Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Power of History

History has power, whether it’s factual or in a distorted form. It can be a positive force or a negative one. Those who distort history seek power as shown in two recent examples: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims the Holocaust never happened. The late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat claimed there never was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon or by Herod. Many Muslims are taught this kind of history across the Middle East and believe it. Consequently, they see Israelis as evil invaders with no right to exist. For them, such distortions justify “wiping Israel off the map” as Ahmadinejad and Arab leaders threaten. Palestinians have already done so literally - the maps used by Palestinian schoolchildren do not depict the state of Israel - only Palestine. In these two cases, rewriting history would seem preliminary to perpetrating a second Holocaust.

Israel exists today because one of the first acts of the newly-created United Nations was to recognize Israel as a country in 1948. The western world felt pity for Jews because of what Nazis did to them. An ancient people, Jews had lived in what is now Israel for more than a thousand years before being dispersed around the world in the Great Diaspora after rebelling against the Roman Empire. It was Rome that destroyed the second Temple built by King Herod. Although a small number of Jews remained in the Holy Land after the Diaspora, most endured as residents of other countries - where they suffered countless persecutions for two more millennia. Some Jews became Zionists around the beginning of the 20th century and returned to their ancestral homeland in relatively small numbers. After World War II this trickle became a flood and the new Israel became a reality.

Dore Gold was Israel’s UN Ambassador from 1997-99. In an interview about his recent book, “The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City” he said, “I felt it was necessary to respond to the charges that Yassir Arafat made at the end of the Camp David summit in July 2000 that denied the core of our Judeo-Christian heritage. As you might remember he tried to assert that there never had been a Temple in Jerusalem. But what he essentially did was to throw a stone of historical lies into a lake and its ripples spread all over the Middle East.”

If Palestinian Arabs can be convinced that the Nation of Israel was foisted upon them out the blue by western countries acting through the United Nations, they can be convinced that their suicide-bomber sons who kill Israelis are heroes who will enjoy their virgins in Paradise. If other Arab Muslims can be convinced that their socioeconomic backwardness is a result of historical western oppression, recruitment of suicide-bombers and other terrorists to kill Jews and Americans will be much easier. That’s power gained through both selective history and distorted interpretations of history.

Soviet schoolchildren were taught that Russians invented the light bulb, the radio, the television, and many other things actually invented in the west. Soviet citizens grew up believing communism wonderful, capitalism evil, and that communism would eventually spread over the whole world. Thus they were willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to accomplish it. That’s power gained in the same way - distorting history.

Other people selectively interpret history to justify their inertia in the present. Some of my Irish ancestors were accustomed to blaming British oppression for whatever miserable circumstances in which they found themselves. The British certainly did oppress the Irish for centuries, but even though Britain’s domination had been over for generations, many Irish held on to it as an excuse for their largely self-induced misery.

Once I wrote a column urging Mainers to vote “No” on a referendum question that would have allowed Indians to open casinos in this state as they have in so many others. I questioned the status of Indians as citizens with different rights other Americans and whether that was justified. In that context I acknowledged that many Indian tribes suffered savage oppression at the hands of some European countries. However, I also pointed out that many Indian tribes had perpetrated similarly savage oppression against one another before the Spanish, French, English or Portuguese ever arrived in the Americas. Europeans had treated each other savagely at various times also and nobody has a monopoly on suffering. History shows us that very few escape.
Citing such politically incorrect aspects of history stirred up a hornet’s nest as Indians from around the country flooded my principal, my superintendent, my school board, and my state teacher certification office with angry letters, phone calls and emails declaring me unfit to teach. Clearly, a lot of Indians cherished their victim status even more than the Irish did, and they weren’t going to tolerate alternative viewpoints from this columnist. I even got a telephoned death threat.

History has power however it’s used, and pointing out its misuse as I did can be a very unpopular - even risky - undertaking. Still, it must be done. Now, about those "Bones of Jesus," . . .

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Middle School Shuffle

They shuffle along, their heels dragging with each step, making a statement. It says to those who watch and listen that they don’t care much where they’re going and they’re not in a hurry to get there either. They re-laced their sneakers, not in the typical crisscross pattern you see out of the box, but in a horizontal, parallel pattern. After putting the sneakers on, they don’t pull the laces tight. The result is loose-fitting footwear, the heel of which thumps the floor as they walk - the middle school shuffle. Those who consider themselves coolest do it, but if patterns of past fads hold, soon nearly all will.

It’s another way for an adolescent to attract attention that can be seen and heard. It’s a display of purposeful slovenliness or studied carelessness, and it’s arriving just as the low-riding pants with exposed boxers craze is fading away. It is similar, however. Practitioners of either fad take great pains to appear as if they don’t care how they look - as though they can’t be bothered to pull up their pants or tie their sneakers - as if such mundane considerations are beneath them. Thankfully though, the shufflers who try very hard to appear lazy are not all lazy students. Some are, but the fad crosses the entire spectrum from lazy to diligent - so far at least.

Over my three decades in public education, I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go, way too many to list. Once it was friendship bracelets - a kind of miniature macramé of colored strands or strung beads tied around wrists or ankles. They were harmless and kind of nice actually, in that the bracelets were meant to proclaim a camaraderie or one kind or another. Then there were stickers - shiny and colorful and depicting almost anything. More recently, there were - I don’t know what to call them - key chain-like things hanging from numerous zippers on the backpack every student lugs around. As they walked down halls on the way to homerooms in the morning or to their busses at afternoon dismissal, there was a cacophony of key chain doodads banging into each other as they swung back and forth. It was like the shuffle in that it called attention through sight and sound.

Hairstyle changes over the decades are too numerous to chronicle here. I can’t think of anything that can be done to hair that hasn’t been on display. Piercings, too, appeared in many variations, however not so many as in the wider world, thank goodness. As a boy reading National Geographic, I was appalled by the ways people in primitive societies mutilated their bodies according to local fashions. There were pictures of people who forced wooden disks into slits cut in their lips to stretch them out so they could put in bigger and bigger disks. They attached weights to their ear lobes to stretch them down so much that eventually they flopped onto their shoulders. They stuck things through their nostrils and carved patterns into the skin of their faces, backs, abdomens, and God knows where else. All of it was bizarre to my young eyes, but practitioners stared boldly into the camera lens as if proud of how they looked. I asked my parents why anyone could choose to look that way. They laughed of course, and told me that different people had different ideas of what was attractive. I believed they were answering me truthfully but it was hard to accept. It still is.

Primitive piercings started years ago in middle school when girls made numerous holes along the edges of their ears and filled them with metal. Then some boys wore earrings. Then metal began appearing on nostrils, lips and eyebrows. Most often, a student would come in on Monday morning with something stuck in his or her face, the surrounding flesh looking puffy and red. When I had occasion to speak with the student and make eye contact, a troubled self-consciousness was obvious. I’d avoid looking directly at the wound, but there was an unspoken awareness in both of us that it was there. Not one ever asked, “How do you like my new nose ring?” and I never asked, “What they heck did you do that for?” Mutual courtesy, I guess.

Outside of school I’m seeing more bizarre body mutilations on people here in the rural western Maine mountains as our civilization regresses toward the primitive. I see the ear stretcher things and the lip stretcher things I thought were so bizarre forty years ago in National Geographic. Hopefully I’ll be retired before they start showing up on the fourteen-year-old bodies of my students. Meanwhile, I’ll tolerate the middle school shuffle as long as it lasts.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Endless Campaign

Presidential candidates are announcing that they’re intending to begin forming exploratory committees to determine whether they will at some future point announce. Others have announced that they definitely intend to announce soon that they’re thinking about running. Others are running - flying actually - all over the country trying to convince voters they’d make the best president. I’m getting sick of it already and the election is more than a year-and-a-half away.

“I think this whole process is stupid,” said Newt Gingrich. “Ronald Reagan announced in November, 1979. John Kennedy announced on January 2nd, 1960, and at that time it was the earliest announcement in American history. . . . This idea [of campaigning so early] . . . is a full-employment program for political consultants.”

I was in the audience two weeks ago in Washington listening to Gingrich and there were three more possible or actual candidates still to speak - Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but I didn’t fly down for that. I wanted to listen and discuss the challenging issues facing us with other thinking conservatives and it’s hard to get even a handful of such people together here in western Maine. I watched, listened and participated in intelligent debate on immigration, affirmative action, the war on radical Islam, the role of government, why conservatives lost in November, and many other subjects. I met conservatives from all over the country while eating breakfast, lunch and dinner each day.

The highlight of Mitt Romney’s speech was not Mitt Romney’s speech. It was his introduction by New Hampshire’s own Mark Steyn. I’d recently finished Steyn’s most recent tome: “American Alone: The end of the world as we know it,” a brilliant treatise on the demographic transformation of Europe and the resulting Islamic threat to western civilization itself. Steyn managed to scare the hell out of me and his other readers while giving us belly laughs on every other page. No small feat, that.

The best session of the weekend was when Steyn sat with Jonah Goldberg and Rob Long of National Review Online. They started at ten Saturday night after most of us had a few drinks and expounded on political and social issues and associated personalities for about ninety minutes. If I ever laughed harder I can’t remember when. I wish I could remember their lines but there was no script. It was all off-the-cuff. One of them, I think it was Rob Long, remarked about sharing a cab with antiwar demonstrators who gathered on the mall earlier that day a few blocks from our hotel. His cab-mates asked if he was going to the rally, but he wasn’t in the mood to argue about the war during the short ride. Steyn said he’d had a similar experience near an antiwar rally in London where he’d seen a contingent calling itself “Queers for Palestine.” He said he found it ironic that if those “queers” ever actually went to Palestine with their signs, they’d be stoned to death. When asked if he was part of the demonstration, he simply told cab-mates he was with “Queers for Palestine” to approving nods.

The most sobering thing I heard during the conference came from Gingrich: “At some point down the road, we run a serious risk of losing two or three [American] cities to nuclear weapons, and it’s a lot better to act now before we lose a city.” This was only the biggest problem in a long list he enumerated while commenting on the endless presidential campaign. “We need to work on our problems . . . We don’t need the two parties running off into corners to yell at each other . . . It would be historically wrong to spend all of 2007 raising money in order to run in 2008, in order to take office in 2009 . . . [We need to think] How are we gonna fix these things?”

November, 2008 is the first election since 1928 that we won’t have either an incumbent running for reelection or an heir-apparent vice president on the ticket from one of the parties. It’s wide-open on both sides for the first time in eighty years. It looks like the beginning of the Boston Marathon out there with crowds of candidates covering the landscape and they should worry about wearing out voter interest before 2008 even arrives. After all, people complained when stores started playing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving. Now we’re hearing them after Halloween. We all like Christmas carols, but not that early. We don’t want to hear them for two months straight, because after just a few weeks they start to ring hollow. By Christmas Eve, we don’t want to hear them anymore.

Why can’t we do it like the British do and get it all over with in three weeks? Is it possible that we’ll be so sick of listening to presidential candidates by the first Tuesday in November, 2008 that nobody will show up at the polls?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rape, Injustice, Anger

(Two Maine papers declined to publish this in 2005 when I submitted it - afraid of lawsuits, they said. Only one paper in New Hampshire, The Conway Daily Sun, ran it. Now that I have a blog, I've decided to put it out there again.)

A fourteen-year-old retarded girl was abducted from the Maine Mall and raped two years ago. Three Nigerian immigrants were arrested and charged with gross sexual assault. Newspaper and television coverage was widespread and, this being every parent’s nightmare, a lot of people heard about it. Very few, however, know how it finally turned out. I didn’t know myself until the girl’s mother, Laurie Stanley from Bridgton, called me. She was crying with frustration and asked me to write about it.

The Nigerians got away with it, essentially, and this fact was all but ignored by local media. Charges against Kingsley Nwaturocha were dropped. Dan Eneagu and Okey Chukwurah pled guilty to misdemeanor assault. Eneagu got a suspended sentence and two years probation. Chukwurah got a $1000 fine. That’s it. The Portland Press Herald ran a tiny news brief buried in the December 10, 2003 issue, saying: “A Nigerian man accused of raping a 14-year-old Gorham girl in Old Orchard Beach last year has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault charges and has been released after his attorneys said the man would receive a death sentence if deported.”

The York County District Attorney’s office contacted Laurie Stanley the day before trial to tell her that Eneagu would be killed in Nigeria if he were deported. “Is that what you want?” a woman from the DA’s office asked her over the phone. “As mad as I was that they raped my daughter,” she said, “I didn’t want that. I didn’t want them to die.” I listened silently. “What would you have done?”

“If they raped my daughter,” I said, “execution would be fine with me.”

Semen found in the girl matched Eneagu’s DNA. A rape conviction would have been a slam-dunk, yet the DA’s office offered a plea bargain on the belief that the men would be deported and executed in Nigeria if convicted of felony rape. That seemed suspicious to me. Checking into it, I discovered that a rape conviction is extremely difficult under Islamic law and it would have been highly unlikely for those men charged with rape in Maine to be accountable there. I called Eneagu’s attorney, Nicholas Mahoney, several times to ask where he got his information but he didn’t return my calls.

Islamic law, or “Shari’a,” considers a woman’s testimony worth only half that of a man’s. Robert Spencer, author of “Islam Unveiled,” wrote in his article “Rape in Islam: Blaming the Victim” that four Muslim male witnesses are required for a conviction and that “without these witnesses and a confession from the accused rapist, the victim will stand condemned by her very accusation: she wasn’t raped, so she must be guilty of zina.” Zina, under Islamic Law, is sexual activity outside of marriage. In Nigeria, women found guilty of zina are sentenced to death by stoning.

York County Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Moskowitz negotiated Eneagu’s plea bargain and I asked him if he verified the defense attorney’s execution claim. He told me he called the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, but they had no idea about it. Then, he consulted an immigration lawyer in Portland, who referred him to “a Nigerian” in Portland whose opinion was that “there was a good chance Eneagu would be killed.” When I related what I had learned about Islamic law, he said I was comparing apples to oranges because Eneagu would have been deported already convicted, and would not likely be re-tried in Nigeria. When I asked Moskowitz if he thought justice was done, he said he had no regrets about how he handled the case and would do the same thing again.

I called the immigration lawyer Moskowitz talked to, an attorney name George Hepner. He said he didn’t have an opinion about Eneagu at the time and referred Moskowitz to Najim Animashaun of South Portland. Animashaun is Muslim, a practicing attorney in Maine. He has also practiced in the UK and in Nigeria. He told me he didn’t specifically recall consulting with Moskowitz on the Eneagu case either, although he might have. He said he often discusses hypotheticals concerning certain legal cases and does remember talking to Eneagu’s attorney, Nick Mahoney. He told me it was very unlikely Eneagu would have been executed. Eneagu is not a Muslim and Islamic law is only applied to Muslims. He said though Islamic law is practiced only in some parts of Nigeria and death sentences are often made, they’re seldom carried out. When I asked why, he said Islamic officials are afraid of executing someone wrongly because they themselves would be accountable in the afterlife if they made a mistake.

Laurie Stanley called me originally, not just because the men were never convicted of rape, but also because she read another tiny news brief in the Portland Press Herald that day last September about Kingsley Nwaturocha against whom the rape charge was dropped. He was granted $95,000 because he claimed to have been beaten by corrections officers at the York County Jail while awaiting trial. “I was trying to get my daughter into a residential school to protect her because it was getting to point that I couldn’t handle her,” Stanley said. “I was afraid she might go off with someone like she did at the Maine Mall, but the school wouldn’t pay for it and the state wouldn’t either. And now he gets all that money. My daughter was raped, bitten, and burned with a cigarette. They gave her herpes. She had to be tested for AIDS. She was robbed of her innocence, and he gets $95,000!”

Stanley found an attorney willing to file suit against Nwaturocha, but he discovered that the Nigerian had gotten his payoff three months earlier and moved to Maryland. Believing the money to be gone by then and because it would be difficult to file suit in a state so far away, the attorney dropped the case. Stanley’s frustration became unbearable and she wanted the story told. After seeing how everything turned out, she wishes now the men were executed.

My inquiries into this sad case produced as many questions as answers. Why didn’t the York County DA’s office scrutinize the defense’s execution claims more closely? Why didn’t they just enforce Maine law instead of worrying about Nigerian law? Why would the local media virtually ignore the plea bargain? Were they afraid of public outrage? Was it overzealous opposition to the death penalty? Why delay reporting the $95,000 settlement for three months? Was it sympathy for immigrants? Whatever it was, two of those men are still here, free to walk among us, and they don’t have to register as sex offenders because they were never convicted of rape.