Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

By What Small Men

This is by no means an essay about politics. My political leanings have nothing to do with this. Nothing.

Today, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 torture program. Actually what the Committee released was a summary of its actual report. The summary was 528 pages long. The report itself is more than 6,000 pages long.

I’m trying to decide if I have six thousand pages’ worth of details in my whole life. Verbose as I may be.

Five years of investigation have yielded a report that condemns CIA personnel who ran the torture program during the George W. Bush presidential administration. (That program has been called the “enhanced interrogation program” by many; but in one of his columns (to be found at esquire.com/blogs/politics/) today, political writer Charlie Pierce wrote, “[a]nyone who still calls this ‘enhanced interrogation’ is an idiot and a coward and I have no time for them.” He’s right, and that phrase will not be used here, not that I’d planned on it.)

True, the CIA has a reputation for carrying out intelligence endeavors without checking in with any of the actual branches of American government; but it was specifically authorized to carry out this program by Justice Department lawyers David Addington and John Yoo, among others.

[T]he Justice Department drafted memos providing the brutal program with a veneer of legality,” said the Senate report. And by this time, many articles and books have been written which identify the people within the Bush administration who fully supported the various legal memoranda which were created to justify all this genuine awfulness, this inhuman activity to be carried out by humans against other humans.

On the one hand, during the Nuremburg trials after World War II, no quarter was given to Nazi personnel who claimed to be “merely following orders”. Sorry, said the prosecutors; that doesn’t cut it. That won’t get you off the hook. Perhaps we can’t know what kind of pressure was exerted upon Nazis who ranked anywhere below Hitler (it may have been difficult to just resign), or upon American intelligence personnel who were authorized to do this, this, and this to prisoners in order to interrogate them fully.

As Charlie Pierce also noted today, there are plenty of CIA agents who have been properly excoriated for what they actually did, but who may also be feeling thrown under the bus somewhat – at the very least because the people, the leaders, whose orders they were carrying out appear to have largely escaped the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ire, at least within their report. Many CIA personnel are done; meanwhile, their superiors of that time are still being interviewed on CNN, are still giving speeches, and astonishingly are still being asked for their opinions about what American foreign policy should be and how it should be carried out.

Great. Thanks to them, the United States of America has ceded the moral high ground in international relations for a good long while.

There are a number of writers, whose work I have read in the last 48 hours, who suggest that all this was not merely done “in our name” … which is bad enough … but that it was done by us, the United States of America, and we all bear responsibility.

Sorry, but I reject this idea. I didn’t authorize such miserable things, and you likely didn’t. My friends wouldn’t have, and I bet your friends wouldn’t have either. Most decently-adjusted people wouldn’t.

Sound a little naïve? Perhaps.

But beyond such lofty, American-history-class thoughts as “our representative government has failed us”, and “if we can only muster 30 percent turnout in an election, then we get the government we deserve”, and such … I can’t think of a single person that I know personally, in any of my spheres of life – family, personal, professional – who would consider any of the torture techniques of the Bush years as remotely okay, never mind actually participate in them.

I’m willing to bet that even some of the people who jump on the Internet and post genuinely awful comments in the comment sections … even some of the people who make chest-thumping noises about taking people they don’t agree with and doing horrible things to them just because they believe something different … even some of the Ted Nugents of the world … … if push came to shove, I’d still bet that the vast, vast, VAST majority of those people would still physically buckle if given the instruction to actually commit the acts that the Senate report detailed, themselves, with their own hands.

(I know, I know, there are all those intriguing science experiments wherein people were instructed to administer electric shocks to other people who gave wrong quiz answers and those shock-administering people’s behavior seemed to suggest that the veneer of civilization can be thin indeed. My delicate mind would prefer that those didn’t exist, this moment. And the book Lord of the Flies, as well.)

I’ve written previously in this space about empathy, or the lack thereof. There are those, assuredly, who do lack. But I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of American citizens still possess some … enough, at least, to recoil from orders like those that the CIA agents were given. I’d be willing to hope so, at least. Again, this probably brands me as naïve.

The people in the higher echelons of the Bush Administration – knowing that they wouldn’t ever have to be the ones to use their own hands in this effort – didn’t flinch. They figuratively pulled the trigger. According to a lot of articles and books that I’ve read in the past few years, they did so enthusiastically.

Which brings me to yesterday’s New York Times editorial page.

In it, there’s an op-ed piece (found at nytimes.com/2014/12/09/opinion/pardon-bush-and-those-who-tortured.html?_r=0) by Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; an essay which makes a remarkable suggestion (for an ACLU leader; and for anyone who has been supportive of any effort to prosecute the bastards):

Before President George W. Bush left office, a group of conservatives lobbied the White House to grant pardons to the officials who had planned and authorized the United States torture program. My organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, found the proposal repugnant. Along with eight other human rights groups, we sent a letter to Mr. Bush arguing that granting pardons would undermine the rule of law and prevent Americans from learning what had been done in their names.

But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.”

The way to establish this, Mr. Romero said, is indeed to pardon these people for authorizing and ordering the torture. After all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?

Clever, these natives.

I am hugely conflicted about this idea.

At first, I recoiled as much as Mr. Romero did. A pardon, to some, might imply exoneration … might suppose a lifting of guilt … and, in extreme interpretations, might even suggest forgiveness.

No. No, damn it.

The current President, whom I admire, and who upon his inauguration immediately instructed the CIA to knock off the torture … nonetheless feared political fallout too greatly to put into action the means of holding the proper people accountable for the policies they justified and the orders they gave. And now, for many (although not all) of these people, the statute of limitations has run out. That’s one of the things that I can not appreciate Mr. Obama for. Maybe there were backroom Beltway highest-levels-of-government so-secret-even-the-Prez-knows-little-of-them reasons why it was a fool’s errand to even think that such holding-accountable would ever happen. I’m not a conspiracy theorist; but my God, there are days …

He hasn’t – or, all right, we haven’t – even been able to properly try and convict the Addingtons and Yoos and Rumsfelds and Rices yet. A pardon could give them the idea that they’ve dodged the biggest bullet of their lives. Unless they don’t require that idea. Unless, as former Vice President Dick Cheney takes every possible televised opportunity to insist, they feel that if they had it to do all over again they’d not change a thing because it was justified and correct and right and so am I.

This interpretation of a pardon strikes me, at least, as unfair: because those who might be pardoned don’t deserve this peace of mind – not after what they put other people through. Not just the other people who were on the receiving end of the torture, but the other people who went to fight wars (utilizing intelligence, gathered from tortured prisoners, which has been shown to be inaccurate and useless and therefore actively unhelpful to them), and to die, and to leave behind families to grieve and never get their loved ones back (or just return physically and psychologically damaged) and wonder what in the hell it was any good for.

Then I got thinking … maybe, just maybe the pardon really would do what President Obama has not: label these people, unequivocally, once and for all, as criminals. “An explicit pardon would lay down a marker, signaling to those considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted,” wrote Mr. Romero.

And after all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?

The jury inside my head is still out.

But what makes me certain that at the end of this particular figurative day, the label of “criminal” needs to be assigned, and made to stick, is this:

Former President George W. Bush approved these measures. Captain goes down with the ship. Fish rots from the head. Name your aphorism; it’s all there.

Nations would be terrified if they knew by what small men they are in reality ruled.”  -Charles de Gaulle

Oh! …That’s a good one, too.

In his remarkable book, “Bush on the Couch”, professor of clinical psychology Dr. Justin A. Frank created a psychoanalyst’s profile of Mr. Bush, tracing his character from childhood through presidency. He utilized a startling amount of circumstantial evidence to identify and analyze Bush’s patterns of thought, action, and communication.

Two of Frank’s cited anecdotes stand out, to me:

First, this. In May 2000, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof quoted Bush’s childhood friend Terry Throckmorton: “’We were terrible to animals,’ recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. ‘Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,’ Mr. Throckmorton said. ‘Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.’”

As Baltimore Sun reporter Miriam Miedzian subsequently wrote in September 2000: “So when he was a kid, George W. enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up. Should this be cause for alarm? How relevant is a man’s childhood behavior to what he is like as an adult? And in this case, to what he would be like as president of the United States?” Dr. Frank lays out why he thinks it’s very relevant indeed.

And second, this. Dr. Frank references commentator Tucker Carlson’s interview with then-Texas Governor Bush about how his state’s Board of Pardons had arrived at the determination of the clemency plea of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker. During the interview, Bush alluded to a TV interview which Tucker had given to Larry King. Carlson wrote:

In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, ‘A number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.’

‘Did you meet with any of them?’ I ask.

Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them,” he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for [the interview]. I watched his interview with [Karla Faye] Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’”

What was her answer?” I wonder.

‘Please,’” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “’don’t kill me.’”

I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.”

The former President was interviewed this past Sunday on CNN, as news of the Senate torture report’s impending release was spreading. He said this:

We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots, and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Their contributions to this country, Mr. Bush, were both inhumane acts on a personal level and also disastrous acts on a foreign-policy level, on an international-relations level, and on a less-intellectually-driven, patriotic-music-laden “what this great nation stands for” level.

And since you (and your Administration colleagues) gave the orders, gave the okay, pulled the trigger … that means that those contributions are your contributions.

And if you think that this means that, via the commutative property, you are a patriot? …

I beg your pardon.

December 9, 2014 Posted by | books, civil rights, current events, Famous Persons, government, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life Upon the Wicked Stage

Last night, NBC ran the second in what, with luck, will continue to be their series of live televised broadcasts of classic American musicals. Last year, it was “The Sound of Music Live”. This year, “Peter Pan Live”.

Mild irony alert: I missed last night’s appearance of Christopher Walken as Captain Hook because … I was running a choir rehearsal.

Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, I guess.

Although in a way, I really didn’t miss it. When I got home from rehearsal, it was still in the process of wrapping up. I climbed onto the local computer and checked in on my online social media world – and got the idea of what had gone on. As I scrolled down in my News Feed, the News was very clear:

The production was lame.

It was also great.

It really depended on whose comments I was reading at any given moment.

It is … a puzzlement!”

I have been known to live-blog a televised event or two. The Super Bowl. The Presidential Inauguration. Spike TV’s holiday Star Wars marathon. The local Conservation Commission’s meeting on cable access.

Okay, that last one I made up. I went to that one live, before I had a mobile Internet device. And oh, the live-blogging that might have transpired. Good thing it didn’t, in retrospect.

Which, in an odd way, is the point here.

With live-blogging comes snark. Seemingly, with almost everything up to and including State of the Union addresses, comes snark.

Sometimes, the snark is great entertainment. Sometimes, it’s counterproductive only in that “look, that kid is trying hard to sing that song and we should encourage because for heaven’s sake, she’s four years old, cut her a break, hey?” way.

Why do you guys gotta act like there’s a war on?!”

Sometimes at the same time as being great punchlines, the snark is legitimate and honest critique: that was an unfortunate choice of wardrobe … does he know he’s addressing adults? … you cross-checked that guy four times and you didn’t think he’d come back at you? …

I saw a bit of “The Sound of Music Live” last year, and presenting the role of Maria was Carrie Underwood, who rose to fame via “American Idol” and seemed to be more of a publicity hire than a merit hire, at least to the various musical theater professionals who populate my Facebook news feed. She was striving mightily, and it’s true, there is both risk and reward in live television, never mind live televised musical theater where you cannot go back and run that tune again.

But I imagined a small legion of Carrie Underwood fans tuning in because they knew her, and ended up knowing that “The Sound of Music” was, you know, a thing.

I can’t criticize that strategy on the part of NBC. Let’s just say that as a kid, I discovered a few other worthy artistic projects strictly because they featured a certain guy who had previously played a pointy-eared Vulcan.

And this year, the word was that Captain Hook was going to be played by an actor whose range, as far as I know, is “a great Christopher Walken impression and exactly nothing else”. This weekend, I plan to scour YouTube for his performance from last night. As I posted when I first read that Mr. Walken was going to portray the good Captain:

‘… I–! … hate I hate I, hate Peter. PAN!’”

But I digress. And for all I know, Walken may have nailed it. Or “made it his own”. Or provided the audience with many great unintentional laughs. Either way, guaranteed someone experienced Neverland because they’d been a big fan of “The Deer Hunter” or “Pulp Fiction” or, dear heaven, “A View to a Kill”. And again, NBC was counting on that.

It has to be drummed in your dear little ear…”

True, the casting could have included an actor or two with some previous Broadway experience, to satisfy those of us who would prefer Great Performances full of bona fide tread-the-boards Skill Sets.

But if Chris Walken or Carrie Underwood or, hypothetically, Pee Wee Herman drags the viewers in, raises the ratings, and encourages NBC to do this sort of thing more than twice in a row … so be it.

This, from the fellow (me) who positively cringed when the Drum Corps International finals broadcast, in the early 1990s, featured color commentary by legendary sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy. To be perfectly honest, Gowdy suffered from a combined case of “didn’t do his homework regarding ‘what is this marching band (oi!) thing?’” and “talks about everything using professional sports cliches”. He was abysmal, and somehow DCI chose to keep him into the broadcast for what felt like seventeen summers in a row. (Actually just five.) But they did so hoping that average Americans might hear the voice and stick with the show for a while, and get sucked in.

To some, young man, my charms have far from waned.”

Because as happens when time passes and the current generation is, in a great many ways, far removed from the past. There are far too many American kids who have no idea what this means:

Liza! Where the devil are my slippers?”

Or this:

Shall I tell you what I think of you? You’re spoiled!”

Or this:

Tote dat barge! Lift that bale! Git a little drunk, an’ you land in jail…”

So, while I don’t know how “Peter Pan Live” went, last night, except that some of my friends thought it was an embarrassment and others posted pictures of their kids watching the broadcast in costume (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with friends like this, nationwide!) … and while I’m sure that a lot of Broadway professionals were probably rightly thinking, “who greenlit this casting decision, that lighting decision, this makeup job, that flying rig, this choice of scenes to cut,” etc. etc. … with any luck, NBC will get the opportunity to screw up many more classic American musicals.

[UPDATE: This just in, as of this very morning: NBC has announced that it’ll be “The Music Man Live” in 2015. Me? I’m lobbying for “The King and I Live”, but I have very little say in the matter. Somehow I don’t think “Cabaret Live” or “Hair Live” are in the pipeline anytime soon, which is a damn shame. Oh well…]

Because what American stage producers in the 1940s and 1950s did when they combined the concepts of operetta, vaudeville and gesamtkunstwerk is unique in the world, and some of the particular instances of that art form are among the truly towering works that humanity has ever come up with.

And more people need to know that “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” exist, let alone what they say.

So, some of us need to take a deep breath, mutter, “okay then, Walken,” and know that if this morning, one kid went to elementary school and said to their teacher or friends, “did you SEE Peter Pan FLY last NIGHT?!”, it’ll have been worth it.

After all, “I’m Flying” is just a gateway to …

Life Upon the Wicked Stage” … “The Little Things You Do Together” …

You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” … “A Boy Like That” …

You Were Dead, You Know” … “It Ain’t Necessarily So” …

Children Will Listen” … “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” …

…I got a little more than dough ridin’ on this one.”

December 5, 2014 Posted by | arts, celebrity, music, social media, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hold Off, Part 3A -or- Note To Self

A couple of days ago, I published a piece in this space which, I admit, could be seen as rather “look-down-your-nose” … as something of an “I’m so much of a better person than this other person” screed … as a classic piece of self-inflating claptrap.

I don’t think it was quite that “lookit meeeeeee!”; but I grant you, it could be taken that way.

I was commenting on the recent takedown of the Obama daughters by a Congressional staffer which, as so many viral items do, was first noted on an Internet news analysis website – but, unlike most of those clickbait-titled items (“Fifteen Photos That Will Blow Your Mind”), it was picked up by the New York Daily News and commented upon by the Washington Post, and after that, well, it was off to the races.

My point was: be careful what you post. Because even if you thought it was funny or meaningful or pointed in and of itself, in a vacuum … well, it might be worthwhile to let it sit and marinate for awhile, such that you can look at it in the cold morning light and still think it’s appropriate to post or publish or say.

The aforementioned Congressional staffer’s aforementioned takedown was at least nominally driven by how she thought the Obama daughters weren’t dressed in a classy enough way for the White House event they were attending, and how she thought they ought to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.” In short, yes, they’re in their “awful teen years”, but they should still project an image of class, dignity, and appropriateness. So sayeth the Congressional staffer.

The Congressional staffer is now famous for that takedown and nothing else.

Well … almost nothing else.

The Republican congressional aide who castigated the Obama daughters for their lack of ‘class’ and dressing as if they were angling for a ‘spot at a bar’ was once arrested for larceny during her own ‘awful teen years,’ court records show.”

My first thought, after reading this: “Glass houses, folks.”

My next thought, thereafter: the slogan from one of those wonderful De-motivation posters. “It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.”

My original point stands.

December 3, 2014 Posted by | current events, Facebook, Famous Persons, Internet, media, news, social media | , , , | Leave a comment

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