, of course.  With those off the table, practically the only thing left that will generate any meaningful revenue is a gas tax.

2. It's incredibly regressive, so the screw-the-poor right-wingers (i.e., Bush's "base") will find it palatable, even desirable, just like their plan to replace all taxes on investment and inheritance with higher taxes on us poor slobs who have to work for a living.  Remember the WSJ's rant against the "Lucky Duckies" who make poverty-level wages and thus avoid federal income taxes?  The stray red-state millionaire who's bothered by paying a buck or two extra per gallon will be assuaged by the knowledge that even minimum-wage city dwellers are facing higher mass transit fares too because of the fuel tax hike.

3. Sensible Republicans from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations (like Robert McFarlane and Frank Gaffney) are advocating a gas tax increase.  So are some moderate evangelicals who don't believe Jesus is necessarily coming tomorrow, and even if he does, he might not want to choke on Hummer fumes after each breath.

4. Public outrage at the tax increase will create a groundswell of support for drilling in ANWAR, Yellowstone, Central Park, the South Lawn, and anywhere else Big Oil wants to plant a derrick.

5. Speaking of Big Oil, can't you see them sneaking in a slow 50-cent per gallon increase right around the time that the new tax is phased in?  Who'd notice?  Only the oilmen as they add more zeroes to their overflowing bank accounts!  By the time enough people react and change their habits or buy hybrid cars (if they ever do, since $2/gal. gas hasn't really changed things at all compared to $1/gal. gas), this crew will have long since retired.

6. Lastly, it's great politics, so Karl Rove will love it.  What better way to make liberal eco-Democrats put-up-or-shut-up?  Bush, who never stands for re-election again, can propose the tax and force the Dems (and the moderate GOP-ers who the conservatives want to get rid of anyway) to walk right into the trap of having to vote for it, while the real right-wing nuts get to "look out for you" and scream "no new taxes!"

March 28, 2005 | 12:05 PM ET | Permalink

How do you spell “Police-State?”
U-S-A

The United States of America, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, is operating a police state at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere in military and secret prisons throughout the world, where innocent people are being jailed, tortured and sometimes murdered without concern for their guilt or innocence.  This is not empty, anti-American rhetoric, it is verifiable truth, and aside from the moral revulsion it causes in anyone who claims to be interested in such matters, it also undermines any claims we might have to the moral leadership of the world community.  Do I exaggerate?  I think not.  Does anyone care?  You can bet the rest of the world does.  See below:

Murder Is Us

Despite recommendations by Army investigators, commanders have decided not to prosecute 17 American soldiers implicated in the deaths of three prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, according to a new accounting released Friday by the Army.

Jail the innocent; ignore the evidence, cover up the crime

In recently declassified portions of a January ruling, a federal judge criticized the military panel for ignoring the exculpatory information that dominates Kurnaz's file and for relying instead on a brief, unsupported memo filed shortly before Kurnaz's hearing by an unidentified government official.

Kurnaz has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since at least January 2002.

According to the Defense Department, 558 tribunal reviews have been held.  In the 539 decisions made so far, 506 detainees have been found to be enemy combatants and have been kept in prison. Thirty-three have been found not to be enemy combatants.  Of those, four have been released.

From Major Bob:

Name: Major Bob Bateman
Dateline: Baghdad, Iraq
Last week I defined courage.  I noted the courage of normal workaday Iraqis. Courage which is real in the most direct sense, and which is demonstrated on a daily basis here in Iraq. These demonstrations of personal and collective fortitude occur regardless of creed or region, they appear without limitation of gender or political affiliation. These people show courage at the most important time, when nobody is looking. But until recently it is my impression most Iraqis did not have an icon, one of their own who might help them solidify their feelings about current events.  Now they do.  Abdelamir Najem Kazem.

During one trip I made to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, I and those I traveled with found ourselves with time on our hands.  Much as I am coming to admire and like the Iraqi people, I have to admit that collectively they have not created the timeliest society on the planet.  But I am accustomed by professional habit to waiting, so I made the most of this pause by exchanging pleasantries with some of the security personnel outside the official’s office.

It seems every important Iraqi has his (or her) own personal security detail.  This is understandable, given the threat.  More often than not these security guards are family members (although often distantly so) and patronage seekers, or they may be tied by tribe.  In any event, the majority of such young men have no formal military or weapons training.  In other words, and in an American context, they are just your average Joes.  As such they are sometimes wonderful fonts of information about the mood in the city and recent rumors.  (Iraq, or at least Baghdad, seems to live for rumors even more than does Washington.)  I like talking to them.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, discussing the chances for the Iraqi National Soccer Team in the next World Cup and the state of repair of the housing in downtown Baghdad, the topic shifted to the elections.  Or more accurately, I tried to change the subject to the elections, because I was curious about how they felt.  My Iraqi hosts, however, did not so much care about the results and the wrangling.  What they wanted to talk about was Iraq’s first national hero in the modern era, and an unlikely hero in this country because he was a policeman.

Abdelamir Najem Kazem was 34 years old on Sunday, 30 January, the day that he died.  He was a policeman under the former regime, and was once again under the new government.  You’ve probably heard a little about him even back home.  He became Iraq’s hero because on that day, while he was guarding a polling station in the Al-Yarmuk district of Baghdad (directly to the West of the “Green Zone”), he discovered a man with explosives trying to get in among the voters.  Kazem did not hesitate; depending upon the account one hears, he either dragged the man out and away from the voters, or threw him to the ground and covered him with his own body, but in either case the result was the same. The terrorist detonated his charges, killing himself, and only one other: Officer Kazem.

In Iraq the police were never about protecting the people before.  Public order and discipline were the purview of the Army and of Saddam’s thugs.  The police were for traffic, and in most cases were corrupt in even that role.  This has been one of the problems confronting the Coalition, and the Iraqis.  How, after decades of conditioning, to change how people think about the police?  Indeed, one might ask how best to change how the police think about themselves?  Difficult questions, ones that might take a long time to answer.  But now they have a starting point.

In one tragic moment one man did more to change that perception than has any other since the fall of Saddam’s reign.  In the process he also gave the Iraqi people something they desperately needed.  A hero. 

I will try to remember his name.

BAGHDAD WITHIN EARSHOT SECTION:

A boom here a boom there.  Nothing much to write home about.  Seriously.  Some good news about the Iraqi police commandos.  Though initial reports are sketchy and I don’t know any more than you do about that, it seems like an artifact for hope.

My parents are on Long Island, visiting my great-uncle Jim, who has some health problems.  Next week my daughters, Morgan, Ryann and Connor will spend their Spring Break with my parents, at the beach.  The pang of missing loved ones has, friends, no discernable upper limit.

Your gifts started arriving this past week.  I’ve tried to write a handwritten note to everyone who sent something.  I appreciate it.  So do all here.  We are now officially “set,” in those materials.  I don’t know how else to thank you.  You all may, however, be amused to know that I received some 87 pounds (yes, pounds) of coffee creamer and something on the order of three hundred magazines.  The mind boggles.  Again, thank you.  And on behalf of our now-herniated mail-handling soldiers, I think it prudent that I ask for an abeyance.

Happy Groundhog's Day.

Nobody tell anyone in the Washington bureau of The New York Times this, but that "impishly fun," "upbeat," "calm and relaxed and confident and happy," happy-go-lucky fella for whom Elisabeth Bumiller is doing unpaid PR just reached his all-time low in the opinion polls.  (Has Super Karl taken over the editing of Bumiller's column too?)

Quote of the Day: Bruce Springsteen

I got God on my side
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love

Fear’s a Dangerous thing

It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust

Correspondents’ Corner:

Name: Kelley E
Hometown: Houston, Texas

Dr. Alterman,
My father is slowly dying of Parkinson's disease.  He was diagnosed at the ripe old age of 32 and after 18 years, two brain surgeries, and a forced early retirement from a much-loved teaching career, he has now exhausted all medicinal options.  He chokes every time he eats, can no longer speak, has problems with his balance (resulting in multiple falls), has trouble breathing, and is now having problems walking, the latest development of this horrid degenerative disease. 

We campaigned tirelessly last fall to elect a new president who would understand that stem cells are his (and millions of others) last hope.  Never mind that the cells that would be used are discarded by fertility clinics every day.  Never mind that every day the federal government withholds the funding that could lead to a cure for a disease that has ripped our family apart.  No one can take away our hope because that is all that we have left. 

Apparently our hope is not as important as the Schindlers' hope.  Congress did not convene an emergency session to pass a law that could save my father's life.  But what really burns me is the fact that Sen. Frist stood up and gave a glowing and hopeful "diagnosis" of Schiavo after witnessing a spliced videotape made by her family. 

Last October Sen. Frist attacked Sen. Edwards over a comment he made regarding actor Christopher Reeve.

Edwards said Reeve "was a powerful voice for the need to do stem cell research and change the lives of people like him . . . . If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again," Edwards said.

Frist's response--

I find it opportunistic to use the death of someone like Christopher Reeve -- I think it is shameful -- in order to mislead the American people," Frist said.  "We should be offering people hope, but neither physicians, scientists, public servants or trial lawyers like John Edwards should be offering hype.

It is cruel to people who have disabilities and chronic diseases, and, on top of that, it's dishonest.  It's giving false hope to people, and I can tell you as a physician who's treated scores of thousands of patients that you don't give them false hope.

The hypocrisy is laughable if only it didn't hurt so damn much.

Name: Bill
Hometown: Hammond, Oregon

Hello Dr. Alterman,
I read with great irritation Tom from Rhode Island's letter about Terry Schiavo.  It shows a very common ignorance about the so-called red state/blue state divide.

I'm a Christian. I'm an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Army.  My father and grandfather were both vets.

I work for a small business in a rural area of Oregon.  I believe in small government and individual rights as well as responsibilities.  I can't stand Merlot and I drive a pickup truck.  (The last two points are unimportant, but they seem significant to people like Tom from Rhode Island that I have met.)

I voted in the last election strictly on moral and religious grounds.  I voted against George W. Bush.  There was no way that as a Christian and a veteran that I could vote for a man who had waged an unlawful and immoral war.  I couldn't vote for a man who showed such disregard for the lives of our men and women in uniform allowing them to be killed and injured in a war that was contrary to law and the best interests of the United States.

A great deal of venom gets spewed at these "upper class liberals" that I keep hearing about.  Tom and a lot of the people that seem to have appointed themselves as spokesmen for the red states seem to be ignorant of the fact that a lot of the opposition to the Bush administration comes from people of faith who feel that the current administration is conducting its business, our business, in a way that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  A lot of these people are not upper class.  Not by a long shot.

Why is Tom from Rhode Island so violently opposed to letting a brain damaged woman in Florida die quietly?  Where is his outrage that our own military admits that prisoners are dying in our prisons from mistreatment?  Where is his outrage over 100,000 dead Iraqis?

Tom from Rhode Island, and all you pundits, you don't know me.  Don't speak for me and don't think you can categorize me.

Name: Linda
Hometown: Akron, Ohio

Hi Eric,
This letter is actually in response to Tom from Rhode Island, whose vitriolic little rant was posted here earlier.  Anyway, I'm a Christian, non-alcohol-drinking, non-nanny-employing physician in Ohio.  I spend every day of my life trying to save lives.  I have sat at the bedside of dying people, spoken and prayed with them and their families, and taken care of people with persistent vegetative states and other severe neurologic injuries.  I can therefore speak with a little more knowledge on this matter than the average person.  Do I think Terri Schiavo should die?  In my best professional opinion...I don't know.  No one could possibly make an ethical judgment on this matter without seeing and examining Ms. Schiavo in person (no, videotape *won't* do, and if I diagnosed exclusively on the basis of videotape, I'd lose my license).  More to the point, no one who did not know Terri Schiavo when she could communicate her own wishes herself could make this judgment, because none of these people can claim any knowledge of Terri Schiavo, the person.  Remember her?
 
In my career, I have withdrawn life support from patients because they didn't want to be kept alive artificially (and yes, feeding tubes count according to every standard of medical ethics).  I have also sustained people on life support even in the face of little likelihood of successful recovery, because that's what the patient wanted.  In the best case scenario, the patient's wishes were documented by advance directives like living wills.  In the absence of advance directives, standard medical ethics allows a judgment to be made by the patient's next-of-kin, with a spouse *always* taking priority unless another person has been designated as Durable Power of Attorney for healthcare (another part of advance directives).

I don't think there's a person in the country of any political persuasion who *wants* Terri Schiavo to suffer or to die.  But the country at large, and the Congress and George W. Bush in particular, do not have the knowledge of Terri Schiavo, the individual, to make any decisions or judgments about her case.  To claim to know what Terri would have wanted when one has never even seen her in person, much less spoken to her, is arrogance and presumption that utterly disregards Terri's own humanity.  This issue should never have taken on the national scale that it has, because it's made Terri Schiavo's tragedy into some sort of circus freak-show where the young woman at the center of the issue becomes a symbol claimed by people of all sides without regard for what she herself might have chosen to represent.

Do I want Terri Schiavo to die?  No, I don't.  Do I think her feeding tube should be removed?  I don't know.  I know what I would want if I was in her situation.  I would want the federal government to abstain from involvement in my personal and family issues.  I would want political activists to fail to presume to speak for me and turn me into some ideological battle cry.  I would want medical science and ethics respected as well as the Christian principles in which I believe;  foremost among those principles is faith that if God wants me to live here on earth, He'll keep me alive whether I've got a feeding tube or not.  If He doesn't want me to live, His grace gives me salvation through Christ, so what's to fear from death?

Hoping everyone had a Blessed Easter or at least a pleasant weekend if you don't celebrate Easter.

Name: Coop
Hometown: Vernon Hills, IL

In answer to Providence Tom and his ruminations on the morality of those opposed to reinserting the feeding tube, I present my mother.  She is a Southern Baptist who has voted for every state and national Republican candidate since Dewey.  She thinks FDR knew about the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen to get us into the war.  She is quite clear about anyone in her family and her government using any extraordinary means to keep her alive.  My mother does not fear death, but she does fear the unnatural extension of her life by feeding tube, unwanted resuscitation or any other heroic measure.  There are worse fates than death.  If Tom would like he could discuss his concerns with her.  Like her liberal son, my conservative mom will not feel joy at Terri's passing.  Her anger is properly directed at people like Providence Tom, Tom Delay and Randall Terry who presume to tell the rest of us how to we must live and die.

Name: Keith Eckert
Hometown: Boiling Springs, PA

Eric,
Pascal Boyer, in his excellent “Religion Explained,” cites a study that I believe tells us a lot about America today:

Social psychologists observed that the very thought of general and inevitable mortality induces dramatic cognitive effects, often very remote from the topic of death itself. In experimental studies, subjects are asked to read a story or magazine article that highlights the inevitability of death.  They are then asked a set of apparently unrelated questions “for instance, what would be the appropriate sentence for a particular theft, whether a minor offense should be punished, whether a description of some people’s behavior is consistent with their ethnic background.  Their reactions are compared to those of subjects who had read an innocuous piece of prose with no mention of mortality. The difference between these two groups is always striking.  Those who have read “mortality-salient" stories tend to be much harsher in their reactions to socially deviant behavior.  They are less tolerant of even minor misdemeanors and would demand longer sentences and higher bail. They react more strongly to offensive uses of common cultural symbols such as the American flag or a crucifix. They also become more defensive toward members of other groups and more prone to stereotype them, to find an illusory correlation between being a member of another social group and being a criminal. They also evidence stronger antipathy toward members of their own group who do not share their views. Awareness of mortality seems to trigger a socially protective attitude, according to which anyone who is even slightly different from us and any behavior that does not conform to our cultural norms induces strong emotions.
(Page 205)

Sound familiar?  It sounds like America 2005.  And as a result, the tenets of liberalism “individual rights, diversity, respect for minority rights, helping the less fortunate, etc." are the casualties of a society gripped by (what I would call irrational) fear.  Many Americans today are driven by the desire to punish non-conformists -anyone perceived as breaking the rules, and those that threaten their beliefs.

I don’t know if there is much liberals can do in this kind of environment.  I don’t suggest “moving right,” however.  Now, more than ever, I think we need to stand up for what we think is right. If we lose, so be it.  It’s better than giving up on our values.

P.S. The study Boyer cites is from J. Q. Wilson’s “The Moral Sense” published by Free Press, 1993.

Name: Nicholas Pisano
Hometown: Destin, FL

Hey Eric,
Old Navy guy here, sitting in Florida near ground zero of the Schiavo tragedy.

I find it interesting that the more fanatical elements of society didn’t take long to shamelessly exploit the tragedy of Ms. Schiavo and her family.  The entire affair has been turned into both a media circus and a political football.  Of course, this has been par for the course down here for several years, what with “Terri’s Law” and the parents allowing themselves to be used by every quack, hack and political whore on the planet (read Jeb Bush and the Republican legislature for the last example).

You would think that any decent and thoughtful person removed from the situation would be able to empathize with the feelings of both the parents and her husband.  It is a conundrum.  The fact that this is a painful and private conundrum and that there are families that face them every day in a very messy and morally ambiguous manner is immaterial to those who have turned this into a cause celebre.  We certainly have the response from these people to the question:  “Have you no decency?”  The answer, of course, is:  “Never have, never will.”

For the moment let’s forget that the self-described defenders of a “culture of life” only subscribe to that culture when it doesn’t cost them money, when it isn’t applied to the death penalty, or the removal of life support from sentient and conscious people who don’t have medical insurance, when it doesn’t get in the way of America’s young military personnel making the supreme sacrifice and when it doesn’t apply to dropping “smart” bombs and causing collateral damage in a war not only built on a lie but one not essential to the survival of the nation.

I think the real issue behind this controversy is something very fundamental.  That fundamental issue is the right to privacy and, from it, the concept that there are cases where one should have control over the manner of one’s death” as much as one possibly can.

The right to privacy is the natural right that few people with an interest in control (especially the more conservative members of religious groups and certainly not the thought police or large economic interests) want mentioned and confirmed.  What I am speaking of here is not the statutory right that has been hijacked by the state to hide official malfeasance in office (an interesting topic for a different time) but the core right that we all possess.

After all, if everyone possesses the right to control one’s own mind and body then abortion, death with dignity, the right to family planning and contraception without state restriction or interference, physician assisted suicide, one’s sexual identity and its enjoyment through responsible consensual adult relationships and a host of other matters are left to each of us without regard to the desire of others to seek to control us.  While there is no doubt that no right is absolute and that a compelling state interest may be involved at some point in each of these areas, especially where rights intersect or conflict, this is power -and that is exactly what the founders of this nation had in mind.

I would caution those who would reverse or give up this right -especially those writers over at Atlantic Magazine concerning Roe v. Wade, as well as traditional conservatives- because giving up the right to privacy would be to abandon one of the cornerstones upon which our other rights flow.  How can sovereignty flow from the people if the people, as individuals, do not possess sovereignty over their own minds and bodies?

The threat here, especially to those who claim religious and moral authority -and the most compelling aspect of natural rights- is that they flow from no other authority and answer to no other moral code.  We all possess them without regard to religious authority or pretense.  As pointed out by Jefferson himself, our rights were based on English common law prior to the introduction and establishment of Christianity into the British Isles.  Locke and the other writers of the Enlightenment that influenced the founders of the United States based their philosophies on the natural state of human beings and those rights that we possess as a result of our humanity.

This does not make it Godless or anti-religious.  The concept of natural rights upon which the nation was founded acknowledges the need and right of people to hold (or not hold) religious beliefs.  It leaves open the question of a creator.  But it is a right that exists above and beyond the control of those self-described authorities of human behavior and morality.  You can try to sell me in the marketplace of ideas whatever metaphysical snake oil you want to peddle (and you best be polite about it) but then I have a right to tell you to take a hike and be left alone -and that is the issue here.

My right to control my own body and be held accountable for what I do when exercising that right is a concept that relates to all of the other issues that have been under attack by neo-conservatives for the last twenty-five years, but especially since January: product liability, medical malpractice, bankruptcy all relate to making special rules for those who exercise control and would do so without accountability.  This is an extension of what you have aptly described as affirmative action for conservatives and their favored constituencies.

Terry Schiavo confided in her husband that she would not want to live life in a vegetative state.  Many of us have probably said the same thing to our closest relations and many of us now have living wills in place for just such an eventuality.  He is her closest living relative who would know her wishes.  He has refused bribes -including one for $1 million dollars- and has stood fast against familial rifts, moral ambiguity, public humiliation and hateful speech.  Her parents are heart-broken and grieve for their loss.  These people deserve privacy and decency in working out their decisions.

The stakes in these events, though, are whether we will let others use the tragedy of these poor people to intimidate the rest of us and in the process deny us our rights.

From an emotional standpoint one must ask:  must every personal tragedy be exploited?  Must every individual in enjoying their 15 minutes of fame go through this or some similar type of humiliation?  Where is the outrage?  Now that the mask has been pulled from the faces of those who turn the concepts of love, forgiveness and human understanding on their heads where is the native common sense and decency to just say STOP.  WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU?  To just turn away until they come to their senses, assuming they have any?  To walk away from the hateful snake oil that threatens the very core of secular civil society?

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