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November Rants
by Ronald Bruce Meyer
A collection of opinionated thoughts not deserving of a separate page or a full essay




November 27, 2001. Scary Harry?

They sent up puffs of white smoke, indicating that the supreme one has spoken. No, no, that just means they've chosen a new pope.

They've performed ritual cannibalism and eaten the body and drunk the blood of their god. No, no, they've just taken communion.

They've spoken holy words and roused the spirit to show them special favor and intercede on their behalf. No, no, they've only said a prayer.

Hmm. Well, then, they've waved magic wands, played games on flying brooms and sent shock waves through the fundamentalist community.

Oh, yes. You must be talking about Harry Potter! But it's hard to separate the real magic from the false magic, isn't it? And that's why the fundamentalists (the American ones, that is) have again spewed fire at a series of books -- and now a movie -- for kids.

You'd think that anything that would encourage kids to put aside their Playstations and actually read... But no.

Fortunately for the fearful, some religious leaders are setting us right: they've distributed a documentary videotape called "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged." As the senior pastor at Good News Assembly of God in St. Cloud, MN, Rev. Dan Larson, intones, the stories of the boy wizard are "not just harmless entertainment." He says, "the Harry Potter books include things like human sacrifice, the possession of demon spirits and the sucking of human blood."

I haven't read the books, but I must have slept through that part of the movie. Who says fundamentalists have no imagination!

But you guys are going to give the Midwest a bad name: On the day the film opened, Rev. Larson's kindred spirits -- oh, I shouldn't have said that! -- co-religionists in Fargo, ND (motto: Kids just want to have fun -damentalism), nixed a parent-approved field trip to see the Harry Potter movie on November 16. They did this with the help of a local radio personality, who was only looking out for the kids, not the ratings.

Voldemort is Satan, you see. And if you look carefully at that puff of smoke from the magic wand you can see the face of...

Now that's imagination! But I want to tell these muggles -- oh, I can't believe I said that! -- these literal-minded folks -- to get a grip. I doubt that "we're going to lose tens of thousands of our kids to witchcraft," as one Florida psychologist says. It's futile to debate them, you see, because anyone who believes God tilts the universe your way when you flatter Him with prayer will believe anything. Even that virgins can get pregnant without having sex. I guess it's all about whose superstitions are better ones.

Witches were persecuted and burned in the Middle Age because, first of all, the churches had the power to do it (or compel the state to do it), and second, because Wicca was a competing religion. (This town jest ain't big enough for two religions, pardner.) In these more skeptical times, people put religion where it belongs (in church), got rid of their despots and replaced them with elected legislatures and -- serendipity! -- set religion free from the shackles, and often the purse strings, of the state. No one gets a monopoly, so everyone gets to choose.

Now if you believe it's good for religion to have the power to persecute and punish, then the modern age is a fearful time. Go join the Taliban... what's left of them. But if you think the modern age is OK -- with three times the average lifespan of the Middle Age, for starters -- and that your neighbor's religion (or lack of same) is not sufficiently offensive that you're tempted to crucify him, then we can probably absorb the assault of an eleven-year-old wizard on our sensibilities. He's English, anyway.

I wish Harry Potter well. On the other hand, that American magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. Maybe he's in league with the devil!

tattered flagNovember 7, 2001 Airport Insecurity
The op-eds I noticed today were on airport security. OK, it's been almost two months since 9-1-1 and not much has changed, except lines are longer. I guess I'll find out for myself on November 21. There seem to be two sides to this issue: one, originally endorsed right here in Chicago by Mr. Bush, is for federalizing airport security; the other, lead by ideological Republicans in the House of Representatives (the Senate voted 100-0 to federalize), is to keep the security in private hands but to mandate federal oversight (in other words, to change nothing). In my opinion, the federalizers have the better argument. Here's why:

Airport security cries out to be a police function, not a profit-motivated one;
The work force would be well trained, well paid, unionized (I get to why that's a virtue anon), and pensioned;
Private firms are inept as keeping us safe and secure: Argenbright, the biggest firm, has been fined for lapses several times -- they have hired convicted felons (drugs, assault, burglary, receiving stolen property), provide little training and low wages. The private security forces have turnover rates of 100%-400% in some cities. I know Atlanta-based Argenbright's name only because they have promised to mend their ways: Argenbright was fined $1.2 million in 2000 for falsifying background checks and training records of 1,300 workers in Philadelphia; another contractor, International Total Services, was fined $126,750 the same year for not doing criminal background checks on screeners in St. Louis.
We trust our lives to police, firefighters, rescue workers, blood banks, and our security and freedoms to Customs, Immigration and Naturalization, and soldiers -- every one of them a government employee and most of them unionized (the union guarantees working conditions, benefits and due process -- that is, a voice in the workplace -- workers are not allowed to strike);
Market forces do not necessarily serve the public interest -- look at the public health care system, if you need proof of that!
The arguments for maintaining privatization run like this:
The creation of a new, unresponsive federal bureaucracy (28,000 workers) is bad in itself ...BUT... that's just name-calling and it's contrary to fact: the Secret Service protects the president, so perhaps they should be contractors? Should the functions of the FBI and CIA be contracted out? How about the military -- should we employ private mercenaries, instead, to fight our war on terrorism? (As Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times (10/10), "The right's fanatical distrust of government is the central fact of American politics, even in a time of terror.")
Europe and Israel have a hybrid (public/private) security system, it is true ...BUT... the real objection is to all those democrat-leaning federal workers, since security abroad is freed of the profit motive, but here it would be be further wedded to it -- one anti-federalist op-ed said, "Think `civil service' and images of an efficient, agile, highly motivated workforce just don't pop to mind." No, images of FBI, police, fire, EMT and so on, the true parallel that escapes the commentator, pop to mind;
Another objection is the inability to fire federal workers ...BUT... that's false because doesn't (and won't) apply to federal airport security workers;
The example of FedEx vs. the USPS is thrown up as proof of the virtues of the private sector ...BUT... that's like comparing a glossary to a dictionary. FedEx charges a premium price to mostly business customers to deliver a small fraction of what the USPS delivers -- airport security is a specialty, so why wouldn't it be just as efficient as any other specialized entity?
People evade the federalized border patrol all the time ...BUT... private contractors do not have the power to arrest the violators they do catch, which is why airport security should be a law enforcement function;
As on op-ed by John R. Lott Jr. (Los Angeles Times, 10/19) puts it, "Barbers, real estate agents, doctors and others are required to meet minimum training times. In most states, you can't sell real estate without attending classes for at least six months, but no one claims that means agents should be federal employees" ...BUT... not one of these jobs involves national security and only one (doctors) deals in preventing death;
As the Chicago Tribune put it (11/7), "The real debate here is between a flexible, responsive [private] system and a rigid bureaucracy that may ultimately be more responsive to its own interests than to those of the traveling public" ...BUT... private interests are in cost-cutting, low pay, corner-cutting, and minimum standards -- will that make the air traveling public feel safer?
Lott also claims the Senate solution "would eliminate competition that could create innovative ways to protect passenger" ...BUT... is innovation really the answer, or are security methods really a known quantity and only their implementation by a law enforcement entity lacking?
Maybe we should privatize Congress -- then they could fight for an affordable private health insurer like the rest of us! I'm not sure, but I think those flight schools where the suicide terrorists learned how to fly... they were run by private companies, weren't they? But the debate was brought home to me by the following joke from a friend's e-mail:

An O'Hare Airport security guard is ordered to stop a man walking onto a plane after the metal detectors go off.
GUARD: Empty your pockets. Is that a knife?
GUARD: (patting down terrorist) And is this ANOTHER knife in your pants?
GUARD: (opening the terrorist's bag) And are these other five knives yours?
GUARD: Where do you live, sir?
TERRORIST: I'm not sure.
GUARD: Why are you carrying these weapons into a secured area, sir?
TERRORIST: I forgot I had them.
GUARD: So, let me get this straight: you carry seven knives into O'Hare, you don't know where you live and you forgot them in your bag? What are you, some kind of idiot?
TERRORIST: Me, an idiot? I'm not the one chasing down armed terrorists for $5.50 an hour!

tattered flag November 6, 2001 National ID Cards
One of the letters to the editor I read today (to the editor of Washington Post) brought to mind yet another in my list of "stupid anti-terrorism tricks": National ID Cards. Yes, I know the idea of a national ID card has been debated since the 1930s. But they were as wrong then as they are now. In my opinion, national ID cards are a license to discriminate.

The letter-writer, Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out the following problems:

ID cards would not prevent terrorism (only two of the nineteen 9-1-1 terrorists were on any watch list);
once issued, holders would be off any watch list;
they would encourage discrimination of anyone looking foreign, as did the 1985 law requiring employers to require proof of citizenship (as documented in 1990 by the GAO);
ID cards set up a national surveillance infrastructure and could potentially be used for access to everything: offices, doctors, gas stations, retail stores, highway tolls, subways and buses -- even to apply for jobs and enter an at-risk city. Think this "function creep" is far-fetched? Not really -- just look how many public and private entities require your Social Security number, which was only supposed to be an identifier to the Social Security Administration!
To this, I would add:
ID cards are just one more thing a terrorist will forge -- there's no ID on this earth that can't be forged -- and true to supply-and-demand theory, as their necessity increases, so will the profitability of an underground ID card industry (just look at how profitable the "drug war" has made the drug trade!);
here would be endless stop-and-show opportunities, and failure to carry your card could get you detained or arrested, especially if you're Latino, Asian and Arab-looking ("ID cards were used by the South African government to keep apartheid in place and by Malaysia to separate religious people by group," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center);
back in October, Larry "zero privacy" Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle, publicly endorsed a "smart" ID card -- one he would be happy to create in return for a huge government contract (ah! the profit motive!);
Ellison's wonderland version would encode such data as Social Security number, and would be linked to a federal database containing detailed personal data, including digital records of the person's thumbprint, palm print, face or eyes -- but this means card holders would be carrying around data they can't read and therefore can't correct when the inevitable errors crop up, when they are denied their rights for mysterious reasons. The various governments already have lots of data on us, but most of it is wrong. Fortunately, governments are charmingly inefficient and turf-conscious, so there's some semblance of a silver lining to this lowering cloud.
Want more?
How fast do you think the US can transform itself from a cardless society to an ID-carrying society for its 285 million residents? Don't you think there will be a lot of error in issuing cards, due to haste in instituting the system?
How expensive do you think such a system will be? Chris Christiansen, an analyst at research firm IDC, says, "If you set aside the civil liberties issues, it's very expensive, it's technologically challenging and the logistics are enormous." In other words, for technology vendors there are billions, perhaps even tens of billions, of dollars to be had from the technology and the services to make the system work -- not to mention the technical difficulty of setting it up;
And how much more like Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the Nordic countries, Mexico, and other countries -- who all have national ID cards -- does the US want to be?
Remember, this is supposed to be a war on terrorism. We have to ask ourselves one question: are we keeping our eye on the ball? There's really no substitute for an alert populace. This stupid measure will be a war on the weak, just like the current military efforts against terrorism: built on (as Guardian columnist Gary Younge put it) "assumption, presumption, prejudice, profiling, secrecy and political expediency." National ID cards won't stop crime and they won't prevent terrorism. They will hurt freedom. And even if we had had the system in place on September 11, those twin towers would still be dust.

tattered flagNovember 2, 2001. Government Secrecy
There is, I'm sorry to say, an authoritarian streak in the Bush administration. The Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune reported today what many news sources also announced: "[Court-appointed] President Bush signed an executive order Thursday [Nov 1] giving him unprecedented power to keep presidential papers secret, even those that would have been released after the 12-year wait now required by law."

The putative reason was "national security," which I predict will be the catch-all excuse for everything the administration does from now on to restrict civil liberties and the free flow of information on which a democracy depends. But there are plenty of national security safeguards written into the 1978 Presidential Records Act, a post-Watergate measure designed to prevent abuses of the national security excuse. The real reason for the gag order is that the incumbent is so callow that he has to surround himself with many of the same staff members who worked for his dad, and in the Reagan administration, and -- whaddya know? -- a lot of them are running our (undeclared) war on terrorism.

Such advisors as Elliot Abrams (of Iran-contra infamy), John Negroponte (of Honduras infamy), Secretary of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitch Daniels Jr., and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, might be embarrassed if details of their actions in previous administrations were disclosed. Well, if they did nothing wrong, what have they to fear? (That's the same argument, by the way, that "justifies" phone and e-mail snooping -- what do we have to hide?) And even White House chief counsel Alberto Gonzales said he could not give an example in which national security was jeopardized by the release of some 68,000 pages of records from the Reagan administration.

Let's see: VP Dick Cheney won't let anyone know which captains of the oil industry drafted the administration's energy policy; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell want US news organizations to shut off independent reports of the war on terrorism; Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to read our e-mail and tap our phones -- do we see a pattern here? Are we trashing our right to know and our right to privacy for false promises of security?

And for those who think these dangerous times require extraordinary national security measures, ask yourself one question: if any of these measures were in place on September 10, 2001, would even one of those 4,000-plus dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon be alive today?

I think not.

And I think we'd be a lot safer if those security cameras and "bugs" were turned away from private citizens and toward our leaders. Where is it written that government officials have (as [in]Justice Scalia is fond of pointing out) "an expectation of privacy"?

tattered flagNovember 2, 2001. Let's Face It
One of the news stories I read today ("ACLU: Face-recognition systems won't work," from ZDNet News) put into words what I had much suspected ever since hearing about the computerized face-recognition system used in Florida. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the technology was oversold. First, the software has a great deal of trouble getting a clean picture of a human face, even under ideal circumstances. Add to that the uselessness of the technology if there is no matching face in the database.

Of course, the answer to that problem is to get everyone's face into the database, right? Well, I don't think that idea will be too popular among most Americans. Well, how about just the criminals? That's fine, but most of them are in jail and won't be out on the street where the face scanners can see them. Well, then, how about just the "suspicious types"? Ah! Great idea! Except... who determines what people go on that list? And how is that category defined? Hmm. Back to the source code, I guess.

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.

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