Terie Norelli is a Hard Act to Follow – posted 7/13/2014

July 13, 2014 Leave a comment

New Hampshire’s Speaker of the House, Terie Norelli, is retiring after serving in the House for eighteen years. Terie was Speaker from 2006 to 2010 and then she returned to the role in 2012.

She is the second woman to become Speaker (after Donna Sytek) and she is the first Speaker to lead a House Democratic majority in 100 years.

I first met Terie early in her tenure in the House. She was pretty much of an unknown legislator then. She served on the lively House Science, Technology and Energy Committee but I got to know her because of her efforts working to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage.

Terie was the prime sponsor of the bill to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. As a lobbyist for New Hampshire Legal Assistance working on that bill, I was fortunate to get to know her.

It was always a pleasure to work with Terie. She was personable, relaxed and funny. But she was also informed, passionate, and strategic. She always did her homework and had utterly realistic notions about bill possibilities.

Looking back, I have to say Terie was the ideal bill sponsor. She was very smart, articulate, and responsive to suggestions and criticism. At the same time, she was excellent at reaching across the aisle to find support from Republicans. She understood the need to message in a way that could win maximum support.

Terie taught the value of dogged persistence. We lost and lost and lost but Terie did not quit. Passing the minimum wage bill took ten years. The bill was introduced five times before it finally won. By that time, Terie had ascended to being Speaker.

Terie treated everyone in and around the House with civility and respect. She appreciated the essentially volunteer nature of being a state representative. It takes considerable time during the week and it is a labor of love. The pay is $100 a year plus mileage.

While Terie is a strong progressive, she was the opposite of a dogmatic ideologue. She knew early on that legislators need to be able to work together collaboratively whatever their party affiliation. She respected differences of opinion and believed all should get a hearing.

She recognized the need for and inevitability of compromise. It is in the DNA of the Legislature. She set a respectful tone, consistent with a longstanding New Hampshire House tradition.

She was not a bully. She did not treat the House like it was a narrow club of like-minded true believers out to remove or shun heretics. As Speaker, she changed seating arrangements in the House so Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other. Previously, House members separated by party and sat in party blocs.

Terie worked to ensure that all members of the public would be listened to respectfully at public hearing. For anyone who has been around the House for a long time, they know that has not always been the case. Committee Chairs can exercise wide discretion. I do believe Terie encouraged her Committee Chairs toward fairness and giving the public a full opportunity to speak out at public hearings. The tone promoted by the Speaker matters.

I do think Terie was a master of the legislative process. The House is quite a different beast than the Senate. You have 400 state representatives and 24 state senators. House Democrats can often be more progressive and less subject to party discipline than their senate counterparts. Figuring out how to craft a winning agenda and approach that stays true to progressive values is not easy. Compromise can dampen enthusiasm and can stir up political hornet nests. Terie knew how to thread the needle and still win many significant political victories.

As Speaker, her legislative accomplishments are impressive. In addition to minimum wage (a battle that must be fought again), I think of Medicaid expansion, participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), marriage equality, in-state college tuition freeze, reestablishing a CHINS program, eliminating the Developmental Disabilities waitlist and the defeat of payday lending. Everyone of these victories was huge.

Terie’s leadership was nationally recognized. She became the president of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) in 2012. NCSL is a very valuable, bi-partisan organization that serves all the nation’s state lawmakers. NCSL alternates all leadership positions between the two parties each year.

I do think Terie’s role as New Hampshire House Speaker will someday be seen as historic. It also reflects an undeniable turning point as New Hampshire shifts as a state in a more progressive direction. I know some people on the Right think Terie’s departure is a good omen as far as their long-term prospects. I see it otherwise. Given the changing demographics of the state, the increased importance of womens’ role in politics, and the extremist bent of Republicans, it is not going to be another 100 years before the next Democratic Speaker. Democratic Speakers could become a regular event.

New Hampshire was fortunate to have a leader of Terie’s character, dynamism and reasonableness. She is a hard act to follow and she will be missed.

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Rob Doyle – posted 7/6/2014

July 6, 2014 2 comments

My friend Rob Doyle died on May 1. I have to say Rob’s death was utterly shocking to me. I had a hard time believing it could have happened. Rob was a vital presence. Rob lived to 72 but he was not a person who ever seemed old at all.

The last time I saw Rob was in the summer of 2010 before I moved to Alaska. Rob came to a going away party my wife Debra had organized at my home in Wilmot NH. I was actually surprised he came because it was at least a two hour drive each way. I had not seen Rob for a long time before that. Rob stayed late and it was great to see him again. He gave me the names of some of his old Alaska friends. He had worked in Alaska Legal Services early in his legal career.

I first met Rob in 1981 when we were in a childbirth class together before the birth of his son Jason and my son Josh. Rob and Diane and my ex-wife Carol and I all lived in Dorchester, near Fields Corner. We used to hang out a lot together.

That is when I first learned about Rob’s legal career. At the time, I only dimly glimpsed what an unusual and extraordinary lawyer Rob was. I knew he had been involved with defense of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists at Wounded Knee. I also knew he was a Movement lawyer with an office in Boston.

Rob was a founding member of the Boston National Lawyers Guild (NLG) chapter and a member of the Law Commune, an alternative law firm of the late 60′s, early 70′s. The Massachusetts NLG website described the Law Commune this way:

“The law commune, as the term suggests, practiced law in a new way, serving activists, representing antiwar demonstrators and involving themselves directly in anti-war and community work as participants in the front lines. They also rejected all hierarchy – including distinctions between lawyers and non-lawyers – and functioned like many of the groups they served as egalitarian collectives, making decisions cooperatively and unanimously (often through marathon meetings replete with “criticism and self-criticism”). It was widely corroborated that the men took up knitting and would knit at the meetings. The lawyers took turns answering the phones, and they eschewed all the paraphernalia of private privilege, including individual offices. They couldn’t afford phones with buttons that lit up to indicate which line a call was going to, so whenever the phone would ring, they never knew who it would be for. Even desks lacked separate drawers for separate people; they were slabs of plywood with files on top.”

The NLG history of the early years also quotes a story about Rob:

“The Guild lawyers supported themselves (barely) with appointed criminal cases, contributions from clients, and by driving cabs and waiting tables. Rob Doyle reported that a client came to eat at a restaurant where he was a dishwasher – they had a good laugh. The joke was that the Guild attorneys would ask new clients,”How much should we pay you to represent you?”.

When i was in my first year in law school in 1982, Rob came to Concord NH to defend a Black revolutionary Christopher King. King had been stopped and arrested at a rest area in Attleboro Ma when he was in a car with Jaan Laaman, a white prison radical. There were illegal guns in the car and a shoot-out eventually ensued between Laaman and the police. The reason the police pursued the search was because there was a Black guy and a white guy in the same car at 2am. That was the only basis for the stop. There is much that could be said about the case but suffice it to say the case went on for years.

Rob stayed at my apartment while he tried the case which had been removed to federal court in Concord NH. The case was before Judge Martin Loughlin, a very humane, down-to-earth judge.

I decided to blow off law school classes one day to watch the trial. I remember entering the back of the courtroom. I got there early. There were a group of women on one side. They asked: “Who are you?” I explained my relationship to Rob. They said, “Come over here and sit with us. We’re witches and we are casting spells on the prosecutor”. Not wanting to take any chances, I did move to their side, promptly.

I remember Judge Loughlin calling Rob “Bobby”. I wasn’t sure if it was an Irish thing but it seemed like the judge really liked Rob.

The King case had a complicated history with both federal and state charges. Because of police misconduct and wiretapping of attorney-client conversations, the case was remanded back to the federal court in NH by the First Circuit. The case came back the next year. Rob became a witness in the case and Bill Kunstler was brought in as counsel. Rob again stayed at my place.

I took some time off from law school classes again to watch. I saw Bill Kunstler cross-examine an FBI agent. This time Judge Loughlin called Bill Kunstler “Billy”. Kunstler very generously took Rob, me and my friend Steve Cherry out to lunch at the old Thursday’s restaurant in downtown Concord. It was a memorable moment for both me and Steve. Kunstler was a legend already having represented the Chicago 7, H. Rap Brown, the Attica Brothers and so many other famous defendants. It was a heady experience and Rob had made it possible.

Kunstler was very entertaining and a bit of a showboat. I remember him flashing a large wad of hundred dollar bills. (He paid for lunch) I don’t remember much of the conversation but I do remember Bill told us that the secret to a long life was to have sex everyday. Always good to get important advice from senior attorneys!

If anyone is interested in the King case, there are two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinions. The first Commonwealth v. Christopher King case is at 389 Mass 233 (1983). The later opinion is at 400 Mass 283 (1987). I am not clear on the whole procedural history since there was a federal dimension to the case as well. I did not know how much heat Rob had taken for his role in the case. At the memorial event recently held for Rob, it was mentioned that the feds put tremendous pressure on him, his law partner Ed Berkan and his firm.

Rob embodied some very unusual qualities for a lawyer: a genuine passion for social justice, modesty, cool competence and humility. While he was an excellent and skilled trial attorney, he was almost self-effacing about it. He was very matter-of-fact and egalitarian. He was quite a non-judgmental mentor as well. He was easy to talk to.

Rob always had interesting cases going on. Along with criminal defense, he represented tenants facing eviction, injured workers, and people victimized by lead paint and other toxins. Rob laid it all on the line. He put heart and soul into his practice. I would mention that there is a lovely video tribute to Rob on the Massachusetts NLG website (www.nlgmass.org) by Rob’s law partner Carol Steinberg. You can track it down on the the Mass Dissent Online section of the site.

I always thought of Rob as something of a Renaissance Man. He sailed, skied, was a good builder, and he was also technologically savvy. I remember some of his creative building projects from his old house in Dorchester. I did not know how he learned to do so many things so well. I always remember Prairie Home Companion on in the background at his house.

I regret that I never reconnected with Rob after being in Alaska. We talked about meeting in Lawrence as Rob said he had some work there. I always assumed there would be more time and in that I was wrong. I guess there is some kind of lesson there about not waiting on things in life. What is good and vital can be wrenched away in a heatbeat.

I miss Rob and his presence on the planet. It is like the forces of justice in the universe shrank with his passing.

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Five Highlights of the Montreal Jazz Festival – posted 7/3/2014

July 3, 2014 1 comment

It has been nine years since I was lucky enough to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival. Fortunately, I made it back this year. (For anyone who still can make it, the festival runs until July 6.)

The festival is such a great event. I am not sure which is better – the food in Montreal or the music at the festival. Both were wonderful. Since I went in 2005, the festival seems bigger. I think there are more shows with a wider diversity of international music being played.

For those who have never been there, there are a number of big stages set up downtown. From early evening til almost midnight, there are live shows. Most shows are free. There are some paying concerts for bigger name performers. Montreal is an excellent venue for young unknown musicians who get a chance to play before large crowds so they can make a name for themselves.

i thought I would highlight some of the acts and food places which wowed me. The food places are not connected to the festival but I wanted to mention them anyway:

  • Ester Rada – I had never heard of this Israeli artist before the festival. She is a very lively performer and singer. There are jazz, funk, soul, and reggae sounds in her music and her band is tight. I think she has released a CD entitled Ester Rada. Check out her song Nanu Ney.
  • Mai Xiang Yuan – This hole in the wall, totally unpretentious Chinese restaurant is located at 1084 Boulevard St Laurent in Montreal. It is the place for dumplings. They are made from scratch. You can get them boiled or fried. I thought the boiled were better. My wife Debra and I tried the shrimp, coriander and pork. We also tried the shrimp, egg and leek dumplings. The dumplings are to die for. The place has a limited menu – dumplings and soup with dumplings but what they do, they do great.
  • Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – These guys don’t need praise from me but their concert was terrific. Charlie seemed to be loving playing with Ben. I liked “I’m in I’m Out and I’m Gone”. Also, “You Found Another Lover (I Lost a Friend)”. There is no better blues harmonica player out there than Charlie.
  • Au Pied De Cochon – My friends Mike and Sue suggested this restaurant. It was a treat. Debra and I split a duck special. The duck was thinly sliced in a very flavorful sauce. We also shared yummy poutine au foie gras. Debra had codfish fritters for an appetizer. She thought it was better than any she had eaten on Cape Cod which is high praise. We split sugar pie for dessert. It had a creme sauce and it tasted like luscious pecan pie. The place is not cheap but it is a find. I definitely would love to go back sometime.
  • Diana Krall – She did a hugely attended free show at an outdoor stage. There was no room to move it was so crowded. Fortunately they had big screens set up so you could see even from faraway. I have always liked her music and it appeared thousands of Montrealers felt the same way. I liked her version of Temptation. Also her version of the Band’s Ophelia. She did a tribute to Neil Young and sang a fine version of Man Needs A Maid. Her husband Elvis Costello came on to sing a few songs with her at the end. I think she did more covers than usual, quite a bit of Dylan. I give her credit for doing Subterranean Homesick Blues, not a song I think she ever would have tried to do.

This is the 35th year of the festival. It is an annual event. If you can swing it, this is always a tremendous event. Go in the future if you can…

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Iraq: An Anti-War Perspective – posted 6/27/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/2/2014

June 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/2/14 under the title “U.S. Role in Iraq Should Be Humanitarian”. Jon

It is eleven years since President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Rarely have words been so wrong. We can now look back and see that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their crew of neo-conservatives cluelessly opened Pandora’s box in Iraq.

The costs have been incalculable. The economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the price tag of Bush’s war at more than three trillion dollars. Over 4,000 American soldiers have died along with an estimated 500,000 Iraqis. For the wounded American troops, the injuries have been grievous. IEDs have ripped off limbs and genitals, catastrophically affecting many lives. And that does not even touch the many thousands of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD cases.

In watching the further unravelling of Iraq, I have been struck by the shallowness of most political commentary about the war. Typically the narrative is a blame game. Democrats blame George W. Bush’s administration and Republicans blame Obama.

I want to suggest a different viewpoint. Both parties bear some degree of responsibility for the Iraq War. While the George W. Bush administration bears primary responsibility as the architect of war, it must be pointed out that many, many Democrats went along with Bush and supported the invasion. Both the neo-conservatives and the liberal hawks were on board.

It needs to be flat-out said: the Iraq war was a colossal fraud perpetrated against the American people. The Bush Administration submitted false information to Congress and the public. They manufactured a case for invasion based on complete falsehoods. The two major falsehoods were existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. While Obama took a pass on it, a strong legal case can be made that Bush and Cheney committed war crimes. There is an immense amount of blood on their hands.

United Nations charter law did not permit the President to launch the Iraq War unless there had been an armed attack by Iraq against the U.S. or unless the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force. Neither condition was met. And I am not even getting to the matter of torture.

While many would, no doubt, dismiss this, I submit that the United States lacked legal authority to intervene in the affairs of the Iraqi people. This is quite different than our legal position relative to Al Qaeda after the 9/11attacks. A far stronger argument can be made to justify a military response to the perpetrators of 9/11. Al Qaeda did attack the U.S. and killed over 3000 people.

As politicians ponder next steps with Iraq, the history of the last eleven years suggests caution. It also suggests critical reevaluation of American interests. Really going back all the way back to the Vietnam War such a critical reevaluation is long overdue.

Politicians focus on questions like: should we use drones or air strikes? Or should we reintroduce combat soldiers? These are not the most important questions. We need to look harder at whether our national interest is actually threatened by a regional conflict. Too often we immediately answer “yes”.

Nations have a right to self-determination and it is not the job of the United States to be world policeman. I think it is a safe bet Sunnis will be fighting Shias and Shias will be fighting Sunnis for the foreseeable future. Why does the United States belong in the middle of this mix? Is it simply because of fear of a loss of face or fear of being criticized for presiding over another disaster where Americans are considered losers? If there is a role why should it not be diplomatic or humanitarian?

Before the war started, I remember the world-wide demonstrations against it. Along with millions of others all over the world, I demonstrated in Concord in front of the State House. The demonstrators all knew the war was wrong before it started but nobody listened to the demonstrators. Many of us had the insight that the war made little sense, was unrelated to 9/11, and was probably about oil. Whatever politicians say about terrorist threats, access to oil still remains a central concern of American policy.

One profound irony of the Iraq War of the last eleven years is the reality that the American invasion set into motion a terrorist advance. There would be no ISIS without the Americans. ISIS is blowback. Whatever the awfulness of Saddam Hussein’s rule as a military strongman, he had held the country together and squelched Sunni-Shia rivalry. The American invasion and aftermath created the context for the demolition of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurd power blocs. The amount of bloodshed unleashed by our invasion has been staggering.

When I think of those who acted honorably around the Iraq war, one political name comes to mind: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. Facing an avalanche of criticism including death threats, Congresswoman Lee was the only member of either House of Congress to vote against President Bush’s broadstroke authorization for the use of force after the 9/11 attacks. In explaining her vote, she said:

“It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events – anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

Now Congresswoman Lee is emphasizing that President Obama needs to come to Congress for any war authorization. She is also advocating no more money for combat troops. I think she has been a lonely voice of wisdom and remains so.

It is predictable that military hawks will fulminate about ISIS and push for deeper military involvement in Iraq. Witness Dick Cheney reappearing last week on TV and in the Wall Street Journal. Discredited is too kind a word for that individual. Before the war in Iraq in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut described people like Cheney as PPs – psychopathic personalities. To quote Vonnegut:

“PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose”.

We need to resist the siren song of the neo-cons.Given their track record, why anyone would listen to them now is beyond imagination.

At least as far as the role of the United States, I am reminded of a saying from A.J. Muste, a peace activist from an earlier generation: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Considering the results from eleven years of war, I do not think that is bad advice.

There is much more that needs to be said about our militarism and our American tendency to overreach. I will write more about this in the future.

A Different Take on Bowe Bergdahl – posted 6/9/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/12/2014

June 10, 2014 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on June 12, 2014 under the title “Opinions on Bergdahl Too Often Stated as Fact.” Jon

I have been shocked at the amount of hatred unleashed against Bowe Bergdahl and his parents. I was driving to work after the prisoner swap, listening to Boston sports talk radio. One of the early morning show hosts stated Bergdahl was a worthless traitor as if that was an uncontroverted fact. There has been an avalanche of sentiments of that type.

You would not have thought Bergdahl was a POW for five years. Now we are finding out he was tortured after he tried to escape captivity. The New York Times reported that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time.

Critics of Bergdahl have called him a deserter, mentally ill, anti-American, a jihadist, and a warrior for Islam. One Fox News commentator said the Taliban could have saved the United States money on legal bills if they had executed him. Bergdahl’s parents have also received death threats.

How commentators know so much about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s separation from his unit and his capture remain a mystery. Just like how other commentators know that the five released Taliban prisoners are “the worst of the worst”.

Speculation becomes rampant when political agendas try to shape perception. Before the prisoner swap, the best information we had about Bergdahl was the 2012 story written by Michael Hastings that appeared in Rolling Stone.

Hastings article described a person very different from any stereotype. Bergdahl grew up near Hailey Idaho, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His parents home-schooled him. He was a free-spirited kid who loved dirt bikes and boys’ adventure stories. His parents are devout Calvinists very concerned about ethical issues.

As a teenager, Bergdahl developed a passion for fencing. He also took up ballet where he met a girl friend. He dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. He actually travelled to Paris and started to learn French but his application to join the French Foreign Legion was rejected.

Bergdahl remained interested in a military career. He enlisted in the army. He was a reader. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl surrounded himself with piles of books including Three Cups of Tea about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hastings said that unlike others in his training unit, Bergdahl was more likely to hang out in Barnes and Nobles than a strip club.

Hastings goes on to say that after getting to Afghanistan, Bergdahl became disgusted with the war and the general incompetence of his unit. He had sincerely wanted to help Afghans but he did not see that going on. He gravitated away from his unit and he became more psychologically isolated. He had seen an Afghan child get run over by an armored vehicle.

Hastings speculated that the trauma of seeing an Afghan child run over had a big impact on Bergdahl. He quoted from an email Bergdahl had written: “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down on the dirt streets with our armored trucks…We make fun of them in front of their faces and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

I would offer an alternative speculation for why Bergdahl walked away. He was disgusted by the war. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl did not see the American war effort as an attempt to win Afghan hearts and minds. Possibly he was just a sensitive, idealistic guy who was horrified by a senseless war.

I think much of the criticism of Bergdahl reflects misguided militarism and jingoism. In the 21st century, we should be far down the road from gung-ho soldiers with John Wayne fantasies who never doubt and who blindly follow orders. The 20th century provides many horrible examples of the “I was just following orders” variety.

There has been a too cavalier acceptance of all the wars the United States has engaged since Vietnam. There have been so many. Maybe we should be questioning that – not focussing so much attention on what Bergdahl did or did not do.

Bergdahl’s situation made me flash on Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun and Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July. Bergdahl is a different variant but it is so premature to be drawing the type of hateful criticism we have seen. How many of these armchair generals criticizing Bergdahl and his parents ever enlisted or put themselves in the type of dangerous situation Bergdahl did?

If the military eventually decides Bergdahl violated any military law, he should face military justice. Still, he also deserves due process of law and the presumption of innocence. That is the American way – not unsupported slander.

Making the Death Penalty Even More Barbaric – posted 6/1/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 6/4/2014

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

The death penalty has fallen on hard times. The international community has largely rejected and abolished its use. No other Western democracy besides the United States resorts to the death penalty and it is widely considered barbaric in Europe. Only a handful of outlier nations cling to this nasty old practice. Not great when you are in the company of Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and North Korea.

Making things even worse, executions of late have not gone smoothly. I thought we were past the days of flames shooting out of peoples’ heads. However, we just had the spectacle of the State of Oklahoma botching the lethal injection execution of Clayton Lockett.

Mr. Lockett was alive quite a while after the time the State had expected he would be dead. Witnesses reported that he twitched and writhed in pain. He tried to lift himself off the gurney to which he was strapped. This went on until Oklahoma state officials drew the shades so observers could not see more. Later the state officials called off Lockett’s execution but it turned out he was already dead from heart failure.

Since capital punishment was restored in the United States in 1976, the Death Penalty Information Center has reported 44 botched executions. About 75% of these involved lethal injection, the form of execution now touted as humane.

Lethal injection has become more problematic partly because states have not been able to procure the drugs used in lethal injection. Some states like Indiana appear to be turning to untested drug combinations. A U.K.-based human rights group, Reprieve, has successfully lobbied pharmaceutical companies to bar export to the U.S. of drugs used in executions. There is a massive shortage of these drugs.

So what is a state to do when it can’t use more modern, sanitized, scientific forms of execution? It would appear states are moving backward, reviving old ways. For example, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam has just signed a bill that requires the state to bring back the electric chair if lethal injection is not available. In Wyoming, the Legislature is considering a bill to bring back firing squads.

Since New Hampshire has not yet eliminated the death penalty, it too could face the dilemma of how to kill somebody if lethal injection drugs are not available. In the case of New Hampshire, our last execution was carried out in 1939. It was a hanging.

Since 1734, New Hampshire has executed 24 people. Hanging is the method of execution historically used by the state although lethal injection is now the primary legal form of execution. Hanging can still be used if lethal injection is determined to be impractical.

The late comedian George Carlin thought about this dilemma. He had a number of suggestions to offer. I think Carlin would have encouraged the state to think outside the box.

Carlin said enough with soft American executions. He suggested bringing back crucifixion, a form of capital punishment he thought both Christians and Jews could relate to. Except Carlin favored naked, upside-down crucifixions preferably held at half-time on Monday Night Football. He knew people would be tuning in who didn’t care about football.

Carlin thought if you liven up executions and learn how to market them, you might be able to raise enough money to balance the budget. He had a Hunger Games vision long before the Hunger Games became known.

He favored bringing back beheadings.

“Beheadings on TV, slow motion, instant replay. And maybe you could let the heads roll down a little hill. And fall into one of five numbered holes. Let the people at home gamble on which hole the head is going to fall into. And you do it in a stadium so the mob can gamble on it too. Raise a little more money.”

And he says, ” When’s the last time we burned someone at the stake? It”s been too long! ” Put it on TV on Sunday mornings. Nothing like satisfying bloodlust with a little human bonfire.

Also, don’t forget about boiling people in oil.

“Boy those were the days, weren’t they? You get the oil going real good, you know, a nice high roiling boil. And then slowly, at the end of the rope, you lower the perpetrator head first into the boiling oil.”

Carlin says maybe instead of boiling all these guys, you could french fry a couple. “French fried felons. Dip a guy in egg batter, just for a goof, you know. Kind of a Tempura thing.”

With Carlin for inspiration, the possibilities are limitless. How about a giant shark tank of great whites on the State House lawn? Bye-bye perpetrators. We could replace Jaws with the televised real deal, and time it with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

And for technology buffs, we have to work in a drone. Let the convict facing the death penalty loose in a major wilderness area. Give him a few days head start. Then give a drone one shot at blowing him away. Televise it and we can bet on results.

Those with a more religious orientation might recall stonings. I remember when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, stoning became official state policy for many crimes, including adultery. Admittedly, we might be a little rusty with stonings but no one can deny we have many great pitching arms here in the U.S.

New Hampshire, I submit there are possibilities. We replay the same old debates about taxes and casinos. Here is a way we can move forward by moving backward.

Book Review: “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser – posted 5/25/2014

May 25, 2014 1 comment

The safety of nuclear weapons is not a topic that typically pops up in everyday conversation. At least in my house, that is true. The existence of nuclear weapons has long been a background fact of life. We all know these weapons are there and we hope and pray the weapons are being safeguarded so there will never be any inadvertent accidents or mistakes (or use).

In his book, Command and Control, Eric Schlosser takes a hard look at how the United States has done both with keeping nuclear weapons safe as well as preventing accidental nuclear war. I wish I could say the results are reassuring. They are not.

Although we have not had any accidental nuclear explosions which has to qualify as a form of success, Schlosser shows that there have been many close calls.

In reading Command and Control, I have been genuinely surprised at how little we know about the history of nuclear weapon safety over the last sixty or so years. Considering the importance of these weapons to ultimate life and death on the planet, much more discussion is merited. Secrecy and national security concerns should not have vitiated awareness to the degree it has.

Schlosser did tremendous research and the thoroughness of his story is impressive. I certainly did not know about many of the incidents he recounts. It is hard not to think we have been very lucky in escaping a nuclear accident in the U.S. Here are a few of the vignettes captured by Schlosser:

In 1961, a B-52 bomber loaded with two 4 megaton hydrogen bombs had a refueling accident while refueling with a tanker over Greensboro, North Carolina. Fuel started leaking from the plane’s right wing. The pilot could not get fuel to drain from the tank inside the left wing. The B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin.

The two H-bombs both fell from the plane after centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard had been attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled one bomb responded as though released by a crew over a target. The crew had bailed out. Almost all the safety systems failed but the bomb did not detonate. If either bomb had detonated, North Carolina would have been a memory. Both bombs were far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was determined that a single ready/safe switch which was in a safe position when the bomb dropped saved the day.

In 1958, a B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashed shortly after taking off from an air force base near Abilene Texas. The fireball from the crash caused detonation of the bomb’s high explosives. The detonation created a crater 35 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. Fortunately the detonation did not produce a nuclear explosion.

Also in 1958, there was an accident in Mars Bluff, South Carolina when a crew member on a B-47 inadvertently grabbed a manual bomb release for support. This resulted in a nuclear weapon dropping out of the plane. The bomb landed in a garden. A high explosive detonation destroyed a nearby house and created a crater 50-70 feet in diameter and 25-30 feet deep. Fortunately the explosion only caused minor injuries to people who lived in the house that was destroyed. Again, there was no nuclear explosion.

I am only giving a couple examples. Schlosser recounts numerous situations where bombers carrying nuclear weapons crashed and burned. Then there were the situations where nuclear weapons have been lost or were missing. Schlosser recounts a 1966 incident over Palomares Spain when a B-52 bomber carrying 4 nukes collided in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker. Three of the bombs were accounted for. The fourth bomb fell in the ocean. The accident set off a huge search that lasted 80 days before the nuclear weapon was located. For anyone who remembers the James Bond movie Thunderball, there is a bit of a similarity to Ian Fleming’s plot. (Thunderball actually was written before this crash.)

Schlosser also describes a series of close calls with accidental nuclear wars. On November 9, 1979, the computers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) outside Cheyenne Mountain said the U.S. was under attack. The military command computers at the Pentagon received the same message. Screens showed missiles being launched from submarines and also from sites inside the USSR. It appeared the attack was massive. It was projected missiles would begin to hit American targets within five minutes.

The military quickly arranged a threat assessment conference. Tensions between the superpowers were not high at the time but the pattern of the attack conformed to Pentagon assumptions about the Soviet war plan. NORAD contacted radar and ground stations which had sensors that could detect launches. The sensors showed nothing. Still bombers and fighter interceptors scrambled and took off to look for signs of an attack.

It turned out the cause of the alarm was an error where a technician put a wrong tape into one of NORAD’s computers. The tape was part of a war simulation training exercise that simulated a Soviet attack on the U.S..

Another time, in January 1995, then President Boris Yeltsin mistakenly believed Russia was under attack by the U.S. He turned on his nuclear football, retrieved launch codes and prepared to retaliate. After a few scary moments, the Russians realized they were not under attack. Norway had launched a weather satellite to study the aurora borealis. They had previously advised the Russians about the rocket but the Russians still believed it was a real attack. There have been quite a few incidents of this nature where one side believed the other side was launching its missiles.

A good part of the book describes a 1980 accident and explosion with a Titan II missile that occurred in Damascus Arkansas in 1980. The Titan II had a 9 megaton warhead. The story is a great illustration of how a trivial accident can wreak havoc with complex technology. Schlosser shows how dangerous systems have difficulty when standardized responses are impossible and creative action is required. The technology is so tightly coupled and interactive that margins for error are narrow.

I think there is a good and bad news aspect to Schlosser’s narrative. The good news is that we survived a bellicose and scary period that made Dr. Strangelove not too far from the truth. People were debating winnable nuclear wars. Remember the phrase “launch on warning”. It does seem that most of the really bad accidents happened over 30 years ago. The end of the Cold War and the improvement of safety procedures did lessen danger.

I did want to say a couple things about Dr. Strangelove. I recently saw the movie again and Schlosser deals with the central issue of the movie: the safety of command and control systems. In the movie a crazy out of control right wing general authorizes a nuclear attack by his fighter wing on the USSR. In spite of the best efforts of the President (played by Peter Sellers) to recall the planes, one bomber cannot be recalled. It gets through Russian military defenses. Unknown to the Americans, the Russians installed a doomsday machine where technology takes over once there is an attack. The movie was dead on and so prescient.

The bad news is the large number of nuclear weapons that remain as well as the proliferation of the weapons to many countries. Schlosser states that the U.S. has 4,650 nuclear weapons. Russia has about 1740 deployed strategic weapons and perhaps 2000 tactical weapons. He says France has 300 nuclear weapons; the U.K. has about 160; China is thought to have 240. Then there is Israel, Pakistan, and India.

Instead of the big war between superpowers, there is much more potential for regional wars or civil wars like in Syria or the Ukraine. We live in a vastly different era than the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are useless for these type conflicts. Despite their uselessness, the weapons have not gone away. The most common nuclear nightmare now that typically shows up in action/adventure novels is the threat of Al Qaeda or other jihadis getting their hands on a nuke and then trying to detonate it in a large American city. That scenario does reflect the twisted reality of how nukes can come back to bite us.

Rational self-interest should move all sides toward elimination of these weapons. Even if elimination is not possible, there is no good reason nuclear arsenals should not be greatly reduced. Majorly reducing numbers of nukes would greatly reduce risk to life on the planet.

Schlosser’s book makes me think of a famous quote from Albert Einstein: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”


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