Friday, July 15, 2005

Not a Helpful Solution

The Literary Correspondent recently forwarded to The Home Office a disturbing e-mail she had received. It should be pointed out that the Literary Correspondent and I have a tendency to look at events from different sides of the political spectrum.

A friend of hers (fortunately for me, I don’t know that I have any “friends” of this ilk, and don’t want to find out) is soliciting support for an anti-terrorist letter to be sent to “Senators, Congressmen and all political figures who need to act now to protect us from the Muslim terrorists.” The accompanying letter is better described as a screed. It begins:

To date, and to the best of my knowledge, we have not heard from any Muslim leaders in our country denouncing the Muslim attacks on us and on our allies. Why do we not expect these people, in our country, to stand with us and loudly denounce the insurgent terrorists?

And concludes:

What can we do about the Muslim invasion in our country?

Some ideas:

Do not allow Muslim schools in this country.
Do not allow Muslim mosques in this country.
Stop all Muslims from entering this country.
Do not support Muslim owned businesses; many are fundraisers for the insurgents.
Do not believe that any Muslims are peaceful, read their doctrines and beliefs.
AND, the ACLU be damned!

First, the personal note. As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I have issues with her presumption of the authority to damn anyone, let alone me. Based on her letter, she’s in way over her head in making those kinds of judgments. She should stick to things more in line with her talents. Coloring between the lines. Not stepping on sidewalk cracks.

You’d think Americans would have learned their lessons from the forced internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, or the McCarthy-era blacklistings. As much as some Americans claim to love freedom, and are willing to see every Iraqi citizen blown to tiny bits so those tiny bits can be free, we’re willing to deny that freedom to others at the drop of a casualty.

The event that must have triggered this outburst (based on its date) didn’t even happen here. We could learn a lot from the British response to last week’s bombings. The affected areas were cordoned off as crime scenes for a few days; it was business as usual elsewhere. London lost as many as 500 people a night during the Blitz and basically told Hitler to go fuck himself. A lot Brits who grew up then are still around. I don't think half a dozen backpack charges placed at the behest of a guy who lives in a cave is going to faze them much.

The mayor made a speech to that effect the other day. “London has been the target of a cowardly terrorist attack…This was indiscriminate slaughter irrespective of age, class, religion, whatever…That isn’t an ideology. It isn’t even a perverted faith. It is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder…I urge Londoners from all of this city’s diverse communities and faiths to support one another and stand together against terrorism…Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.” (Emphasis not in original.)

That about sums it up, somewhat more eloquently than I would have. I looked through the speech, “and the camel you rode in on” isn’t in the text. It doesn’t have to be; it sits between the lines, holding the speech together like the mortar between bricks.

What might be the most important aspect of his speech is his appeal to all faiths to support each other and stand together. Any overt attempts to marginalize an entire religion even more than it is will only increase the alienation and rancor. Our best way out of this is to establish better rapport with mainstream Muslims. They are best suited to communicate rationally with anyone on the fence about the long-term benefits of working peacefully, and best positioned to provide information on who might be prepared to do us wrong.

Before we do anything we can’t undo and could be ashamed to explain to our children, let’s make sure we aren’t panicking over this. Among my first memories as I became aware of the world around me were the annual summer race riots during the mid to late sixties. I was surprised when they stopped; I assumed black people routinely burned down cities every summer. Time passed, conditions changed, and discontent over civil rights (or the lack thereof) became expressed differently.

Terrorism as we see it now may well be a phase that will pass. That’s not to say we should sit back and do nothing and take our casualties; that's wrong-headed and will only delay the end of the phase. Let’s treat the perpetrators as they criminals they are, and treat law-abiding citizens as the fully functional members of a free society that they are until proven otherwise. If we don't believe the system we claim to have loved so much for 229 years can handle this, then we're even more hypocritical than I have been suspecting.

Walking away from what we are supposed to stand for in the name of nominally increased security is handing the terrorists a greater victory than they could ever hope to achieve by blowing up every building in the country. Their supposed purpose is to undermine our freedoms and way of life. They can’t do that unless we let them. The sentiments in our anonymous letter do exactly that.

The terrorists who blew up London and the World Trade Center are no more Muslims than Timothy McVeigh was a good Christian boy. I doubt the writer of the above letter ever contemplated rounding up all the Christians (or even just the Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, whatever McVeigh was) and shipping them off somewhere. What’s that? They’re citizens, and were already here? So are a lot of Muslims, some of whom probably have a much better understanding of the Bill of Rights than does our letter writer.

Terrorists are an abomination in the sight of decent people everywhere, regardless of race, religion, sexual preference, or national origin. If we want to stop them, let’s make it easier for their unwilling “peers” to speak out against their atrocities. The terrorist mantra is that they’re being ignored, their convictions trampled by a Western world intent on destroying them. Iraq is their greatest recruiting poster. Maybe it’s time to invest in making friends in addition to killing enemies. Just killing enemies doesn’t seem to be making us any safer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

An Appreciation

The lights are about to go out at the 87th Precinct.

Salvatore Lombino, aka Evan Hunter, even better known to crime fiction readers as Ed McBain, died of throat cancer last week at the age of 78. McBain wrote his first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, in 1956. He wrote over fifty more, fitting them in around the time required to write another good series about attorney Matthew Hope, more “serious” work as Evan Hunter, movie and television scripts (including Hitchcock’s classic The Birds), and even more books under so many names he claimed not to be able to remember them all.

It’s no disparagement of his other work to say that he’ll be remembered best for the 87th Precinct. Aside from virtually inventing what is now called the police procedural, McBain gave us an assembly of characters that presaged what is now known as the ensemble cast. If his detectives had been actors, none would have cause to feel cheated.

Hill Street Blues is credited with revolutionizing police drama, folding multiple stories over the lives of real people who happen to be cops. Not a police or crime show, but a drama about cops. There would be no Hill Street in its imaginary city that looks a lot like New York had there been no 87th Precinct in an imaginary city that resembled New York more than a little. Not crime or mystery books, books about people who happen to be cops.

And what people they are. Not were, the Eight-Seven’s detective squad will live long past its creator’s demise. Steve Carella, as human a cop as ever put on paper, and his deaf mute wife, Teddy, regularly showing an intimacy that went beyond sexual; Bert Kling, Artie Brown, Meyer Meyer, even fat Ollie Weeks from the Eight-Eight, another half dozen slightly less prominent. All flawed, some more than others, all with enough redemptive qualities to make the reader comfortable with wanting them to succeed. (Even if you have to look pretty hard to find those qualities in Fat Ollie, m’dear.)

McBain wrote with a stark eloquence, evoking the darkness without letting the gruesome become grotesque. His detectives’ professional mixture of distance and compassion make them successful without making their success inevitable, or universal. Some bad guys get away; the Deaf Man eludes them still. Some relationships succeed, others fail for all the reasons to which flesh is heir. Witnessing the detectives’ occasional fallibility makes their continuing efforts more noble.

What may have been the best part of McBain’s writing is also now the greatest disappointment: he was still getting better. Money, Money, Money (2001) was as good as any, with 2002’s Fat Ollie’s Book a noble sequel, picking up a story line from its predecessor and running with it. His plots stayed current, the writing tight. His recent books read as though written by someone forty years younger, on the cutting edge of contemporary criminal evolution. His laurels would have made a comfortable bed on which to rest: Mystery Writers of America Grand Master (1986), the only American recipient of the British Crime Writers Association’s Cartier Golden Dagger (1998).

Ed McBain could have phoned it in for the last ten years and sales would have stayed high enough to keep getting him published. He need not have written a word in the past twenty years to be universally and forever recognized as among the handful of greatest crime writers. It is our great good fortune he chose neither course, continuously honing his craft, producing electric fiction that will be read for generations to come.

And he left us a present: Slate’s obituary says the next (and, sadly, last) 87th Precinct novel will be out in October. Thanks, Ed. Wherever you are, let’s be careful out there.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Happy Birthday

If you believe in this sort of thing, on July 7, 1927, God decided to make a trumpet player.

Happy 78th birthday, Doc Severinsen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Press Release From The Home Office

The Home Office is pleased to announce the publication of the short story “Hail Mary” by New Mystery Reader as July’s Story of the Month.

Stop by the NMR site ( to read “Hail Mary,” as well as the other excellent stories and book reviews posted. Yours truly has contributed reviews of new hardcovers (The Living Room of the Dead), new paperbacks (Men From Boys) and June’s Spotlight Review (The Black Angel).

Many thanks to Stephanie Padilla at New Mystery Reader for her enthusiastic support.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Chance to Do Right

Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement from the Supreme Court (probably so she can “loosen up” with John Riggins) reinvigorates the Senate’s recent bi-partisan agreement not to filibuster judicial nominees. “Extraordinary circumstances” will be parsed and debated, with all other Senate business hanging in the balance, while the acceptability of Shrub’s nominee is debated.

Democrats will line up with a list of unacceptable and ill-informed decisions and writings; Republicans will counter with their own brilliant and morally insightful list, with “So what?” thrown in for good measure. The crux will come down to whether a president is entitled to get whoever he wants on the Court. The answer is, obviously, “No.”

It is difficult to believe the Founding Fathers wanted a rubber stamp for anyone a president wants to nominate, or they would not have required the Senate’s advice and consent for confirmation. Advice is in the eye of the beholder. The Senate can tell the president whatever it wants, whereupon he is free to ignore them. The consent piece is supposed to act as a guarantee against the repayment of a political favor, or the appointment of a justice well outside the mainstream of American thought, since justices can only be impeached for misconduct, not recalled for being an idiot.

The hypocrisy of the current majority’s penchant for referring to themselves as “strict constructionists” of the Constitution is rarely more evident than it is here. (The Terri Schiavo case may be one case, when both houses of Congress turned over every rock they could find, looking for judges to interpret the law the way Congress wanted, then threatened changes in the court system when their own parochial idea were ignored.) The framers of the Constitution were deeply concerned about the potential for a tyranny of the majority; the tradition of filibusters is the best example of this. While not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, filibusters go back about that far. Senators were expected to conduct themselves as gentlemen and use it only when the rights and perspectives of the minority were in danger of being abused or ignored.

Republicans should be well aware of this, if any of them could be bother to read the history they espouse to honor and protect. Franklin Roosevelt was unhappy when the Supreme Court’s overturned some of his New Deal legislation. (The Court has often lagged well behind the prevailing political sentiment of the day, and thank God for that.) Roosevelt’s attempt to stack the court by enlarging it, thereby adding sufficient justices to ensure a sympathetic majority, was soundly and properly defeated, on the ground that the Supreme Court is not an ideological sanctuary, where presidents may park disciples of whatever half-baked political idea is currently in vogue.

Whatever the Democrats do, they are not denying Shrub his Constitutionally-protected right to put whoever he wants on the Supreme Court. It is the responsibility of the President and the Senate to agree on a justice who can speak responsibly for all Americans. Not that everyone will agree with him or her all the time; that’s not possible, regardless of who is selected. Fringe groups on the left and right will disagree with a good choice; that’s as it should be.

The President’s responsibility as the head of government is to find a nominee agreeable to him that will not so offend the loyal opposition as to prompt a filibuster. The Senate’s responsibility is to grant him quite a bit of leeway. Both sides’ willingness to do these things has been well-evidenced by the high percentage of Shrub’s federal court judges that have been approved, even though the filibustered few got all the attention.

There’s one last argument against letting Shrub automatically have whoever he wants. We had an opportunity in the country to have a King George I over two hundred years ago. Mr. Washington turned it down. We don’t need one now, and that’s what we’ll be inching toward if the Senate abdicates its responsibility. What freedoms that have survived since 1787 are due, in large part, to the ability of the executive and legislative branches to appoint informed and non-partisan consciences to the federal courts. Presidents don’t send edicts to Congress; they send requests. Let us not start down a slippery slope toward one-man rule. One-party rule is bad enough.

Friday, July 01, 2005

More Ignorant Crackers

This will probably piss off Runs With Scissors again; I’ll get over it. I’m still trying to figure out how he can write his replies in crayon and get them transmitted through the Internet. Scanner, maybe.

Southern “gentlemen” have been making news the past few weeks for being anything but gentlemen. The next time anyone wonders whether the hubris of modern conservatism is founded on the ignorance of crackerhood, let them look no farther than this quartet.

You all know Jesse Helms. He’s the poster child for not living in North Carolina despite its temperate weather and scenic charms: the state is more than half full of people who elected this inbred troglodyte to the Senate for thirty years.

Jesse recently published his autobiography, meaning he has now written more books than he has read. While he admitted being wrong about AIDS funding, he stands by his segregation record. Integration would have come in its own time, he says. All the trouble was because we rushed things before people were ready.

Ya think!? It had only been a hundred years since the end of the civil war and the Fourteenth Amendment gave everyone, lily-white and Nigruhs alike, equal protection under the law. So what if they couldn’t vote? Southern white folk would take care of their childlike wards, just like they did in the good old days. Look how far we’ve come, Jesse would say. They don’t even have to call us Massa no more. They all had schools, nice separate but equal ones, if by equal you mean no indoor plumbing and books with pages missing. Not that white Southerners got such a hot education. Jesse was taught there.

Virginia Representative Tom Davis’s trespass is at the same time more trivial and more disturbing. Davis heads the committee currently looking into baseball’s steroid problem, Congress having nothing better to do now that the troops are home from Iraq, the budget s balanced, and Social Security is solvent for another hundred years. This week he contributed to the current political climate by saying baseball would do well not to consider favorably the bid put forth by a group containing wack job billionaire George Soros to purchase the Washington Nationals.

Soros’s primary offense appears to be that he’s a liberal wack job. I doubt Rep. Davis would have any issues with Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch getting back into baseball if he wanted to, and he’s as big a rich wack as there is. Say what you want about Democratic abuses when they were the semi-permanent majority, throwing political weight around to this degree is unheard of. Davis gets easily re-elected, as good a reason as any to invoke the Helms Rule and not live in his district. It’s at least half full of people with no more sense and decency than him.

(Davis had an aide backtrack from his statement yesterday, saying the Congressman was speaking as a private citizen and not in his official capacity. The statement, aside from showing the heroic Congressman’s unwillingness to face the music himself, had all the sincerity of a mobster running the protection racket, when he says to the candy store owner, “it would be shame if a fire was to break out in here.”)

Then there’s Bill Frist, who claimed his look at some family videotape convinced him that at least a dozen neuro-specialists were wrong and Terri Schiavo was just some prayers and a good massage away from starring in a revival of 42nd Street. Last week’s autopsy results showed she’s barely deader now than she was then. What about Bill’s “diagnosis?” He swears up and down he never said that.

All of the above are candidates as Billy Graham’s heir when compared to Jeb Bush. It wasn’t enough that he seriously considered having the state police “rescue” Terri Schiavo, backing down when a local police official with an understanding of his oath of office said he would uphold the law, even if violence was required to do so. Bush bided his time, waiting for the autopsy results. When Terri was proven to be brain dead beyond redemption, Bush asked for an investigation into how quickly Michael Schiavo called 911. No one mentioned this, not even her parents, for fifteen years. Now it’s a burning issue to be investigated in Florida, since their immigration and drug problems are history. Can there be any doubt Bush would ask for a homicide investigation if the autopsy had come out differently?

I’m sure all of these “gentlemen” would tell you they’re good Christians. Why should they be any more honest about that than anything else? They can wrap themselves in the flag and Bible all they want; they’re shameless whores who wouldn’t know the right thing to do if Moses handed it to them carved in a rock.

Good Christians understand humility and the benefits of turning the other cheek. These four are out for what they can get by appealing to the basest and most vindictive elements of their constituency. Jesse’s gone, for all intents and purposes, and hallelujah for that. Let’s hope the rest of them are in the process of overplaying their hands and overestimating the venality of the American people. If they’re not, and can continue to get away with this for too long, then maybe America isn’t destined to be the shining house on the hill we supposedly all aspire to. If it isn’t, we have only ourselves to blame.