Monday, December 15, 2008

Throwing Shoes at George Bush is WRONG!

It's no secret that I can't bloody stand President George W. Bush.


I object mightily, however, to the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at the President during a joint news conference with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday. Shoe-throwing may seem a small offense in comparison to the war crimes Bush stands accused of in the forum of world opinion, and ultimately, I hope, in a court of law. Bush's own wrongdoing, however, remains irrelevant.

The crux of Bush's offenses turn on his lawlessness: his unlawful invasion of Iraq and his flouting of the Geneva Convention and of the United States Constitution. Another act of lawlessness -- an assault against an individual and an act of aggression against a visiting head of state -- remains unjustifiable. Two wrongs do not make a right.

A shoe is the least of what I would like to throw at George W. Bush. More than anything, however, I would like to throw the book at him: specifically, my very thick book of United States Constitutional Law and my book of international law, including the laws against torture.

The act not only dishonored George Bush. It dishonored the office of the United States Presidency. It also dishonored the rule of law, which is the very foundation upon which civilization stands. Those proclaiming Muntader al-Zaidi a folk hero might well argue that the journalist dishonored the office no more than President Bush himself has, during his disastrous 8-year reign. That doesn't make the shoe-throwing incident right.

Those who ache for the restoration of respect for human rights must practice such respect for precisely those individuals we personally revile the most. If we cannot protect them and levy punishment in accordance with the rule of law, then we cannot protect anyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Much-Needed Ned for the United States

Barack Obama is the United States' "Ned," the guy you meet shortly after coming through a crazy, traumatic experience -- like being abandoned in a foreign country by a superjerk travel buddy or suffering through eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Just when you thought all hope was lost, this guy shows up out of nowhere and reintroduces you to what normal is and what normal feels like. Following in the wake of an ordeal that beat you down and made you wonder if you were crazy, the rediscovery of normalcy feels like a revelation:

"Oh yeah, that!"

To illustrate the meaning of Ned, I offer this story: On my post-bar-exam jaunt through Europe in late summer 1989, I had a falling out with my travel buddies. One night in Bologna, they called me to their room to advise me that I would not be welcome to join them on the next leg of what had until then been "our" trip. If I wanted to get from Italy to anywhere else on the planet, I was on my own.

I wish I could say they ditched me for having very audibly hooked up with the swarthy, green-eyed Venetian down the hall at our pensione...or for inviting the Italian Olympic skiing team to crash in our suite...or for being the one who magically never had cash when restaurant bills or admission fees turned up and who never quite got around to settling up with fellow travel mates for amounts owed. If I was going to take the penalty, it would have been nice to at least have had the pleasure of having committed a satisfying crime.

Alas, the real reason was not nearly so glamorous or fun. On the first night of our trip, before we made it out of the gate at JFK, my travel buddy -- let's call him "Dick" -- got himself arrested. Our British Air flight to London had been delayed by two hours, and our luggage had been loaded onto an earlier flight, which was now in the air, over the Pond, without us. Plus, our seat assignments on the flight, which we had booked months in advance but apparently never checked, sucked.

So of course, merely six months after the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, with our flight delayed, our baggage out there in the ether somewhere, and our seats positively sucking, it somehow made sense to Dick, standing at the check-in desk, trying to change our seat assignments, to make a joke about bombs in our bags.

I was in the waiting area reading People Magazine and blissfully unaware of the colossal act of stupidity that had just transpired behind me. As Dick returned from the check-in desk, a bunch of cops and men in burgundy polyester coats and walkie-talkies closed in around us. Next thing I knew they were putting Dick in handcuffs, taking him away to the Port Authority jail and asking me if I knew what he had said.

I must have looked sufficiently baffled, shocked and clueless to fit the profile of the "stupid little blonde girlfriend," because the cops dismissed me immediately, a development that eased my panic at the prospect of getting searched.

Then, with the law of bodily searches still so fresh in my post-bar-exam head, a dreadful realization dawned on me. We were in a fucking international airport terminal, the one place on earth other than a Turkish prison where you would have the least possible protection against against bodily invasion by law enforcement authorities. Not only could Dick and I get searched under the usual state laws of arrest and probable cause, the guys at the international airport could do a cavity search if they felt like it, just to keep in practice….

Mind you, had Dick's verbal diarrhea occurred after 9-11, we both would have woken up at Guantanamo, with our luggage blown up by the bomb squad and every orifice on our persons sore, chafed and emptied out. We were lucky.

Fortunately, this was 1989, so we simply missed our flight and spent several hours at the Port Authority jail awaiting disposition of Dick's case. By 3 or 4 a.m. the FAA and FBI had decided that Dick was more stupid than dangerous and, therefore, not worthy of their charges or time. New York State, however, slapped him with a misdemeanor, amounting to the airline version of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, gave him a court appearance date, and cleared us for departure the following morning.

Two mornings later, upon arrival at Heathrow Airport, Dick took a good ten minutes at customs while I breezed right through. This inspired Dick to make a joke about drugs in our bags.

You know how you make an ugly face, so that your mother tells you, "Don't do that, or your face will freeze like that"? From that moment on, my OMFG-I-can't-believe-how stupid-you-are expression -- the squinty eyes, the scrinched up nose, cheeks, forehead and mouth, as if I was sniffing Elizabeth New Jersey -- was permanently frozen on my face and pointed at Dick. It also didn't help that Dick kept telling me to "Shhhhhh."

It can't have felt good to be on the withering end of my holy-shit-you're-an-idiot face. By Amsterdam Dick and I started taking separate rooms at hotels. We hooked up with two other law school friends, who happened to be following about the same route as ours through Europe. Dick shared a room with them. This new arrangement seemed to take the edge off and eased tensions between Dick and me. Together we traveled from Amsterdam to Munich to Salzberg to Bologna, where our new travel mates took me aside and advised me that on our next leg to Paris, Dick's delicate psyche would require the comfort of the absence of me and my emotionally devastating face.

The next morning, they headed off to Paris and left me behind in Bologna, to fend for myself. First, I had a transatlantic cry over the phone with my obviously worried mother. Then I set out to look up another law school classmate, Ned, who had done his junior year abroad in Bologna and had returned this summer to recover from the bar.

I found Ned at a nearby pensione, one that happened to be nicer than mine and that had a vacant room right next to his. So I moved over. That day Ned took me on a tour through Bologna. As we meandered through the intimate, porticoed streets, with their reddish brown walls and pale gold and white ceilings, Ned took the time to point out all the highlights: the Piazza San Pietro, the Chiesa San Domenico, where Guido Reni is buried, the tower at the University of Bologna, where Da Vinci first used a telescope to gaze into the stars. Next we went to the University art gallery, where we saw paintings spanning from the cartoonish renderings of the medieval period, to the brilliant color and representational fidelity of the Italian Renaissance, and finally to the delicately brilliant light, elegance and lyricism of the Italian Baroque, all represented through one common theme, which Ned encapsulated perfectly in his comfortingly familiar "Lawn Guyland" accent: "Madonner-and-child, Madonner-and-child, Madonner-and-child, Madonner-and-child…."

That night Ned brought me and his guitar to one of his favorite trattorias. The food was inexpensive and delicious, and the long tables invited socializing and celebration. We discovered we knew a ton of songs in common and sang ourselves into the early morning hours. Equipped with a spiky hairdo, bigass earrings, a hearty red table wine and the voice for it, I did a mean version of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," accompanied by Ned and the laughter and applause of our Bolognese hosts.

As we wended our way back towards the pensione, a revelation came over me:

"Hey, I'm having a normal vacation!"

You know, where you have fun and don't feel self-conscious and go on adventures and actually enjoy the company of your companion.

Oh yeah, that. Normal.

The next day, Ned introduced me to Florence. Florence, Italy. First, Ned set me up at a nice, reasonably-priced, well-situated pensione in Florence. Then he took me on a tour of the city, to help me get my bearings. The attractions were too many to list, so he pointed out the key landmarks: the Duomo, the marketplace, the Piazza Della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio, and what turned out to be my favorite: the Chiesa Santa Croce, with Michelangelo's tomb and its magnificent Giotto frescos, capturing the moment when the mind of humanity turned a great, big corner: linear perspective.

Ned introduced me to the most fascinating and overwhelmingly beautiful city I had ever seen, and not once did he even remotely hint that any quid pro quo was involved. He was a perfect gentleman.

Oh yeah, gentlemen. They're good. Keep them.

Having a blast with Ned reassured me that there was nothing wrong with me that had led to my having been being so rudely ditched. I was perfectly capable of having a good time and being charming, so long as my travel buddy didn't make stupid jokes, get himself arrested, give all my potentially-searchable bodily orifices a heart attack, or tell me to "Shhhhhh."

Ned headed back to Bologna that evening and left me to explore Florence. I planned on staying there for a few days before going back to meet Ned at the end of the week and contemplate another city or heading back to the States.

That night I found myself at a lovely trattoria. Barely two pages into my novel -- (I was reading Mary McCarthy's The Group.) -- I was befriended by five absolutely adorable Italian soldiers, who paid for my dinner and entertained me enormously. Among these nubile young men was one cute little Bolognese fellow who ended up taking the train back to Bologna with me later that weekend.

The rest of my trip was a magical journey of joy and discovery. I went wherever I wanted to go, without rancor, without having to negotiate or compromise and without having to worry about cavity searches. No matter where I went to eat, I wouldn't get two pages into my book before someone struck up a conversation with me and bought me my meal. I made friends and influenced people. I had such a good time, I stretched one week in Italy out to three.

Florence immerses you so deeply and densely in art and history that it utterly overwhelms the senses. It takes time and to absorb all the visual input. On this trip, I hadn't been prepared for everything I ended up seeing. I needed time to decompress, just to sort through it and make sense of it all. I was determined to return after taking a couple years to read up and educate myself on Italy and Italian art history.

I did, in fact, return in 1991, all by myself for 21 days in Bologna and Florence. I went on a quest to find the female artists of the Italian Renaissance. I found them, along with the Italian Baroque. Met up with that little Bolognese soldier boy, too.

Back to the story. Because of Ned, I not only rediscovered normalcy, I launched into on a whole new epoch of my life, something begun when I was lost and abandoned in a foreign country. I could have returned home in defeat, but instead I ended up having a great, confidence-building adventure. Because of Ned, I discovered some of the greatest passions of my life: history, art and all things Italian. Ned not only showed me "normal," he hooked me up with transcendence. Cool.

Hey Ned, I can't remember your last name, but if you're out there, friend me on Facebook, okay? I mean, you changed my life and everything.

Now, every time I hear President-Elect Barack Obama speak, I get the same feeling of relief and revelation as I did when Ned rescued me in Bologna.

Obama talks about things like filling positions in his administration with people who are not only competent. They are the premier experts in their field. Oh yeah, looking for people who are actually qualified for their responsibilities is so sensible, so refreshing, so normal.

Today Obama said that he wants his cabinet to be filled with experts who will provide him with a variety of opinions on the issues and that he prizes "vigorous debate." So he cares about finding out what is actually going on, so he can make informed decisions, based on the facts.


This is what a President is supposed to feel like -- smart, thinks on his feet, capable of listening and giving a spontaneous, responsive answer, one that comes from his brains and heart, not from a pre-fab list of talking points.

Here is a guy who can not only tell you what newspapers he reads. He can tell you what they said and why he agrees or disagrees with them. He also can tell you who wrote the articles and what their bias or interests are likely to be. This guy can most definitely point out quite a few Supreme Court cases with which he disagrees. Why, he can show you recent Supreme Court opinions with which he agrees but which he would have analyzed and written differently, had it been up to him to write the opinion.

There's grey matter between them thar big ears! Hallelujah! What a refreshing change.

I can only hope that our journey over the next four years with the Obama Administration will turn out to be as enjoyable, revelatory and paradigm-shifting as the one I got by the good grace of Ned.