Damien Echols

Unless his appeal to the Supreme Court succeeds, Damien Echols is going to die some time in the next year or two. He was charged with the murder of three little boys in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. After a trial in which no conclusive physical evidence was presented, he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

I think most people, even if they occasionally become aware of some negligence or corruption involving the police, generally believe that justice gets done and that bad guys get caught and life goes on. Give a thought, if you will, to Damien Echols, and to Guy Paul Morin, and David Milgaard, and Donald Marshall.

The most disturbing thing about the Guy Paul Morin case to me was not that the police made a mistake. (If you believe the police themselves, 99% of the time they are faultless.) It is the fact that the methodology used in handling the evidence was designed not to investigate the crime and identify a suspect, but to make a case against a suspect they had already decided was guilty. And they decided he was guilty because, well, he was a little weird. He was single and lived with his parents. He liked to play the recorder. And with the public very upset about the rape and murder of little Christine Jessop, there was a lot of pressure on the police to make good their mandate as protectors of the weak. Maybe they really believed Morin did it. Maybe they were happy to have a reasonably believable case. Maybe they were just plain incompetent. The bottom line is, the evidence against Morin was never very good but the police and the crown attorneys decided to pursue the case against him anyway.

If you look closely at the Donald Marshall and David Milgaard cases as well, the similarities are striking: shady informants, suppressed evidence, and intimidated or bribed witnesses. In each case, the police decided first who the suspect was. Then they seemed to see their task as that of playing a game, moving the correct pieces along a board until they had achieved the desired result, a conviction, without any regard for the truth. Along the way, they consciously discarded any evidence which might have implicated other suspects.

The pattern is repeated in the Damien Echols case in Arkansas, except the circumstances are far more egregious than they were in any of the three recent Canadian wrongful convictions.

On May 6, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys (Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore) were found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills near West Memphis, Arkansas. The police investigated of course, but couldn’t identify a suspect. In fact, it appears likely that they let the man slip right through their fingers, when an officer was called to a local restaurant after a man covered in dirt and blood entered the woman’s washroom. The officer refused to go in and the man left. Blood samples taken the next day were conveniently misplaced by the time the trial rolled around.

With no other likely suspects at hand, the police turned the focus of the investigation onto Damien Echols, a local teenager who was known to be “different”, by local fundamentalist Christian standards. Damien wore his hair long, dressed in black, listened to heavy metal bands like Metallica, and talked weird. The cops were familiar with him and didn’t like him. And some of the cops, fresh from a workshop led by a hopelessly inadequately trained “psychologist” on satanic cults, became convinced that Damien was their man.

I won’t go into all the details of the pathetically incompetent investigation, the politics, the leaks to the press, the intimidation, the bloodlust of the citizens. The details are available on the Internet at www.gothamcity.com/paradiselost.

Better yet, there is a riveting documentary on the case called Paradise Lost. Suffice it to say that the police had their suspect…. but no evidence. This might prove to be an obstacle to the average citizen, but the West Memphis Police were nothing if not resourceful. They pressed forward with the case anyway. Jurors aren’t necessarily bright, and the defense lawyers in town are even dumber than we are. What if we just make the guy look like some kind of weirdo Satan worshipper? Then we won’t need any evidence:

The judge took one look at the prosecution’s hopelessly inadequate “case” and tossed it out right? In America, you can’t convict someone of a crime without proof, right? Yeah, right. Maybe in a Disney film. The police tried to pressure Damien into a confession, but he was too smart for them. Well, how about Jessie Misskelley, a boy distantly acquainted with Damien, and very susceptible because, after all, he had the mental age of a five-year-old. It only took eight hours of relentless intimidation to get Jessie to sign away all his rights and make a “confession”. Never mind that the confession was incorrect about all the important details of the crime, and never mind that, as a developmentally delayed youth, his constitutional rights were ignored. The confession implicated Damien and Jason Baldwin and the two were arrested. And once Jessie realized that he was not going to be freed in exchange for his “help”, as promised, he immediately recanted his confession and denied any involvement. And never mind that he was placed by witnesses 30 miles away from the crime scene at the time the murders were committed… well, you get the idea.

The odd thing is that the dubious confession wasn’t even admitted into evidence at the trial of Damien and Jason. And without the confession, there was virtually no evidence at all. No motive. No weapon. The police couldn’t even demonstrate that they knew where the crime had taken place. The prosecution merely characterized Damien as a member of a Satanic cult (he was actually interested in Wiccan, not Satanism) and let slip that Jessie Misskelley had confessed and been convicted for the crime as Damien’s accessory… and the jury, which surely barely exceeded Jessie’s capacity for reasoning, convicted him. Even more preposterously, Jason Baldwin was convicted, apparently for the simple reason that he was a friend of Damien’s.

Damien was sentenced to death by lethal injection, Jason to life imprisonment. It is only through the good fortune of having HBO present with their cameras that their predicament got any attention at all. Even so, the appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court (howdy y’all) failed, and Echols’ only hope right now is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, loaded with all those tough-on-crime justices that Reagan and Bush have been appointing for the past fifteen years.

It is hard to have any faith in humanity after becoming acquainted with all the facts of this case. But, hey, let me really add to your cynicism:

  • Mark Gardner, a fellow death-row inmate at Arkansas State Prison, has confessed to repeatedly raping and beating Damien Echols.
  • Damien Echols’ parents separated after the guilty verdict. In the fall of 1993, two men argued over Echols’ mother, Pam, while his father watched. One man shot the other dead.
  • Mr. Misskelley, Jessie’s father, inadvertently destroyed his house trailer while trying to move it in the summer of 1995. Later he accidentally set fire to himself and was burned over 75% of this body.

The families of the victims did not fare much better.

  • Melissa and John Mark Byers were arrested for burglary.
  • John Byers, who admitted beating his son with his belt the day of the murders, was charged by a neighbor with whipping their five-year-old boy with a fly-swatter and firing shots at their house.
  • Mrs. Byers was later charged with assaulting a pair of carpet installers after threatening them with a shotgun.
  • In March 1996, Mrs. Byers died under suspicious circumstances. It took more than six months for a toxicological analysis to be completed: it showed significant levels of an illicit drug was in her system at the time of death. Mr. Byers moved away, complaining about how weird his neighbors were.
  • Diane Moore ran over and killed a 26-year-old woman and was charged with vehicular manslaughter.
  • Terry Hobbs beat his wife with his fists, was confronted by his brother-in-law, whom he shot in the abdomen, and was charged with aggravated assault.

These are the normal, law-abiding citizens the police in West Memphis sought to protect from the deadly and dangerous Damien Echols?

From the documentary, Echols, who dominates the second half, comes off as the most intelligent and articulate persons in West Memphis, which, I guess, does make him “different”. But he was foolish enough to be cryptic, though honest with the police and in court when he would have been wiser to be silent. His attorneys did not adopt a wise strategy and it is only in comparison to them that the prosecution’s efforts resembled a “strategy” at all.

It is hard not to despair for humanity. First there is the atrocity of the murders, and the fact that the perpetrator is still free. Then there is the graceless lust of the victim’s families for revenge. Then there is the gross incompetence and negligence of the police. The hack of a judge. The phony “expert” on Satanic cults. The gullibility of the jury. The facetiousness of the Arkansas Supreme Court. The disgusting political machinations of senior politicians who fear that a concern for justice will be misinterpreted as softness on crime. The subsequent disasters in the lives of the victims.

A sensitive person could be forgiven for wanting to opt out of the human race. Let me confess that when I was younger, especially when I was in college, I thought there was a certain worldly-wise cache to this kind of cynicism. Secretly, we assumed that we would be proven wrong, that the world could be better, and that we would be admired for being aloof from it all. Well, I’m over 40 now, and the glamour of it has worn very thin indeed. Nowadays, it’s just depressing.

Seymour Hersh does an Albert Goldman on John F. Kennedy

Reporter Seymour Hersh has just published a book on John F. Kennedy in which he attempts to trash the late President’s memory by making allegations of sexual and political misconduct. In recent interviews, Hersh sounds like a victim himself, complaining about the terrible backlash which is making the response to his revelations concerning the My Lai massacre tame by comparison. He also acts as if he has discovered something new and shocking and should be admired for courageously  bringing it to the attention of the public.  One could almost believe him if he weren’t touring around promoting the book, and if the book was about anything other than titillating scandals.

Well, the public can be pretty stupid, and I think Hersh is counting on that. Informed critics have already lambasted the book as a rehash of rumours and rumours of rumours that have circulated for years. But the public will lap it up, the way it lapped up similar books on Elvis, John Lennon, and Princess Diana.

What about Kennedy? Was he a bad president? Those who think he was a lousy president can be divided into two schools of thought. The Hersh school, which might number a few liberal Democrats among them, thinks of Kennedy as a immensely successful fraud because he seemed more interested in sex than legislation. He had lots of personal charisma, but no real agenda. The conservative school thinks of Kennedy as a fraud because he was too interested in legislation, and the legislation he did present was bad because it was sometimes– but not always –liberal.

Both schools of thought miss the point. They don’t even come close to the mysterious allure of Kennedy and why so many people continue to admire him and mourn his death. For the answer to that question, one need only view some of the tapes of Kennedy’s press conferences. JFK remains the only President since FDR who seemed capable of thinking on his feet. He was witty and smart and reasonable, and didn’t sound like a whiney hack the way Nixon and Carter did, or a smug ignoramus like Bush and Reagan. Oddly enough, the only other President in recent times who was anywhere nearly as articulate was Johnson, who has an undeserved reputation as a loser.  Reagan was all folksy and down to earth and if that’s what passes for poetry in your household, so be it.  Nixon could be articulate, but he could not be gracious or reasonable: he was too small-minded and vindictive. And he hated Kennedy with a passion, for he knew, better than anyone else, that Kennedy had all the great attributes that he didn’t have. Above all else, Kennedy was confident and self-secure, and those are good qualities in a leader.

It is quite possible that, had Kennedy lived, he might have turned out to be a failure, but I think it unlikely. Without a doubt, he would have been less popular, because he would have had to make at least some unpopular decisions. There are some strong indications that he would have pulled the U.S. troops out of Viet Nam altogether, which would have saved America a decade of agony. He was leaning towards the right decisions on the immensely important civil rights issue. His brother, Bobby, as Attorney General, attacked the mob and corrupt union officials with a tenacity that has been unmatched before or since (instead, we have the colossal fraud of the “war on drugs”, $50 billion spent in four years on increasing the street value of heroin, thereby increasing the number of dealers). Above all else, Kennedy was modern in a sense that no President since was modern. He understood the passion of youth for change, for reform, for social justice, and he seemed actively engaged in trying to accommodate this passion within the realities of U.S. politics.

The shock that many of us felt after his death was more than grief for a dead leader, for Kennedy seemed to be a fundamentally decent, intelligent man. Our grief was permutated with a sense of realization that politics was back in the control of the filthy, smarmy, corrupt, petty, small-minded wheelers and dealers who had controlled it before Kennedy. Or maybe it had never really left their control, and Kennedy’s bloody murder merely revealed the truth to us. Either way, Kennedy had transgressed this old order and paid dearly for it (unless you still believe in the myth of Oswald as a lone assassin). In some crucial way, it doesn’t matter whether he himself was free of the corruption that surrounded him: the youth of the 1960’s thought there was reason to hope, and, through Kennedy, thought it was possible to effect reforms through the power of government.

Today, there is Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich. Jesse Helms. Bob Dole. Eighty-five percent of congressmen get re-elected because once they are in power they are able to exchange legislative favours for huge amounts of cash from powerful Political Action Committees with which to attack their political opponents.  The average citizen doesn’t stand a chance of being heard, so most don’t even vote. It makes you want to puke.

Modern Medicine

We were wrong about doctors and science.

For the past 100 years, we all thought that we were all living longer and healthier lives thanks to science and modern medicine. We could eat whatever we wanted, do all kinds of daring things– like lock ourselves into two tons of jagged metal and glass and hurl ourselves down the highway at 100 miles per hour– and cover the earth with refuse and soot, and still live longer and longer and longer.

Life expectancy at the turn of the century was, oh, about 22. Now, men can expect to live to 75 and women to 75 and four days. And it’s all thanks to modern medicine.

Or is it?

Turns out, maybe it isn’t. Turns out maybe we don’t even believe it ourselves: everyone is flocking to alternative remedies. Got some strange rash on your bum? Go to a chiropractor. Stomach upset? Get a massage. Broken arm? Take some natural herbs and stick some needles into your arms.

Why are so many people doing this? There are a gazillion television programs telling us that doctors are smart and compassionate and nurses are beautiful and sexy. Why do we suddenly prefer tea enemas?

Maybe it’s because we discovered some kind of secret truth about doctors and hospitals. For one thing, an awful lot of people seem to die after seeing a doctor. For another thing, hospital food is pretty well uniformly bad.

We all have been raised to believe that science– doctors– saved us from the awful polio virus. That fact is like a totem of modern science, a cathedral: it hovers over us constantly, hammering into us the idea that science saves, that modern medicine can cure everything. But I was shocked a few years ago to discover that the incidence of polio had waned to practically nothing before Jonas Salk invented a vaccine for it. (Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.) All these years, we thought that science had saved us from polio, but it didn’t. It was something else. What was it? If the real doctors know, they sure won’t tell us. “Go home, eat a variety of foods, and stay out of wars.” Not good tv. The pharmaceutical companies sure won’t tell us. “This drug, which cost you 100 times more than it cost a vet to give to a hamster, will cure you if you take it tonight since we have figured out that most people go to the doctor just after a particular virus has peaked in strength and, therefore, will feel better the next day no matter what, so you might as well think it was the drug that did it so we can make zillions of dollars to invest in research so that some day we might be able to copyright your DNA and sell parts of it to other people.”

But we’re all living longer, aren’t we? So if it wasn’t science and medicine that saved us, what did?

Probably, the simple abundance of relatively nutritious food. You may think about McDonald’s and laugh, but it might surprise you to know that even a Big Mac has some nutritional value. You can walk into a McDonald’s and pick up a Big Mac and some fries and a milk shake pretty well any time you want to. That’s affluence. It wasn’t like that for thousands of years. Does a Big Mac sound nutritious? Not very. But consider a world in which many people didn’t even know if they were going to have enough food to last them through the winter.

So yes, we are fat and unfit, but we are living longer than ever, even though, if you believe the TV preachers, we are the most drug addled, promiscuous, violent, and pernicious generation that ever lived. Think about that! If even one tenth of what the TV preachers– and more than a few pulpit pundits–say about the human race was true, wouldn’t life expectancy be declining?

A few years ago, the doctors in Israel went on strike. A well-known study (so well-known I can’t remember the name of it) was done on mortality rates during the strike. It turns out they went down. Some people rationalized that this was because patients were forced to postpone surgeries, stop eating hospital food, and pay smaller health insurance premiums, but it’s not true, according to the researchers. The death rate actually went down. It went down and it stayed down. Eventually, the pr got so bad that the doctors went back to work without getting anything that they wanted. Maybe that’s the real reason there hasn’t been a doctor’s strike yet in Ontario.

Do you suppose that if church ministers unionized and went on strike, that the church might actually grow? Well, think about that a bit too. In our church, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, ministers generally spend a lot of time at big meetings hollering at each other about purity and orthodoxy and scriptural authority and the like. What if they just went out into the cities and cleaned up a few vacant lots and distributed sandwiches to the homeless instead?

Here’s another juicy piece of information: what professional group do you think declines surgical procedures more often than any other? You guessed it: surgeons. That’s worth thinking about a lot the next time your doctor recommends surgery to you.

I have one last little gripe: most of us are gradually coming to the realization that animals deserve a little more respect than we have been giving them in the past. We used to see animals as steak-fodder, beasts of burden, and incipient fur coats. Now, thanks to the extremists, we moderates are beginning to realize that animals are not all that much different from us. I mean, sure, lions and tigers kill indiscriminately, while we only kill when we really, really have to, like when our oil reserves are low so we can’t hurtle ourselves across the highways in our metal and glass behemoths anymore, but, basically, we’re not all that different. Then why does a vet get, like, 50 cents for doing surgery on a dog, while a doctor gets mega-bucks for doing surgery on a human being, like, say, Preston Manning? Does this make sense? Do you really believe that a doctor is that much smarter than a vet?

What I think we should do is de-regulate surgery. Let anyone do it. After all, the free markets have given us this wonderfully rich and meaningful lifestyle we all now share (unless you are lazy). Why not let it work its magic on medicine? If you get a few really, really bad surgeons setting up shop, hey, people won’t go to them after a while and they will go out of business, like Microsoft, so we will only be left with the best surgeons. And they will have to price themselves competitively or else people won’t go to them anymore, unless you are very rich, in which case you probably also pretty smart, in which case you wouldn’t go to a surgeon anyway. I mean, would you rather have some crackpot cutting into you with a knife or giving you a tea enema?

I am not Paid Enough

I just read in the Globe and Mail (November 11, 1997) that Disney Corporation has settled a suit with Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg quit after he was denied a promotion by Michael Eisner. So he sued Disney for– get this — 2% of all future profits on any product developed during his ten years with the company.

Now you may think this is a very strange idea. You work for a company. You go into a snit because your boss doesn’t give you a promotion. So you quit. In the real world… pardon me… in the world that people who do real work exist in, if you quit your job you’re told to turn in your tool kit or your notebook computer and get lost. Just imagine your bosses face if you asked him for a percentage of all future profits based on anything you worked on while you were there? But then, that is the world of unionized employees who we all know are ruining our society with their ruthless, greedy demands. Now let’s get back to the rarefied world of capital gains deductions and private boxes at the Skydome.

So, is this another of the endless cycle of incidents demonstrating ruthless greed among the upper classes in our society? You’ll be surprised at my reaction: I think this is a great idea. And since all citizens in this country are treated as equals by the law, I intend to contact my lawyer and initialize similar proceedings against all of my previous employers. I figure that when Katzenberg wins– actually, I think he has won– Disney settled out of court– I can appeal to his precedent.

So I am going back to all my previous employers, including United Grain Growers, and demanding a specific percentage of all the profits they have made since I worked there for four summers about twenty years ago. Let’s see. I worked for three months driving a truck and moving things around in a warehouse. I’ll have to get some figures from them: how much profit did they make while I was there? What percentage of the total work activity performed by all employees at that time did my hours comprise (judging from the level of activity at their downtown office, I’d say about 50%)? How much profit have they made since then? Fifty million?

Let’s see. If they had 5,000 employees at the time, then I represented about .02% of the workforce. Since I only worked from June to August, I’ll have to accept a measly 25% of my .02, which is .005. Now multiply that times total corporate profits of $50,000,000 and you have a modest $250,000 that United Grain Growers owes me right now. But I’ll tell you what, Wheat-Boys: pay me $125,000 cash right now and I won’t sick my twisted lawyers on you!

Boy, I can see now why Disney hired Katzenberg in the first place! The man is a genius! And don’t forget– this is the same company that paid Michael Ovitz $38 million dollars to quit. Why? Why does a company as smart as Disney pay someone $38 million dollars? Because he made their stock go up? Because he masterminded the production of several brilliant movies that won loads of Oscars and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars? Because he opened a new theme park that had to be expanded right away because it was deluged with rabid fans from all over the world? No, my friends. He got $38 million dollars from Disney because– hold on to your hats– he failed. Yes, he was FIRED because he stunk up the place, and Disney preferred to pay him $38 million dollars than put up with his incompetence any longer.

Now kids, before you go to work tomorrow at McDonalds or Burger King and try these same proven strategies for personal success, remember one thing: you don’t make the rules.

UPDATE: Wired Magazine estimates that Michael Ovitz, who left Disney in 1996 after 18 months as President, received $38 Million plus $92 million in stock options. Eisner won’t be crying in his beer any time soon: he himself has earned an estimated $1 billion and still holds 8.7 million shares.

What a Circus

Oh what a circus, oh what a show
Argentina has gone to town
Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron
We’ve all gone crazy, mourning all day and mourning all night
Falling over ourselves to get all, of the misery right.

[Evita – Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber]

Added March 12, 1998:

Crazy is right. Diana may be the most monumentally insignificant person of the 20th century. What I mean is that the scale of her media coverage exceeded her real importance by an unimaginable degree. Quick, name one thing Diana was good at? Name one of her “achievements”. Name one of her special talents or remarkable gifts? The truth is that any well-brought up girl could have done as well or better at the few things we think she was good at: smiling and giving short, inconsequential speeches.

And while the world wails about her death and spends millions of dollars on flowers and tasteless mementos, another 10,000 children will have died of starvation or malnutrition around the globe. But that’s the point, you see. In Diana’s death we feel validated as people. Look at me– I am weeping. I have a heart. I am compassionate. I have real human feelings! I supported her opposition to land mines and her concern for AIDS victims! I bought the Elton John record…

One last comment, if you can forgive me the cynicism: the height of these cheap emotions was reached with Elton John’s new version of Candle in the Wind. Just in case you didn’t know, Candle in the Wind was written for the memory of Marilyn Monroe, another physically beautiful woman who first courted, then seemed to despise media attention. Then it was rededicated to AIDS victim Ryan White.

I think it was a monumental miscalculation on John’s part to not write a new song for Diana. It makes the whole thing look cheap and tawdry. And British.

What’s the matter Elton– can’t come up with anything new anymore?!

Marilyn Monroe, depressed, and alone in spite of her popularity, probably committed suicide (some paranoids believe the Kennedys had her snuffed). “Candle in the Wind” was a beautiful song that captured something of the tacky ambivalence with which we adore then destroy celebrities (the prurient curiosity about the fact that her body was found “in the nude”).

So Elton John and Bernie Taupin took this sensitive, honest song, and quickly rewrote it to accommodate Princess Diana’s funeral. Unfortunately, they also debauched it. They removed the lines about how the media, ever exploitive, reported that Marilyn had been found in the nude, ironically proving that while overtly despising the media that “hounded” Diana to her death, Elton wishes also to provide a “tasteful” version of the lyrics for mass consumption.

Geez, you have to wonder if Marilyn, up there in the sky with all the other dead celebrities, feels a little jilted. Elton, you’re an idiot.

Microsoft Windows Sucks

I recently reformatted my hard drive, erasing every last vestige of my bug-ridden, over-worked, over-loaded, registry polluted Windows 95 installation. I thought it might help. My hard disk was thrashing like crazy, programs froze-up, graphics broke into fragments of tiny coloured pixels like some splattered silicon suicide on a glass sidewalk.

It did not help. Windows still runs like garbage. I have 64 megabytes of RAM, and it still thrashes like crazy. Word sucks up memory like a drunken politician leaving precious little for really powerful programs like Corel Draw. It is pitiful.

For a quick record, these programs run badly:

  • Word 7.0
  • Corel Draw 5.0
  • Adobe Photoshop 3.0
  • Windows 95
  • Clean Sweep
  • Norton Utilities 2.0
  • Crash Guard
  • Netscape 4.0
  • Norton Anti-Virus 3.0.

These programs run reasonably well:

  • Quicken 2.0
  • Front Page 98
  • Excel 97
  • Cakewalk 6.0

These programs run REALLY well:

  • Paintshop Pro 5.0.

Even Microsoft basically admits that their software is full of bugs. My question is, why can’t we get our money back? Because they won’t give it to you. They simply refuse. They laugh in your face and say, “Go to hell. We got your money. Don’t make trouble or we’ll sick our vampire lawyers on you.”

The automakers must see this and turn green with envy. Why didn’t they think of that? “Sir, the gas tank on my Pinto just exploded incinerating my family.” “Go to hell– what do we care.”

Lovable Lawyers

A law firm in England checked on an employee who hadn’t shown up for work. When they found he was dead, they notified the family, then sent them a bill for $26,520 for the hours it spent on handling the affair.

After a public outcry, the firm backed down.

And you thought lawyers were heartless!

Colin Powell’s Disgrace

When it comes to projecting potential Presidential candidates for the Year 2000, no name is mentioned with more awe and reverence than that of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. He seems to have an impeccable war record, having served honorably in Viet Nam. He is a black man who rose through the ranks to the highest position in the military. He bears the glow of military victory (the preposterously one-sided Gulf War). The media– especially Time Magazine–write fawning, adoring pieces about him. If he does run, it will likely be as a Republican, and the Republicans expect that he will garner the largest percentage of black votes in the history of the party.

General Colin Powell is a coward and a moral disgrace.

Firstly, let’s please toss out the Gulf War. Iraq is a tiny little country with a population of about 14 million (20% of which are rebellious Kurds) in a remote part of the world that happens to have a lot of oil. You heard me right: Iraq has–count them–about 14 million people. The United States, at 260 million, is about 18 times as large. So we have a 800 pound gorilla taking on a 45 pound weakling. Time Magazine tries to make you think that Iraq is huge and powerful by using distorted maps that show the country almost encompassing the globe.

Saddam Hussein is a petty, tin-pot dictator who can’t even count on the unabridged support of his own armies. The U.S. victory over Iraq was a masterful exercise in public relations. Militarily, it was the most one-sided battle in modern history: more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died compared to about 50 Americans. I am not exaggerating. This was not a “war”– a war has to have at least one or two battles. Had Schwarzkopf, Powell and company lost, it would have been the most ridiculously unbelievable result in the history of the world. Even Goliath was only three times the size of David. So don’t tell me that Powell was courageous or extraordinarily clever or “ingenious”— please. All he had to do was tell his men to point their nose cones or turrets at Baghdad and count out the medals afterwards (more than one per combatant). One look at the $50 billion in hardware bearing down on them and the Iraqi’s fled. Yet, with overwhelming military, political, and economic superiority the U.S. didn’t even succeed in removing Hussein from power. Nor did they “restore” democracy to Kuwait (the same fat cats rule as before). Considering subsequent events, this was a colossal failure. It was a failure of will, a failure of intelligence, and a failure of diplomacy. Powell deserves credit for looking very nice in his uniform.

Then there was Bosnia.

I can’t, in this space, give you a detailed history of the Bosnian conflict (check the Globe & Mail, or the New York Times Review of Books for some excellent summaries), but this is essentially what happened: Bosnia and Serbia were the two largest components of the former Federation of Yugoslavia. They became separate nations when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the late 1980’s. Bosnia, comprised mostly of Muslims, but with a substantial population of ethnic Serbs, declared itself independent in April 1992, and was quickly recognized by the U.S. and other Western powers. War broke out and in the first six months, Serbia– please don’t call it a “Christian” nation–, with the aid of a rebel force comprised of Bosnian Serbs, and with overwhelming military superiority, seized 3/4 of Bosnia’s territory. Within those same six months, at least 20,000 Bosnian Muslims–men, women, children–were systematically exterminated. This was quickly termed “ethnic cleansing” by the Serbs themselves. Their intent was not only to conquer the territories of Bosnia, but to make it impossible for Bosnians to repopulate the area afterwards. The correct term was genocide. It was only the beginning.

It is well-documented (see the New York Times Review of Books , December 18, 1997) that George Bush and Colin “Neville Chamberlain” Powell were fully aware of the nature of this conflict by September 1991. The CIA (right, for a change) reported that Serbs were raping, beating, torturing, incarcerating and starving tens of thousands of Muslims, and that the Muslims, heavily out-gunned, were unable to resist. These reports were corroborated by reporters, U.N. officials, and aid workers. In other words, atrocities on a scale unseen since World War II were taking place in Bosnia while the Western Powers– which the U.S. tirelessly brags of leading– did nothing.

Actually, the U.S. did worse than nothing: they imposed an arms embargo on the entire region. This had the effect of preserving a huge military advantage for the aggressor, Serbia, and preventing a member nation of the U.N. from defending itself against massive, relentless terror. It was as if we had announced that to prevent the Nazi Holocaust, we should have prevented the Jews  and Nazis from getting any more weapons from us. There is good reason to believe that if the Western Powers had allowed Bosnia to arm itself, the conflict would have soon stale-mated and the world would have spared the hideous tragedy that followed instead.

It is important at this point to consider the two ghosts haunting U.S. foreign policy at this stage. They are the Holocaust (World War II) and the Viet Nam War. In the case of the former, the Western Nations waited too long before taking concerted action against Hitler, thereby allowing six million Jews to die in the concentration camps. The Western powers even refused to accept Jewish refugees from Germany in the early stages of the Holocaust, thereby proving, to Hitler’s satisfaction, that nobody wanted the Jews. After the war, the world collectively pledged to never again stand by and do nothing when confronted with such a monstrous evil.

In the case of Viet Nam, the U.S. embroiled itself in a war it could not win, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and paralyzing domestic conflict. After this war, the U.S. promised itself to never again get involved in a “quagmire”. Powell sees this failure as a lack of will on the part of the U.S. More sensible commentators observe that the U.S. intervened militarily on behalf of an unpopular, unelected, undemocratic government.

Colin Powell and George Bush looked at Bosnia and saw the Holocaust but chose to report to the American people that they saw Viet Nam and chose to do nothing to stop the genocide. Bush hoped it would go away by itself before the elections of 1992. When candidate Clinton attacked Bush’s inaction, Colin Powell, in a major speech given during the election campaign (which Generals should stay out of), declared that he would never allow U.S. soldiers to be committed to another Viet Nam-like quagmire. So here we had a General telling elected politicians just what kind of war he might be willing to fight if asked. Just who is running the country here? Powell should have been dismissed immediately, like McArthur, but his personal popularity was such that politically it could not be done. And why was he popular? I don’t know. Would he have been so popular in a business suit instead of a uniform with lots of medals on it? How about a waist coat and top hat?

The point cannot be made forcefully enough: Colin Powell, along with George Bush and Lawrence Eagleburger, and other foreign policy advisors are personally responsible for a policy that resulted in massive genocide. They created this policy in direct opposition to their own staffers who knew what was going on. Several of them resigned in disgust. Some privately cheered Clinton when he spoke out against the inactivity.

You might argue that their policies merely reflected a consensus of the U.S. electorate. However, polls taken during the presidential election in 1992 showed an alarming (to Bush) tendency among voters to favor some kind of decisive action. The average voter wasn’t so stupid as to think that the world should stand by and watch thousands of innocent women and children murdered in cold blood. The average voter didn’t believe that Bosnia was an inexhaustible quagmire that could never be saved. So Bush and Powell were not being merely politically astute when they decided not to intervene: they were also cowards.

We all went to see Schindler’s List and we all tsk-tsked and wrung our hands and then breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that this movie exists and even won a few academy awards proves that our society knows evil when it sees it and is prepared to do the right thing! Well, this movie took no courage to make: in hindsight, we were all in the resistance. If Spielberg had had any guts he would have done a movie on Bosnia because, yes, we did stand by once again, wringing our hands and shaking our heads, and we let it happen when we could have prevented it. And while Christian talk shows and magazine are all abuzz with Paul Marshall’s book on the persecution of Christians around the world, no one weeps for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

It should be noted that Clinton’s performance on the issue was only marginally better. Once he was elected to office, he did everything he could to evade responsibility for his campaign promise to help the Bosnians. He sent William Christopher to Europe to get consent for military action but the Europeans were afraid of retaliation against the U.N. ground troops. This was convenient for Clinton because he could blame them, for a time, for his inactivity. The U.N. troops should have withdrawn immediately and air strikes should have commenced immediately. In the end, the Bosnian’s themselves rallied and took back some of the territory. By this time, the entire region was a cauldron of seething racial hatred.

Colin Powell’s actions during this crisis are morally indefensible and cowardly. I hope and pray that if he does choose to run for president, voters take a very close look at his performance and quickly relegate him to the dustbin of history where he belongs.

Our Obsession With “Feel-good” Confections

In 1965, many of us, or our parents, went to see their first Hollywood film, and it was “The Sound of Music”, a glossy, somewhat saccharine musical about how the Von Trapp family escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria. They adored this film so much that it probably did more than anything else to move the Christian Reformed Church to repeal its prohibition against the “worldly amusement” of cinema.

Now, if you are truly convinced that “The Sound of Music” is movie-making at its finest, nothing I can possibly say in the following paragraphs will move you from that opinion. I acknowledge the film’s technical merits. It is expensively filmed, beautifully staged, and the music is memorable and well-performed. Most people are aware of the conscious sentimentality, but don’t mind.

I’ve never liked “The Sound of Music” because I’ve always been uncomfortable with films that sentimentalize tragedy, and no tragedy was darker, or more compelling than the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Five to six million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime. I do not deny that the Von Trapps have a story to tell, but I find it disconcerting to find them centre stage, in all their Aryan purity, in a film that barely acknowledges even the existence of the Jews. The world of the Von Trapps– white, rich Austrians– is pretty well the kind of world the Nazis envisioned, once they had carried out the final solution.

Consider the scene in which the father lines up the children with military precision, in perfect order from highest to smallest, to send them off to bed. Given the nature of Nazi Germany (and Austria), the Nazi’s obsessions with secondary racial characteristics and genetic purity, and Hitler’s passion for order and precision, this scene is either an obscene joke, or absolutely mindless film-making, completely at odds with its own subject. It deplores the Nazis as enemies of this nice Austrian family, while simultaneously inviting you to adore their physical grace, cleanliness, beauty, discipline, and racial purity. It has Dan Quayle’s “family values” in spades. Nobody swears or runs around indecently dressed or commits adultery. The children are obedient, the father is a powerful authority figure, and Maria, the on-again, off-again nun, is both pious and mischievous– an irresistible combination to many of us. In short, this film should offend nobody.

I was recently involved as an actor in a production of “Cabaret” by a local community Theatre group. (A movie version– which is not very similar to the stage version, but still interesting– was released several years ago and is readily available in video stores.) “Cabaret”, like “The Sound of Music”, is about individuals who come into conflict with the rising tide of Nazism. Both of them want you to know how awful the Nazis were. But it is the contrasts of these two works that is most illuminating.

The most obvious contrast is in outward style. Many Christians would not be comfortable attending a performance of “Cabaret”. Much of the action takes place inside the “Kit Kat Club”, a cabaret where prostitutes and dancing girls mingle with drunken sailors, homosexuals and libertines. The dancers gyrate and wiggle their rear-ends as an evil-grinned Emcee invites the audience to discard their inhibitions and forget all their problems. Characters cavort and carouse and explode into brawls.

Thus, the first contrast between these two productions, from Julie Andrew’s convent to Sally Bowles’ Kit Kat Klub, is shocking. In fact, Sally Bowles, the central character of “Cabaret”, makes her first appearance dressed as a nun, singing about her mother thinking she is living in a convent in the Southern part of France, instead of singing in a Berlin nightclub, “in a pair of lacy pants…” This is followed by a drunken brawl, the “kit kat girls” singing, stumbling, rolling over the floor on top of several bar patrons, and a song about picking someone up for casual sex, of various orientations.

The audience is initially fascinated—and repelled—so when a group of healthy, wholesome-looking, well-dressed men, women, and children come out into a “meadow” for a picnic and begin singing a charming German folk song, the audience’s first reaction is relief: finally, some normal, decent-looking people! The actors in this scene actually resemble, physically, the Von Trapp family as presented in “The Sound of Music”! The song is about nature, optimism and faith: “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. The audience is enraptured by the strength and sense of purpose expressed in the song, particularly in contrast to the brazen physical obscenity of the previous scenes.

A few scenes later, at a wedding, a similar group gathers to sing the same song. As they sing, a few Nazi arm-bands appear, then more, and more, until the entire chorus, stamping their feet and raising their arms in salute, have become a ferocious mob. Suddenly, the song is revealed for what, in fact, it has always been: a paean to Aryan purity and dominance. And a connection is drawn between the earlier “wholesome” ideal of beauty and racial purity, and the expansionist violence and viciousness of the Nazi regime. One realizes– maybe for the first time– that the Nazis did not recruit their members at gun point. They caught them in a web of high-minded visionary ideals and hopes and dreams, exploited the economic and moral collapse of post World War I Germany, and tapped into repressed but still potent nationalist instincts. “Cabaret” suggests that Nazism succeeded because it appealed to the same kind of emotions and ideas that most of us still share today.

“Cabaret” is not content with surfaces and pretty pictures. In fact, it draws a very unpretty picture of humanity, to reveal the corruption in the heart of German culture that gave rise to Nazi Germany, and the corruption within ourselves that could lead to the same consequences. Sally Bowles is so immersed in her own decadent, impulsive life-style that she is blind to the consequences of the political changes going on around her. “What does politics have to do with us?” she asks. The real Sally Bowles, upon whom the original story by Christopher Isherwood was based, died in a concentration camp.*

I was surprised by the number of Christians in the cast of “Cabaret”. I counted at least a dozen, many of whom arrived at Sunday rehearsals fresh from church or youth choir. We often talked about the meaning of the play, the significance of the moral debauchery in Germany in regard to the subsequent rise of Nazism, and the relevance of “Cabaret” to our own time and place. All of us were deeply committed to this production because it would remind the audience of the dangers of allowing a moral vacuum to exist in our society. All of us agreed that the vivid depiction of this moral collapse was necessary to make this point as real to the audience as possible.

The Christian community is frequently guilty of preferring bland entertainment like “The Sound of Music” to gutsy, authentic plays and films like “Cabaret”. Our community is notoriously fearful of the raw power of honest drama, strong language and images, and, sometimes, the power of truth. Is this a harmless matter of taste, or an important deficiency in Christian culture?

I have been thinking recently not only about the contrasts and comparisons between these films, but also about other incidents that resonate with these issues: a Christian Reformed Church sponsors a square dance; a Christian High School History teacher tells me he doesn’t have a television set in his house because all it shows is trash; a Christian High School English teacher shakes his head slowly as I ask if he is familiar with recent work by Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, or Gunter Grass. A Christian high school is incapable of finding a meaningful play to perform because the teachers fear that parents will be offended. We speak thousands and thousands of words about the errors of our culture, but we make little effort to speak the same language.

The future of the world may not depend on whether we prefer to watch “The Sound of Music” or “Cabaret”, but sometimes we must ask ourselves if our infatuation with feel-good confections, inoffensive literature and music, and “wholesome family values” is teaching us what we need to know about the dynamics of our own history and culture. When we, as parents, object to our children reading or performing plays that are contemporary and meaningful, are we condemning ourselves to even greater irrelevance? Does the world look for answers from people who object so strongly to the language of the streets that they never take the time to hear what the people of the streets are saying?

* Update, January 2004

Apparently the “real” Sally Bowles didn’t die in a concentration camp after all.  Her name was Jean Ross and she lived to a ripe old age in England.  She didn’t consider the portrait of herself in Isherwood’s story to be very flattering.

Copyright © 1998 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.