I’ve been thinking about death again. I wrote previously how our culture has become separated from death, both of people and of food animals, and our separation is interesting when you consider the violence level of our computer games or the body count in popular movies. This time, I’m going to focus on subjects of mortality other than the death of President Reagan and the varied reactions to it.

On September 7, 2004, a milestone was reached in Iraq when three solders died in fighting around Baghdad, and a fourth soldier died from wounds received the previous day. This brought the total number of Americans who have died in Iraq past 1,000 — three-quarters of these deaths related to combat. Every death is a tragedy, even deaths of villains such as Odai and Qusai Hussein — more so with the deaths of these brave American husbands and fathers, mothers and wives. Each death is a tragedy because the opportunity to do good and benefit others is now gone. This is why, while I believe in and support the death penalty, I do not believe it should be rushed into, nor should it be something we exult in, even when it happens to such sorry excuses as the Hussein brothers.

StrategyPage.com has a large list of military-related images and articles. Most images are related to the current American activities in Iraq, and because the military’s primary job is to kill people and break things, there are many images of death and destruction. WARNING: The following three links show graphic scenes of death. There is a video of an F-16 dropping a bomb in the middle of hostile Iraqis in Fallujah, or an attack helicopter engaging three insurgents with 30mm cannon fire, or a lone Iraqi being shot before he could fire his RPG at American troops. The first two are black and white, but the last is in color. I would guess the camera was 50 feet away from the Iraqi as he was shot. The last clip must have been recorded off a Spanish-language news channel because the announcer says, “La muerte en directo se han convertido en un imagen por te vean allí. Esto ocurrido en el …” This translates approximately to, “This actual death has been caught in this live image. This occurred in the…” or that general idea.

This last clip is the most dramatic image of death, and the news station probably used it as an example of how evil the American troops are to slay this poor innocent Iraqi. As much as I am saddened when people die, I can’t blame the American troops for shooting at a man who was preparing to attack and kill them. Nor can I condemn the bombing or shooting of the people in the first two videos. If you rise up armed against U.S. troops, your overall life expectancy is dramatically shortened. Consider it a law of nature, if you will. Speaking of laws, Niven’s First Law states, “Never throw shit at an armed man.” This should be translated, printed up and dropped as leaflets all over Baghdad. The corollary to this law states, “Never stand next to someone who is throwing shit at an armed man.” This corollary should be handed out to every news agency which sends its people into a war zone. It could possibly save some lives, although it is too late for Mazen Tumeisi. Tumeisi, a Palestinian journalist, died as he was filming near a burning Bradley vehicle in Baghdad as an American helicopter fired rockets on the vehicle. It is pretty standard for the military to destroy a disabled vehicle if the enemy might loot it. The last thing the military needs is for its own ordnance to be used against the troops. I have heard various media people rage about how they are fired on and sometimes killed while reporting the news. News Flash: when reporting from a war zone, standing right next to the action is dumb.

Speaking of dumb, I come to my final topic of death: euthanasia. Wesley J. Smith wrote in the Daily Standard, “In the Netherlands, 31 percent of pediatricians have killed infants. A fifth of these killings were done without the “consent” of parents. Going Dutch has never been so horrible”:

First, Dutch euthanasia advocates said that patient killing will be limited to the competent, terminally ill who ask for it. Then, when doctors began euthanizing patients who clearly were not terminally ill, sweat not, they soothed: medicalized killing will be limited to competent people with incurable illnesses or disabilities. Then, when doctors began killing patients who were depressed but not physically ill, not to worry, they told us: only competent depressed people whose desire to commit suicide is “rational” will have their deaths facilitated. Then, when doctors began killing incompetent people, such as those with Alzheimer’s, it’s all under control, they crooned: non-voluntary killing will be limited to patients who would have asked for it if they were competent.

And now they want to euthanize children.

In the Netherlands, Groningen University Hospital has decided its doctors will euthanize children under the age of 12, if doctors believe their suffering is intolerable or if they have an incurable illness. But what does that mean? In many cases, as occurs now with adults, it will become an excuse not to provide proper pain control for children who are dying of potentially agonizing maladies such as cancer, and doing away with them instead. As for those deemed “incurable”–this term is merely a euphemism for killing babies and children who are seriously disabled.

Jim Quinn, a talk show host from Pittsburgh, sums up the attitude that leads to this sort of “euthanasia”:

I have identified the basic, fundamental difference between the liberal cultural Marxist and the conservative American, and the difference is this: for the liberal every new life is a burden, another person to be educated by the State, cared for by the State, fed by the State, clothed by the State, and housed by the State. For every conservative out there a new life is a gift, another source of potential genius, another possible solution to the human condition.

“Why didn’t you send us a cure for AIDS, God?!?”

“I DID, BUT YOU ABORTED HIM.”

Have you been following the news lately? If not, let me sum up last week. On Wednesday, Dan Rather interviewed former Texas House Speaker and Lt. Governor Ben Barnes. Barnes said, “First of all, I want to say that I’m not here to bring any harm to George Bush’s reputation or his career.” (Yeah, right.) “It’s been a long time ago, but [Sid Adger, common friend of Barnes and then-Congressman George Bush] said basically would I help young George Bush get in the Air National Guard,” said Barnes. President Bush countered this revelation: “Any allegation that my dad asked for special favors is simply not true. And the former president of the United States has said that he in no way, shape or form helped me get into the National Guard. I didn’t ask anyone to help me get into the Guard either.”

Here we have two groups with completely different stories, and they can’t both be telling the truth. So how do you tell which group is lying? Well, who has something to gain if their story is believed? The Bushes, both father and son, would lose politically if it shows up that their denials are incorrect. But CBS News failed to mention that Barnes is a major Kerry supporter and donator. If Barnes’ story succeeds in blackening Bush and getting Kerry into office, Barnes stands to be rewarded with sweet political plums.

Both sides have something to gain and lose, so we must look at the facts and evidence surrounding the claims. Both Presidents Bush have denied these charges, but here’s another interesting quote from Barnes in May of this year: “I got a young man named George W. Bush into the National Guard when I was lieutenant governor of Texas, and I’m not necessarily proud of that, but I did it.” But Barnes wasn’t lieutenant governor in 1968, the year George W. entered the Texas Air National Guard. It could have been a slip of the tongue, but since this quote was used in a TV commercial, you’d think Barnes would have done a retake for a simple slip. He must have believed it when he said it.

Then CBS begins to wave around some memos apparently written by President Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. These memos purport to show that people like Brigadier General “Buck” Staudt were pressuring Killian about Bush’s service and lack thereof. For now, let’s ignore the glaring fact that Gen. Staudt had retired in 1972 and would have had no say in the Guard’s business, and focus on a bigger problem with these memos: they are fakes.

Within twelve hours of the documents being aired on the 60 Minutes II program, Internet blogging sites like Free Republic, Powerline and Little Green Footballs had dissected the memos and showed how exactly the same documents could be produced with a current copy of Microsoft Word for Windows. And you don’t have to change any of Word’s default settings to do so. What is the likelihood that a 1972-era typewriter could center, kern, line space, tab, and superscript in a way that is literally identical to the workings of a high-tech word processor used three decades later? Not likely at all. In fact, several of the bloggers have produced animated images to show how closely the documents from 1973 and modern documents relate. If you’re interested, I suggest spending some time at Little Green Footballs’ memo logs..

As a former Air Force brat, I can recognize that some of the formatting in these memos is highly suspect. Look at a stack of real military documents, and notice that the typewritten documents are all in non-proportional fonts, exactly what you’d expect from a typewriter. Notice, too, that the names and ranks show up in the same format all throughout the documents: name, rank, organization. Here’s a few examples:

MATTHEW F. HEIMAN, Lt Col, TEXANG
G B GREENE, JR, MAJGEN, USAF
WILLIE J HOOPER JR, Capt, TEXANG
JOSEPH R. JELINEK, Colonel, NGB

But none of the four memos show this format. The two with signatures are formatted thus:

JERRY B. KILLIAN
Lt. Colonel

No TEXANG, and with a period after Lt. This doesn’t fit the standard military format. Incidentally, where are the initials of the secretary who typed these memos? I don’t know if it is standard operating procedure for the military to leave the typist’s initials off memos, but if a civilian memo is typed by anyone other than the person who signs it, those initials show up. Killian’s widow has stated that he could barely type, and his son said, “It was not the nature of my father to keep private files like this, nor would it have been in his own interest to do so.” Can you believe that a man whose wife said that he did not type would create memos – casual business documents – with fancy superscripts and perfect centering, and keep them for no practical purpose? I don’t believe it either.

William Safire weighs in with his opinion that these memos “have all the earmarks of forgeries.”

It may be that CBS is the victim of a whopping journalistic hoax, besmearing a president to bring him down. What should a responsible news organization do?

To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics – from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists – demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything.

Despite all the evidence brought to light by bloggers, CBS stands behind the memos. But when the evidence can no longer be ignored that they are fake, will CBS fall by its memos? The blogosphere’s work is a legion of Davids to Dan Rather’s Goliath.

Step back, folks. He’s coming down.

Addendum (9/14/2004): Power Line has a good summation of Rathergate.

Jonah Goldberg sees Dan Rather being dealt a mortal blow with this memogate issue. And he brings up a good point: President Bush had information many times more concrete about Iraqi WMD. But Bush lied, says Rather. “Dan Rather had a couple shoddy Xeroxes – not all of which were examined thoroughly or at all. He interviewed a partisan – Ben Barnes – a huge backer of Kerry whose story has changed several times. But because many who hate Bush believe he lied, they are willing to believe any lies that confirm what they already know to be true.”

Addendum (9/15/2004): CBS releases their excuse, and Captain Ed correctly sums CBS’ stand that the memos are “accurate” but not “authentic”.

Little Green Footballs weighs in with an expanded statement on the memos.

Deacon of Power Line Blog ponders whither the major media.

Addendum (9/17/2004): Both Hindrocket of Power Line and Captain Ed of Captain’s Quarters comment on ABC interviewing Walter Staudt about his allegedly pressuring Killian about Lt. Bush.

The sound you hear is the flogging of a dead horse. The memos are fakes, and the allegations are, too, but this won’t stop both Dan Rather and CBS from busily rearranging the deck chairs of their own Titanic.

Addendum (3/9/2005): It’s the last day for Dan Rather as he ends on the same day he started 24 years ago. If this were a planned retirement, why end at 24 years and not a much better sounding 25 years? So long, Dan. Don’t let the screen door smack you on the butt as you leave.

There are moments in your life that stick in your memory forever. My grandfather remembered Pearl Harbor and the twin joys of VE Day and VJ Day. My father remembers the day that Grandpa came back from fighting in the Pacific. He also told me about anxiously listening to the radio during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, and learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and later his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

I don’t know if things really are happening faster in my life, or merely that I have lived through these experiences rather than learning about them secondhand. In my lifetime, I remember where I was the moment I heard President Reagan was shot. I watched live footage of the Challenger exploding on CNN, and wept as the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I remember the burning at Waco, Texas and the bombing two years later in Oklahoma City. The Berlin Wall coming down was a joy to see, since I had traveled through Checkpoint Charlie only a few years before. The explosion of Mount St. Helens, and the explosive LA riots showed me the level of destruction nature and man can produce. And I remember where I was as I learned about the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. It has been three years since this tragic day.

Images from that day evoke many emotions for me: anger at those who did this, sadness for those who died, and compassion for those who watched their loved ones die. I originally picked the picture of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center for this post, but I changed my mind. The firemen who raised the flag at Ground Zero are an example of Americans working to make the United States better. To make this happen, those who support, plan, and execute acts of terror need to be hunted down and stopped. President Bush has served notice to the terrorists that their days are numbered, and warned the nations of the world that harboring terrorists will bring down American retribution. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has fallen, Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is no more, and the U.S. remains free of any major terrorist attack to this day.

Will the U.S. be attacked again? Most certainly. But for three years the terrorists have been kept on the run, hiding in caves to avoid American military might. Three-fourths of al Qaeda’s leadership and structure is gone, either dead or captured. But al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group out there, and the battle to keep America safe and free from those who want us dead will continue for years, if not decades.

It will take determination, and that is the strongest feeling that the images of the September 11th attack evoke in me.

 

Some other good places to go today:
* Captain Ed writes about his view of today. He sees many of the same life-changing history events.
* Charles of Little Green Footballs writes about September 11th.

Last time I wrote about countries with single or multiple political parties. The American political system, however, is geared toward two major political parties.

George Washington decried political parties, but even before he left office, two parties had formed. To the right, I have outlined how the two major parties have shifted over the years. The first two to form were the Democrat-Republicans, centered around Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalists, centered around John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Other than the election of John Adams after Washington, the Federalists failed to elect another president from their party. By the 1820s the Federalists had atrophied and disappeared. In fact, all four candidates for president in 1824 were Democrat-Republicans. The Democrat-Republican name was awkward and often shortened to either Democrat or Republican. At the time, the name Democrat brought to mind the mob rule of revolutionary France; it was sometimes used by the Federalists in a derogatory manner. Since the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, this term was a neutral and vague title, and was generally preferred for use by the party. However, after his election in 1824, Andrew Jackson officially shortened the name of the party to Democrat. At this time, the remaining Federalists and the Democrats who opposed Andrew Jackson banded together to form the Whig party. The Whigs were strongest from 1824 to 1856, and they succeeded in electing four presidents during that time: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore.

The modern Republican party was formed in 1856 with a strong anti-slavery plank, and John Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president, ran on the platform of “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont.” This party incorporated many former Whigs, and as the Republican party ascended, the Whig party ceased to exist. With the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to be elected president. Since this time, the American presidency has passed between the Democrat and Republican parties. There have been numerous third-party candidates, mostly formed around a specific person (the “Bull Moose” party around Theodore Roosevelt, the Reform party around Ross Perot) or an idea or philosophy (Anti-Masonic, Free Soil, Greenback, Socialist), but none of these parties has succeeded in electing a candidate to the presidency or generating long-term support.

The American system works best with two large political parties. This is caused by ballot laws that promote the major parties, but also by the “winner-take-all” method of votes. Basically, winner-take-all means that in an election for a position like mayor, the candidate with the most votes will “take all” — being elected to the mayorship, while the rest get to make concession speeches. This is known as “Single-Member District Plurality” in political science, but other than poli-sci majors and Jeopardy contestants, who really cares? OK, I like Jeopardy, so here’s a great Final Jeopardy answer: “This principle asserts that a winner-take-all election system naturally leads to a two-party system.” If you said, “What is Duverger’s Law?”, you should look at competing against current Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.

People have made a big deal over Vice President Al Gore getting more votes than President George W. Bush in the 2000 election, but Americans do not elect their president based on the popular vote. The Founding Fathers of the United States were hesitant to create a true democracy, where the majority vote wins, since they knew that system is inherently unstable. Once a democracy learns it can vote itself goodies from the public coffers, the people quickly vote themselves into bankruptcy. It is also susceptible to the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the few are trampled by the mob.

Rather than the popular vote, the president is chosen by the Electoral College. The individuals in a state are not really voting for a president; they are voting for an Elector who will then vote for the candidate. Each state has the same number of Electors as it has people in Congress. So Wyoming has three Electors for its one Representative and two Senators, while California has 55 for its 53 Representatives and two Senators. In our “winner-take-all” system, the political party whose candidate gathers the most votes gets to select all the Electors for that state, except in Maine and Nebraska where the winner gets two votes (for the Senators) and the rest of the votes are distributed according to the winner of each congressional district. Confused? You can read all the trivia and history about this that your poor eyes can stand at the Electoral College’s website.

With the closely-contested election of 2000, and in pretty much every election cycle, people have discussed getting rid of the Electoral College and shifting to a nationwide election for president based on the majority of votes. While we now have the technology to do this, I believe it isn’t a good idea. First, it would require changing the Constitution, an act not easily achieved. Second, it would negatively affect states with smaller populations. Let’s pick on Wyoming with its sparse population to illustrate this. In our current system, Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes out of 538 is more than three times the percentage of Wyoming’s population divided by America’s population. In an election determined by popular vote, the candidates would only need to campaign in the most populous states and kiss off the smaller ones. But since the president represents all Americans, it’s a good idea to all states from populous California down to meager Wyoming.

Since 270 electoral votes or more are necessary to elect a president, it is critical that a presidential hopeful have the greatest number of votes in each state. In our two-party system, the voters may chose to elect either a Democrat or a Republican for president. A commonly seen corollary of Duverger’s law (and you thought I wouldn’t bring it up again) is the spoiler effect of a third-party candidate, effectively siphoning votes away from one of the two leading candidates. You could make the argument that Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run pulled enough votes away from George Bush to push Bill Clinton into the lead. This was definitely the case in the 1912 election. Theodore Roosevelt pulled enough Republican voters away to his “Bull Moose” party (officially called the Progressive party) that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected. You can spend some time (as I did) at Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections site and look at elections such as 1884, 1888, and 1892 when third-party candidates had more votes than the difference between the first two candidates. Had these third-party candidates not run, the numbers had pulled could have thrown the election either way.

My wife asked if there had ever been a third party that managed to get a president elected. In a word, no, and for a tautologous reason: once a third party succeeds in placing one of its candidates in the presidency, it has become a majority party. This last happened 144 years ago when the then four-year-old Republican party succeeded in putting Abraham Lincoln into the White House.

Even though George Washington decried political parties, envisioning the United States running just fine without any of them, parties had already begun to form as Washington left office. As political parties often form around charismatic leaders or a common idea or cause, it isn’t surprising that two parties quickly formed around the ideals of Thomas Jefferson on the one hand, and the beliefs of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams on the other. Once a party begins, it needs some recognizable name and/or symbol to make identification easier. This has led to such symbols as donkeys, elephants and eagles, and such names as Democrats, Whigs, GOP, Greens, PRI, PAN, and ungainly mouthfuls like “Workers World Party” and “We The People, American People’s Party.” (You can see a longer listing of presidential hopefuls at Politics1. My favorite longshot candidates are running on the Socialist Workers Party ticket; even if they somehow got the necessary votes to become President and Vice-President, they could not legally hold office. Roger Calero is not an American citizen, and Arrin Hawkins is younger than the Constitutionally mandated age of 35 years. Talk about a double duh for them.)

Since political parties are inevitable (and sometimes hysterically funny), just how many do we really need? Let’s look at several examples of party systems as they currently exist. In a parliamentary system, as found in most of Europe, it is easy for a small political party to gain a few seats. It is therefore extremely difficult for a single party to gather enough seats in parliament to have a majority and thus gain control of government. To attain this majority, a larger party will sometimes extend offers to smaller parties and form a coalition. You can see this in Israel as the Likud and Avoda parties form alliances with smaller religious and radical parties. Another example is nicely summarized here:

The classic historical example of this sort of multiparty system is France’s Fourth Republic (1946 – 58). In the various elections no party ever came close to obtaining a majority in the National Assembly. Therefore, governments were always the result of coalitions of many parties. These governments would last only so long as they avoided important and contentious issues. When such issues arose (as eventually they must), they would tear the coalition apart and force the resignation of the government. The net result was a government that was incapable of addressing itself to the most pressing problems facing the society. In 1958 the French, under Charles de Gaulle, ratified the Fifth Republic, which provided for a cross between a presidential and a parliamentary system and gave the president a specified term of office and extensive powers.

So if you are of the opinion “that government is best which governs least,” the parliamentary system is for you. As long as no single party gains enough control and coalitions are necessary, the government will be paralyzed, unable to make sweeping changes. Of course, such a country is also paralyzed when it comes to important problems that demand immediate action, such as war. Parliamentary coalitions, in addition to being slow to affect change, also award more influence to the smaller parties than their numbers would ordinarily allow. Since these small parties are necessary to form a coalition majority, they often engage in coalition blackmail, effectively threatening to pick up the political ball and go home; this tactic reduces the coalition below the majority numbers needed. And there seems to be no end of these parties. Check out Italy’s kajillion political parties, for example.

It is possible to go to the other extreme and have only one controlling political party. This is normally the case in repressive governments like China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In these countries, the act of voting is meaningless. Do you suppose Brezhnev or Saddam would have stepped down if the vote had ever gone against them? Fat chance of that!

But it is possible for a real democracy to have one controlling party. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, was led by just such a political party for almost 70 years. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) controlled federal and local offices in its centralized, authoritarian party. While other political parties existed, they did not have anywhere near the numbers that PRI had. In an attempt to deter some of the re-election concerns which plague and distract American presidents at the end of their first terms, Mexico has decreed that its president may only be elected to a single six-year term. Unfortunately, this law has had unintended consequences; namely, since there is no way they can be re-elected, Mexican presidents have rarely concerned themselves with public accountability during their term of office. The PRI party bosses would select the next PRI president, who would inevitably be elected. (This political tradition only changed in 1999, when PRI held its first-ever presidential primary.) Since Mexico was controlled by a single party, corruption ran rampant. My Mexican friends complained that each president, at the end of his term, would loot the national treasury and flee to another country. Since he knew he would be followed by another PRI president and protected by PRI people in every level of government, he never feared being brought to justice for his actions.

The PRI stranglehold on political control started to fail in the 1980s, as the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN) won its first state governorship. This was considered about as meaningful to Mexican politics as the Minnesota governorship of Jesse Ventura was to the USA, but it did indicate changes to come. In 1988, PRI managed to retain control of the presidency thanks to widely-claimed “voting irregularities” (read: voter fraud), but a year later it lost six state governorships. In 1997, PRI lost majority control of the lower house of the legislature, and the mayorship of Mexico City also slipped out of PRI control. Finally, in July 2000, the Alianza por Cambio (Alliance for Change) was successful in electing PAN candidate Vicente Fox Quesada to the presidency. This broke a cycle of PRI presidents unchallenged since 1929.

Thus far I have examined foreign governments, both those run by multiple parties and those controlled by a single party. In my next article I will discuss the American two-party system, its history and its benefits to society.