Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Looking Back

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

What We Learned in 2006

The "right" in America - the pundits and the voices on the web - thinks the BBC is pro-terrorist, or at least deeply and hopelessly anti-American.  That idea has been floating around for several years. In the year after our forces toppled that statue of Saddam in Baghdad they had the temerity to report on the subsequent looting we decided wasn't a serious concern - not impressed with Donald Rumsfeld's remark that "stuff happens."  They thought it was a big deal. We were told it wasn't.

The BBC was among the first media organizations to report the start of things deteriorating, along the relatively good news - the capture of various bad guys, or their death, and the elections and new governments(s).  Looking back, one could see this "dispute" on the BBC reporting may have all started in May 2003 with the question of whether or not the rescue of the winsome Jessica Lynch was staged propaganda. The BBC was skeptical of the story the Pentagon had put out there. They called such reporting balanced, and the likes of Tony Blankley, opinion editor for the Washington Times, sputtered such reporting was close to treason on the West in the great war of our times. It turned out the BBC had it right, and the rest of the news media ended up also reporting the actual facts - but the American "right" never trusted the BBC again. No one should embarrass America. We do that well enough ourselves, it seems.  And Fox News would tell us what's what, not a bunch of twits from the UK with fruity accents and bad teeth.

That's unfortunate, as the BBC is a major news organization with deep resources. They can dig up the facts, even odd facts.  So to end the unpleasantness between our nations, as least in this matter, it may be time to point to what they make of the year just ended, in One Hundred Thing We Didn't Know Last Year.

Here they help us all with what we may have overlooked last year.  Many things came up in 2006 that we learned for the first time.  Send the link to your conservative friends. Reconciliation is possible.

Here are a few of the things you'll learn.

In the matter of sports, we now know Pele has always hated his nickname, which he says sounds like "baby-talk in Portuguese" (more details).

As for understanding the natural world better, we now know urban birds have developed a short, fast "rap style" of singing, different from their rural counterparts (more details) and cows can have regional accents, or so says a professor of phonetics, after studying cattle in Somerset (more details - but nothing on American cows).

And there's news about old Hollywood - the lion costume in the film Wizard of Oz was made from real lions (more details). Gross.

And there's news of family life. Fathers tend to determine the height of their child, mothers their weight (more details), and more than one in eight people in the United States show signs of addiction to the internet, or so says one study (more details). And what you always suspected, just twenty words make up a third of teenagers' everyday speech (more details). And you might like to know that the medical name for the part of the brain associated with teenage sulking is "superior temporal sulcus" (more details). It's not sulking - it's mild brain damage. That may not make it any more tolerable.  And by the way, left-handed people are better at computer games (more details).

It may or may not be useful to know that the Mona Lisa used to hang on the wall of Napoleon's bedroom (more details) - but perhaps you can impress someone with that tidbit.  Or, if you're one of the scientifically inclined, you can drop something else in the conversation - a common American poplar has twice as many genes as a human being (more details). Either will do.  For the literary types you can always drop another tidbit into the conversation - the word "time" is the most common noun in the English language, according to the latest Oxford dictionary (more details). Perhaps there's deep inner meaning in that, of some sort.

On a quite practical level it might be good to know what else was discovered in 2006.  Eating a small bag of potato chips a day is equivalent to drinking five liters of cooking oil each year (more details). On the other hand, it seems watching television can act as a natural painkiller for children, or say researchers from the University of Siena (more details). Parents need to know that - or maybe they already know that.  And there's documentation of the obvious - music can help reduce chronic pain by more than twenty percent and can alleviate depression by up to twenty-five percent (more details). The type of music of course matters a bit. And now we know something else - thinking about your muscles can make you stronger (more details). Really?  Now you don't have to go to the gym.

And there's news of the wider world we learned last year - in Bhutan government policy is based on Gross National Happiness and most street advertising is banned, as are tobacco and plastic bags (more details), and curiously the Maltese people are the heaviest in Europe, with a body mass index of 26.6, compared to 25.4 in the UK (more details). Did you know that Finland is the only country in the world which broadcasts the news in Latin (more details). Now you do.  Add also the Ubuntu, espoused by Bill Clinton, is the African philosophy which means "I am because you are" (more details), which might explain something or other. Note also in Japan the term "Paris syndrome" describes the psychological damage experienced by tourists shocked by the rudeness of Parisians (more details) - it seems they just don't roll with it. Damage?  Whatever.

Are you worried about the future?  Don't be. It seems that Goths, those pasty-faced teenagers with all the black clothing and studs and such, are likely to become doctors, lawyers and architects (more details). And don't worry about the past.  In the 1960s, the CIA used to watch Mission Impossible to get ideas about spying (more details), but the show is not on television any longer.

And did you know a domestic cat can frighten a black bear to climb a tree (more details)? Cool.

That's less than a quart of what was discovered in 2006 - or more precisely, what's in this list.  Can we forgive the BBC now?

Of course, something cannot be forgive easily, as Dahlia Lithwick notes in The Ten Most Outrageous Civil Liberties Violations of 2006.  Some of these have been discuss here, but it's useful to remember just what happened.

Some highlights -

    Attempt to Get Death Penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui

    Long after it was clear the hapless Frenchman was neither the "20th hijacker" nor a key plotter in the attacks of 9/11, the government pressed to execute him as a "conspirator" in those attacks. Moussaoui's alleged participation? By failing to confess to what he may have known about the plot, which may have led the government to disrupt it, Moussaoui directly caused the deaths of thousands of people. This massive overreading of the federal conspiracy laws would be laughable were the stakes not so high. Thankfully, a jury rejected the notion that Moussaoui could be executed for the crime of merely wishing there had been a real connection between himself and 9/11.

    Guantanamo Bay

    It takes a licking but it keeps on ticking. After the Supreme Court struck down the military tribunals planned to try hundreds of detainees moldering on the base, and after the president agreed that it might be a good idea to close it down, the worst public relations fiasco since the Japanese internment camps lives on. Prisoners once deemed "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth" are either quietly released (and usually set free) or still awaiting trial. The lucky 75 to be tried there will be cheered to hear that the Pentagon has just unveiled plans to build a $125 million legal complex for the hearings. The government has now officially put more thought into the design of Guantanamo's court bathrooms than the charges against its prisoners.

    The State-Secrets Doctrine

    The Bush administration's insane argument in court is that judges should dismiss entire lawsuits over many of the outrages detailed on this very list. Why? Because the outrageously illegal things are themselves matters of top-secret national security. The administration has raised this claim in relation to its adventures in secret wiretapping and its fun with extraordinary rendition. A government privilege once used to sidestep civil claims has mushroomed into sweeping immunity for the administration's sometimes criminal behavior.

    Government Snooping

    Take your pick. There's the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program wherein the president breezily authorized spying on the phone calls of innocent citizens, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FBI's TALON database shows the government has been spying on nonterrorist groups, including Quakers, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Veterans for Peace. The Patriot Act lives on. And that's just the stuff we know about.

    Extraordinary Rendition

    So, when does it start to become ordinary rendition? This government program has us FedEx-ing unindicted terror suspects abroad for interrogation/torture. Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen, was shipped off to Afghanistan for such treatment and then released without charges, based on some government confusion about his name. Heh heh. Canadian citizen Maher Arar claims he was tortured in Syria for a year, released without charges, and cleared by a Canadian commission. Attempts to vindicate the rights of such men? You'd need to circle back to the state-secrets doctrine, above.

    Abuse of Jose Padilla

    First, he was, according to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, "exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the United States." Then, he was planning to blow up apartments. Then he was just part of a vague terror conspiracy to commit jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya. Always, he was a U.S. citizen. After three and a half years, in which he was denied the most basic legal rights, it has now emerged that Padilla was either outright tortured or near-tortured. According to a recent motion, during Padilla's years of almost complete isolation, he was treated by the U.S. government to sensory and sleep deprivation, extreme cold, stress positions, threats of execution, and drugging with truth serum. Experts say he is too mentally damaged to stand trial. The Bush administration supported his motion for a mental competency assessment, in hopes that will help prevent his torture claims from ever coming to trial, or, as Yale Law School's inimitable Jack Balkin put it: "You can't believe Padilla when he says we tortured him because he's crazy from all the things we did to him."

    The Military Commissions Act of 2006

    This was the so-called compromise legislation that gave President Bush even more power than he initially had to detain and try so-called enemy combatants. He was generously handed the authority to define for himself the parameters of interrogation and torture and the responsibility to report upon it, since he'd been so good at that. What we allegedly did to Jose Padilla was once a dirty national secret. The MCA made it the law.

That's just a few of them. It was quite a year.

This item posted December 31, 2006

[Looking Back]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik