Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/06/05)


Big Brother is spying on us. The 300-page Patriot Act was passed by Congress almost without objection in the aftermath of 9/11. Section 215 of the Act authorizes the FBI to demand from a librarian the titles of books a particular patron has borrowed. Before its passage, the government needed a warrant and probable cause to access private records. Now your public library borrowings and bookstore purchases, as well as school, bank, financial, credit, travel, video rental, phone, medical, and church, synagogue or mosque records can be searched without your knowledge or consent--if the government says it is trying to protect against terrorism.

Four years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose later departure from the Administration was unlamented by civil libertarians, called the new approach to records searching "modest and incremental." What's so alarming about the law is that the target of the investigation need not be a terror suspect so long as the government's purpose is "an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism."

Sensing a local news story in this, I called my local library to ask how many requests had been made for lists of the reading matter borrowed by local residents. "Can't tell you that," was the answer.

"Well, can you tell me whether any requests have been made?" "Can't tell you that, either."

"Then can you confirm that no requests have been made?" "Can't tell you that, either."

Scary is the word for this exchange, which reads like a page from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Not only is defiance by a librarian of the government's request for patrons' records a crime, librarians are gagged and enjoined from revealing any information about records searches. The Act gives the FBI power to make warrantless searches and obtain records of people who are not suspected of criminal activity. Section 215 and other provisions of the Patriot Act are up for extension before the end of this year. Readers who have strong feelings about this aspect of a law that takes away much of our liberty and privacy but isn't likely to get us more security in return, should tell their legislators.

Term limits. Were the founding fathers to return today and see the mess we have made of their handiwork in the government today, they would certainly shake their heads and say, "This is not what we intended at all." For example, the founders anticipated that certain members of post-Revolutionary society--farmers, artisans, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who could spare the time--would spend a term or two in Congress at the capital then in New York. Later it would move to effete Philadelphia and still later to the miasmic Potomac swamps of Washington. But they never envisioned the seniority system we have today in which the longer incumbents stay in office, the more entrenched they become and the harder they are to unseat.

Some members of Congress retire with pension benefits that would make an avaricious business leader blush. Congress, which voted universal health care for its members, denies it to constituents. In the twenty years between 1985 and 2005, Congress more than doubled its annual salary from $75,000 to $162,100, As recently as a month ago, the Senate refused to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour, a level set in 1997. Yet in the same eight-year period lawmakers voted themselves annual raises worth $28,500. Rushing to get away for the two-week Thanksgiving recess, lawmakers postponed decisions on crucial legislation yet found enough time to vote themselves another raise--to an estimated $165,200 a year.

We limit presidents, most governors and many mayors to the number of terms they can serve. Why not break the virtual stranglehold the present system gives to long-serving members and institute term limits for senators and representatives?

Copy editing. A recent editorial in a local newspaper about the right to dissent noted that Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania "won a Bronx Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam." Such a medal, if it existed, surely was earned by many police officers in the Bronx's hazardous 41st Precinct, also known as "Fort Apache" in the 1960s. "Bronze Star" is obviously what was intended. Unlike Oscars or Emmys, military personnel do not "win" medals--called "decorations" in military parlance--particularly the Purple Heart. The latter differs from other decorations in that an individual is not recommended for it; he or she is entitled to a Purple Heart upon being wounded or killed in combat.

Against the grain. According to Metro-North, the number of people taking trains out of Grand Central Terminal to the suburbs has more than doubled. The reverse commuters range from housekeepers, nannies and low-wage menial workers to investment bankers and stock traders who grew tired of manicuring lawns, endless home maintenance chores and the high cost of ownership of several automobiles. The number of reverse commuters, those who commute daily from the city to the suburbs, rose by 8 percent since the 1990s to about 270,000 passengers. When the MTA raised its fares in March, it eliminated the discount it had long offered to those heading out of New York.

Out of work. The return of U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan to civilian life has not been easy. For such veterans 20 to 24 years of age, the unemployment rate is especially high: nearly 15 percent--three times the national average. The lofty unemployment rate of young veterans is attributable to their lack of transferable skills or to little previous civilian work experience. There's not much call for long-range snipers or bomb-removal experts in civil life. The government is also worried about the number of veterans who lack a permanent address. The tragedy of homelessness among veterans persists, even when the economy is becoming robust and unemployment is comparatively low.

Ironic choice. The nickname of the Tulane University football team in New Orleans is "the Green Wave."

Statistic. It took 42 months after the start of the Vietnam War for a majority of Americans to say it was a mistake. It took only 15 months after the start of the Iraq War for a majority of Americans to say this.

For those long winter nights? Iceland, which is smaller than the state of Kentucky and has a literacy rate of 100 percent, published 212 books for each 100,000 residents last year; the U.S. figure was 63.

Big wind. A proposed windmill project on Long Island to generate electricity would replace 235,000 tons of global-warming carbon dioxide from coal- or oil-fired plants annually. But a single jumbo jet making a daily trans-Atlantic round-trip flight produces a whopping 210,000 tons of CO2 annually.

Blacksliding. There were only two black U.S. senators during the 19th century and the same number during the 20th century. Today the number of black U.S. senators is one.

Cause or effect? Thirty-five percent of born-again U.S. Christians have been divorced. Ninety percent of these splits took place after the male or female partner accepted Christ.

You can't make this stuff up. Michael Brown, discredited former head of FEMA, has started a consulting firm to advise clients on disaster preparedness.


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