Thursday, May 31, 2007

What's Old Is New

Lowell has a great post up at RK on the Tyson's Metro tunnel. Now that it appears that any hope of an underground station is being ditched in favor of aerial tracks (or an El, as we used to call it in New York), Lowell dug out an article that he wrote on this topic over a year ago. Here's what he said then:

I thought about calling this article, "penny wise and pound foolish," because that's exactly what this cheapskate, half-assed approach to Metro in Tysons is all about. So, let's see now, Metro in Tysons is not going to: a) be underground; b) have pedestrian bridges so that people can actually reach the stations across busy, dangerous roads; c) have sufficient rail cars on the line; d) even have freakin' ESCALATORS at some stations (apparently, they're going to just have stairs and elevators, and not even enough of the latter to serve people with disablities). Nice.
At that time, Connolly seemed to be a huge booster for the tunnel. Indeed, even as recently as March and April I saw him sporting a button that proclaimed: "Under, not Over."

But it looks like Gerry is talking out of two sides of his mouth. According to these posts: here and here, he and the rest of the Board of Supervisors has pretty well resigned itself to an aerial Metro stop.

As somebody who rides Metro fairly regularly, I can tell you that this plan is a recipe for Metro disaster for passengers. It will create more urban sprawl and gridlock, deprive Fairfax of the type of smart growth and mixed use that we desperately need to solve our transportation and quality of life problems, and come with unintended consequences, including iced over tracks when we have inclement weather. Underground works so much better for our region for a host of reasons And it really bothers me that they have no plans for escalators - not that Metro maintains its escalator service as it is. There are real problems and a flagrant disregard for the Americans with Disabilities Act here.

I'm actually not unsympathetic to Gerry and the Board. I get it that the feds are threatening not to fund it at all and even our governor, Tim Kaine, seems to be on the side of the federal government and Bechtel rather than concerned with what's good for Fairfax.

Let's face it, this is something the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has worked on for years and they are scared of losing it completely. Nobody has been in their corner but the angry citizens who are now poised to turn on them if they cave in to this pressure.

But the simple fact is that if it's not done right, it will add to Fairfax's problems rather than fix them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Assault on the Assault on Reason and Why Al Gore Is Not Running

I attended the Politics and Prose sponsored lecture/book signing for Al Gore’s new book, “The Assault on Reason,” at George Washington University last night. The auditorium was packed. In fact, when we got there at 6:15, there was a line snaking around the block to pick up tickets at the Will Call. People even were trying to buy extra tickets. Several of us in line joked that it reminded us of the scalp-free zones at baseball games and rock concerts – but for Al Gore? We giggled at the thought of it.

Nevertheless, it was a sold out event and Gore was playing to a packed house of about 2,000 people. But if they expected a searing indictment of the Bush Administration all wrapped up in fiery rhetoric – red meat for the true believers – they probably would’ve been disappointed.

Gore delivered his argument - which is that the media and dissenters have been intimidated into silence on a variety of issues, including global warming, economic conditions and the war in Iraq, by a deliberate assault on open and reasonable debate - in measured and rational tones, in an often long winded lecture. He spoke conversationally with the same professorial cadence that the press and public found so annoying the last time he ran for office.

And this audience was rapt. They hung on his every word and gave him several standing ovations. Then they lined up eagerly to have their copies of his new book autographed.

The 1,000 or so people who stayed for the book signing were whisked past the table where Gore sat signing books with the speed of an efficiency expert setting up an assembly line in a Ford factory. It had been previously announced that books would not be personalized and Gore would not answer individual questions (there had been a question and answer session after his lecture). And he mostly stuck to it. Each book was signed and then shoved to the side while the adoring owner picked it up and quickly made way for the next person in line. It was a smooth operation and, considering the huge crowd, went briskly. The lecture started at 7:30, the book signing by 8:30; and we were home in Northern Virginia by 10 o’clock.

The huge auditorium reminded me of the large lecture halls in a university, with students jammed in to hear a very popular professor. Gore looked relaxed, happy, and engaged. He was doing what he loved best, lecturing to a smart audience of his peers. He looked like a professor delighted with his honors class, not a candidate running for office.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Memorial Day Special: A Measure of Peace

Note: This is a work of fiction. It’s something I originally wrote for a writer’s workshop and later put up on a writing Website. I’ve referred to it a couple of times in other posts. I had thought about sending it to a magazine to be published but kept putting off actually doing so. Since most publications have a 4 to 6 month lead time, my choice was to either hold it till next year or post it here. I decided there’s nothing I’d rather do than share it with my friends and readers. I doubt that I’ll post other short stories here since this really isn’t intended to be a fiction site. But I hope you enjoy a special Memorial Day offering – something a little out of the ordinary – for a special day.

The Wall is a blunt slab of black marble that rises out of the ground like a musical crescendo. Located at the Washington War Memorial, it’s the dirge for my generation’s folly.

I stood in front of it, my eyes scanning the list of names engraved on its shiny surface. I found the one I was looking for and, with my hand covering my mouth, I sank to my knees in front of Billy’s name. My eyelids were blinking rapidly to block the tears that were forming. I felt a little silly. I told myself it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what I’d find. I’d come looking for it. I called it closure and told my doubting family that it’s what I had to do.

Billy Reynolds and I were not childhood sweethearts. Far from it! I was a tomboy and I used to slug him. He slugged me back. Until one day when he noticed that I had grown up. I’d hurled some awful insult at him to goad him on. He had his fist clenched and was pulling it back to build up momentum before he delivered the punch. I was squaring off to pounce back. Suddenly his hand just dropped to his side instead, and he had a crestfallen expression on his face as he turned and walked away. He hung his head and his shoulders were hunched. He looked as deflated as a balloon.

“Chicken,” I taunted.

But he just ignored me and kept walking away.

We were only twelve then but he hated me for growing up. I could still be mean to him, but he had learned too well from his proper family that he couldn’t hit a woman. Especially because he recognized that he was becoming more of a man than a boy himself.

By the time we got to high school we had declared enough of a truce to actually date. And what young girl wouldn’t give up a life long rivalry to date the town’s football hero with the brown hair, blue eyes and sprinkle of freckles across his nose?

I wouldn’t.

He might have been the football hero of Hudson Springs, in upstate New York, but I was the town hippie. I had long blond hair that I wore parted down the center. I dressed in long granny dresses that he said were unflattering. “Why don’t you show your legs,” he would ask.

“Male chauvinist pig.” I would answer.

I spouted bad poetry, anti-war rhetoric and Bob Dylan lyrics. Billy loved the Beach Boys. But we were drawn to each other. We dated and argued constantly. I wouldn’t go to his senior prom unless I could wear a black armband. I told him that proms were a petit bourgeois institution anyway. He told me I was nuts. So much for brilliantly articulated intellectual arguments.

He went away to college and we wrote for a couple of years. Then just as I was getting ready to join him at the state university he announced that he had been drafted. I was horrified, especially when he told me that he intended to go.

“Go to Canada,” I pleaded. “It’s just across the border.”

But he refused. He wanted to go into the army because he thought it was his duty to serve. I told him only fascists would go. He said I was nuts. This was becoming a routine. “Don’t you have any other argument except that I’m nuts?” I asked.

“Yes I do, but you are nuts.” He insisted.

“The war’s immoral,” I said.

“I want to be a lawyer someday not a fugitive,” he pointed out.

“Good, at least you’ll defend innocent people and be useful then,” I said.

“No, I want to be a corporate lawyer, and gouge the public and stick it to innocent people.” He said.

“Billy!” I punched his arm in exasperation.

“Okay, I’ll study criminal law and help felons stay on the street.”

“I give up.” I stalked away as he laughed.

“I just can’t have a serious conversation with you.” I complained.

“No, you just can’t spout leftist clich├ęs at me because I don’t take them seriously.
Anytime you want to engage in an actual argument, I’m ready.”

Then the tears were running down my cheeks and not from laughter. Yes he infuriated me by refusing to take me seriously. But he also made me laugh and at that moment I was so afraid that if anything happened to him the laughter would stop forever.

“Please don’t go to Vietnam,” I begged.

“Donna, I’ve got to. I’m sorry if you think that makes me a fascist pig.”

“It doesn’t make you a fascist pig. It makes you somebody who could die there. Billy I’m so scared I won’t see you again.”

“God, I hope that’s not true,” he said, putting his arms around me. “I want to come back and marry you.”

“Will we have to get married in a church?” I asked.

“No, we can get married in a Buddhist temple and read our vows from Mao’s Little Red Book.” He replied.

“Buddhists don’t read Mao Tse Tsung,” I pointed out. “They’re not Communists.”

“I know you Donna, you’ll find a way to combine them just to piss me off.”

“You’ll marry me anyway?”

“No, you’ll accuse me of supporting a petit bourgeois institution and being a male chauvinist pig,” he said.

“Marry me anyway,” I said.

“I’ll marry you anyway. I love you Donna.”

Of course we both wrote. I protested the war. Billy fought in it. We were an unlikely couple but we did love each other. And one Christmas when Billy was home on leave we did get married. It was a small wedding with just my parents and siblings and Billy’s family. And no, it wasn’t a Buddhist wedding with vows taken from Mao’s “Little Red Book.” It was actually a very traditional ceremony in our local Catholic Church. I even wore a white gown and Billy looked handsome in his dress uniform.

Near the end of his tour of duty the tone of his letters had begun to change. His attitude was shifting. He never became stridently anti-war just as he had never been really gung ho for it. Truth was, unlike me, Billy was usually calm and measured in his opinions. In an age of irresponsibility, he felt a sense of obligation. In a time when people mistrusted institutions, Billy had career ambitions within those institutions. He hoped to improve them, to be sure. But he wanted to do it from the inside. Where I tried to goad him with anti-establishment rhetoric, he used his wicked sense of humor to deflate my arguments because he wasn’t an ideologue.

And in the end neither was I. I loved him much more than my ideology. I kept my ideals and allowed him the space to keep his. But his letters began to disturb me. There was more cynicism in them. He was seeing things in Vietnam that bothered him. Things that have already been written about and argued to death so many times by others far more articulate than either of us. I counted the months until his discharge. I even dreamed about our starting a family.

Then I got the call that every soldier’s wife dreads. Billy’s whole platoon had been caught in a Vietcong ambush. There were no survivors.

At the funeral I sat next to Billy’s younger brother, Don, who was sixteen and looked just like Billy. On either side of use, like sentinels, were Billy’s parents, Kay and William Reynolds, Sr.

We gave Billy a military funeral. I jumped at each volley of gunfire from the rifles used to salute the fallen soldier, who had been, all too briefly, my husband. I watched as the two young men in full dress uniform solemnly folded the flag that had draped Billy’s coffin. They brought it over to Billy’s mother, but she made a slight gesture with her head. The one holding the flag knelt before me and placed the flag in my hands.

He rose, saluted, pivoted smartly on his heel, and marched off. Tears were streaming down my face as my hand clutched the flag. Billy’s brother leaned over and whispered, “Donna, try not to burn it.”

I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing even through my tears. “Don you’re as horrible as Billy was,” I whispered back.

He squeezed my hand. “Thanks.”

We clung to each other’s hands for a few minutes more. Then, all too soon, the funeral was over.

But how do you forget your first love?

So this Memorial Day I made the long trip from upstate New York to Washington, DC. I looked up Billy’s name. I placed a little swatch of cloth on the ground next to it. As I rose, I heard the distant roar of motorcycle engines. I looked up and saw a group of men on Harleys. Bikers. Then I remembered the Rolling Thunder group that came to the Vietnam War Monument every year at Memorial Day. They were Vietnam vets who came to pay homage to their fallen comrades. I watched them as they slowly drove down the street. When they had passed, I looked back at the Wall sadly. Then a tall figure loomed in front of me, blocking the fading sunlight. I looked up and smiled at the handsome young man in his crisp new uniform.

“You ready Grandma?” He asked.

“In a moment,” I answered.

“Grandpa must’ve been something,” my grandson said. He had grown up with all the stories about his grandfather who had died a hero. My son, Will’s father, had idolized the patriarch he had never known. Perhaps I saw to that too well. Despite my protests, he had gone into the army although it was during a time of peace. Now his son was following a tradition that Billy had unwittingly started. I sighed and turned from the Wall.

“Come on Will. We’ll go to the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House for dinner.”

“Isn’t that where you used to protest the war grandpa fought in,” he asked with mock innocence.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll do it again while you eat dinner.” I answered.

We fell into an easy banter and for a moment it took me back to all those years ago to somebody else who had had wicked sense of humor and liked to tease me. I linked arms with Will and tried to feel a measure of peace as I said a prayer for his safety. In a few days he would deploy for Basra.

A Lady In Distress

Two new and unwelcome unauthorized biographies about Hillary Clinton are being released just in time for the summer beach reading season. At least, neither book will be greeted enthusiastically by the Clinton campaign. Both books, Carl Bernstein’s “A Woman In Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and “Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, don’t break any new ground. And since both tomes are by respected journalists, neither will be hatchet jobs. Bernstein, of course, is best known for his work with Bob Woodward at the Washington Post on the Watergate break in and his subsequent reporting as an ABC correspondent, and Gerth and Van Natta are both award winning New York Times reporters.

Despite all their accumulated credentials, I’m not sure why another book about Hillary Clinton is needed, let alone two. In fact, while I was complaining to a Republican friend (both of us were actually criticizing our party's respective choices) about the fact that I feared that Hillary is still too polarizing a figure for my comfort, he asked the following perceptive questions, “Is there anything the public doesn’t already know about her and Bill? Is there really any opportunity for an October surprise for her campaign?”

Good point. Her life with Bill, in and out of the White House, has been subject to so much scrutiny that it’s hard to see the public giving these two biographies more than a collective yawn before moving on to the next new best selling light fiction as they slather on more sunscreen.

That’s especially true if this report by Dan Balz and Perry Bacon, Jr., in today’s Washington Post is accurate:

“The books recount the roller-coaster ride through the Clinton presidency and his tenure as governor of Arkansas, raising anew issues of marital strife and infidelity, Clinton's strong and sometimes controlling personality, the scandals that ultimately led to impeachment, the failed effort to reform health care and much more.”
Although Balz and Bacon point out that both books could hurt Clinton’s presidential bid by rehashing past scandals and reminding voters of their Clinton fatigue from the late nineties, others predict that the public will largely ignore the ancient history. Indeed even the media has moved on to the newer scandals involving Brangelina and Brittany and Lindsay.

On the other hand, books like these do renew the energy of that part of the Republican base that has always made it a cottage industry to hate the Clintons, especially Hillary Clinton. Indeed the coffers of publishers like Regnery are perennially enhanced by printing books with unflattering pictures of her on their covers.

And that’s precisely where the danger comes for Republicans. Every time Hillary haters have tried to throw mud on her for her husband’s behavior, which is the great temptation for the self-righteous so-called values crowd, it has backfired because it reminds the larger public of two things. One is that Hillary was, in fact, the wronged wife and the victim. And, two, she behaved with great dignity during that difficult period in her life. She gained tremendous stature by stoically standing by her husband’s side, not contributing to a Constitutional crisis by leaving him, and generally acting with grace under extreme pressure. The public came to view her as a lady in distress who behaved with great decorum. And something about that view brought out all the protective instincts that people have toward victims who do not deserve what fate has dealt them.

If you don’t believe me, think back to Hillary’s debate, in her first Senate race, with Republican opponent Rick Lazio. He was a moderate, pro-choice New York Republican who was running strong at the beginning. During one of their debates, though, he aggressively stepped into her space, practically wagged his finger in her face and brought up Bill’s bad behavior in a way that suggested she was complicit in his adultery. The picture carried by the press nationwide was of her looking down with a sad expression as Lazio literally got in her face. Even with his choirboy good looks, Lazio looked like a bully who had just asked a rape victim how short her miniskirt was before her attack. People hated him for blaming the victim, the lady in distress. While I’m sure that incident was not the only reason for it, Hillary went on to win the election by 55 percent.

Books that attempt to revive Bill’s scandals or paint Hillary as controlling, cautious, and manipulative are a dime a dozen and they most bring a collective yawn. For more interesting summer reading, I’d recommend Brad Meltzer’s page-turner, “The Book of Fate,” which is now out in paperback.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fred Thompson's Phony Red Pickup Truck

Ok, I know I’m the Virginia Democratic blogger whose been pushing the Fred Thompson for President idea here in the Old Commonwealth. I really was intrigued by Arthur Branch running for an office higher than the television DA of New York City. I mean how realistic is the premise that New Yorkers actually voted for Bubba for any office in New York City?

It’s not that I support Thompson. Just the opposite. I actually think he’d be a terrible president. But I also believe he’s going to be an attractive candidate to a lot of the Republican right because the already announced candidates just haven’t caught their enthusiasm yet. Certainly the three frontrunners have not excited the Republican base.

Because of that it would be a mistake for Democrats to write Thompson off. On paper, he can be a credible candidate, as this shows:

"He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former member of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission and a Visiting Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, researching national security and intelligence. Thompson is also a public speaker with the Washington Speakers Bureauand is a special program host and senior analyst for ABC News Radio. He publishes a daily blog and podcast on ABC Radio web site."
I’ve seen him at National Airport doing the NYC to DC shuttle. On paper he can appear to be a credible candidate.

But the rumor has gotten out that he is famously lazy – not a good trait for a candidate let alone for a president. I think that in the placid years of the Clinton administration, back in the halcyon days of 1999-2000, when America was at peace and had a truly good economy, one where the benefits actually filtered down to ordinary working people, Thompson’s lack of serious engagement wouldn’t have been a liability. In fact, back then, the most serious political issue seemed to be with whom it would be more fun to throw back a beer. The likeability factor got more serious media attention than an actual foreign policy debate did.

But these are serious times. The sizzling economy is not trickling down past the corporate boardrooms of Halliburton or the floor of the Wall Street trading floor. Ordinary Americans are losing good job, pensions, health benefits and their pay is mostly flat. And at the same time, we are in a seemingly endless war in Iraq with no exit. People may be losing their patience for the "aw shucks" folksy persona of rich phonies.

In Sunday’s Tennessean, Larry Daughtrey, one of Tennessee’s best political writers, has this devastating piece on Fred Thompson. Here’s the money quote:

"In the Washington world of workaholics, Fred is remembered as a virtual teetotaler. During his eight years in the U.S. Senate, an insertion into the Congressional Record amounted to heavy lifting.

His high school yearbook sized him up early: "The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do."

Sliding back and forth between the fantasy worlds of the silver screen and politics is nothing new for him.

Back in 1992, the Gucci loafers, Lincoln Continental and high-dollar lobbying fees of Fred D. Thompson, Esquire, weren't playing too well at the political box office in Tennessee. So, he bought an old red pickup and a pair of $100 boots, tuned up the drawl and beat a Harvard man for the Senate in Big Orange country."

In addition, I’ve known the rumors for a while that even while campaigning in that red pickup truck, Thompson would ride a few miles out of town and the limo would be waiting, which Daughtrey sort of confirms in his article.

Frankly, in National Airport, when Fred Thompson wasn’t thinking about future voters, he didn’t seem very friendly either. The exact word to describe him - when the klieg lights weren’t on for a Law and Order scene and the political press wasn’t around to sing his praise - is “dyspeptic.”

Of course, because running for president is hard work, Thompson might not do it. As an actor, it may be the ratings for next season and not the votes.

But, as Daughtrey put it, “if he buys a used Boeing 707 and paints it red, watch out.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Big Pharma and the Mental Health Crisis

Guest Post from Alison:

Note: This post grew out of some comments to a post that I wrote on mental health issues earlier this month and an exchange of emails between Alison and me. I appreciate the points she made about non-drug treatments for even severe mental illness. Like Alison, I am a layperson. But I have seen some devastating side effects from psychotropic drugs and it seems to me that they should be a treatment of last resort and used temporarily if at all possible. I believe that drugs do have a role to play in the treatment of some mental illnesses, but I also agree with Alison that too often drugs are simply thrown at mental health problems indiscriminately and often by family physicians who are not qualified to prescribe and monitor their long term use.

With the disclaimer that I am a layperson in regards to neuropsychology, the issue isn't whether psychiatric illnesses are biological or not but what works in helping people to recover from them.

Lots of diseases and disorders are biologically based but do respond to non-drug approaches better than drug approaches to either curing or maintaining optimal functioning. As for the chemical imbalance theory, the best way I can summarize that in a neutral manner is to say it has never been proven and has been discredited/discarded as overly simplistic at best. Our brains and bodies are always in and out of chemical balances of various sorts, and at this point researchers are looking more at proteins, but again it is never a simple balanced or not balanced explanation, there are multiple processes going on all the time. Also, all kinds of activities and situations affect the brain, not just drugs. Cognitive therapy has been shown to change the brain, trauma has been shown to change the brain, all kinds of good psychotherapy can change the brain. Depression and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been studied more than schizophrenia and CBT, but in England,CBT and "Hearing Voices" groups and new individual psychotherapy approaches that teach clients how to understand what triggers their voices, what they may mean and ways to keep the experience of voices from overwhelming them have all been shown to improve the quality of life and functioning of people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the old days in the U.S., psychotherapy was used and worked well on many people diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; more people with schizophrenia fully recovered before the advent of drugs than after, in fact, if they had access to good psychotherapy as most did not. When community mental health centers were formed (although never enough and never fully funded), the standard of care was psychotherapy and medication together, not medication alone as it is so often today. Drug "holidays" were more common as psychiatrists would test to see if their patients still needed to be on psychotropic medication over time. One rarely sees this today as the pharmacological approach (and big Pharma) have taken over psychiatry on the whole.The few places where intensive psychotherapy is being used successfully with people with psychotic illnesses in the U.S. are private hospitals such as Austen Riggs, which also has recently released research on the success of their approach and private practitoners who work with individuals with psychotic illnesses. Other helpful non-drug approaches to psychotic illnesses are peer support, either adjunctive or stand alone, social and employment supports and individualized wrap around services. There is also, of course, the long known but often overlooked fact that a certain percentage of people with psychotic illnesses will recover with or without any treatment at all---E. Fuller Torrey, hardly a progressive in these matters, says 25%, others say up to 60% if people are not kept on drugs indefinitely because the neuroleptics themselves cause structural changes to the brain. This is getting long and others have written much more eloquently about it, I would summarize that people with schizophrenia and other psychotic and affective disorders have a range of etiologies of their illness and a very large range of response to treatment and that many different kinds of treatments can be helpful, not just drugs.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Support Big Box Legislation in Fairfax!

Jambon has a great post up at Raising Kaine today on proposed Big Box legislation that will be before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors tomorrow, Monday, May 21, at 4 PM. The hearing will be held in the Fairfax Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway, in the Board Auditorium.

This legislation could be another example of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors commitment to greening the county and to smart growth. Big box stores like Target, Home Depot, and Wal Mart contribute to suburban sprawl and traffic congestion.

Lately, city and county planners have been encouraging mixed use developments built near existing Metro stations and bus stops. Besides making environmental and economic sense, there are health care experts who have said that our suburban way of life, where we get into our cars for every shopping errand, is contributing to the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in this country.

Mixed use development has the added health advantage of getting people to live, shop and possibly even work in a single community where they can walk rather than ride to jobs and stores. What a concept. It used to be called a small town!

Anyay, if you're able to get to the Government Center (and in all honestly, I'll be at work in DC), please get out to support Big Box legislation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gun Raffle in Fairfax on Thursday

Today's Washington Post is reporting on a proposed gun raffle to be held in a government building in Annandale, Virginia on Thursday. Local Fairfax officials have been meeting with the Commonwealth Attorney to try to figure out if there is any way to prevent this raffle from going forward in response to an outpouring of sentiment from Fairfax residents who are clearly uncomfortable with these preceedings.

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, the group that is holding the raffle to raise funds to support several gun shops who are being sued by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that his group will give tickets free to anybody who walks through the door. That's because research has turned up a loophole to Virginia law, which says that a gaming event cannot be held on public property without a special waiver, which Fairfax lawmakers are not inclined to provide the group.

You know, you can’t get as pro Second Amendment a Democrat as I am. I truly believe that people do have a right to have weapons, whether for hunting or to protect themselves. And yes they really have a right to carry a concealed weapon too.

But this scuffle in Fairfax County between the Virginia Citizens Defense League and county officials who are uncomfortable with a gun raffle being held in a government building in Annandale has turned me completely off the pro-gun faction. And this is exactly the type of extremism from the gun lobby that will blow up in their face. Scorched the earth policies usually end up scalding those who adopt them

Look, if you were to go into a public office building in most cities or municipalities in this country, you would have to go past a metal detector. If you had a weapon, whether a gun or a knife, it would be confiscated. In fact, if you carried pepper spray, that too would be taken from you. Certainly, you couldn’t go into any federal building, under the very pro-gun Bush administration, with a concealed weapon of any kind – and that includes non-gun weapons – without a guard taking it away from you. Indeed, most federal buildings still have all those cute color-coded warnings that the Bush administration has made into a paean to paranoia regarding national security. Bring a gun into, say, the Treasury Building or the State Department and you’re liable to be held as a terrorist.

But bring a gun into a government center in Annandale, Virginia and suddenly you become a Second Amendment patriot?

The only reason the Virginia Citizens Defense League is doing this is not to snub Michael Bloomberg in New York City but to thumb their noses at liberal Northern Virginians, who the Virginia Citizens Defense League think don’t agree with their pro-gun stand either.

Truth be told, most Fairfax residents are uncomfortable with a display of guns in a public building. If the Million Mom March had a base, it probably is in Northern Virginia. But you know what? There is something to be said for home rule and respecting the mores of a region that’s different from the rest of Virginia.

Back where I came from, in upstate New York, it used to be the Republicans who supported home rule. And in Byrd Machine Virginia, it was the Democrats who supported the Dillon Rule that essentially stripped the grassroots of control and gave all power to the state. And that was done to keep power in the hands of a few very corrupt, racist Dixiecrats in the bad old days.

It’s time we admitted this.

I don’t want to take guns away from anybody. But I think holding a gun raffle in a public building in an urban area where citizens are clearly uncomfortable with public displays of guns is disgusting.

It’s not about Michael Bloomberg. For these bozos, it’s about Northern Virginians. And I’m one of those Northern Virginians.

Let people have their guns. But don’t thumb your noses at those whose culture is different by a public display. You want to take on Michael Bloomberg. Fine. Do it in Southwest.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The War of Words About Iraq

The Democrats seem determined to lose the confidence of the public by not sticking to their guns about getting out of Iraq. And they seem even more determined to lose the war of words about Iraq by claiming that the war is already lost. And, of course, the Republicans have no reason to do the hard work of ending the war as long as they think they can score political points by calling the Democrats defeatists. Neither side is correct.

The war in Iraq, in fact, was won long ago. Of course, since our premise for invading Iraq turned out to be false, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly what our original goals were – at least the publicly announced goals – and therefore to not recognize that we actually met them. Our military succeeded in doing everything this administration asked of them and doing it as successfully as humanly possible.

Our original justification for going into Iraq was to depose Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein and find his weapons of mass destruction before he could turn them against his Middle Eastern neighbors or us.

We got rid of Hussein and his sons. We installed a new government. Unfortunately, we never got those WMDs. But you can hardly blame the military for that. Those unconventional weapons were never there to start with, so that’s a benchmark that was impossible to meet. All the rest the military succeeded in doing.

It’s the continuing occupation that’s so damned hard.

And that’s where we are failing. It was doomed from the start and not by the military but by an incompetent civilian administration that put inexperienced people into powerful positions in Iraq, even though their appointees lacked knowledge and were not competent to rebuild the Iraqi nation. This article from the September 17, 2006 Washington Post, taken from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, Life in the Imperial City, highlights the tragic missteps that certainly helped derail our efforts in Iraq.

As Chandraskekaran documents, those civilians who flooded into the country in the early days of our victory – and it was a victory – were young and their primary qualification for service was that they were ideologues, who were loyal to the Bush administration. Surprise, surprise! Like that hasn’t been the major qualification for every position of responsibility that has led to abysmal failure on the part of the Bush administration both at home and abroad.

It’s important, though, to define the real problem or we will never be able to fix it in Iraq. And the American public is as uneasy with the Democratic timetables for withdrawal as they are disapproving of Bush’s intransigent insistence on staying the course. For good reason, thoughtful people fear the consequences of pulling out and wiping our hands of the whole mess, which we largely created in the first place. It’s not unreasonable to fear a destabilized and failed state in an already volatile region that always is in danger of exploding.

But we also can’t continue an occupation that is spiraling into chaos. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing into infinity. That’s not defeatism. That’s common sense. In fact, here’s an excerpt from an article by Christopher Preble, “How to Exit Iraq,” taken from the Cato Institute’s Website in 2005.

“Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski declared last week that the United States could never achieve its goals of a democratic, stable and peaceful Iraq unless the American people were prepared to "commit 500,000 troops, spend [US]$200 billion a year, probably have a draft," and have some form of wartime taxation. Brzezinski conceded that Americans "are not prepared to do that."
Cato is not a leftwing think tank. Nor is Bryzesinski a Northeastern liberal dove. And he’s right. We’re not prepared to do those things. Nobody on the right currently criticizing the Democrats is willing to reinstate a draft let alone consider raising taxes. All they really want to do is chant slogans about defeatism and try to score political points off Democrats. That’s not a way to find a solution in Iraq.

Eventually, we have to step out of the way of the civil war going on in Iraq and let the Iraqis come up with a political solution to their political problems. We can’t do that for them. But we also can’t withdraw from the entire region. In short, Johnny isn’t going to come marching home all that soon. But he does need to get out of the Iraqis’ way.

The strategy we need is to re-deploy troops out of Iraq to nearby hot spots where they can continue to combat terrorism and defend our national interests. We also may have to leave some troops in Iraq to continue to train security forces. We cannot leave them in a lurch and abandon them. Colin Powell’s pottery rule is still true. We broke it. We have an obligation – moral and practical – to help fix it.

To do that, we also are going to have to open talks with Syria, Saudi Arabia and, yes, Iran. They are not our friends. At best, they are treacherous allies in a dangerous region. But they realize that an unstable Iraq is not in their own self-interests. In other words, while they are not our buddies, they are stakeholders in an effort to stabilize their own region. And that’s exactly how to approach them, as adversaries who happen to have a common interest with us. In the case of Iran, we will need special care. We are going to have to warn them in no uncertain terms to stop meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. But right now, the chaos our presence is bringing to that region is actually strengthening their influence among their fellow Shia. Iran is the wild card. But we won’t get them out of Iraq as long as we are there. Our presence provides rationalization for their interference in the region.

In the end, there is a real possibility that such talks may fail. Because of that we do need to leave a door open to be able to return should the situation warrant it. Again, Preble from the Cato piece:

“The jihadis will claim that the American withdrawal represents a victory for their side. But while the United States has already suffered a blow to its credibility, it is still eminently capable of defending its vital interests. An American military withdrawal would not, and must not, signal that the United States has chosen to ignore events in Iraq.

“If Iraqis wish to retain their sovereignty and independence, they must ensure that al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups do not establish a safe haven in their country. Accordingly, the withdrawal of U.S. forces must be coupled with a clear and unequivocal message to the new government of Iraq: do not threaten us or allow foreign terrorists in your country to threaten us. If you do, we will be back.”
The truth is we had a military victory long ago. And if need be, to contain a real threat to our domestic security, we are thoroughly capable of going back in to remove a genuine threat. Americans will always support our military in actions to strengthen our legitimate national security interests.

But we have also had a diplomatic failure of monumental proportions caused by a political lack of will on the part of an incompetent and arrogant administration that still places ideology above evidence and facts.

Now we’ve got to step out of Iraq but not out of the region. Iraq must solve its own political problems with the help of the international community as led by America. We do have that responsibility. But we have got to stop losing the peace. And the only way to do that is to get out of the business of occupying another country. Let me repeat what I said near the beginning of this piece: That is not defeatism. It’s common sense.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Awful Sound of a Ball Dropping - Update!

UPDATE: Since I first wrote this piece yesterday, I saw an excellent post from Catzmaw on Raising Kaine. Catzmaw is a lawyer and she explains in great detail the differences in the legal code under which a mentally ill person can be involuntarily committed and the flaws in the system.

I'm not going to try to summarize her very fine explanation. Instead, I'm just going to urge you to click on the link and read her superb diary on this subject. Thanks Catzmaw for shedding light on a topic that we cannot let fade from the public view.


Virginia definitely dropped the ball on Seung Hui Cho. And what makes this all the more disturbing is that it is not as rare as we would like to believe. According to an article in today’s Washington Post, journalists Brigid Schulte and Chris L. Jenkins report that Cho never received treatment that a judge in Blacksburg ordered for him after he was declared a danger to himself and others.

As the article points out, it is impossible to predict whether treatment would have prevented the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, but it might have averted it or at least made it far more difficult for Cho to purchase a gun.

Because of loopholes in Virginia law, Cho neither received court ordered treatment nor was he placed on a list that would have alerted gun shop owners not to sell to him. Given Cho’s serious lack of interpersonal skills, I suspect it would have been difficult for him to go out and buy illegal weapons on the street. The fact that he was so uncommunicative would have posed a serious barrier to his purchasing weapons from an illegal dealer.

But perhaps, even more important than limiting Cho’s access to weapons, timely therapy might have helped Cho back to a normal productive life. The greatest part of this tragedy was that this was a smart person who had a lot to offer society. He could have built a productive life rather than been the cause of so much destruction and tragedy.

And he’s not the first young person in Virginia for whom lack of effective mental health treatment and too easy access to guns led to a lethal result for others. Last year, Fairfax teenager, Michael Kennedy, shot and killed two police officers in a Sully District police substation after he walked out of a mental health facility. There were significant differences between the cases to be sure, but one thing was the same in both situations. These were two troubled young men whose behavior set off alarm bells among those who knew them yet didn’t receive treatment that might have saved their lives and the lives of their victims.

According to the Post, about Cho:

"Cho, they said, slipped through a porous mental health system that suffers from muddled, seldom-enforced laws and inconsistent practices. Special justices who oversee hearings such as the one for Cho said they know that some people they have ordered into treatment have not gotten it. They find out when the person "does something crazy again," in the words of one justice -- when they are brought back into court because they are considered in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.

" 'The system doesn't work well,' said Tom Diggs, executive director of the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, which has been studying the state mental health system and will report to the General Assembly next year.

"Involuntary outpatient commitments are relatively uncommon in Virginia, officials said, because those in the system know they are not enforced. They are almost an act of faith."

I think society does have to proceed carefully when declaring any person a danger to himself or herself. To be sure, forty years ago, there were terrible abuses of the mental health system.

At that time, it was far too easy for a parent to have an adult child – usually a young woman – committed to a mental hospital as a method of interfering with his offspring’s choice of lifestyle. And adult children often had an elderly parent declared mentally incompetent and sent to facilities so that they could get their hands on their parent’s money. And in general, people were simply warehoused for years in substandard back building wards rather than treated and released. And all of that lack of care often cost the state lots of money. So, the move during the 60s to de-institutionalize mental patients was viewed as humane and pragmatic. That was especially true when new generations of drugs appeared that seemed to be capable of treating serious mental disorders while allowing patients to return to normal lives.

All of that was a positive development that ended years of abuse of people’s civil liberties and returned truly mentally ill people to society as fully functioning and productive citizens. But because of past abuses, the pendulum has swung too far. In many cases, such as those in Virginia, it’s extremely difficult to impose treatment on the mentally ill against their will no matter how desperately they need it.

But mental illness, by definition, is different from diabetes or heart disease. If I want to ignore my doctor and not take insulin or a statin for cholesterol, I have the right to make an informed decision. If I want to try chanting OM instead of taking a beta-blocker to lower my blood pressure, I’m guaranteed the right to make that choice. Nobody should protect me from my choices regardless of how foolish they might be as long as I hurt nobody else in the process.

But with mental illness, the sicker you are, the less you are able to make a decision based on informed consent. Unlike a physical illness, the more serious a mental illness is, the more likely it also is that the patient is out of touch with reality. The hallmark of a serious mental illness is the fact that the patient is delusional and is incapable of choosing care for himself. Such a person does not even realize that he is sick and out of touch with reality. To be blunt, he thinks the space men really are out to kill him in a devious plot and that he is totally justified in killing all of them to save himself. It’s self-defense. And such a person may also think that you or I are those deadly space aliens posing as human beings.

That’s an extreme and very over simplified example. But the impact of some mental disorders is that they can be dangerous to others besides the individual patient. So society has an interest in and a right to restrain that patient or to compel him to get treatment.

The problem is that we have no will and little resources to do this. Some extreme libertarians will argue that it is not the government’s place to provide care to sick people. That may be a valid argument for a diabetic who isn’t a threat to others. It may even be true for somebody with a depression who poses no risk to the public. But just as nobody in their right mind would argue that we ought to let dangerous criminals out of high security prisons because it’s expensive to keep them there for their full sentences, it’s ridiculous to argue that we shouldn’t ensure treatment, whether institutionalization or outpatient, for those whose mental illness makes them dangerous to others. That’s not being punitive.

In fact, in addition to the lives of innocent victims, the dangerously mentally deranged person is also a victim whose life might be saved. But only if Virginia stops dropping the ball and instead makes treatment a priority.
But with each passing tragedy, the sound of that ball dropping is getting too deafening to ignore.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Against The Crowd

Several of my favorite bloggers have undertaken a campaign to get a shock jock, Neal Boortz, removed from some Virginia radio stations for his inflammatory remarks about the Virginia Tech shootings. By now everybody in the Virginia blogosphere has heard Mr. Boortz’s unseemly and inaccurate statements so I am not going to link to them. I don’t need to spread his venom any further.

But for anybody who did miss his remarks, he and several other pundits have said that the students at Virginia Tech were somehow to blame for the massacre that occurred there a few weeks ago because they passively lined up to die and nobody fought back or tried to stop the shooter. I’ll deal with that in another, related post. For now let me just say that that was a completely inaccurate assessment of the situation, based on early, erroneous reports. But even if the students had in fact passively complied with the demands of a crazed killer who was firing rounds of bullets from a high capacity magazine, calling them “wussies” is ridiculous. Blaming the victim in a situation like this is despicable.

Unfortunately, campaigning to get the radio stations to cancel Boortz’s show or to get his syndication to fire him is both misguided and a colossal waste of energy.

It’s misguided because it has allowed the right to hijack the debate so that it’s no longer about what Boortz said but about censorship. Somehow, instead of focusing the discussion on Boortz’s statements, refuting them and exposing him for the pompous fraud that he is, liberals have allowed him to become the victim while they are now the villains. It would be nice to blame the right for this but the truth is people who call for silencing others really do bring those charges on themselves.

And yes this time it is censorship. It’s true that by one definition censorship is when the government knocks on somebody’s door and arrests him for making controversial statements. But censorship is also engaging in a dedicated effort to get radio stations to drop somebody because you don’t like what he said. This is not really allowing the market forces to remove Boortz. It is a concerted campaign to silence him.

Whatever happened to Voltaire’s “I may not agree with what you said but, I will defend to my death your right to say it.”

On the other hand, all of the energy going into this effort to get radio stations to remove Boortz is wasted because instead we should be fighting to revive the fairness doctrine.

Despite what conservatives tell you, they are no more in favor of free speech than the left is. What they really mean is that they favor preventing anybody from interfering with their right to dominate the airwaves. But contrary to their assertions, those airwaves are not private property and never were. Private companies lease the right to broadcast over the airwaves from the government, which owns the frequencies. That’s why the FCC can control content and fine companies for indecent broadcasts, just as the Bush appointed FCC did to CBS for Janet Jackson’s half-time fashion mishap a few years ago.

Some on the right may try to make the argument that the fairness doctrine is an attempt by the left to limit free speech. However, it is anything but that. In fact, it would expand freedom of speech. All the fairness doctrine says is that some time must be set aside on public airwaves for opposing points of view.

There’s an old saying that you are free to say whatever you want, but you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. That may not be entirely true. I once attended a free speech symposium where the speaker, an ACLU member, said you should be free to yell fire as long as somebody else is right beside you to yell equally loudly, “that’s a lie; you’re safe so sit back down.”

In other words, your freedom of speech is only as secure as mine is. Each side will only stop lobbying to silence others whose opinions they dislike when there is a place for everybody to be heard.

It’s no good pontificating about free debate and the marketplace of ideas when it doesn’t actually exist. And if only one side gets to dominate the airwaves it’s not much of a marketplace. It’s more like a monopoly. And when that happens those shut out of the market will continue to shout down the other side by attempts at censorship.

Even more important, it is in the common good and absolutely vital to democracy to have a real marketplace of ideas with genuine, lively, spirited debate. And it’s especially crucial to be able to point out when somebody is spreading lies. And that’s what Boortz and others like him are doing every time they repeat the story that the students at VT did nothing to prevent Cho from shooting them.

It’s like crying fire in the crowded theater. You can either silence the shouter, or you can allow the dissenter to stand there and point out that there is no fire. One way will lead to real censorship; the other will expand freedom of speech for all and give the public a genuine marketplace of ideas. It will protect democracy by allowing the minority opinion to be heard, even against the crowd.