Thursday, December 31, 2009

Convenient Justice is Not Justice

An open and impartial judicial system is a cornerstone of any democracy. No one is guaranteed a perfect trial, but as much transparency as possible in the courtroom is necessary for building trust in the system, especially for a nation that likes to hold itself up as an example to the world as often as does the United States.

That’s why it is confusing and confounding to see any disagreement about whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should be tried in federal court, or by special tribunal. Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit plane on Christmas Day, is a criminal. He was caught in the act with multiple witnesses. Super-secret intelligence gathering techniques will not be exposed by his public trial. (Why we’d be worried about exposing these super-secret intelligence gathering techniques in this case is questionable, since they had nothing to do with stopping him.) Try him in open court. A conviction is likely; I doubt a jury made up of the twelve primary contributors to DailyKos would exonerate this guy. This is how to show the rest of the world our open system not only functions as well or better than anything they could come up with, and we are not afraid to trust it.

Dick Cheney et al want Abdulmutallab tried by tribunal and, presumably, tortured to get whatever information he has, even though he is said to be cooperating fully. Is Cheney afraid? Need we even ask that question, as familiar as we all are with the former Secretary of Defense’s Vietnam-era military record?

A free society is not without risk. The framers of the Constitution were well aware of that, yet they still insisted on the Bill of Rights. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments are clear: everyone is entitled to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right not to give self-incriminating testimony, a speedy and public trial, and cannot be subjected to excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment. Hair-splitting about whether someone should get a public trial is anti-Constitutional on its face.

A quote I’ve borrowed for my e-mail signature reads, “I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag.” The second man is a hypocrite and a coward. If anyone is not worthy of Constitutional protection, it is he.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


From today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley predicted today that the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots will "lay down" on Sunday to help keep his team out of the playoffs.

"Cincinnati is probably going to go into New York and lay down for the Jets and not play them hard just because they don't want to see Pittsburgh in there," Woodley said, "because they know if we get into the playoffs we're a dangerous team.

"All of them will lay down. No one wants to see Pittsburgh in there. That's just how it is. Everybody knows we're a dangers team once we get into the playoffs no matter how we played throughout the whole year."

I guess Lamar figures that since Kansas City, Oakland, and Cleveland won't make the playoffs, the Steelers would be home free. Sounds a lot like how they got themselves into this situation in the first place, and doesn't augur well for a reversal next year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Skewed Perception of Security

It seems likely all American air travelers will be inconvenienced because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ham-handed attempt to blow up a plane in Detroit on Christmas Day. Despite the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration, few of the promised technological advances promised in the wake of 9/11 have actually borne fruit.

Security checks have become more stringent, requiring everyone to put up with more invasive and time-consuming scanning, because the government is either unwilling or unable (or both) to decide who needs special attention. Seventy-year-old retired teachers and fourteen-year-old high school girls have yet to hijack or blow up an airplane, yet I know well an example of each who were singled out for detailed searches since 9/11. (The teacher was caught coming and going on her round trip.)

The systems DHS is trying to put in place are so expensive and complicated it’s unlikely they’ll ever work with complete assurance, if they ever even get completed. Why not use the data we have—always striving to refine, improve, and add to it—to sort out who deserves special attention before boarding, and spend extra time with them? It should be more detailed than mere racial profiling, though that’s not to say racial and religious characteristics can’t be taken into consideration.

Assign points for each characteristic a person shares with the most likely perpetrators. No one or two things would push you into the Special Needs category, but if you were—ust as an example—an Arab and a Muslim flying from Algeria who had attended a Wahhabi school and had been seen at a terrorist training site, then please step to the side so we can take a closer look at you, sir. That’s not to say you couldn’t be a white Catholic who rolled up an impressive score as a member of the IRA; you’d earn a closer look, too. Meanwhile, small children and people who can be assumed to be safe to nine nines of certainty can get the routine screening. Maybe they could leave their shoes on, or carry shampoo from home. The lines would move faster and we’d be safer than if we depended on some Star Wars technology that could sniff any explosive within five feet in one part per trillion, provided it was installed and worked as advertised. (How’s that missile defense system working out?)

It’s also good to remember no problem exists in a vacuum. How much are we willing to spend, and what level of inconvenience will we tolerate to avoid another 9/11—which was eminently preventable with the policies and technology in place at the time—when we allow fifteen times as many people to die every year due to inadequate health insurance?

Standing Up

People like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder don’t get to be the enormous pricks they are in a vacuum. (Note that I said Snyder is an enormous prick, not that he has an enormous prick. I’m writing only about what I have seen evidence of, and that evidence strongly indicates his prickiness in public may well be an attempt to disguise certain underaccomplishments not readily visible.) They are surrounded with enablers, human remoras who derive their sustenance by supporting the big dog in whatever he feels like doing.

Today’s example is Redskins defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. Two weeks ago word leaked out that Gray had interviewed for the head coaching job. Nothing wrong with that in general, except that the position was occupied at the time by the man Gray worked for, and it could reasonably be assumed owed some allegiance to. Gray denied the report at the time; Redskins’ PR amended his reply from “no” to “No comment.” Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher has publicly stated more than once that he wouldn’t talk with organizations who had a coach in place; Gray interviewed for his boss’s job, denied it, and still looked the man in the eye at work each day. That’s chutzpah. It’s also a distinct lack of class.

The best part is, Gray has as much chance of getting Zorn’s job as you or I do. Snyder interviewed him solely to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new coach. Now the way has been cleared for Snyder to hire Mike Shanahan, or whoever else catches his eye. Gray will be but a memory: any new coach will want his own staff, certainly not some holdover who has already proven he can’t be trusted.

Gray symbolizes the toadies who empower the prick at the top; Albert Haynesworth personifies those who are empowered by him. Haynesworth is a defensive tackle, arguably the best in the game at disrupting running plays. When he feels like it. He felt like it more often than not for most of the season, though he rested himself on his own schedule and suffered an unusual number of niggling injuries for someone his size. (Except for him, based on his history.)

Two weeks ago Snyder hired Bruce Allen as new General Manager, thus closing the door all but officially on Jim Zorn’s tenure as coach. Suddenly Albert’s a malcontent. He arrived late for practice on Christmas Day and was sent home after a confrontation. He was quoted as saying “we need somebody to lead us in the right direction.” Haynesworth then addressed the leadership issue in his own way, encouraging his teammates to arrive late to practice on Christmas Day to protest the early start.

Albert also doesn’t care for how he’s being used, as he told The Washington Post’s Jason Reid: “…you can only do so much within the system that's put around you. And I'm not talking about the players.” When asked if his $100 million contract ($41 million guaranteed) bestowed some sort of leadership mantle, Haynesworth replied, “A contract don't make you, as far as leadership. I've never been a guy that wants to talk or get in front of the team and say whatever…I don't even want to be a captain and go out there in the middle for the coin toss because the other team is the enemy.” His reticence clearly doesn’t include not running his mouth to the media.

Late season frustration? Sure, though Haynesworth’s acting out coincides suspiciously with Snyder’s hiring of Allen, which sealed Zorn’s status as lame duck. With an owner like Snyder, coaches like Gray and teammates like Haynesworth, who’s to blame a player for not giving himself up for the team? It’s not like too many people will have your back.

Jim Zorn appears to be a good man who is in over his head as head coach. Jason Campbell has been a trooper, and has shown some skills that might make him a serviceable quarterback for a team with a clue. They, and a good many other players, deserve better than to be in the uniformed insane asylum that passes for a football team in Washington.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays

This blog—and I—have friends and readers of various faiths and beliefs. So whatever you celebrate on or about the winter solstice—Christmas, Hanukkah, the new year, Saturnalia, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Brumalia, Sankranti, or Festivus, enjoy yourself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who Do You Love?

I haven’t written anything guaranteed to send me to hell lately. What better time than Christmas week to break the skid?

Chris Henry died last week after falling out of the back of a moving pickup truck driven by his fiancĂ©. For those of you who are not football fans or crime reporters, Henry was a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals who had a brief and—to put it mildly—checkered career.

His NFL record is undistinguished. He caught 36 passes in his best year; the league leader is usually around or above 100. He last scored more than two touchdowns in a season in 2006, when he had nine, which is a considerable number.

Henry would have had better stats had he been able to stay on the field; he never played in all 16 games of a season. Far more impressive than his on-field accomplishments is his rap sheet:

December 15, 2005 – Stopped for speeding. Had no valid license or insurance. Marijuana found in his shoe. Pleaded guilty; no jail time.

January 30, 2006 – Arrested on multiple gun charges, including concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm. Pleaded guilty; no jail time.

April 29, 2006 – Allowed three underage females (18, 16, and 15) to consume alcohol at a hotel. Pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and sentenced to 90 days; served two. (That’s right: two.)

June 3, 2006 – Stopped for erratic driving; failed breathalyzer.

November 6, 2007 – Allegedly assaulted a valet parking attendant. Found not guilty at trial.

March 31, 2008 – Punched a man and threw a beer bottle through his car window. Henry later claimed it was a case of mistaken identity; he thought the man was someone else who owed him money. Sentenced to house arrest.

The past eighteen months had been relatively quiet for Henry. There were reports he wanted to clean up his act, and had done so. On the other hand, a 911 call received the day of the fatal accident describes him “with no shirt on, and he's got his arm in a cast on the back of the moving truck…beating on the back of this truck window... I don't know if he's trying to break in or something. It just looks crazy. It's a girl driving it."

No one but his fiancĂ© knows what went on during the preceding domestic disturbance, but what we do know doesn’t sound like someone who had made material changes from his previous conduct.

Why do I care about this? Mostly it’s because of the outpouring of grief over another life wasted. Please. Chris Henry had done a hell of a job of wasting his life all by himself long before this unfortunate episode. A lot of people died that day; he was just one of them.

Am I glad he’s dead? Of course not. I’m not feeling bad about it, either. I didn’t know Chris Henry. From what I know of him, I’m okay with that hole in my life. I do know my daughter’s boyfriend’s father, who was just diagnosed with colon cancer at 51, in large part because no one bothered to mention to him that it ran in the family. My Beloved Spouse’s best friend’s mother broke her hip. My mother may have had a small stroke a couple of weeks ago. These are people I know (and in my mother’s case, love) who did nothing to contribute to their misfortunes. These are who I feel for today.

I sometimes wonder how many people who shed tears over Chris Henry, Dale Earnhardt, Kurt Cobain, or Heath Ledger have someone close to them who is in need. Maybe it’s a health problem. Maybe they’ve been laid off and don’t have a pot to piss in. And their families are sending flowers and making contributions in the name of someone they didn’t know, never met, and who might well not deign to say hello if they met on the street.

I’ll never understand it. But thinking about this makes it a lot easier to understand how things are as fucked up as they are.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lowering This Bar Requires Digging a Hole

Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-The Hartford) was, for years, one of the more liberal members of the Senate. He fell for the arguments behind the Iraq War hook, line, and phony rationale, which left his still-liberal constituents in Connecticut less than pleased. So less then pleased were they, Joe lost the 2006 primary for his own seat, something that happens about as often as Dick Cheney buys a panhandler a steak dinner at Morton’s.

Lieberman ran as an Independent and won. (Technically, he ran on the Connecticut for Lieberman ticket, a party created just for him. More on that later.) Since then, Lieberman has repudiated virtually every liberal position he held in the past, notably, and most damagingly, his support for universal health care. The vestigial public option was stripped from the current bill as his demand, as he is this week’s 60th vote.

The Low Brass Correspondent thinks Lieberman is in the pocket of Connecticut’s insurance industry. I think Ezra Klein is closer: Lieberman is sticking it to liberals any way he can. (“But if you had attempted to forecast Lieberman's positions based on his ongoing grudge match with the liberals who defeated him in the 2006 primary, you'd have nailed it perfectly. He has, at every point, taken aim at the policies that liberals support, even when they are policies that Lieberman himself has supported.”) Why? Because they had the temerity to spurn him when he went off the rails? Politicians rarely show leadership; the country is governed by poll. Normally Lieberman would earn praise here for rejecting the general opinion of his constituents about the war and doing what he thought was right. He doesn’t, because he ignored the obvious caveat: showing such independence has risks. He was not prepared to accept those risks, and has blamed liberals for not following him ever since. That’s not taking a principled stand; it’s exercising a sense of entitlement.

Right now Lieberman couldn’t get the Connecticut electorate to vote him a brush if he was appointed public toilet cleaner. Even Connecticut for Lieberman has disowned him. He’s pissed, and this is his way of getting even. Lieberman doesn’t need insurance industry contributions anymore; the only thing he’s running for now is a job as their lobbyist, and he’s already getting in shape to carry their water.

The plan for this post was to declare Joe Lieberman the worst person in the Senate; good thing I read today’s paper first. The hands-down winner is Senator John Cornyn (R-Hell), who offered the following prayer on the floor of the Senate yesterday, in anticipation of this morning’s 1:00 AM health insurance reform vote: “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray."

Hard to imagine he was talking about anyone other than Robert Byrd (D-Hospital); Ted Kennedy’s already dead. Byrd’s 92 years old, confined to a wheelchair, and probably shouldn’t be in the Senate anymore. Still, he is, and for Coburn to wish him—or any other senator—ill is beneath contempt.

There was a time when the untimely death or illness of a senator who would have cast a deciding vote for or against a filibuster would provoke a response from the opposition that reflected the fact the other side had the votes but for a calamity, and some senator who stood more for the body’s professed collegiality would have cross over, or at least have the vote delayed until the indisposed member was capable again. Today’s crew actively campaigns—not just campaigns, prays—for the misfortune of a colleague.

This country is in a crisis, in large part because the government is gridlocked, and that gridlock can be firmly laid at the feet of the Senate. Its rules were established to cater to an atmosphere of cooperation that no longer exists. It was expected its members would put aside their differences to accede to the general will except in extraordinary circumstances; now no bill can pass unless it has the 60 votes needed to kill a filibuster. This is an abomination of the intent of the body’s rules; unfortunately no one can change those rules except the diseased body itself, and it would rather protect its power to obstruct when in the eventual minority than do the people’s business.

This is where “God help us all,” might be a suitable comment, though the mere existence of the United States Senate argues against the existence of such a divine and merciful being.

Friday, December 11, 2009

From Super Bowl Champion to Homecoming Opponent

A few salient facts from last night’s Steelers game, where the defending Super Bowl champions lost 13-6 to the previously 1-11 Cleveland Browns:

It was the first time since 1997 a team ten games under .500 had beaten a defending champion. The last time it happened, a young Peyton Manning was the winning quarterback. Brady Quinn completed 6 of 19 passes for 90 yards last night. He ain’t no Peyton Manning.

The Steelers offense scored six points and allowed eight sacks. More yards were lost on sacks than were gained rushing.

The temperature at kickoff was 15 degrees, with winds of 25-48 mph. (Source: NFL Game Book.) Perfect weather for running the ball 40 times. Bruce Ariens called 21 rushes and 41 passes (including the sacks and one run by Ben Roethlisberger that was intended to be a pass).

Cleveland rushed for 171 yards, the highest total allowed by a Pittsburgh defense against Cleveland since 1972. Pittsburgh’s total offense was 216 yards.

It was clear from the outset the Steelers thought they could just throw their jerseys on the field and win. “We’re Super Bowl champions! Cleveland is 1-11! We’ve beaten them twelve times in a row!” No one appeared to remember the Steelers had lost four games in a row, bowing to such juggernauts as Kansas City and Oakland.

The offensive line didn’t block. In addition to the eight sacks, ball carriers were routinely contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage.

The defense didn’t tackle. Josh Cribbs ran through them like he was wearing a Teflon uniform.

The special teams were at least consistent: they still stink. A punt return of over forty yards was allowed. The Steelers made no returns worth mentioning. The only two bright spots were Jeff Reed’s two field goals and the team finally figuring out how to prevent long kickoff returns: If you don’t score, you never have to kickoff.

A truly disgraceful display. Thank God for hockey.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Looks Like He Skanked This One Out of Bounds

I wasn’t going to write about Tiger Woods. Honest to God I wasn’t. It’s just too good to pass up any longer.

I’ve been sick of Tiger for several years. Not all his fault; the media and fawning fans have driven me crazy. To listen to them, golf isn’t worth watching unless Tiger is in contention. They’d rather watch Tiger putt out twelve strokes behind at a major championship than see the leaders go head to head.

That’s not to say none of my distaste is Tiger’s fault. No one gets away with foul language and club throwing like he does. He dictates to the Tour and its media as he wishes. (To those who say, “But he’s Tiger Woods, he can do what he wants,” I say Tiger would be a moderately successful nobody if not for professional golf, which was around before he came and will be there after he’s gone. He owes golf, not the other way around.) Tiger’s caddy is little better than a thug who is indulged by his boss. His entourage remembers slights and enforces grudges.

Now we know more about Tiger Woods than anyone ever wanted to know. His ads have been pulled. Skanks are coming out of the woodwork like roaches climbing over a doughnut crumb. Late night comedians have more fodder than they can use; if Jay Leno’s new show survives, he should thank the timely transgressions of Tiger Woods.

Normally this would fall into the “I don’t care” school of news, but there’s a small difference. Tiger has been put up as, and has put himself forward as, the new, post-racial poster boy for all that’s good in America, the 21st Century’s answer to the blond haired, blue-eyed surfer of the 1950s and 1960s. He’s made millions of dollars from the publicity associated with that conceit. (Or, as we now know, deceit.) Now the other side of publicity gets its shot at him. It’s only fair.

Tiger is the latest manifestation of the culture of entitlement that comes with celebrity in this country. Politicians have always had it, the sense that the rules that apply to others don’t apply to them. They’ve even gone so far as to codify them into law. Actors, singers, entertainers of any stripe, once they reach a certain level of fame, don’t have the same rules you or I do.

Many modern athletes have been surrounded by yes men masquerading as advisors since they were in junior high school. They’re told everything they do or want is right, because most of these hangers-on are afraid they won’t get to feed at the trough if they say “No” to the meal ticket. Tiger’s just an extreme example; he’s heard this since he was three, and from what is, to a child, an unimpeachable source: his father.

It looks like we’re far from the end of the Tiger Woods saga. Let’s just hope he kept his head covers on when he was playing a round at a course where he’s not a member.