Thursday, December 29, 2005

'We're Americans; we don't torture'

Whoever buys into that statement isn’t exactly keeping up with current events. Have you seen the so-called ‘toys’ manufacturers are assaulting kids with these days? Jump, spin, click, clack, shout, vibrate, jump, hop around and otherwise raise hell. That ain’t a toy. That’s torture.

You wanna make Saddam spill the beans? Need the Baghdad Bogey-Man to confess all of his crimes against humanity? Put away the bad rock music, sleep deprivation, rubber hoses, saps, blocks and tackles, bright lights and needle-nose pliers.

Just make him spend a couple of nights with “Jump and Shout Elmo”. He’ll crack open like an egg dropped 50 feet onto a parking lot.

JC, our 9-month-old Baby of Mass Destruction, loves Elmo. He looooooves Elmo. Elmo makes an appearance on whatever Sprout Network program he’s watching and all other activity comes to a screeching halt. Elmo is The Man (or The Thing, at least).

It follows logically, therefore, that at least one of our sets of relatives would send along something Elmo-related for Christmas. Most of the Elmo toys are aimed at a little older kid (they’re ‘age inappropriate’ for a 9-monther). That kept Mom and Dad out of the Elmo market this year, but it didn’t stop everybody.

After JC pulled off the wrapping and chewed it a bit, we figured there couldn’t be much harm in giving Jump and Shout Elmo a shot. We even left him in his box so he didn’t get too carried away. Didn’t matter. Torture is torture, even if it’s still attached to its retail packaging.

Push the foot button and Holy Crap! The thing starts up an awful racket, jumps up and down and starts spinning its Elmo arms around like a little demon-possessed muppet in another Exorcist sequel.

JC watched all of this for a few seconds and thought it over very carefully (as you can see in today’s photo). Then his little face clouded up and he flat started wailing at maximum volume. Jump and Shout Elmo scared the living crap out of him. It took Mom and Dad and all four of the grammies and grampies a full five minutes to get him back in sorts again.

As a result of the Screaming Elmo from Hell experience, we decided to keep the Bounce Higher Tigger – which carries on even more maniacally, if you can believe that – in his box for a few more months. It’s not like JC doesn’t have a ton of other fun things to fiddle with between now and then.

Jump and Shout Elmo, implement of torture, now sits on the back of the top closet shelf, awaiting a brighter – and more age-appropriate – day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Merry Christmas, indeed

What does a ‘good’ Christmas look like? I think today’s photo just about sums it up. Our 9-month-old Baby of Mass Destruction flopped out exhausted on the living room floor.

Naturally, he woke up 30 minutes later and was then absolutely hell on wheels to get to bed. But after a big baby day of tremendous sensory overload – what with all of the grannies and grampies, the noisy toys, the bouncy toys and the vibrating toys – that wasn’t a surprise.

The whole family got together, of course, to help us welcome our new addition. Not to get too mushy or anything, but that was what made it our Official Best Ever Christmas. The last couple of years have been jam-packed with big change, and this Christmas just reinforced the message of how marvelous it has all been and how much I have to be thankful for.

OK, that’s the end of the mushy part.

This season was also, I believe, a harbinger of things to come. Nearly every holiday-oriented task (and a lot of the mundane things too) came down to a photo-finish this year. After 45 years of not much holiday hassle, year 46 started the process of payback.

I’ve never been big on last-minute shopping, but I did some this year. I can’t say ‘never again’, although I’d like to.

We were late arriving at our church’s Christmas eve service, despite the fact that we built an extra 30 minutes of ‘baby time’ into our planning. We should have built in 90 minutes. Argh. As one of the few churches in our neighborhood with a night-before service, the place was packed when we got there (it’s a small church) – almost standing-room only. By the time pastor showed up wearing his Magii turban and fake beard, there wasn’t a seat left open.

The ushers had long ago run out of programs when we arrived, so we spent the service guessing at the page numbers in the hymnal and trying to remember the rest of the liturgy from memory. The Missus, as a life-long Lutheran had fewer problems than did I (a Southern Baptist in remission). But I’m getting the hang of it, so I muddled through.

After the service, we had the usual potluck Lutheran Happy Hour. Some of the church ladies, bless them, made JC a beautiful little quilt. They love the heck out of the little guy, so he spent most of Lutheran Happy Hour getting passed around by all of the grannies. Fortunately, he’s never met a stranger and he responded the same way he always does when they line up to give him hugs – everybody gets a big baby smile and, if they’re lucky, a little drool or their eye-glasses grabbed.

Then it was off to the house and the joy of my first Christmas as Dad the Toy Assembler. Nothing too complex – some Fisher-Price gizmo that JC can either straddle and paddle around the room or pop up and walk behind. Still, we had put off wrapping most of our gifts until Christmas eve (BIG mistake), so the Missus and I were both up until around 2:30 getting everything done.

Next year, we will start wrapping gifts the day after Thanksgiving. We will plan better, clean faster, be more efficient. Blabbity-blabbity-blab.

Yeah, I believe THAT.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Why is he "Ol' Scratch"? Let me count the ways

I couldn't say it better myself. So here's an editorial on the subject from the Great Gray Mother:

December 23, 2005

Mr. Cheney's Imperial Presidency

George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship. Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke.

Virtually from the time he chose himself to be Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000, Dick Cheney has spearheaded an extraordinary expansion of the powers of the presidency - from writing energy policy behind closed doors with oil executives to abrogating longstanding treaties and using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, scrap the Geneva Conventions and spy on American citizens.

It was a chance Mr. Cheney seems to have been dreaming about for decades. Most Americans looked at wrenching events like the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra debacle and worried that the presidency had become too powerful, secretive and dismissive. Mr. Cheney looked at the same events and fretted that the presidency was not powerful enough, and too vulnerable to inspection and calls for accountability.

The president "needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy," Mr. Cheney said this week as he tried to stifle the outcry over a domestic spying program that Mr. Bush authorized after the 9/11 attacks.

Before 9/11, Mr. Cheney was trying to undermine the institutional and legal structure of multilateral foreign policy: he championed the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow in order to build an antimissile shield that doesn't work but makes military contractors rich. Early in his tenure, Mr. Cheney, who quit as chief executive of Halliburton to run with Mr. Bush in 2000, gathered his energy industry cronies at secret meetings in Washington to rewrite energy policy to their specifications. Mr. Cheney offered the usual excuses about the need to get candid advice on important matters, and the courts, sadly, bought it. But the task force was not an exercise in diverse views. Mr. Cheney gathered people who agreed with him, and allowed them to write national policy for an industry in which he had recently amassed a fortune.

The effort to expand presidential power accelerated after 9/11, taking advantage of a national consensus that the president should have additional powers to use judiciously against terrorists.
Mr. Cheney started agitating for an attack on Iraq immediately, pushing the intelligence community to come up with evidence about a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda that never existed. His team was central to writing the legal briefs justifying the abuse and torture of prisoners, the idea that the president can designate people to be "unlawful enemy combatants" and detain them indefinitely, and a secret program allowing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on American citizens without warrants. And when Senator John McCain introduced a measure to reinstate the rule of law at American military prisons, Mr. Cheney not only led the effort to stop the amendment, but also tried to revise it to actually legalize torture at C.I.A. prisons.

There are finally signs that the democratic system is trying to rein in the imperial presidency. Republicans in the Senate and House forced Mr. Bush to back the McCain amendment, and Mr. Cheney's plan to legalize torture by intelligence agents was rebuffed. Congress also agreed to extend the Patriot Act for five weeks rather than doing the administration's bidding and rushing to make it permanent.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court refused to allow the administration to transfer Jose Padilla, an American citizen who has been held by the military for more than three years on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks, from military to civilian custody. After winning the same court's approval in September to hold Mr. Padilla as an unlawful combatant, the administration abruptly reversed course in November and charged him with civil crimes unrelated to his arrest. That decision was an obvious attempt to avoid having the Supreme Court review the legality of the detention powers that Mr. Bush gave himself, and the appeals judges refused to go along.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have insisted that the secret eavesdropping program is legal, but The Washington Post reported yesterday that the court created to supervise this sort of activity is not so sure. It said that the presiding judge was arranging a classified briefing for her fellow judges and that several judges on the court wanted to know why the administration believed eavesdropping on American citizens without warrants was legal when the law specifically required such warrants.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are tenacious. They still control both houses of Congress and are determined to pack the judiciary with like-minded ideologues. Still, the recent developments are encouraging, especially since the court ruling on Mr. Padilla was written by a staunch conservative considered by President Bush for the Supreme Court.

-The New York Times

Friday, December 23, 2005

I guess the Grinch stole Christmas TV, too

Last night, after a couple nights of un-entertaining college bowl games on the TV, I was determined that we were NOT going to tune into sports last night. Not that we pay much attention while we’re racing through our pre-holiday chores and other insanity (the Missus decided last night was a good night to stuff 200 membership letters for her non-profit).

At any rate, I figured on December 22, we would be able to find plenty of Christmas-oriented programming. ‘Life of Jesus’ type of History Channel fare, that sort of thing. After scanning every channel on our satellite, I found ONE program – something on the Science Channel about the ‘historical’ life of the Apostles. Everywhere else it was crappy programming as usual – perhaps even crappier than usual.

Are you kidding me? Nothing on the History Channel, nothing on A&E, nothing else anywhere. Is this the onset of some kind of new wave of political correctness? None of that Jesus stuff on our TV network, at least not until Christmas eve. No Grinch. No Christmas Story. No Charlie Brown. Not even a Bad Santa that I could find.

Four hours of history’s worst air disasters. That’s all Christmas cheery. Four hours of ‘reality based’ crime drama (‘slay’ bells ringing, as it were). The usual death, destruction and car chase stuff.

Serves us right, I suppose, for losing that Ice Age DVD. Dammit.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Starting off with a grumpy bang

Ol’ Scratch (aka Dick Cheney) the other day predicted that critics of the administrations secret surveillance scheme would face "enormous public backlash" for their criticism. Where is this guy spending his spare time? On one of the moons of Saturn? Here on Earth there is growing, genuine discontent with the administration’s escalating assault on our civil liberties in the name of ‘security’.

The security song can only be played so many times before it starts to wear out its welcome, sort of like one of those hit pop tunes that gets played way too many times on the radio. Absent a rock ‘em, sock ‘em ‘terrorist attack’ somewhere that knocks down another big building, it gets old even faster because nothing happens to scare the sheep back into line.

No doubt many of these liberty-consuming policies make us ‘safer’. But so would posting a machine-gun toting government goon squad on every street corner, issuing Internal Security Documents to everybody and conducting cavity searches with roving security patrols. But then that wouldn’t exactly be an America worth defending any more, would it?

I find especially lame the administration’s contention that using the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court just isn’t fast enough. First, how is obtaining a warrant up to three days AFTER surveillance has started (which is allowed under FISA) not fast enough? Second, how many local prosecutors, sheriffs and chiefs of police would love to able to say “it takes too long to get a search warrant, so we’re just going to start knocking down doors whenever we feel like it”?

To the apologists who would argue the two examples aren’t the same thing, I’ll say this: Bullshit. You didn’t pay attention in civics class. Half the laws on the books (and a sizeable chunk of the US Constitution) are intended to protect us FROM government abuses. Our country was founded to protect us FROM the abuses of a remote government. When government – any level of government – starts to discard those protections, all of our liberties are in greater peril. That the protections in this case were discarded by a secret executive fiat only serves to magnify the problem.

Totalitarian societies can generally be very ‘secure’ – at least for those who toe the political line. Part of the price of political liberty is a lower degree of internal security. That’s just the way it works. A higher rate of gun crime, for example, is the price we pay for our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

In the last 5 years, terror attacks on the US have killed, what? 3,000 people? In that same span, how many people have died in fire-arm related violence? I don’t know. But in 2001 – the year those 3,000 died on 9/11 – over 29,000 American civilians died of wounds from firearms. So what’s really the bigger threat to our ‘security’? Yet how many people who sing along with the administration’s security song also fight tooth and toenail against gun registration and licensing schemes, background checks and ‘assault weapon’ bans? That’s a rather odd dialectic, isn’t it?

Freedom isn’t free, as they say, and it isn’t always just our military who get to pay the price. We don’t have goon platoons on every street corner conducting security searches on every passerby – so occasionally some gomer with a gun, bomb or knife does some harm. Welcome to America.

Me? Call me a whacko. I like my guns (the government doesn’t need to know how many I’ve got, and neither do you). I don’t want the government listening in on my cellphone or checking up on my reading list at the library without a damned good reason and a court order.