July 11, 2008

The Banality of Idiocy

For a couple of minutes there yesterday, I watched President Bush address the nation on the most current, desperate financial crisis in America, the implosion of the two big government-chartered mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie & Freddie sound like a couple of lovable losers in a British sitcom, but they're actually a couple of unlovable losers in the American subprime fiasco. They once played a starring role in Bush's "ownership society," but that was then. They're lucky if they can get a cameo spot in an infomercial now.

I didn't switch Bush off; he only talked for a couple of minutes. He had just met, or at least said he had, with that genial banker-about-town Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury. I've looked but I've been unable to find a transcript of the entirety of Bush's remarks, brief though they were. Here's what was available on the White House website:

"I want to thank you all very much for your briefing. These are tough economic times for the American citizens. There is a way forward to help relieve some of the pressure on their pocketbooks. And I'm looking forward to seeing -- watching this Congress respond in a positive way."

That is indeed the essence of his remarks, although it lacks some of the defining quality of Bush commentary. What I like to call the "descriptive meaningless." We've all heard examples of it. While in China at a G-8 summit, Bush reportedly told the President of China that China and Russia were "big countries." I don't see how any honest person could disagree with Bush's statement. Or why the President of China would need to be told. In his verbatim remarks this morning, Bush did the following:

1. Confirmed that he had just met with Paulson.
2. Stated that Paulson and his team (Bernanke, et al.) were "working the problem very hard" with Fannie & Freddie.
3. Confirmed that Fannie and Freddie were "important."
4. Said what's indicated up above, that these were "tough economic times."
5. Congratulated Secretary Paulson on sending out a lot of stimulus checks, and cited the number of checks, which Paulson must have just told him (in order to demonstrate Paulson was trying to do something to keep the country from unraveling completely.) Bush said consumers were spending this money.
5. Cited the cost of oil as one of the reasons for our troubles, and said the high price was caused by supply and demand.
6. Said that Congress should not go home for the August break until we're drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska's wild life reserve.

He then thanked us all for coming.

It's as if Bush, upon entering a room, would feel the need to name the furniture. Wrinkling his brow and squinting fiercely with those small eyes, Bush looks around the parlor: "That's a couch," he says. "There's some chairs there, by that table, and then there's the table itself. On the floor, down below us, is a rug, which covers the floor. Then there's some lamps, on these, which are end tables. Thank you all for coming out."

Somewhere along the way, Bush was told by one of his image-creators that he needs to stay away from anything remotely abstract, such as using words to express intellectual concepts. Thus, he is reduced to naming the actual events which have just occurred and applying a generic, uninformative adjective to (a) the event and (b) the subject, if any, which was discussed at the event. Let' see how these instructions are actually put into play by the bozo running our government:

Paulson came by to talk to Bush, and Bush confirmed that he did. He thanked his Secretary of the Treasury for telling him about how bad things are in America. Then he said the Secretary had sent out a lot of checks, and recited the number. Then he said the Secretary and the Fed Chairman were working on the problem "very hard." Then he said the two government-backed mortgage companies were "important."

That actually concluded the "briefing." Bush, however, being a mean and vindictive little man who absolutely hates the widespread, completely accurate perception that he's grossly incompetent and has driven the country into an economic ditch, could not resist blaming things on the "Democrat" Congress. Thus, he wanted Americans to know, the ones enduring the "tough economic times" which Bush has been absolutely incapable of alleviating, that the "pressure on their pocketbooks" could be relieved by a "way forward," namely, lifting the ban on drilling off American coasts and in the ANWR. Bush did not mention that the most optimistic estimates of the effect of this effort would not be felt until about 2018, at which point the "pressure on American pocketbooks" would presumably have reached 5,000 lbs. per square inch. And even then, the oil production would have a marginal effect on the price of gasoline in that distant future, when it might cost $1,000 to fill up the family Tercel.

So again, to sum up, because I'm trying to get a handle on this guy: Bush had just been informed that a couple of major pillars in the American financial structure had crumbled and collapsed, rotted out by worthless loans and overwhelming liabilities. Presumably, Paulson had also told him that IndyMac Bank would be seized later that day by federal regulators to stop a bank run (one of many were going to be seeing over the next few months). The Dow Jones is slightly above 11,000, which measured against the Dow Bush inherited, minus the government's own lala-land inflation figure, means it's worth 15% less than when he took the oath in 2001. The euro is just shy of $1.60 American. Oil is at an all-time high, touching $146/bbl at one point on Friday. When the federal budget deficit is honestly tabulated at the end of the year (refusing to count the Social Security surplus as part of general revenue, in other words), and if the "stimulus [bribe] package" is added to the costs of bail-outs of huge financial institutions, and enormous ongoing costs of Bush's twin wars, all financed with borrowed money -- we'll be lucky if it doesn't add up to $1 trillion.

And what Bush proposes doing is drilling offshore. That's it. Stay in Iraq, make the tax cuts permanent, and drill offshore. Just what constituency do you think he might be serving? At this point, I only hope the worst happens before he can sneak out of town. After all, that was the purpose of the Bribe Program; to allow Bush to slither out the back way from the White House just ahead of the roof falling completely in.

July 10, 2008

The Ungrateful Nouri: Return of the Sultan

This guy is really starting to piss George off. He doesn't understand how the game is played with The Decider. Kind of like Mo Green in "The Godfather:" "You don't buy me out. I buy you out." Check out the latest token of Nouri al-Maliki's epic ingratitude:

"BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq's national security adviser said Tuesday his country will not accept any security deal with the United States unless it contains specific dates for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces. The comments by Mouwaffak al-Rubaie were the strongest yet by an Iraqi official about the deal now under negotiation with U.S. officials. They came a day after Iraq's prime minister first said publicly that he expects the pending troop deal with the United States to have some type of timetable for withdrawal. President Bush has said he opposes a timetable. The White House said Monday it did not believe Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was proposing a rigid timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals."

My favorite part, of course, is where President Bush "opposes a timetable." He's always opposed a timetable. It's worked with that group of Scyphozoa of the phylum Cnidaria (you know them as jellyfish) otherwise known as the Democratic majority in Congress, Man O' War Harry Reid, and Steny "the Stomolophus meleagris " Hoyer and the other invertebrates who keep caving into Bush. They timidly tried suggesting timetables in funding legislation but Bush told them to stop it. "Take 'em out!" he snarled, and they quickly did so, expelling water from their combination mouth/anus to propel themselves away to safety (Cnidaria have incomplete digestive systems so that one orifice does double duty - you know, they really should run for Congress).

Of course, Nouri's just being political. Provincial elections are coming up in the fall and he knows that the overwhelming majority of everyday Iraqis want Americans out of their country. On the order of two-thirds, and they've felt that way for a long time. As wonderful as we've been, they can't seem to wait till we're gone. The party that delivers on ousting the foreign occupiers has the inside track on loading up the local governing councils with their sectarian cronies.

Meanwhile, Bush is finding this whole thing a revoltin' development. The oil deals, at long last, were beginning to fall into place, just ahead of the United Nations eviction notice on December 31, 2008. We lose our legal cover for occupying Iraq after that, and you know what a stickler Bush is for doing things legally. And you probably also appreciate why this thing is such an 11th hour rush job; it's a quality shared by many alcoholics. He procrastinates and just can't seem to get things done. Look around the country and the world and see all the stuff he's left undone, things he started work on seven years ago and then put aside. Two-state solution for Israel/Palestine? He's workin' on it. Rebuilding New Orleans? Remember the Big Speech in Jackson Square? Ummmm.... I was just about to do that! Balance the budget? 30% of the national debt accumulated in the history of the country has accrued under Bush's "stewardship." Capture Osama bin Laden? Bring a single prisoner to trial in Guantanamo after he rushed through that Military Commissions Act in the fall of 2006? Look, I meant to tell you, I was going to do that next week...The one thing the dude's good at is getting Congress to pass bills exonerating him from past criminal conduct. I'll give him that. He spends an inordinate amount of time doing it, and I don't why Congress keeps complying...well, I do actually. Note that "Godfather" reference. Cheney must have watched that a hundred times, I'll betcha. The idea is you make everybody (or key players in the leadership, like Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman) into "made men." Brief them on illegal wiretapping, spell out the torture techniques years before anyone else knows, and then you've got them. What are they gonna do? They have to let you off the hook.

But Nouri is from, shall we say, a different tradition. Worked in the anti-Saddam Shiite underground, a very dangerous line of work, with a .000000000000000000000000000000001% margin of error, the penalty being a sulfuric acid transfusion. Nouri's were not the kind of mean streets where Steny and Nancy and Harry made their bones. A little more real, shall we say. Grittier. A desperate situation for Nancy Pelosi would be the discovery of a phylloxera infestation at one of her vineyard properties up in the wine country. Nouri, on the other hand, probably knows more about hardball than even L'il George himself, whose knowledge of the subject is typified by his decision to trade Sammy Sosa. So if we want to stay in Iraq under the terms of a Status of Forces Agreement after January 1, 2009, it's going to be on Nouri's terms, and I think The Decider will find that his veto power does not extend too far out into the Atlantic, and certainly not across the Tigris & Euphrates. There may be a phased withdrawal, it may take a few years, but I think Nouri is going to get us out of there unless we can get Nouri out of there first and replace him with someone a little more malleable, a more Chalabi-esque Arab perhaps.

But here's a bet: I think ol' Nouri can see that one coming. He survived by staying one step ahead of the occupiers for a long time, after all. He's working on his home turf, and I doubt that those elections in the fall are going to be tabulated on Diebold machines.

July 09, 2008

Never Mind Details, Barack - Just Give Us Some of that Change!

I just have to admit it: Barack is beginning to give me an uneasy feeling. In his campaign, he promised to filibuster any FISA re-write legislation that contained retroactive immunity for telecom companies that cooperated in President George Bush's program of felonious wiretapping. Here's what his campaign had to say in October, 2007: "To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies." That's clear, all right. Let's imagine it in action. A bill comes to the floor of the Senate which contains retroactive immunity for telecom companies which cooperated in President George W. Bush's program of felonious wiretapping. Under these circumstances, how should Senator Obama react in order to fulfill his campaign pledge? Let's make it multiple choice to simplify the test. Barack should:

A. Filibuster the legislation to keep it from becoming law.
B. Move up the schedule for his trip to Iraq so he can skip the debate and vote.
C. Vote for cloture so that all debate (including filibustering) is brought to an end.
D. Vote for cloture and then vote for the bill granting immunity to telecom companies for their cooperation in President George W. Bush's program of
felonious wiretapping.

Well, we can certainly eliminate C. That's a position directly contrary to filibustering. D. is a ridiculous suggestion; of course Barack would not end all debate and then proceed to vote for a bill to which he was so opposed he was going to stop it from coming to a vote at all. B's out; he's not in Iraq. But they voted on Wednesday, and there was no filibuster, so A doesn't work. Hmmm. I think I'll just flip to the back of the book and get the answer, because the suspense is killing me.

The correct answer is D.


Okay, I already knew, and ever since I found out, I've been trying to rationalize my way around his complete reversal of position. A few posts back, I took his, ahem, flip-flop as an aberration necessary for debating John W. McCain; you can't be such a softie on terrorists that you insist on compliance with the Bill of Rights in the government's relationship with its citizens. Hell, what is this? Denmark? We've got wars to fight and Muslims to kill, and if an American is talking on the phone overseas or sending an e-mail somewhere outside the borders (and here's a little secret for you: if an American is talking on the phone to anyone or sending an e-mail anywhere), he's just got to realize that Big Brother is watching. It's for your own good. Who knows what you're up to? Well, the Feds are going to find out because we've just done away with the two pesky impediments to free-for-all government spying: the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment.

Maybe it was unrealistic to think the Bill of Rights could survive nineteen Arabs, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, commandeering our own planes and knocking buildings down, killing a lot of people. That was just a deal-breaker. For some reason. So the modern, post-9/11 Republican and Democratic Parties now operate in a new arena, one where Constitutional rules simply no longer apply. We're just winging it from here on out. That is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole. Senators such as Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania take to the floor of the Senate and declare, in grandiloquent prose, that it is unconstitutional to eliminate habeas corpus through the Military Commissions Act. He then proceeds to vote for the bill, despite his oath of office, which is to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. And every Senator who voted yesterday, including Barack Obama, for the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures without a duly authorized warrant also violated his or her oath of office (and thanks again, Dianne Feinstein, for selling out your liberal constituency here in California).

It is very dangerous to operate without legal principles, without a Constitutional framework. We're told, however, that this is all just normal politics. Take this post yesterday on the Huffingtonpost from someone named Peter Clothier, who advises that our misperceptions about what's going on owe to brain-hemisphere problems:

"We progressives need to get our left and right brains working together, and to do this means first recognizing the conflict, which amounts to a significant "left brain" misunderstanding about what Obama stands for. Obama believes it is less important to defeat Republicans on every issue than to repair government so that good ideas can begin to flourish again."

So that's it: I'm using the wrong half of my brain. Clothier says that liberals need to let go of their "pet issues" and see the bigger picture. Barack is a centrist who's going to unite the country and work in a truly bipartisan way. Okay. But what is going to be the basis of that unity? Barack Obama has declared a truly astounding "centrism" lately, on a wide array of constitutional issues. For this is the slippery slope we're on: protection of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution has become a "pet issue" of those on the Left. Let's let it go so we finally get some "good government" to solve real problems. Or, let's execute mentally retarded child rapists. Never mind the Eighth Amendment, we need "good government." While we're at it, let's not worry too much about the First Amendment, with its separation of church and state. If we get fixated on it, we'll lose out on a chance at good government. The Second Amendment interpretation of Justice Scalia was ridiculous and impossible to apply rationally; that's okay, why do we need the 2nd, if we don't need the 1st, 4th or 8th? You know, actually the 5th Amendment's due process clause is kind of in the way too, and it was certainly ignored in the Jose Padilla case. Let's throw that out. Now we're getting somewhere. We're on the way to Good Government!

The kicker, of course, is that on every one of these issues, John McCain is much, much worse. With the Maverick, we go way beyond a congenital indifference to unconstitutional activity, as we have with Bush -- McCain doesn't even know what the Constitution says.

I'm not going to pile on Barack Obama. His fund raising has taken a serious hit as disillusioned supporters emotionally process all of this. All that's needed to revive his candidacy is to listen to McCain some more, maybe another hilarious joke about weaponized cigarettes exported to Iran.

What's that word the kids use? Whatever.

I see why they use it.

July 08, 2008

Newton's Laws Applied to the American Body Politic

Drawn back ceaselessly on a tide of inertia...where was I? Recently viewed the film, "Gonzo," about the life and fractious times of Hunter S. Thompson, innovative journalist, model for Duke in "Doonesbury," gun enthusiast, titanic drinker and drug-taker, chronicler of the death of the American Dream. He drank a quart of Wild Turkey a day just to keep his parts oiled, and that was before he mellowed out with hash, grass and God knows what else, as detailed in dizzying vividness in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps his trademark book.

Despite his air of world-weary (and hungover) cynicism, he did become a staunch supporter and completely subjective flack when it came to the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. He believed in him, genuinely, admiringly. I did too, actually. It says a lot about the currency of my own ideas on America that McGovern was utterly pummeled by a gangster and war criminal, Richard M. Nixon, truly one of the despicable characters in American political history. McGovern carried the state of Massachusetts; that's it. The two-bit crook and Commie-baiter won everything else.

The movie makes a pretty good case, as seen through the jaundiced and often delirious prose of Hunter S. Thompson, that the American dream flicked it in about 1968. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, on the heels of the Tet Offensive, followed by the riots in Chicago, the secret, criminal bombing of Cambodia, Four Dead in Ohio, and the flattening of George McGovern. That's an awful lot of negative mojo. When the Palestinian assassin Sirhan Sirhan murdered Bobby Kennedy, the country was only 17 years past the great speech of Dwight D. Eisenhower warning of the perils of the military-industrial complex. McGovern listened to him; he wanted to end the business of "old men sitting in rooms dreaming up wars for young men to die in," and he wanted to make massive cuts in defense spending and use the resources saved to implement universal health care and improve the social safety net. As a genuine war hero, a pilot of B-25s who flew the full complement of his bombing missions during World War II, McGovern had the unassailable credibility to challenge the MIC. A Democratic operative interviewed for the movie said it simply: "With that platform in this country, all I can say is: Good luck."

So now forty years later, we see that the U.S. is bound up inextricably, immovably, by Newton's First Law of Motion: I. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

America is stuck in a militarized state of uniform motion it cannot alter. The motion of the country is toward war and more war, defense spending and more defense spending, security measure piled on top of security measure. At a moment when the nation's chief climatologist, James Hansen, is warning us that the next few years will be make-or-break for climate tipping points; when the seas are becoming too acidic to support coral reefs or the bottom of the marine food chain; when bees and bats are mysteriously disappearing from the ecosphere for reasons the mainstream government and media are not even curious about, we spend our time thinking about the influence of Iran on Iraq's internal affairs, and whether our security might be enhanced by yet another preemptive war.

So go back to Newton's Law and notice how he describes the force which changes the motion vector: external. I think in our case what will finally break the back of the military-industrial stranglehold on the nation is that largest of all external forces, Reality itself, soon to visit a force arrow near you.

July 07, 2008

Gee, What Could Be Making Those Salmon Die Off Like That?

Where have all the salmon gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the salmon gone,
Long time ago.
Where have all the salmon gone,
Down to the bottom, everyone,
When will we ever learn?
When will we ev--er learn?
- with a nod to Pete Seeger.

Wild Pacific salmon have pretty much disappeared from the West Coast fisheries. You can still get the farm variety, but people are reticent to eat fish which swim around in their own shit all day. The option, for awhile, was to eat Pacific salmon which swam around in acid all day, out in the Deep Blue, but that door is closing now, too. I did notice that the San Francisco Chronicle actually carried an article on Saturday, July 5, about the problem of ocean acidification. Right on schedule. I heard Dr. Inez Fung from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory give a detailed presentation on the details of this problem just about exactly two years ago at the China-U.S. Climate Conference. One of her points was that the temperature change problem, the global warming hypothesis, was one issue which, while not actually debatable, gets debated because ExxonMobil and other companies, foundations and CongressWhores working hard to kill off humanity can argue "we can't even tell what the weather will be next week," or "sun spots!" or "natural cycles!" And the human race goes back to sleep while another chunk of Antarctica the size of Russia goes spooo-lash! into the Southern Ocean. But ocean acidification is a little different, Inez ruefully explained. It's not hard to figure out why the oceans are becoming acid -- it's because of all the CO2 we're putting into the atmosphere.

It's nice to understand things at a basic level, even when the thing you're understanding maybe means you're going to die. Humans are just naturally curious that way. This is from Realclimate.org, that redoubtable website that bravely swims against an incoming tide of human stupidity and massive corporate fraud. First, how do you make carbonic acid? Simple, really. Take CO2 and add water, H2O, to form carbonic acid, H2CO3. Count 'em up; the H2 is there, the C is there, and the O2 became O3.

Realclimate continues:

"An acid is a chemical type that releases H+ ions into solution, as does H2CO3 to form HCO3- and CO32-. Adding CO2 to water causes the pH to drop. Coral reefs are built from limestone by the reaction Ca2+ + CO32- == CaCO3, where Ca is calcium. Acidifying the ocean decreases the concentration of CO32- ions, which by le Chatlier’s principle shifts the equilibrium toward the left, tending to dissolve CaCO3. Note that this is a sort of counter-intuitive result, that adding CO2 should make reefs dissolve rather than pushing carbon into making more reefs. It’s all because of those H+ ions."

Unfortunately for those of us who love the taste of wild salmon (with a nice dill sauce and a squeeze of lemon), and even more unfortunately for the fleets of Pacific salmon fishermen, salmon depend heavily upon a species of plankton which builds a calcium carbonate shell. The plankton are having a harder time building their shells now because of a raw materials shortage, as noted above, and they're at the bottom of a very long food chain.

Different theories have been advanced to explain the disappearance of the salmon. The one I've sketched out is very unpopular with fishermen and Sacramento politicians, who prefer to think the salmon are infected with a gill bacteria which has caused a die-off, or water diversion from the Delta area, or perhaps the salmon are simply on strike this year, seeking better swimming and spawning conditions. It's better if they're right and the acidification hypothesis is wrong, because the acidity of the oceans is a permanent condition. If this is the reason, waiting till next year won't help. Nor the next. As we sit here in California beneath smoke-filled skies, skies which have not produced a drop of rain since late February, with the entire state on fire because of the crackling aridity, we're beginning to get the idea that things have really changed.

July 06, 2008

The Terrorist Threat in America

The first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred in 1993, while Bill Clinton was President. Six people died when a urea/nitrate bomb enhanced with hydrogen exploded beneath Tower One. Investigators concluded that the principal operatives behind the attack were two Kuwaitis, Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, his uncle. Ramzi Yousef is serving a life sentence in the federal Supermax facility in Colorado, and KSM is awaiting trial by military commission in Guantanamo for his role in the attacks of September 11.

In 1995 Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols exploded a urea/nitrate bomb enhanced with hydrogen in Oklahoma City, destroying the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people. McVeigh was executed and Nichols is serving a life sentence. At the time of the OK City attack, it was the deadliest terrorist incident in United States history. It was, of course, eclipsed by the attacks of 9/11, which succeeded in the object of Yousef's plan: to topple the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

That is more or less a complete list of the big terrorist attacks against the United States homeland in modern times. There have been other attacks against U.S. possessions and facilities overseas, of course, and Americans have been killed there, including two embassies in Africa, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the U.S.S. Cole.

I have a simple question to which I doubt that I will ever get a meaningful, let alone definitive, answer from any responsible government official: just how serious is the threat of Islamic terrorism against the United States?

Vice President Dick Cheney often points out that there have been no attacks on the U.S. homeland since September 11, 2001 (which occurred, not mentioned as often, during the Bush/Cheney Administration). Cheney doubts that this is a "coincidence." He believes that the absence of further terrorist incidents owes to stepped-up security measures. Of course, it is also true that there were no Islamic terrorist attacks within United States borders between 1993 and 2001, a period longer than the surcease to which Cheney proudly points, and during this period the whole issue of "national security" was not the front-and-center, 24/7 Fortress America Reality Show it has become under Bush/Cheney.

That's what I wonder about. Have Bush & Cheney frightened away all terrorists, or interdicted all their plots, or, another possibility -- is the threat overblown?

One way in which I think we have been paradoxically blessed is that the Man Who Declared War on America, Osama bin Laden, seems to me a kind of Jihadist Drama Queen. He doesn't like plots that aren't showy and spectacular. He needs to take down a whole embassy, or the Capitol Building, or - and here he succeeded by joining the Mohammed/Yousef conspiracy already in progress - the World Trade Center. Big Symbols of American Power. He doesn't want to knock over Taco Bells or 7/11's, even though far more Americans identify with chain stores than with the World Trade Center. He doesn't send jihadis to blow up gas stations, or drop bombs in post office boxes, or, taking it up one notch, to park and detonate a panel truck as McVeigh/Nichols did. Or, more pertinently, al-Qaeda does not engage in the systematic bombing of buses and cafes in the United States, as Arab terrorists have done in Israel, even though American security is completely lax compared to the Israeli equivalent in such situations.

The effect of bin Laden's actual attacks has been aided immeasurably, I think, by the reaction of the Bush/Cheney group. The decision of the Bush Administration to politicize the terrorist attacks for partisan advantage, and to use them as illegitimate cover for an unrelated war in Iraq, greatly exacerbated the effects which the events of 9/11 would otherwise have had. I don't know if bin Laden actually "foresaw" all that. Sometimes he's given qualities that are more properly ascribed to fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes's nemesis, Dr. Moriarty. America actually "got over" the 9/11 attacks, in terms of economic recovery, in a reasonably efficient manner. What we're struggling unsuccessfully to overcome now, as the economy disintegrates, is the effect of Bush's reactions to the attacks.

If a group of Islamic terrorists actually (a) existed and (b) were capable of inflicting real damage against the American homeland and (c) were motivated to do so against the United States, common sense tells you it would be happening right now. Terrorists don't really need spectacular events to disrupt and paralyze the U.S. Recalling such episodes as the D.C. Sniper or the anthrax attacks of October, 2001, it seems that the kind of attack or crime wave that most disrupts everyday life here (as it would most places, as it has done in Baghdad) is the random, small-scale event that makes everyone wary, causes them to change habits, instills suspicion and pervasive fear. Regardless of what Dick Cheney says, it isn't really possible to stop such attacks in a bustling, crowded, anonymous place such as a large American city. The anthrax episode was never solved, for example. Smaller scale bombing in American city centers is probably not a great deal more complicated logistically than the drive-by shootings that are part of the normal abnormal life in Oakland, California and South Central L.A. It simply requires the will to do so.

It's generally conceded that American borders are like a sieve; thus, a terrorist can enter the country, if he's really determined. The wherewithal to build bombs (as McVeigh and Nichols did) can be obtained. It is estimated that there are as many guns available in the U.S. as there are Americans - freely accessed, thanks to our rights vouchsafed by the Second Amendment and Justice Antonin Scalia. And America is full of crowded downtowns, where bombs and guns can do terrible damage.

Things like that don't happen. Our streets are not like Baghdad's during the worst of the sectarian violence, or like Israel's during the Intifada. I don't think most of us expect random acts of terrorist violence to happen, except as a rare (and regrettably spectacular) occurrence. Yet I don't think we could actually stop terrorists from small-scale attacks any more than we can bring an end to all violent crime in America. Does that not say something about the true nature and extent of this endless obsession that dominates our budgeting and national priorities?