Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Trees and Children

For a few hours over the long Thanksgiving weekend I visited the neighborhood where I grew up in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Strangers live in the house I was raised in and I watched from down the street as a new Volvo pulled up. Very slowly, a gray-haired man got out of the passenger side. Every movement seemed painful and his wife came around to assist until he was steady on his feet. Then she went into the back seat and loaded up with pies, evidently their contributions to dinner with their children and, presumably, grandchildren. Well, I thought: same traditions - different family.

The house didn’t look like I remembered it and neither did the rest of the neighborhood. Of thirty houses on the street, only two had familiar names on the mailboxes out front. The field where I played baseball every summer day was covered with houses and trees even taller. The sand pit at the end of my street was forested over, as was the football field. Where I used to throw the long bomb as a young quarterback, there were trees twenty feet high or more. A lot of time had passed since my boyhood.

There were no children on the street at all. I repeat: no children. When the McLaughlin family moved in fifty years ago with six (and two more still to come), the street was crawling with kids. On a Thanksgiving Day forty years ago, a car would have to wait as boys interrupted their tag football game, and reluctantly but respectfully moved to both sides of the road to let it pass. There would be waves all around because every driver knew every kid by his first name. There would have been smaller kids on bicycles just off the pavement. Some would have had training wheels bolted to each side of the back wheel and each of those younger ones would be closely watched by an older sibling hovering close by. I saw no dogs either. Evidently, leash laws were being enforced, though they never were when I lived there. Dogs used to roam freely and each knew by scent, sight and sound who lived in the neighborhood and who didn’t.

Aside from the old couple going into what had been the McLaughlin house at 25 Euclid Road, I saw not a living soul. Little was left of the neighborhood I remembered. Little was left of the American culture of the 1950s and early 60s either. The addresses were the same, but the way of life was fundamentally different.

What used to be the Oblate Novitiate up the street is now the Oblate Infirmary and Patient Residence. There were no young men there studying for the priesthood anymore, just old priests waiting to die and be buried in the old cemetery behind. I drove around the grounds and peeked in the windows at white-haired old men, many in wheelchairs, eating Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria. One of my earliest memories was of the older Novitiate - a multistory brick building - burning to the ground one evening. The next year, the Oblates rebuilt a low, sprawling replacement building on the site because, in the late fifties, enough young men still wanted to be priests. Now, though there are plenty on other continents who want to be priests, few in North America (or Europe) do anymore.

I drove back to Lovell on Friday and it was a beautiful day. I got out the four-wheeler and explored near Shave Hill where I used to hunt nearly thirty years ago. It had been logged over a couple of times, and a half dozen homes had been built in the vicinity. I was looking for a gravel pit that was still active back then, but I had a hard time finding it. It had grown over with birch and poplar fifteen feet high and thick enough that I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it. Again I was reminded how much time had passed, even when I hadn’t been paying attention.

I recalled a day about twenty-five years ago driving through the middle of Lovell with an old man. He pointed to a pine grove across from the golf course and told me he used to gather hay there when he was a boy. I was a young man then and I was amazed at how much things could change in one man’s lifetime. Since then, that pine grove has been logged hard, twice. Now, young trees are growing up again.

Forests rejuvenate in well-understood, predictable ways. You don’t have to tell a tree how to be a tree. Humans, however, are more complicated and not nearly as predictable. It troubles me that new humans were absent in my old neighborhood where they used to be everywhere. New trees are growing where they should, but humans are not.

It’s not a good sign. Something’s wrong.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Guide For Killing Christians

Veterans of various Middle East conflicts have advised us not to go to Israel this spring, but I’m holding out. After all, there have been conflicts there throughout recorded history. “A group of Americans traveling on a bus in the West Bank would be a tempting target,” said a Navy Seal officer in San Diego last month where two of my sisters went to attend my nephew Mike’s graduation. Our itinerary would take us to Bethlehem, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Qumran - to the caves where the ancient Essenes hid the Dead Sea Scrolls - and all these are in the West Bank. There would be several days in Jerusalem and several days in northern Israel as well.

My sisters and my wife took the tour in May, 2000 and they want to go back with us, their husbands. We were supposed to go in October, but Hezbollah was rocketing Tiberius and Caesaria in the north. Now, Hamas has announced they will be targeting Americans for death because of our support of Israel.

On October 31st, Al Qaeda released an updated version of “A Guide for the Undecided on the Legitimacy of Killing Christians.” It promises that more attacks against America are coming soon and offers both an historical and theological rationale for killing Christians everywhere, especially Americans. Not good.

Weeks earlier, Al Qaeda released a manual titled “How to Fight Alone.” Frontpagemagazine.com describes it as “a how-to guide for Muslims to conduct their own ‘Jihad of One’ against the ‘Crusader-Zionists’ . . .[with] instructions on how lone Muslims can take the battle to the infidels.” Hmm. The infidels. That would be us on a bus. Crusaders without weapons.

Recommended methods for lone jihadists include “stabbing, feeding overdoses of cocaine or heroin, injecting air via needles, assassination with guns, burning down homes, putting poisonous snakes in cars, tampering with car brakes, planting explosives in vehicles, running over people, and luring people and then killing them.”

That’s not all. “The book also highly recommends poisoning targets and includes various methods of preparing and obtaining lethal toxins, including botulism. The book also gives instructions on making improvised explosives.”

It’s been over six years since the female members of my family made their pilgrimage. The September 11th attacks occurred sixteen months later and Palestinians all over Gaza and the West Bank danced in the streets when they heard the news. Why? Obviously they were happy Americans were massacred by Arab Muslims like them. The Palestinian Authority threatened western journalists who recorded the celebrations, saying they couldn’t guarantee their safety if the images were broadcast.

Here in the United States, most Americans believe a few radicals hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only Muslims we have to worry about. Any others who hate us are justified by American foreign policy, they insist. Newspaper editors who profess to champion free speech worry interminably about offending Muslims if they publish children’s cartoons of Muhammad, though they have no qualms publishing photos of a crucifix in urine or the Virgin Mary in elephant dung. Though there have been few if any attacks on Muslims in the United States, they fret about the invented syndrome “Islamophobia,” as if any American fear of Islam is irrational.

Some of us, however, are coming to believe that the only irrational fear Americans have about Islam is the fear of taking a hard look at what it is becoming. We keep repeating that Islam is a religion of peace in spite of mounting evidence that it isn’t anymore, if it ever was. We go to great lengths to deny what is staring us in the face - that Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and all the rest are very popular with Muslims all around the world. That diplomatic approaches to the Palestinian problem, the Iraqi problem, the Syrian problem and the Iranian problem amount to little but appeasement and will only postpone an inevitable showdown. We’re deathly afraid that we may well have to use our overwhelming military power to destroy our enemies. That’s what we really fear, so we continue trying to appease them. Winston Churchill summed it up a half-century ago. “The appeaser,” he said, “feeds the crocodile in the hope that it will eat him last.”

It should be pretty clear by now that a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank and Gaza is not going to appease Muslims. They want Israel gone. That’s what conservative Israelis have claimed all along but we didn’t believe it. Now we do. After 9-11 and a three years in Iraq, we know our enemies and Israel’s are the same. They will not run out of suicide bombers and they will soon have nukes if they don’t already. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll use them against Israel and against us, but when. All it will take is one to wipe out Israel and nobody knows that better than Israel.

Israelis understand crocodiles better than Americans or Europeans do. Their long history has taught them. They’re not going to feed it much longer and they’ve had nuclear weapons for decades in preparation for exactly the threat now looming. Have I painted the picture clearly enough?

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Images and Power

Picture day in middle school can be disruptive with students missing class to pose in the gym, but when the pictures come back it can get crazy. It’s best to distribute them at the end of the day. When I bring them out around dismissal time, students crowd around. Each package has a cellophane window displaying an 8X12 of a student’s face and some will grab at the package as soon as they see themselves. Then they rush to the periphery like a seagull with a morsel being chased by other students who want to get a look. Shy kids bite their lips as they wait on the fringe and then hide their package under their shirts as soon as they get it.

If I should ever take out a camera in front of any class, some students will stretch themselves toward the lens and ham it up while others will hide their faces. Human behavior changes when a camera is present. Some people get self-conscious, put on a stressed out face, and seldom produce a good picture. Tell them to smile and you get a grimace. A good photographer, though, can get the images he wants. He shoots what he likes and ignores what he doesn’t. In the edit room, the process is perfected.

Pictures are powerful. The image-makers can make people look good or make them look bad. I got an email recently called “Why Most Men Are Republicans” with attractive photos of Republican women like Peggy Noonan, Laura Ingraham, Bo Derek and Janine Turner and a few others. Below them is a set of very unflattering shots of Barbara Streisand, Helen Thomas, Susan Estrich, Janet Reno and several other Democrat women. It’s a very effective example of what selective shooting and editing portrays - not reality, but spin.

Weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek are using fewer candid photos and more staged ones. It’s obvious that subjects are posed to portray a mood as they stare at the lens. Editors have a point of view on a given story, using photos that reflect it most effectively and the results display little evidence of objectivity. The Associated Press and Reuters use stringers in the Middle East who are anything but unbiased in what they shoot, how they shoot, or how they edit.

The most ubiquitous shots are of angry Muslims burning American flags and it’s obvious they’re playing to the camera. First they burn it, then they stomp on it while others shake their fists. A critical viewer can almost hear a director shout “Lights-Camera-Action!” before each scene. So what’s the point? Muslims hate the United States. We get it. But why indulge them? Why does our media play along and give power to it week after week, year after year?

And what about that CNN tape of an American soldier getting shot by an enemy sniper team with a rifle and a video camera? CNN’s Baghdad correspondent was in contact with terrorists who slipped him the tape. We heard the snipers talking and then saw the American soldier slump in his vehicle. Why would CNN show this? Whose side are they on? This is the prostitute news network that censored itself to remain in Baghdad after the first Gulf War. After one of their cameramen was tortured, they only released what Saddam would approve - all the while pretending their reporting was objective. Now this. It’s outrageous. “CNN - The Most Trusted Name in News.” Yeah, right.

Our terrorist enemies couldn’t manipulate our media unless it was willing. There’s a symbiosis between terrorists and media whores. When Israel, America’s greatest ally in the region, was attacked by Hezbollah and Hamas last summer, nearly every mainstream media outlet in the western world broadcast an outrageous story that Israeli warplanes deliberately fired missiles at two Lebanese ambulances performing rescue operations. Though it was almost certainly a propaganda stunt staged by Hezbollah, our media played it up big. The fraud was exposed by alert bloggers including Zombie (http://www.zombietime.com/fraud/ambulance/), but too late to affect the outcome of the war. Israel was forced to pull out before destroying Hezbollah. Iran and Syria have since rearmed them and fighting will break out again soon. My scheduled trip to Israel had to be postponed and will likely have to be postponed again.

We know “The pen is mightier than the sword,” but a camera can be mightier than an army. It has great power and power corrupts. Our mainstream media is drunk with it.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gasping Gonads

Sometimes I fear Americans don’t have what it takes anymore, especially men in blue states like Massachusetts. But it didn’t use to be like that. They’ve gotten soft after years of feeling guilty about having so much in a world where so many have so little. Such thinking presumes the amount of wealth on earth is fixed, and because you have a lot, someone else is going without. Americans who think this way don’t believe that we built what we have by hard work and we deserve it, or that other parts of the world would do better to emulate us rather than resent us because they could do it too.

We used to think American culture was special. As children, we cheered watching Superman fight for “truth, justice, and the American Way.” We knew he wasn’t real, but we believed the American Way was pretty terrific, that it worked better than what other countries had, and that our strength, our inventiveness and our prosperity were the results. We invented the airplane, the light bulb, the television, and countless other things the whole world enjoys. Heck, we put a man on the moon.

In the 20th century, America became the greatest power on earth, but we didn’t create an empire. After trying to stay out of World War I, we tipped the balance against Germans and Turks. Though allies like England and France divided the spoils and added to their empires, we didn’t.

When Europe got into a mess again and Japan was taking over Asia, who bailed out the world? We did. Again, we tried for years to stay out of it, but we were attacked. So, we pulverized our enemies, then demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender. That was the American Way back then. When the war ended, we had our military deployed everywhere and nearly every other country was crippled. Our infrastructure was intact and we had sole possession of nuclear weaponry, yet we still didn’t create an empire. What did we do instead? We established and reestablished democracies in countries which had been our enemies and helped them rebuild. There’s no precedent for such unselfishness by such a powerful nation in all of recorded history.

In spite of this, many in the generation born after World War II condemn our country’s legacy. They run our universities now and instead of celebrating our proud history, they teach instead that our leaders have been selfish white men who’ve done little but oppress women, minorities, homosexuals and third-world countries everywhere. They insist that all cultures are equal, men and women are the same, there’s no such thing as absolute truth, right and wrong are relative, and the American Way is hated around the world. ROTC programs and military recruiters are banned from campuses. There are more colleges per square mile in the Boston area than anyplace on earth, so these attitudes are quite prevalent in Massachusetts.

Perhaps worst of all, they’ve permeated primary and secondary schools with their views. They try to raise our boys to believe that there’s no difference between them and little girls. If two boys fight, both are punished, even if one is a bully and the other is defending himself. They teach that fighting is always bad, even after you’re attacked. Parents of boys who don’t want to behave like the girls are encouraged to feed their sons prescription drugs. If the boys still manage to grow into men who still resist such “progressive” thinking, they’re forced to undergo “sensitivity training,” especially in such blue-state strongholds as Massachusetts, New York and San Francisco.

Now we’ve discovered that men in Massachusetts are losing testosterone. According to a recent study of 1700 Boston-area men in the January, 2007 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism and reported by Reuters, testosterone levels have dropped about one percent a year since the 1980s. “It’s likely that some sort of environmental exposure is responsible for the testosterone decline,” said Dr. Thomas Travison of the New England Research Institutes.

Environmental exposure indeed. What kind of environment have the “progressives” created down there in Massachusetts? What should we expect from a place where they don’t want to keep score at soccer games, where dodge ball and tag are banned from elementary schools, and homosexual “marriage” is invented? Looks like I got out just in time. Boys will be boys if they’re allowed to be. Raise them an environment that tries to turn them into girls and this is what you get. I’m guessing the “Boston-area men” were from Cambridge.

The article went on: “‘[Testosterone in] The entire population is shifting somewhat downward we think,’ Travison told Reuters Health. ‘We’re counting on other studies to confirm this.’” I have some suggestions, Dr. Travison. Do a red-state study in the middle of the United States away from the coasts. There you’ll find testosterone at rates you’d expect in men who haven’t been sissified. Then do another study in the San Francisco area. I suspect you’ll discover that testosterone there has declined to barely measurable levels. Lastly, compare your results with the new electoral map after Tuesday’s election and see if any correllations emerge.

If our new blue-state Congress forces a pullout from Iraq and the terrorists gain strength, will we still have what it takes to defeat our enemies? Time was we did. Now, I’m not sure.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Stormy Signs

An “Olympia Snowe for Senate” sign bounced off my hood as I waited at an intersection in Portland, Maine. Blustery winds blew leaves and campaign signs all around the city. I ran over one declaring “Baldacci for Governor” as the wind skittered it across the road and under my tires. A “Curley for Congress” sign twisted on one of its two wire legs after a gust tore the other from the earth. Weather and politics were in tumult.

A huge maple uprooted and crashed through the roof of a house next to my daughter’s on Wellington Street. I was there for the christening of Alexander John Kimble, my second grandson. The Kimbles and the McLaughlins gathered to witness the oldest Christian rite for this newest member of both our families. I remembered learning in catechism class a half century ago that Baptism cleansed us from original sin - that stain left on us after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. It seemed fitting that our purpose was to acknowledge our place and Alex’s in the spiritual world - that realm older than electoral politics and even nature itself, both of which were in turmoil that day.

How will it be for Alex as he grows up in his world, I wondered, and how will his be different from the world I’ve known? Will he be challenged as a Catholic American? Will he have to defend his heritage against Islamic onslaught? Will his generation fight to preserve it?

Entering the church later, I saw dead leaves which had blown into the narthex and were strewn around the floor. My son-in-law, Nate, had chosen his brother, Michael Kimble, as Alex’s Godfather and I recalled the Baptism scene in Coppola’s film “The Godfather.” Michael Corleone was asked “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works?” Coppola cut away after each question to scenes of Corleone’s rivals being violently slain. I remembered the brittle clouds of leaves blowing and swirling through the streets outside, and thought of the way directors used such scenes to portend evil forces prowling about. Are there sinister forces lurking in our world? President Bush claims an “Axis of Evil” threatens us and he’s ridiculed by “progressive” Democrats like those who dominate politics in Portland, Maine and in the rest of the red states. They consider such talk unenlightened at best and the president himself a simpleton. They see this election as a referendum on Bush’s vision of what threatens us.

If Republicans retain Congress next week, President Bush may take it as a vote of confidence and be more aggressive against the jihadists ordered to “kill Americans - anywhere, anyhow.” If Democrats win control, they could cut off funding for the war as they did in Vietnam thirty years ago. The Democratic left believes President Bush’s aggressive policies have not reduced terrorism but produced more. They would pull out and “Give Peace a Chance,” because, as their bumper stickers say, “War is Not The Answer.” They don’t realize that war is only the extension of politics when diplomacy fails. You either win or you lose - and we cannot afford to lose. It may not seem like a holy war for blue state “progressives” who snicker at such talk, but there can be no doubt that our enemies see it that way. They’re on a mission from God, to quote from another movie - the “Blues Brothers” - but their mission isn’t the least bit funny.

I’ve been surprised recently by how many otherwise intelligent people speculate that the World Trade Center towers were not brought down by Muslim terrorists, but by controlled demolition charges planted in the buildings by US government officials. They’re ready to believe the Bush Administration knew in advance about the attacks and allowed them as a reason to go to war. I thought only the lunatic fringe could conceive of such things, but I’ve been wrong. Such notions are more widespread than I would ever have believed possible. It’s sad to realize how divided we are in the face of our enemies. I fear sometimes the “United States” is becoming a misnomer and it may take a nuclear attack next time to make us realize the danger we face.

The storms of war will likely intensify whatever the outcome next week. If we pull out of Iraq, Islamofascists will see it as yet another victory over the infidels, the “Great Satan.” That’s how they see us by the way, in case you haven’t heard.

It’s fitting that my grandson’s Baptism prepares him for the next world as well as this one. I fear the political signs I saw flying around on that stormy Sunday could well be an omen of upheaval, political and religious. The world Alex Kimble was christened into will be not likely be peaceful.

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