Sunday, October 30, 2005

Cowardice

Two types of people classically suffer from sleep deprivation: the parents of infants, and yours truly, for the duration of baseball’s playoffs. Last Tuesday’s (and Wednesday’s) Game 3 was a killer, running until 2:20 AM Eastern Time. Five hours and forty minutes of Tim McCarver should qualify as cruel and unusual punishment even during these Constitutionally-diluted, Patriot Act times. Fox Sports, get rid of the Tim-inater. Do it for the children, before they are permanently scarred.

Speaking of permanently scarred, how do you rest of you feel, knowing the two men who speak for you to the rest of the world are in favor of torture? The Senate, which has a Republican majority the last time I looked, voted 90 to 9 in favor of legislation to ban the use of “cruel and degrading treatment” of any prisoners in U.S. custody. The Bush Administration, in the person of Vice President Dick “Dr. Strangelove” Cheney, immediately submitted an amendment to exempt CIA employees from the measure. President Bush promises to veto the bill if it comes before him without the exemption.

This borders on the surreal. Bush has not vetoed a single bill since he took office. True, he had a legislature of sheep to work with until recently, herded by shameless “true believers” in both houses into voting however the Administration wanted. You doubt this? Just last month a bill to grant oil companies cost subsidies and sweeping environmental exemptions during Katrina rebuilding was extended to forty minutes from the customary five to give Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, and Roy Blunt enough time to cajole, threaten, or extort enough votes to put them over the top, at which time the polls closed within seconds.

Bush himself has a disturbing tendency to confuse stubbornness with backbone. He concedes no errors in the Iraq debacle, intends to stay the course at whatever cost because God speaks to him. Apparently God’s interest does not extend to budgetary issues. The recent highway bill overspent the Bush-imposed ceiling by tens of billions of dollars, containing enough pork to kill every Muslim in the Middle East. No veto there; the tide’s been swinging against him lately and he wants everyone whose arm he might want to twist to go home and tell his or her constituents about the great bridge we’re getting so we can cross Ten-Inch Creek to get from the interstate to the Bumfuck County Bass Fishing Hall of Fame without having to drive three miles down the road, saving tens of ounces of oil in the process.

We’re talking about a lot worse than arm-twisting in the current veto threat. The CIA has been at least indirectly implicated in all of the prisoner abuse scandals of the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures. (I’d call them “wars,” but the mission was accomplished two and a half years ago, so the war must be over, right?) Some of these guys watch way too many movies and aren’t wired up the same way as you or me or anyone we’d want to have within two miles of us.

They represent us, too. Many of these nameless (or multi-named), faceless individuals operate under the loosest of controls and act put out at the mention of responsible oversight; yet everything they do reflects on all of us. Have you ever looked at the news after a particularly violent day of terrorism and think, “those people (Iraqis, Chechens, Arabs, Muslims, your choice) aren’t ready (or deserving) of freedom (or decent living conditions, or life itself)?” Be honest. The subliminal urge to generalize, to tar all similar people with the same broad brush, is universal. The world is too complicated to break down each individual motivation, and we’re too busy. This is conceded and understandable.

It’s the same for the other guys.

Every time word gets out that someone was abused, degraded, injured, allowed to die, or killed in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, their families and sympathizers think, “Americans did that.” Who can blame them? Remember, we’re talking about people with less education, who lack our easy access to multiple sources of information, so their opinions aren’t likely to be as “enlightened” as ours.

When they think, “Americans did that,” do they mean, “A small group of potentially sociopathic assholes who have found a job that grants them official indulgence for their acts under the guise of patriotism” did it? Or do they think “Americans” and leave it at that? When (not if) they think “Americans” and leave it at that, they mean me. And you, And my daughter. I have a problem with that. I hope you do, too.

The military has recently resorted to the discredited Vietnam-era practice of reciting enemy body counts to the media. (That’s a different argument, for a different rant.) They do it because they don’t have anything else to measure their activity by. How many times have we “neutralized” Fallujah? Would there be any takers if I offered to bet you we’ll have to go back in there some day? Body count statistics ignore how many new terrorists are created for every one we kill. There is no indication we’re slowing their activities. To the contrary, their Improvised Explosive Devices are becoming more sophisticated and deadly by the day, leading to a logical conclusion that the insurgents (terrorists, if you wish) are either getting better, or working together. Does Cheney still think they’re a bunch of “dead enders” on their last legs?

Remember when we were the good guys? When we fought against those who indulged in torture whether they were Nazis, Fascists, Communists, or Ba’athists? If Bush and Cheney have their way, that’s the column we’ll be in. Americans will be officially-sanctioned torturers, with all the consequences in diminished international stature, disgrace, and increased justification for terrorist acts by our enemies.

I’m not so na├»ve as to believe we never tortured anyone before. Every war has examples. We used to acknowledge them as aberrations, beyond the pale of American ideals, and treat the perpetrators as the morally hollow cockroaches they are. Now these acts are to be accepted as the price of safety in a dangerous world. I’m old enough to remember denouncing Communism for the philosophy, “The end justifies the means.” With apologies to the comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

This isn’t the ranting of a bleeding-heart liberal. I’ll stipulate to John McCain’s bona fides on this issue, as well as John Warner’s and Colin Powell’s. Each has come out strongly in favor of the no-torture legislation. This is about doing the right thing, and about either standing up for alleged American ideals or hiding under the bed while pretending evil done in our name is acceptable because we call ourselves the good guys.

Talk is cheap, and saying we’re the good guys doesn’t make it so; history will stand in judgment of our actions. The cowardice shown by condoning certain acts in the name of our safety implies that the ideals and virtues we supposedly believed in and were willing to die for only have value when there is no threat. It blasphemes the virtue we hold dear, and degrades the sacrifices of those who have died to defend it. We will lose all of what we claimed made us special, and still won’t be any safer. We will have sold out the priceless in a vain effort to protect the valuable.

And then the terrorists will have won, even if they never kill another American.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Fall Classic 2005

Output has been somewhat reduced lately here at The Home office. The company line blames it on a project at work and some family responsibilities. The truth is that October is always a slow month here, mainly due to sleep deprivation brought about by baseball playoff games that run until about 11:30 every night. At 88 days until the Big Five-O and counting, I’m too old to stay up that late and bounce right out of bed when the alarm rings at 5:45. Something has to give.

It won’t be the baseball. This year’s playoffs haven’t been as compelling as last year’s. Big surprise. Last year saw America’s version of Sisyphus, the Boston Red Sox, pull off a trifecta of which legends are made: not only the first team ever to come back from a three games to none deficit in a best-four-of-seven series, they did it against the hated Yankees, the Evil Empire, Sparta to the Athens of America. The Sox then ran the table, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Championship since 1918, crushing the Curse of the Bambino, which the Sox had brought upon themselves by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, who at that time were still only Annakin Skywalker compared to the Darth Vader they would become. That’s drama.

This Series has potential. The White Sox are one of only two teams who have waited longer than the Red Sox for a championship. Of course, they earned their curse, throwing the 1919 World Series. (The Cubs are the only team with a longer streak of frustration. They claim their own Curse of the Billy Goat, but they’re playing catch-up. The Cubs aren’t cursed; they just suck. If there is a Cub curse, it’s because the baseball gods can’t bear the thought of their yuppie scum fans wrecking Wrigleyville.) There can’t be more than a handful of people alive who can honestly claim to remember the last time the White Sox won the World Series; most people aren’t old enough to remember their last trip to the big dance in 1959.

No one remembers the last time the Houston Astros won: they never have. Born in 1962, the Astros didn’t win a postseason series of any kind until last year, before losing to the Cardinals in a seven-game thriller eclipsed nationally by the Red Sox-Yankees cataclysm. No matter who wins this year, it will be something new.

The White Sox are favored, having won 99 regular season games. The Astros won 89, sneaking into the playoffs on the last day as the wild card, 11 games behind St. Louis. Of course the Astros have since beaten the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, and people paying attention aren’t surprised. Most mentions of the Astros’ disastrous start this year (15-30) are combined with comparison to the only other team to be 15 games under .500 and still play in the postseason, the 1914 Miracle Braves, lending a mildly disparaging “little engine that could” flavor the accomplishment. Left unmentioned is that the Astros’ record after they got their act together was 74-43, a pace that would have won 102 games over a full season. That’s two more than the Cardinals; three more than the Sox.

A lot has been made of Chicago’s brilliant postseason starting pitching. Deservedly so: four consecutive complete postseason games hasn’t been done since the 1956 Yankees. Good as they are, it’s unlikely they’ll stay that hot. Houston’s top three of Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and Roy Oswalt aren’t bad, either. They’ll start six of a possible seven games, with Oswalt the likely Game 7 starter. Anyone who saw him pitch against St. Louis in Games 2 and 6 has to like Houston’s chances in a potential deciding game, and he wasn’t pitching over his head.

Houston doesn’t score many runs, and the White Sox have good hitters up and down the lineup. A World Series foible augurs in the ‘Stro’s favor. The White Sox will get to use the Designated Hitter in Games 1, 2, 6, and 7; pitchers bat in Games 3, 4, and 5. This means the Sox will be without their usual Number Five hitter Carl Everett and his 23 home runs and 87 RBI when playing in the jet engine-equaling noise of Minute Maid Park. The Astros will use their regular lineup.

It’s in Chicago that the Astros get a break. Future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell has suffered through a serious shoulder injury all year, unable to throw even well enough to play first base. He can still hit, and had a decent year playing almost exclusively as a pinch hitter. He’s a rallying presence for the Houston team, and has been a leader ever since the Killer Bees came into existence over ten years ago. (Houston seems to have an affinity for good hitters whose names begin with B. This year’s team features Biggio, Burke, and Berkman, in addition to Bagwell, plus a pitcher named Backe.)

Both teams can manufacture runs with the best of them. Chicago led the American League in successful squeeze bunts; Houston was second in the NL. Both teams have speed and play good defense. One of them will break a schneid of historic proportions in what should be a series of closely-played games. Probably seven of them, with Houston winning four.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Tick-Tock

There are several milestones in everyone’s life. (At least, those fortunate enough to not have to skip any.)

First, you’re born. Not much to say about this, since no one remembers being born except Shirley McLaine.

The first memorable milestone is your eighteenth birthday, when you legally become an adult and can tell those penurious sadists who raised you to take a hike, unless and until you need money or a place to stay.

Next is your twenty-first birthday, when you get to see the look on the face of the bartender who’s been serving you for two years when you show him your driver’s license.

No one likes thirty; you’re officially grown up then, and describing an action as a “youthful indiscretion” doesn’t excuse it, unless you’re a politician.

Forty gets mixed reviews. Some say life begins at forty: others view it as the Gateway to Middle Age. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

At fifty there’s no kidding anyone. You’re middle-aged, at the penultimate milestone. The only thing to look forward to is hoping the Icy Hand of Death™ gets you before you have to pay strangers to wipe your ass.

Then comes the pre-ordained stroll down Memory Lane as your life flashes before your eyes, fingers intertwined with the aforementioned Icy Hand.

Only the first and last are mandatory. Fortunately, a majority of us get to have them all. Since each one brings you closer to your rendezvous with the IHD, the latter milestones are often viewed with some trepidation. (The earlier ones are enjoyed, since everyone under thirty knows they’re going to live forever.) Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter where you are in the series, every day you wake up is one less.

Your influence on that is twofold. Your actions can, to some degree, influence how many of those mornings you get to count down. No one has total control; not a week goes by that I’m not reminded of the late Military Intelligence Correspondent, who didn’t smoke, drank very little, indulged in no drugs or life-threatening experiences, and still felt the Icy Hand on his shoulder at the age of forty-seven.

What you can control is how you handle it. To paraphrase a birthday card I bought for a female friend’s thirtieth birthday once, you can view each day as being older than you’ve ever been before, or as being younger than you’re ever going to be. (This might have something to do with why she and I haven’t spoken in over ten years. I guess it’s unreasonable to expect a person that young to grasp certain metaphysical concepts.) I have chosen the latter.

As my penultimate milestone approaches, I have made a conscious decision to embrace it, have some fun with it, thumb my nose at the Icy Hand. Today starts the countdown to The Big Five-Oh; one hundred more days until my forties are but a memory, with no more substance than the Red Sox’ reign as World Champions or Pia Zadora’s acting career. (If that doesn’t show my age, nothing does.)

Let’s have some fun with this. Send in whatever geriatric humor you have; beating a dead horse is rarely as much fun as when you’re reminding some horse’s ass of his (her) mortality. For those of you who are younger than I, take heed; maybe you’ll learn something. For those of you who are older, take care of yourselves. There’s only one way I can catch you, and we’re having too much fun together for either of us to want that.