Reflections, September 13, 2001

Two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, holed up in my Bangkok apartment, I spewed my thoughts and feelings down on paper. I wanted to relate my perceptions for my family and friends back home. Red Smith said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  It’s true the writer has little control over what comes out and where it flows.  Well, I suppose I sat down at my computer on Sept. 13 and opened my stomach if not a vein. What came out was a bile-filled mess that spewed in every direction. It reflects at the time my ignorance, my innocence, a desire for peace, a desire for vengeance. Confusion and shock. Sorrow, hate and love. 

Indomitable, September 13, 2001

There is a large upscale mall in Bangkok called The World Trade Center.  I was reading contentedly when the phone rang.  A close Thai friend told me that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  I immediately felt a shock but not the sort of shock you did when you first heard this.  I thought she was talking about the mall.  I am ashamed to say I felt the same kind of fleeting disbelief that I feel when I hear about another bomb in the middle east.  Sadness, horror disbelief but ultimately it is another people, far away.  Killing and dying for reasons I have tried to comprehend but can not and have grown weary of trying to understand.  I imagined a small plane crashed into the lobby of the mall.  Dead people, hurt people but surreal.  Then I heard her say New York.  Then I heard her say two planes.  Then I felt my heart rate quicken.  I remembered her husband is in new york city.  My mind raced.

Thai TV didn’t help much with explanation but the images I saw were the same that you saw and that told me all there was to tell.  Then it escalated, and escalated and escalated.

Celebrating Palestinians?  I don’t care if they are Muslim, Christian or circus clowns, they are celebrating mass destruction and Massive, massive death.

How has the world come to this place.  Where did we turn, what map have we followed that has left us lost in this stark place?

What brand of person can commandeer a plane full of people and slam it into a building full of more people sending rubble pouring over the heads of still more people.  What kind of person is this?  Where is the soul?  Moreover, what kind of person witnesses this and then pours out into the street in jocular glee, handing out candy to children and neighbors in celebration of such a dire, bleak act.

You loft your hands in the air and dance in the street over the greatest single act of malicious violence in history.

Ussama Bin Laden denies involvement but states that he supports the action.  –  Then, with those words, welcome to the row.  Accept responsibility for your beliefs and opinion.  You believe in killing the innocent in the name of god.  I believe in personal religious interpretation.  I believe in establishing a personal set of morals based on  a personal relationship with god butYou are, quite frankly, wrong.  You are, quite frankly,  insane.  You do not, quite frankly, deserve the life that god has given you.  You will not break us.  You can not conquer us.  We will all die before you sink your evil fingers into our homeland.  But that is what you want isn’t it.  So, bring that aggression to us.  Come and see what we can do.  See, how lazy and complascent our fat capitalistic asses are when we are pushed in a corner.  How dare you bring your mismanaged psyche and politcs to our yard.  How dare your extort the lives of OUR brothers and sisters for YOUR asinine Jihad?  How dare you kill in the name of GOD!

If they are as Tony Blair said, “utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life” then perhaps they do not deserve the life they have been given.  Perhaps their gift should be eradicated as well.  I swear I never thought I would feel this way, I never thought I would say it and possibly even TRULY BELIEVE it in my heart, but maybe it is time to extract an eye for our eye lost.

I can’t think that way…. but I do.

Bush: “quiet unyielding anger”

We have sacrificed for your skirmishes.  WE have tried to help mend your wounds.  WE have orchestrated meetings and open fists into open arms.

Right now my infolifeline to the world is cnbc – financial news pap.  They are the best I have here and all they talk about are  issues like what will the loss of all the personnel of morgan, Stanley Dean witter, what will that loss have to do with the market and the margin rate?  This is really disgusting.  Ah, my bottom line.  My portfolio.  My stock options.  Could I potentially profit from this bleak day?

What about the mother who won’t be coming from work again ever.  The father who won’t be pull into the driveway ever again.

Bitter enemies:  My country is hated

IF I have any bitter enemies in my life they would be the motorcycle taxi drivers here in Bangkok.  Our relationship could be better described as symbiotic tolerance.  But at the end of my darkest night.  My “bitter enemy” asked me where I was from and expressed his sympathy.  I don’t know how he had heard so quickly?  But…. He was sincere and I thanked him.

They took away our favorite skyline.  L.A has its pacific sunsets.  Chicago towers over rivers and plains.  Seattle points an honorable finger to the sky, to God.  But it is New York that welcomes the promise of each new day.  The city that never sleeps is awake each day to say good morning to life.  The twin towers, those perfect rectangles that reflected sunlight like mirrored sunglasses snugly upon a confident, happy face.

Past tense.

At night, those two dark monolithic silhouettes dotted with lights in the night sky.  Eternal, or so we thought.  Past tense.

They knocked those sunglasses off our face.  They have knocked us down.  We ARE hurt.  We have never been hit like this before.  But we are NOT knocked out.  We are dizzy.  We have faltered.  We will need some time.  But we are NOT finished.

Our great monolithic towers have crumbled.  They are gone.  But these were not the strength of America.  These are not backbone of our nation.  Perhaps this is what they represented.  They were intrepid symbols of a resolute people.  The symbols are gone.  So much life was swept away with these icons.  Yet, New York, New Yorkers, Americans remain to greet the sun, to welcome the promise of each new day.  Our eyes are blackened but the sun has risen again.  We squint into the morning light and we will move on.  We will continue.  When it is all swept up and played out, we will be stronger than our enemies ever imagined.  We are indomitable.

We’ve lost brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives.  Humanity.

The Global War on Terrorism is Over!



The Global War on Terrorism is Over! The day that George W. Bush had predicted has finally come. The Global War on Terrorism is finally over and has been since March of this year. However, it didn’t come as he described, with a “complete victory” and dancing in the streets of Baghdad. No, in fact most people don’t even realize the “long war” is over. That seems strange.  Perhaps the designers and those complicit in the old Global War on Terrorism are too busy with other things these days to pat themselves on the back for their vision and foresight in foreign policy. Bush is hidden away somewhere, sucking his thumb, popping anti-depressants and dreaming of happier days at Andover. He waits for word from Cheney on what to do next – waiting for orders that will not likely come anytime soon. Cheney is busy holding his daughter up as a shield in defense of his constitutional date rape. An overly complicit Congress seems eager to put the war behind them, even if in name only. It seems the only one with any moral foothold on this Global War on Terrorism is President Barrack Obama. One of the few who opposed conducting a war on an abstract nou.  It is appropriate now that he is the man who in fact ended the war. Sadly it didn’t end gloriously like wars past, with ticker tape parades, sailors kissing pretty girls in Times Square, big smiles and a more unified world. No, in fact the Global War on Terrorism is over in name only.  It simply got a name change – the  Overseas Contingency Operation. It is ending more like that other war we don’t like to call a war, we call it a conflict instead. Hopefully it won’t end like the war that is still on the books in Korea. That war hasn’t officially ended in over 60 years. But the Global War on Terrorism is officially over, if in name only. Well, somebody had better change the signs.

There is a long stretch of highway in the American West where one is encouraged to think about wars and their names and all the men and women who have died for those wars and those titles. Driving east out of Hawthorne, NV is a harrowing experience. It is long, straight, dry and rather bleak. The entire stretch of highway is a memorial to the veterans of America’s various wars. It is a long desolate road. It is a worrisome portent that beyond the last memorial sign there is plenty more highway waiting to be dedicated to the future’s fallen. Driving the highway seems a bit like walking through a mine field. Though Highway 95 provides a flat, straight passage, the sheer volume of explosive mounds expanding in both directions keeps drivers alert with their hands gripped tightly at ten and two. The desert outside of Hawthorne is not of course dotted with explosive anti-personnel devices. Not technically. The massive underground armory caches however are patiently, if passively, waiting to be detonated, controlled or otherwise. As far as the eye can see in every direction are 12 foot mounds – entryways into underground storage bunkers, housing everything from dynamite to the highly classified unknown. This is an armory of the U.S. Government. There is some comfort in that notion. Surely, they would maintain their stockpiles responsibly. They have a long history of maintaining and utilizing those stockpiles responsibly.

An obvious reminder of this flashes rhythmically past your windows as you drive along. The signs consist of crisp white lettering on government brown, the standard uniform of the memorial highway marker. They stand perfectly perpendicular like a smart line of the very soldiers they represent. The first sign is dedicated to the veterans of World War I. Suddenly the armory stretching wide to either horizon doesn’t seem so menacing. The first “great” war was a clear example of our justified might. We didn’t even want to be a part of that war, remember? We were goaded into it when they killed that kindly old archduke and blew up that cruise ship of innocents. Everyone knows that. After a little road side reflection, the explosives there in the desert become rather comforting. This is the big stick that good old Teddy Roosevelt said we should carry, but swing only when necessary. By now the second sign is approaching. Standing tall and proud nearly saluting you as you pass – a memorial to the veterans of World War II, another worthy endeavor which solidified America’s place as keeper of the light of liberty. This war gave us what has become known as our “greatest generation” and so much more: baby boomers; rockets; satellites; computers; freedom; three immortal presidents – all these came from the greatest war of all, seemingly gifts from a divine hand. World War II, the one where America came in to save the day and ultimately to save the world. By now a drivers eyes may be misty from overwhelming pride. The rows of high mounds to the left and the right more closely resemble Arlington National Cemetery than a large scale ammunitions depository.

However, the trumpets we may be hearing suddenly blow off-note when the next sign whirs past. This memorial to the veterans of the Korean War is the first time the driver might actually think first of the veterans. And countless unnerving paradoxes. This war had lots of video footage and all of it grainy, but starkly bleak. A horrifically bloody but mostly forgotten war. A secret Chinese army with a growing Soviet agenda. Our pride after WWII was replaced by growing fears. Later, this war was given a famous comedic television show that was hilarious except for the tragic backdrop that peeked out at us and made us shiver and then turn away. There was a reason that Hawkeye, for all of his incessant humor, was preoccupied with distilling mind-numbing alcohol. Laughing all the way, he was living in hell. The Korean War is the war that ended long ago but has never actually ended. We are still stuck in the middle over there, though usually we can pretend we are not. The highway continues on a long time here with no more signs. Or perhaps it just seems so. Perhaps our foot has fallen off the gas pedal. A long stretch of reflection and the trumpets have gone silent. Arlington has become an overgrown, forgotten, haunted land and off on the northern horizon a shadow grows. A reminder of what truly lies below this ground: not our fallen heroes, but the means by which they are fallen and by which they fell others. An arsenal, a monster of our making, lying in wait, to see the light again, to burn the oxygen and rend the flesh of its creators. The next signal approaches as we knew it would. Perhaps we have subconsciously decelerated, to prolong the inevitable. The next stretch of desolate road is dedicated to the Veterans of The Vietnam War. Now the mind spirals downward. The driver has sagged down into his seat. Only a finger or two from a slumped hand remain on the steering wheel as if an inadvertent swerve off the road and into one of the explosive mounds might not be such a misfortune. Vietnam. It is hardly ever called a war. People used to insist that it was never a “war” technically. It was merely a conflict. As such, America didn’t lose the war if it wasn’t a war in the first place. Most people have given up that thread. We all just call it “Vietnam”. We say it an octave lower, giving it the grim weight that it deserves. Veterans of this “engagement” when speaking with one another call it simply “Nam”. Perhaps they are subconsciously calling it “Damn”. Yet, there are too many boys in the ground to not have it memorialized along this lonely stretch of road with all the other famous “wars”. So, it remains simply “Vietnam”. And it makes us think carefully about how we choose to label the latest deployment of the nearby garden of weaponry. Somehow the accelerator is pressed against the floorboard like the driver is trying to escape the images of Vietnam and the broken boys who came home and still linger in our lives now as old men, older than their years. We drive fast now trying to escape. Now the road has gone from flat and straight to a winding nauseating rollercoaster. The word “War’ is not to be seen again on these signs. Now we nearly run smack into a series of “Operations”. Desert Storm and Desert Shield douse us with a splash of momentarily refreshing patriotic pride. Those were good wars, er.. I mean operations. Weren’t they? We were liberators then again. Weren’t we? But didn’t those give us Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which was too difficult to say day after day. PTSD is smoother off the tongue and the mind. But we undoubtedly won that war! That was a great victory. We blazed our way to victory. No questions about Desert Storm. I mean look at the name! But in the end, weren’t those operations really about oil contracts in Kuwait? How did that sort of objective get mixed up in all of this? All this is becoming too murky, too perplexing. Perhaps we have swerved off the road at this point, because now it seems some signs are missing. If we are including military operations on this surreal stretch of highway, where are the memorials to veterans of Kosovo or Somalia? What about our dabblings in Central America? What on earth would we even call those? How many signs would be needed? Would we run out of roadway? We swerve back on the pavement frantically just in time to see the final sign erect and firm, freshly planted – the screws still shiny and clean.   Dedicated to the Veterans of the Global War on Terrorism. There’s that word again. War. We are at last fighting a war again. But war against what?! And this one isn’t even over yet. How can this be? The veterans memorialized on this stretch of highway line up further and further, day after day. Now our hands are back, firmly on the steering at ten and two and our chin is thrust forward at twelve, high noon. The floorboard is dented where the accelerator pedal has been very nearly stomped through. We drive with a mission to see how this will end. What is next on this long highway and where, by the way, does this weapons depot end? Does it go on forever? How many explosives are enough? How many others are there in other deserts, along other endless highways? How can explosives defeat terror? Isn’t that like fighting a rising flood with buckets of water? What in God’s name are our young people dying and killing for? Then suddenly the road flattens again.

A glance in the rearview shows the road stretching razor’s-edge-straight and flat into the distance behind. The earthen mounds have dissipated and nothing but vast desert scrub remains, waiting. No more underground weapons, here at least. No more smart, shiny memorial signs coming at us, for now. There is some reassurance that the Global War on Terrorism is over, even if in name only. Yet after another quick glance in the rearview, the silvery back of another sign haunts us. The driver must have missed it. No telling what it said at this point and there is no way he is turning around on this stretch of road. Was it the latest addition to this memorial parade? Will that be the latest twist on this sordid road? Memorial Highway dedicated to the Veterans of the Overseas Contingency Operation. Another operation. The same old war? Another stretch of memorialized highway and no doubt another desert garden of weapons of mass destruction to protect us from… whatever is next. Perhaps it is time to stop the car and continue on foot. Watch your step.

It’s Not a White Thing or a Black Thing. It’s An American Thing


As Barack Obama took his stage, no longer a shrewd candidate but a victorious President Elect, we could see him for all he truly is, not just that which he has projected over the past 22 months. We could clearly see, for the first time, a man walking in the shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course we have all recognized him as that before, and we all talked about it. But it wasn’t how he was defined during the campaign. It couldn’t be or he never would have taken that stage in Grant Park victorious, and there never would have been a crowd of 200,000 elated to the point of tears. He couldn’t be just an African-American candidate running on the platform of equality and human dignity. As noble and necessary and natural as those truths are, they are not the only issues that define Barack Obama. He is not only an African-American, but he is an African-American. He is not only a White-American, but he is white. After his speech in Chicago, the pundits self-consciously vacillated between the terms “African-American” and “Biracial”. Like America, there is no one term to describe who we are. Can he be both? Like Walter White, champion of the NAACP and an unquestionably courageous hero, Obama walks in two worlds. As a result he knows blacks and whites in ways we can never truly know ourselves.


Walter White (1893-1955)

Obama is in essence the best of all of us. That is not to detract from the moment when, as a victor, when the race was finally won, that he could openly embrace, as a black man, the mantle of Dr. King. Like King, he has bigger aspirations than racial equality. King saw racial equality as a natural state, made unnatural by the decree of man. Racial equality is a foregone conclusion, if we don’t hinder it. We were all mixed up about it, but it would come to be, as directed by Nature, as dictated by God. And so that equality was part of his focus. He also focused on other major issues affecting all: poverty and healthcare and unemployment. These are the issues that cross the color lines. King recognized that poverty did not discriminate, as wealth does. These are the issues that made King not just a leader of the African-American community, but of an entire nation struggling for better lives. These are the other issues that made him not a only a Racial-Rights leader but a Civil Rights leader.


It is easy to want paint him with a specific brush. But he requires a complex palette, because he took on all the complex issues not just the most obvious and shameful. He said, “We will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” This is as true of our national revulsion to racism as it is to our national revulsion to corporate greed or rape. King didn’t just march so that blacks could sit in better seats on a bus, or drink from a better water fountain. He marched also so America’s poor (black, white and all others) could receive education, employment and improved housing.

Barack Obama, too, is a man of change. Big Change. Sweeping Change. Change for all of us. This is why at Grant Park it was so important for him to evoke the memory of Martin, and the power of those uncompromising ideals. But, like King, his goals are not limited with the equality of all races. Again, these are natural. It is like dedicating your entire life to promoting the wind. The wind shall blow; all we must do is not attempt to hinder its natural path. Through Obama, the wide-reaching dreams of King are coupled with the unimaginable challenges levied by John Kennedy. Obama evoked both great leaders when he said:

I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

portrait-jfk1Obama reminded us of both great leaders, in his message, and in his character. I saw Dr. King’s Dream come true on that stage in the smiles of Obama’s daughters and Biden’s granddaughters. Their families present us a mirror on America: a mountain of experiences and a deep ocean of potential. Kennedy’s vision was apparent in Obama’s challenge to us. This is the dawn of a new age when we once again must ask what we can do for our country. The challenges ahead seem as insurmountable as the moon once had. The commitment to solve them is unwavering and eternal, requiring dedication and sacrifice. Kennedy and King never promised us a hand out. They promised us a fair shake. They promised opportunities for us to be our best, as individuals and as neighbors. They promised us the endless possibility that comes with equality and self-respect. Once again, we will be presented with this moment opportunity. What we make of it, is up to us. Together. All of us.


McCain’s Maverick Left Eye & A History of Presidential Infirmity

McCain’s Maverick Left Eye and a History of Presidential Infirmity

A few perceptive bloggers have commented on Sen. John McCain’s left eye and its tendency to buck the facial party line and do its own thing. In essence it is lately forging its own path – it is becoming clearer that McCain the Maverick may have a maverick left eye. Of course the significance here is that it calls further into question McCain’s health concerns. The maverick left eye of the maverick right-winger has some bloggers speculating about the possibility of a recent stroke. More to the point, this last bout of rumors calls into question McCain’s refusal to release his medical records as well as his choice of successor in V.P. running mate Gov. Sarah Palin. It may seem as if McCain’s health is receiving more-than-usual attention. Yet, these concerns are exacerbated by the fact that, if elected, McCain would be the oldest ascending president in American history. In fact he’d be older than reigning geriatric champ Ronald Reagan by nearly a full presidential term – and it is widely believed the younger Reagan may have suffered dementia for at least part of his administration. So, perhaps such medical scrutiny is warranted. Moreover, it is a perfect time to delve into our presidential past and dig up health records for some of our commanders-in-chief.

Presidential health concerns go all the way back to our humble beginnings as an upstart young nation. Throughout our history the Presidents’ true medical condition has always been kept from the public until after they’ve departed the highest office. But since the beginning there have been concerns. Even our, now seemingly immortal, Founding Fathers had serious medical issues. Our first president didn’t have it too bad. George Washington’s worse affliction was rotten teeth. Everyone’s heard about his wooden dentures. As the richest man in the country, he did not have to rely on comprehensive dental coverage either. His successor John Adams however didn’t have it so lucky. It is now widely believed by historians he suffered from depression. Although Adams lived to a ripe old age, doctors prescribed a diet of toast and milk. He maintained this diet for fourteen years. No wonder he was depressed. Actually depression has been quite common among our presidents. It seems all that responsibility takes its toll. Calvin Coolidge reportedly slept eleven hours a day – a result of his personal battle with depression. If George Bush’s recent appearance is any indication, he probably tries to hide under the covers as much as possible, too.

A healthy looking candidate is no safe bet either, as seemingly hale and hearty presidents have simply dropped dead. Zachary Taylor fell stone cold after eating a Fourth of July dessert. Gastroenteritis they called it, some claim assassination by poison. William Harrison died of pneumonia after serving only one month. When it’s your time, it’s your time. Often presidents suffered long battles with medical malaises. John Kennedy appeared vibrant and strong, but in fact he endured a long list of ailments. He was under constant medical supervision and treatment. Chester A. Arthur probably suffered the most painful affliction – Bright’s Disease. His years in the White House were excruciating, as the inflammation of his kidneys left him gasping for breath, chronically feverish and physically ballooned from retained body fluids.

William H. Taft suffered from a condition probably most relevant to modern Americans – hyper-obesity. He weighed in at over 400 lbs. This condition caused hypersomnolence – he’d fall asleep mid-conversation, sometimes with foreign heads of state. This was a guy that would love our America today. He’d no doubt be a Wal-Mart-and-back-in-time-for-Rachel-Rae-and-bon-bons kind of guy. However, just as he was a larger-than-life man, he was a larger-than-life public servant. Despite his obesity, he can boast a tireless record of service to our country. He was provincial governor of the Philippines and Cuba (think Bremer in Iraq). He served as U.S. Solicitor General and Secretary of War (think Paul Clement and Donald Rumsfeld). He of course served as our 27th president and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (think John Roberts… if he ate David Souter). Imagine all those people rolled up into one man. One very large man. McCain should be inspired by Taft’s ability to overcome his health issues. Yet there are two presidents in particular whom John McCain can look to for even more inspiration. The two presidents who rose above their poor health to lead our country when we needed them most were Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was in such obvious dire-straits healthwise that he purposely chose the highly popular and uncontroversial Harry Truman as his running mate. FDR worried that he wouldn’t live through his final term and he wanted to leave the country in good hands. Clearly, McCain has courageously considered this stark reality himself with his practical selection of the proven leader Sarah Palin.

As for Woodrow Wilson, he serves as an even clearer example of how best McCain can serve his country with complete disregard for his poor health. Surprisingly, this is not in reference to Wilson’s most obvious health concern – his bad teeth. Washington already proved you don’t need any teeth to lead the country, not when we have good, solid Yankee hickory. Wilson proved you can still lead, though every tooth in your skull is rotted and black. These two exemplars will serve McCain well as he too is a dentally-challenged individual. This too has not gone unnoticed within the blogosphere. No, we are not speaking about Wilson’s “busted grill”, nor McCain’s. Unbeknown to the nation, Wilson also suffered a stroke late in his presidential term. It is now thought to have been a seriously debilitating stroke, all but incapacitating the president. However, Wilson, like McCain, had a second wife and she, also like McCain’s, was very strong willed. She took on a “stewardship” role in her husband’s presidency. She is often considered more than just a first lady but “the first lady to lead our government” and often referred to as “the first female president”. In fact, she shrewdly kept V.P. Thomas Marshall from assuming power. As Wilson was essentially out-of-commission, his wife did more than stand by her man – she stood in for her man.

The presidency has been frought with illness and disease and, in at least one case, clinical insanity. Clearly health is no rationale reason to discount a candidate. No matter how critical John McCain’s real medical condition might be, the American people can be assured through our own history. Like FDR, McCain has chosen a proven leader, loved by all, to ease any devastating, unfortunate transition. And like Ellen Wilson, Cindy McCain has the grit to step in and take over should a stroke or any other malady incapacitate her husband. Either way, he is surrounded by two strong-willed, capable women – both undoubtedly ready to be the next president in one way or another. So, there is no need to worry about that little maverick left eye.

Peter J. Burns

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