Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Holiday Tale of Murder and Rape in Old New York

Many of you are aware that I have spent the last week writing a paper, in part, on a 19th century murder trial, in my pathetic attempt to rejoin the academic world. This week’s blog was going to be on the Peloponnesian War, but since I have murder on my mind, I thought we’d talk about what I was researching instead. I think you will find this interesting. For your reading pleasure, I have left out all the footnotes!

Christmastime, 1800, in old New York City was cold and bleak. This was at the end of what is sometimes called the little ice age, so the streets were filled with snow. Nights were quite dark, as no one bothers to light the street lamps.

In a boarding house on Greenwich Street, lived a young lady, age 21, named Gulielma Sands. Or Julielma, or Elmore, or Elma. They weren’t quite so priggish about spelling their names as we are now. Let’s call her Elma. The boarding house was run by her relative, Catherine Ring, a Quaker married to Elias Ring, who owned it. A number of other boarders lived there, including Catherine’s sister, a villainous wretch named Croucher -- Richard D. Croucher, to be precise, and a seemingly noble, friendly and sympathetic young man named Levi Weeks, who might also have been a vicious murderer underneath his amiable face.

Levi had made himself quite popular at the house, being very attentive to anyone who was ill, and solicitous to the Ring’s children. Catherine Ring told a neighbor he was more like family than a boarder. Levi, when he arrived, first paid some attention to another boarder, Margaret Clark, but when she was away for a while, began paying attention to Elma.

Although some in the household would later testify that they noticed no special attention paid by Levi to Elma, it became obvious to some of them that there was something going on, and it was presumed Levi was courting her, that they were intimate, and that they would probably get married. Hope Sands, Catherine Ring’s sister, would later testify that she made an effort to catch them in the act one day but failed.

Elma was routinely described as being a cheerful and pleasant person, but she was often sick, and both Levi and another boarder believed she was suicidal, as she at least twice made comments about doing away with herself with the laudanum she would take when ill. Although Catherine was only 27, she treated Elma like a daughter.

Croucher was about 40 years old and apparently quite ugly. His own attorney would later describe him as having an “unfortunate physiognomy”. One day, according to Croucher himself, he was hastily coming up the stairs and surprised Elma, who said “Oh” and passed out. Levi came running out and accosted Croucher, accusing him of insulting her, and not for the first time. Croucher said that he later received an apology from Levi.

On December 14, 1799, George Washington died, and the country was in mourning. Even the recent funeral and carrying on about the Princess of Wales paled in comparison to that outburst of feeling. Day after day the papers were filled with one tribute or another to him, and it seemed everyone with any name wanted to give a memorial address.

While this still going on, on December 22, 1799, Hope Sands confided to Catherine Ring that Elma had told her that she and Levi were to be married that day. Catherine confronted Elma with the news and said she wanted to be there, but Elma said Levi insisted it be kept a secret.

Levi left for the day, and went to his brother’s house. Ezra was a very well known builder, and Levi worked for him as a carpenter. A number of witnesses said that Levi was there all day except for a short, but critical, time.

When 8 o’clock at night approached, Catherine became worried that Levi would disappoint Elma, but Elma was certain he would show, and he did, coming from his brother’s house. Elma went upstairs and Catherine helped her get ready. When Catherine came down, Elma was just ready to leave. She had a muff with her she had borrowed from a neighbor. Catherine came down to the sitting room and stayed with Levi and her husband. Levi got up and left the room, closing the door to it behind him. Catherine heard whom she thought was Elma, coming down the stairs, and then whispering by the front door, which she presumed was the two of them. She heard the very noisy front door open. She went to it with a candle, but because of the darkness and the press of people about, could not see them.

About 10:00 that night, Levi came back and asked for Hope, and then for Elma. Catherine thought this strange, as she believed Elma was with him. She was never to see her relative alive again. When Elma did not reappear Catherine and the others became alarmed. Levi seemed alarmed too. His apprentice, who slept with him, heard him call out her name in his sleep.

A few days after she disappeared, a young boy found the muff in front a drain near a well known as the Manhattan Well. It was created, allegedly as a means to bring fresh water to New York, but the Manhattan Corporation, which built the well, was also a device which allowed its owners to set up a bank, which was not quite so easy as doing so today, and quite important politically. It was the brainchild of Aaron Burr, who is today most famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel four years later. He was a genuine Revolutionary War hero, and probably saw more action than most of the forefathers we read about today.

Burr was also one of the best lawyers in the country, practicing in the New York bar, which many scholars consider the single best group of lawyers ever to be found in the country. His competition for the top spot was Hamilton. In fact they often tried cases together although they were political opponents. Burr would be elected Vice President of the United States later in 1800, and then destroy his career by killing Hamilton, and later being tried for treason when he and some followers were caught trying to take over Mexico, and possibly taking some of the United States with him. He has been considered a villainous fellow ever since, although I personally think it is odd that we revere a number of forefathers who were slave holders, but revile Burr for shooting someone who he at least thought was trying to shoot him, and for trying to take over part of Mexico, which was exactly what the United States did several year later on its own (stretching from Florida to California.

When the muff was found, everyone suspected the worst, and finally Catherine Ring confronted Levi, and told him that Elma had said they were going to get married. Levi went to pieces, saying he was ruined. Others in the family had angry words with him. Despite the obvious clue of the muff, it wasn’t until January 2d, 1800 that Elias Ring and a few other men found, and managed to pull Elma’s body out of the well.

The murder created a public outburst and rumors swirled. Levi was immediately arrested although eventually released until a little before trial. One paper called for calm, noting some evidence in Levi’s defense. The body of Elma was displayed at the Ring’s home and even on the street for days.

Fortunately for Levi, his brother, Ezra, was at the time working on a home for Alexander Hamilton (it still exists). He also probably knew Burr and another leading lawyer, Brockholst Livingston, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, from their connection to the Manhattan Well, for which he had supplied wooden pipes. The three would agree to defend Levi.

It would be impossible to cover Hamilton’s life with any justice in a few paragraphs, and I will not try. Suffice today, he was, a “bastard” child (then, a big deal) from the West Indies, who came to America just before the Revolution and attended what later became Columbia University. He became an artilleryman and then a key figure on Washington’s staff. He led the great charge at Yorktown, which was where this country essentially defeated the British. He went on to become the first Secretary of State, and almost by himself, created the economic path for this country for the next two hundred years, modeling it after Great Britain’s economy to a large degree. He would do great harm to his own career by an affair, which he publicly admitted. He was also considered, with Burr, New York’s top lawyer, and was actually, at the same time, the chief general of the army.

The trial started on March 31st. 75 witnesses were sworn in. Today, it would take 6 months to try the case. They did it in two and a half days, working late into the night, and with the jury sleeping in a room together. 75 witnesses in two days is like playing the whole World Series in an afternoon or washing the windows on the Empire State building in a day.

The courtroom was so crowded, it had to be partially cleared. Chants of “crucify him” could be heard from the street. The court was comprised of Supreme Court Judge, John Lansing, who nearly thirty years later would go out on an errand and disappear forever, likely murdered; the Mayor, Richard Varick, after whom New York’s Varick Street is named, and Richard Harrison, the City Recorder, and one other lesser light.

The prosecution was conducted by Cadwallader Colden, the grandson of a famous New York lieutenant governor, botanist, scientist and historian. He was 31, and would do battle alone against possibly the greatest team of lawyers’ ever assembled. Unlike the “dream team” of O.J. Simpson’s trial, they were the real deal. There is some evidence that another four lawyers assisted them.

Years later, Colden became an officer in the War of 1812, a New York City Mayor, a United States Congressman, and author of a biography on Robert Fulton, among other achievements. For now, he had his hands full

Colden admitted to the jury that he had a circumstantial case, but that if the jury believed Elma left with Levi, he did not see how they could acquit. He would also show that when Levi left his brother’s house about 8 p.m., he took his brother’s sleigh and with that escorted Elma to her death at the well. He would also produce other witnesses who were passed by a sleigh with a woman and either one or two men in it that night. Witnesses would also testify to screams for help in the night near the well.

He actually did put on witnesses who said all that, some more credible than others. But he also suffered numerous set backs such as having three boys not allowed to testify because they did not read or write and didn’t know what an oath was; another witness just said he did not know anything; and, another, who tried to testify that he saw Levi near the well before the murder testing its depth, was so demolished by the defense that Colden had to say to the court that he gave up the point. One of his key witnesses, who testified she heard Ezra’s sleigh leaving without its bells on the night of the murder, then testified on cross-examination that it was in January, not December.

But worst of all for the prosecution was its choice to put Richard David Croucher on the stand. He immediately made himself odious by testifying in a very pretentious manner. He also admitted to being a snoop, and claimed he caught Levi and Elma in the act together. The cross-examination was devastating. They first pointed out that he was an Englishman, not a very popular thing to be at that time, although this was probably obvious from his accent. They then, after Croucher lied about having no malice towards Levi, proved that they had an altercation and he despised him. He also admitted he had never spoken to Elma since then either.

After an eloquent opening by Burr, the defense relentlessly tore apart the prosecutions case with its own witnesses, and particularly destroyed the prosecution evidence that Elma had been beaten to death. They even offered credible evidence that the one Elma was having an affair with was not Levi, but Elias Ring. Most of all, they succeeded in making the trial about Croucher. It was demonstrated that he not only went about spreading rumors about Levi, but that he had actually passed by the well that night, although he earlier claimed he had only said he wished he had. By the end of the case, the prosecution, on rebuttal, had to put on no less than five witnesses for Croucher to prove his alibi, and he wasn’t even on trial.

The prosecutor begged for a continuance when the last witness was done, claiming he was sinking under fatigue. No wonder. He hadn’t slept in forty-four hours, and was fighting a superb group of lawyers single handedly. There was no adjournment granted, but the case went to the jury without argument. The judge who instructed the jury told them that the court thought that the case was not proved and that an acquittal was in order. Apparently, the jury agreed, as within a few minutes they announced the not guilty verdict.

Levi’s otherwise admirable reputation, demonstrated throughout the trial, led the public from wanting to crucify him to being ecstatic at his acquittal. But, did he do it? Maybe. His own witnesses established that he spent the day at his brother’s house, but left for a little while around 8 p.m. and came back somewhere between 25 minutes and an hour later. There was no doubt that he went to the Ring’s at that time, just when Elma said he was going to show. If he did not go to meet her and then left with her when she came down stairs, why would he walk home, sit for a few minutes doing nothing, and then walk back to his brother’s only to return home again at 10 o’clock? It makes no sense.

Of course, we will never know what really happened, but we do know this – shortly before the trial Croucher had asked the woman he would soon marry if he could take her 13 year old daughter, really an orphan the woman had taken in, home to the Ring house so she could scrub his room in the morning. When they got there he locked her in his room, and then raped her three times during the night, threatening her that if she would not keep quiet, she would end up like the girl in the well. At least this was the testimony of young, Margaret Miller.

Croucher almost immediately thereafter married the mother and began arguing with her to kick the girl out because she was bad. Finally, he told the mother that he knew she was a whore because he had slept with her himself in order to prove it, and that she had consented. Two neighbors confirmed Croucher’s admission, although he claimed it was consensual.

The case was tried in July, 1800. Colden was again the prosecutor, but this time was ferocious on behalf of the young victim. Brockholst Livingston represented the defendant, who he had possibly even cross-examined in the Weeks case (we don’t really know who did what for the defense for the most part).

Livingston, although not so famous as Burr or Hamilton, came from a very famous family. His cousin Robert was the Chancellor of New York who had sworn in Washington when he became President, was crucial in our purchase of the Louisiana territory from the French a few years after the trial, and worked with Robert Fulton on the steam boat. His other cousin, Henry, probably wrote what we call “The Night Before Christmas (see my September 26, 2006 post).

Brockholst himself was an officer in the Revolutionary War, served in an ambassadorial capacity in Spain, was captured during his return, paroled by the British, survived an assassination attempt in 1785, and killed a political opponent, who had caned him and tweaked his nose (I kid you not) in a duel. His legal career would take off after the trial, as he became a New York State Supreme Court judge and then a United States Supreme Court Justice appointed by Thomas Jefferson.

Young Margaret was a great witness, crying her eyes out on the stand. There were only a few witnesses, but the trial report is worth reading because of the powerful summations by Livingston and Colden. It seemed that Colden had grown immensely as a lawyer since the Weeks trial. He did not buckle this time, but was passionate in his own summation. The only question for the jury was – did she consent? The jury thought not, and convicted Croucher.

After being sentenced to life at hard labor a few days later, Croucher made a strange speech to the court, in which he said that he deserved severe punishment, but that he had not had sex with Margaret Miller. The court was not impressed and said not only was it too late for such a claim, but that he had admitted it already to others.

But what did he mean by saying that he deserved to be severely punished. It would be satisfying to believe that he was acknowledging killing Elma Sands, but that is base speculation. What else had he done that was so bad?

According to Hamilton’s son, in an 1865 book about his father, which completely distorted what happened at the trial, Croucher was pardoned, committed a fraud in Virginia, fled to England where it was related he was executed for a heinous crime.

He definitely was pardoned. I was able to get a copy of the pardon document from New York State. The archivist who obtained it for me was probably the first person two lay eyes on it in over two hundred years. Whether he fled to England or not is unknown, but the pardon actually required him to go there. As for his execution, he is not listed in a reference book for which lists notable executions in England or on a website claiming to have all the executions in the 19th century. His end will likely remain a mystery.

Levi Weeks had a better fate. He soon left for Massachusetts but then went down to Mississippi, where he became a very notable architect. Whether he lived with the death of Elma on his head, or whether he tried to forget a horrible event of which he was falsely accused of, we will never know. As much as anyone reading the trial transcripts would like to believe the young and noble Levi was innocent, and the awkward and evil Croucher guilty, I suspect the opposite is true.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Did I tell you I hate cell phones?

I shouldn’t publish this. But I have to get if off my chest. Hate cell phones. HATE cell phones!

Why, you defensively asked (let’s face it, some of you are probably angry at me already)? They are incredibly convenient, saves lives, help catch criminals, rescue lost souls and those whose tires have gone flat, and have even allowed otherwise impossible last minute phone calls from an infamous doomed airplane. They are merely one more technological stepping stone, just like rubbing sticks to make fire, forks, land line telephones, cars, trains, personal computers, and the airplane were in their time. Numerous technological improvements have occurred with phones before the cell -- touch tone dialing, wireless (we called them space phones), answering machines, digital transmission, to name a few.

Why should cell phones be any different? Won’t we get used to them?

No doubt we will. There is not even the tiniest denial here that cell phones will continue to proliferate much faster than nukes until the next technological improvement makes them obsolete. But in the meantime, cell phones have greatly increased our communal blood pressure, loneliness, rudeness and have played havoc with cultural norms.

You love your cell. Some of you would not want to admit it but you are even angry at any suggestion that something is amiss with them. You believe that having a cell phone soothes you, keeps you company, and will save your children from being kidnapped.


Here are ten reasons we should all hate cell phones:

10. They stop people who are actually with each other from having conversations. This essay was inspired by hearing about a police officer who was retiring because cell phones and instant messaging had so diminished the conversation and comradery which he most enjoyed about being a cop.

How many times have you passed a car, or been in one, where everyone was using a cell phone instead of talking. Ever passed the mall entrance where kids are standing around not talking to each other, but into their phones. Ever go out with a friend or even on a date where your companion spent an hour or so taking calls. Ever have your conversation interrupted ten times in an hour. Don’t tell me the answer to any of these is no, unless you were so busy on your own cell phone you don’t notice.

9. A culture of rudeness with cell phones was immediate and ubiquitous. Cell phones have institutionalised rude behavior under the cover of new technology. The most spectacular and quite common cell move is the swoop, which can be described like this: You are speaking with someone face to face. A strange, way too loud, unnatural tune begins playing and in one motion your companion twists like a yogi, sweeps down her (yes, usually her – see below) hand, and scoops up the phone faster than a speeding electronic transmission. People who would be mortified to be impolite in any other way, immediately found this behavior acceptable, and do it over and over.

8. It gives people no peace. Even when they make no calls themselves, they can’t drive a car, walk down the street, or meditate without the cell going off. Some of these people are working and these are important calls. It doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying to them and those around them. I have been in this position myself. Likely, when they are in an office, the land line is constantly ringing, but that’s different. They are supposed to be working and it has an end when they leave. Now, there is no longer any down time. Surrender, Dorothy, and answer your damn phone.

7. It makes people lonelier. Whenever someone tells me that their heart is broken and they are desperate for their loved one to call, I recommend they turn off their answering machine when they leave the house. When they come home they will not have the intense expectation and then the repeated disappointment that the light will be blinking. I have gotten some pretty good feedback on that advice. But, now, no one can do that, can they, because they can’t turn their cell phone off, can they?

I always feel sorry when I pass someone who is sitting on a bench or ledge or even walking down the street, staring hopefully at their phone. They can reach out across the country, but often there is no one to call and no one calling them. Poor souls. I wish they would try reading a book, but I don’t think they would want to. Its not digital. The loneliness shows plain on their face, reflected in the pale light from the screen.

6. It increases our blood pressure. The cell phone is not solely responsible for this phenomena. Three relatively new devices contribute, and the cell is probably third. First is phone mail. Your question is never on the menu, and if you hit zero to get someone, many systems will thank you and hang up. They are deliberately meant to be labyrinths that frustrate and make us give up without speaking to anyone. When I am made emperor, the second thing I do is make it law that every phone mail system must have an opt out to get a human by pressing 0.

Second is the famous computer bar creeping across the bottom of your screen at the speed of ice melting in Anchorage in mid-winter (that‘s a pre-global warming, metaphor of course). I personally blame bar creep for my blood pressure problems.

Their seems to be some illusion that someone will answer the phone when you call them. But too often they can’t. It can be very difficult to reach people on their cells. They may have to keep their phones off, or they may have it on vibrate. Sometimes the damn things don’t work at all, partially work, or drops the calls like a New York Jet receiver drops passes on fourth and one. No doubt you have more than once sat at a table for lunch with a group of people who could not relax because someone was supposed to meet them and, heavens, couldn’t be reached on their cell.

So why is this different from a land line? It’s the expectation. Cells have created the expectation that whoever you call will be there or see that you called, and immediately return it. Doesn’t work that way in real life and makes people crazy.
Sadly I have read about “no cell phone days” in Europe where many people were greatly relieved to have the day free, but admitted they could not stop themselves from cheating. Sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it?

5. Normal meet and greet manners are shot to hell. You are in a mall or some other public place and you see someone you know. As you walk by you smile and say hello. In return, you are lucky if you get so much as a blank stare. Maybe, he or she will make a small gesture to show you that they are on the phone, which, of course, you already knew. Or maybe you get in a car, picked up by a friend on the way to work. You say hello and start gabbing. She’s gabbing back. Suddenly you realize that she’s not talking to you. This can go on for minutes, maybe even a half hour. When that call is over, how soon until the next one?

Earlier today I saw someone I knew and said hello. Foolishly, I reached out to shake hands. With his cell pressed to his ear, he almost dropped his books and tripped over himself. Good Lord, what have we done to ourselves?

4. Cell phones make people angry. We see this all the time. Those of us not on cell phones hate it when people talk on them on trains or on a line or in a restaurant. Since we can’t hear the other side of the conversation, we here only the unnatural staccato of the person we are near. And always, THEY ARE TOO LOUD.
They weave all over the road and give us the finger when they cross over into our lane. They hold up the bagel line while . . . “And then she said to me . . . wait, one second . . . how much is that. Hold on. Not you. Thanks. What? Oh, sorry. Three fifty or two fifty?” C’MON!!!!

Recently, I was at the library and could not find a quiet spot because of all the people answering cell phones (I will ignore the crying babies for the moment, but it almost made me insane). I tried Borders thinking the constant drone of noise would make it less difficult to concentrate. Wrong. Cell phone talkers speak louder than everyone else and there is no natural rhythm when you are hearing only one side of a conversation.

3. They create yet another rift between men and women. You notice most of these examples use “she”. That’s because the majority of these violations are by women. Go ahead, call me a misogynist. Everyone knows this. I once picked a jury in a wrongful death case where my client had been driving an SUV. Quite a few people on the jury could not get out of their head the image of a women in an SUV gabbing on a cell as she drove at top speed. Truth be told, I had the same image, because I’ve seen it so many times. Yes, of course, these complaints apply to lots of men and I know some women who hate cell phones too. But I also know a lot more men who think of the cell as a necessary evil, rarely use it and don’t give out their number. Women seem to think it’s the greatest invention since . . . the telephone.

2. They make us irrational. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures 2003 statistics show that cell phone use was responsible for just 1% of accidents. Despite that fact, the public perception is that they cause many accidents (rubbernecking is apparently the biggest cause and a pet peeve of mine). State legislatures seem determined to outlaw driving without hands free units while leaving us free to eat, drink and dance while driving, or when we are barely awake. People seem to get angrier if an accident is caused by cell phone use. Why should someone be angrier because someone kills a kid while on a cell phone than they would if it was the result of speeding or falling asleep.

One of the biggest irrational fantasies many people have (yes, women) is that the phone is actually an electric leash which somehow protects their children at long distance. Note to parents. Your children may be lying to you and you can’t get to them fast enough if something bad happens.

The ongoing frenzy and desperate fear in the eyes of New York City parents who are told their kids can’t bring cell phones to school is insane. INSANE. It’s a safety issue, they say. How do they think parents managed for the last few million years. Were kids dropping dead in droves just 15 years ago before everyone had a cell phone? Did I miss that?

1. People walking down the street apparently talking to themselves is just strange. I think this one speaks for itself.

So, despite all of these reasons, why do I own a cell phone? The fact is I got one after being trapped in a severe weather disturbance far from help. I ended up trying to cancel it before the contract ended. After that I stopped using one until a job forced me to get one. The italics around forced is because the phone wasn’t required, but there were fewer and fewer phone booths around, and I got tired of climbing stairs or looking all over for one in order to call the office or a client. My daughter wanted one, and it wasn’t much more to get two, so I did. But everything is fine because of my rules, which work. Fortunately, there aren’t ten.

1. The phone is for me. If I tell you I’ll have it on, I will try to remember to do so. But otherwise, don’t expect it to be. Sometimes I lose the phone for a month or more at a time. Know what? I really don’t care. I can make calls when I want. Otherwise, its usually off.

2. I am not a slave to my phone. Don’t leave a message. I only check on them once or twice a year.

3. If we are going to meet, we can use cell phones, but let’s have a time and place set and try to live up to it just like we would have before they invented the damn things.

4. I try not to talk in restaurants or too loudly in a store and then I stop while I’m being helped. I actually violated the first during a bad work week recently, and, here’s a concept, I apologized to people around me. One more. If I have my phone on and it rings, I say excuse me to the person I am talking to before picking it up.

5. When it came to my kid, there was no electronic leash. There were no excuses permitted because of cell phone failure. There were still land lines in the world.

6. When it is on, the ringer is on low or I have it on vibrate.

That’s about it. Its not that hard really. Now you try it.

p.s. That was very cathartic.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lessons of the Hizbollah-Israeli War II

The last posting on this subject discussed the evolution of techniques by Hizbollah which are indicative of what I call the Western Alliances have to look forward to from that and other groups opposed to America and its allies. Some of those techniques are

- using missile technology to attack their enemies

- using civilian shields to arouse international anger against the West and
taking advantage of our own aversion to killing civilians as a method to
prevent us from fighting their hardest

- using non-governmental organizations like Hizbollah to prevent military
action against allied States.

- using the internet to portray alleged Western war crimes or atrocities,
and to declare real or imagined victories.

Some recent articles in the media have shown the increased use of these tactics in the middle east, including in the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

Although we might continue to try to prevent the dispersal of military technology, good luck to us, as explained in the last posting. But we can do something about the rest of these techniques because the solution is attitudinal on our part.

The most important of these problems is the one which may be the hardest to conquer and may even seem cruel and unlawful at first blush -- that is, the anathema attached to the killing of civilians.

To be absolutely clear, I am not advocating abating our efforts to avoid killing civilians, and we can slap ourselves on the back for trying. It is not only required by any Nation that has subscribed to the Geneva Conventions in many cases (although the Bush administration was right; common article three's proscriptions against harming civilians expressly does not apply when fighting groups like Al Quaeda or Hizbollah), but it is also, in my book moral and wise.

Instead what I am suggesting -- not to our governments, but TO THE PUBLIC AND THE MEDIA is that we stop beating our breasts when our military forces cannot avoid killing innocent civilians or it happens accidentally. It saps the morale of the public and the military, which are mutually dependant on each other for support.

Let's use the most recent example. On November 8, 2006 Israeli missiles seeking to kill Palestinians militants who fired rockets into Israel, slammed into buildings killing 18 Palestinians, mostly women and children. Similar events occurred in the Hizbollah-Israel War. The reaction from the territories and the Arab world was outrage, and the same came from much of the world. But it also came from many Israelis, including the prime minister, who seemed to buckle at the knees. He apologized and practically begged the Palestinian president to meet with him and added that if he did, he would be very surprised at what Israel was wlling to do for him. The meeting did not occur, at least publicly.

On November 11 Israeli peace activists joined by three Nobel Prize winners called for the Israeli Supreme Court to ban Israel from targeting missile attacks. I am not sure what they expect Israel to do -- fire indiscriminately on civilians like Hizbollah? Probably not. Stop fighting? Probably more like it.

They were probably addressing the right entity. A few years ago the Israeli Supreme Court banned the use of Palestinian human shields to the military. Not surprisingly, using Muslims as human shields has increased among Muslim militias, because they see the great effect it has upon the Western Alliances.

President Bush expressed his sorrow of the loss of life, but stated clearly that Israel had done nothing wrong. This attitude seeks to place blame on the entity at fault for the reaction and the possibility of mistake. Although with less at stake, his reaction was superior to the Israel prime minister's reaction.

Much of the rest of the world seemed to disagree. On November 11, 2006
a resolution came before the U.N. security council condemning Israel, although restatements called upon the Palestinian Authority to find a way to make a sustained effort to end the rocket attacks on Israel. If only. It was vetoed by the U.S.

Among other changes, France proposed other language calling for "an international mechanism for the protection of civilians". Leaving aside the "mechanics" of doing so, or why it is needed in addition to common article three, who would obey these new restrictions? Not Al Quaeda, not Hamas or Hizbollah. Not the Tamil Tigers, or FARC or the Taliban or Chechyan Black Widows, that's for sure.

Israel did much better when it opened fire on women sent to protect terrorists that were surrounded in a mosque. If Israel buckled under the use of women to defend men they are trying to kill, then it would have been repeated again and again. I doubt unprotected women in Palestine will try that real soon again, and I believe that ultimately it saves women's lives if they are discouraged from participating in this fashion.

Another tactic the West Alliances should adopt is to identify countries supporting hostile groups and make them pay a price for it. The prime example of this was our attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan as a result of 9/11. But in the Hizbollah-Israeli War it was seen as wrong to identify Hizbollah with Lebanon, although the government and people overwhelmingly supported the militant group. Because of this manner of thinking, additional pressure was put on Israel to stop its bombing before the job was done. Lebanon itself is now paying the price for this. They are faced with a still powerful organization, the only one armed in the country, which is now seeking by threats to take control of the government. This would almost certainly doom Lebanon to a far more punishing war with Israel in the future.

Had Israel's bombing, which despite the number of dead, was designed not to kill civilians, been allowed to continue even another week, it is difficult to believe that the Lebanese people would have continued to support Hizbollah, and undermined the group's popular support. Even as it was, Hizbollah's leader acknowledged after the war that he would not have captured the Israeli soldiers had he known the severity of the reaction. Exactly. EXACTLY. The world media reacted with surprise and interest, but no one was interested in the lesson.

The premature end to fighting as a result of modern Western values and natural sympathy for the Lebanese non-combatants (which ironically includes the Lebanese military) allowed Hizbollah to make a senseless claim of victory, weakened Israel's morale and kept it from trying to win, another peculiar affect of the enlightenment beliefs the Western Alliances so highly value. Yet this reluctance to let any powerful country win a conflict (I am not talking about genocide)simply prolongs conflicts. It has prolonged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (despite world wide condemnation, Israel's self restraint is unusual in the history of conflicts -- the number of Palestinians who have actually died from military attack by Israel is actually quite low). The same failute to win more forcefully has left the United States in a difficult, if not impossible position in Iraq.

In fact, one only need to consider the effect on the world if the Allies in WWII had been forced to fight under 21st century notions that total victory is not permitted if civilians are suffering or dying. No rebirth in Germany, no rebirth in Japan, both which became essential to the world economy and world peace.

Without going on forever in this vein, consider all the ways that terrorist groups are able to fight, as opposed to the ways we are permitted to fight them.

They can (and we cannot) deliberately

kill enemy civilians

kill their own civilians

torture their captives and enemies

summarily execute captives and enemies

use propaganda without self doubt and criticism

openly use our schools, businesses, technology,and
media to train and propagandize

indiscriminately use nuclear, biological and
chemical weapons when they acquire

fight to win no matter the

It is one thing to try and maintain your values in time of war. We must always make that effort. It is another thing to so hamstring yourself with values that you will lose everything. This is something the generation that won WWII understood and we do not. It is not that we should adopt all of the tactics that our enemies do, which are squarely against our values. Far from it. But we should not cripple our ability to fight in trying to remain moral such that we cannot win or win efficiently.

To those who believe that this is hyperbole and an exaggeration of our risks, they should return to part one where it is explained that peoples we may foolishly condescend to because they do not yet possess our technology, will some day, sooner than later, possess our most dangerous weapons. They can already shoot down our planes with our shoulder held heat seeking missiles, and shoot more powerful missiles into neighboring countries. But the Western Alliances must consider a near future when non-governmental entities hiding among civilians over a broad geographical area swimming with innocent human life can target and fire thousands of missiles at once into our countries.

It might happen to Israel first, but then it will be Europe and then the United States. The thought is almost to frightening to contemplate. It is more frightening to consider that some or all of those missiles might contain nuclear explosives, or chemical/biological weapons. It is one reason we need political solutions, which are only possible with a showing of superior strength.

A fair analogy to this situation is found in the often quoted warning of Justice Robert Jackson, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court:

"This Court has gone far toward accepting the doctrine that civil liberty means the removal of all restraints from these crowds and that all local attempts to maintain order are impairments of the liberty of the citizen. The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact". Terminiello v. Chicago (1949)

Frankly, at least with 20/20 hindsight, Jackson was dead wrong in Terminiello, where he stood against the right of a truly despicable person to speak freely in public, as he was in a number of his opinions where he suggested the court was going too far in protecting individuals from the state. History has proved anarchy does not increase with greater expression of antagonistic beliefs. But that doesn't mean the general principal is wrong in civil rights or warfare when rightly applied. It is better suited to the doomsday situation described above for which I will restate it here:

"This country and our allies has gone far toward accepting the doctrine that protecting civilians from casualties in war means the end of fighting to win. The choice is not between protecting civilians and winning. It is between protecting human life as much as possible while winning as quickly as possible. There is a danger that, if this country does not temper its most decent values with a little practical wisdom, it will convert its military rules of engagement into a suicide pact".

Have a good sleep.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

For Personal Reasons

For personal reasons I will not be posting this week, but I will be back next Woden's Day or Thor's Day to offend some of you, and bore the rest of you with my completion of the article on the Hizbollah-Israeli War. After that I may get around to posting my article on cell phones, but it just makes me so angry I think I have to tone it done a bit. Have a nice week.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Day of Thunder and Lightning

Why is Wednesday spelled so funny?

Most people seem surprised to learn that it is named after a once popular Norse (Northern Germanic-Scandinavian) god named Odin, sometimes Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, etc. His Old English or Anglo-Saxon name, Woden, was most ungracefully brought into the English version of the days of the week as Wednesday, which we happily pronounce as if it was spelled Wensday.

Odin is a marvelous if not always charming mythological character who plucked out one of his eyes and also hung himself in exchange for secret knowledge, had two ravens, memory and thought, sitting on his shoulders, was creator and master of runes and a great wanderer of midgard – or “middle earth”. Sounds a little like a certain fictional wizard of whom many of us are more than a little fond. Not surprising, as Norse mythology was a major, if not the major, source for Tolkien in writing the Lord of the Rings, right down to the names of Gandalf, the dwarves, Mirkwood and many others.

Given the precedence our culture seems to give to things Greek and Roman, you would think we would name the days of the week after their gods, as we have the planets (most of the traditional planets are named for the Roman or Greek gods and titans). But with day names our Teutonic heritage won out, and this honor is given to Odin and some of his children. This includes the Norse god of war, Tiu or Tyr, from who we derive Tuesday, and Frigg, Odin’s wife, a goddess of marriage, from whose name comes Friday. Odin and Frigg were the parents of many of the other gods.

And, of course, today is Thor’s Day or Thursday (from the Norman Thur). Let’s give Thor special attention, as he has bulled his way into our culture in several other ways besides being a day name.

Thor, god of thunder, would probably not be amused by Marvel Comic’s original vision of him as a tall body builder looking fellow with long silky golden locks, more resembling a modern professional wrestler than a deity. The Thor of olden days was much stockier and had a big red beard. In other words, he looked like the Vikings who worshipped him. Actually, Marvel has in a way conceded its mistake in more recent days by relegating the blonde Thor to a “clone” of the god, and making the real Thor much more Vikingly. Supposedly, a movie is being produced, and it’s a good bet they go with the more attractive blond look.

Although comic books are most often for children and collectors, we should not laugh at their place in our society. The soft cover paper versions of these characters may have played themselves out to some degree, after decades of success, but millions still sell, sometimes in more permanent book form collections, and may more likely be purchased by adult collectors than kids. But the movies, television shows and video games have made many millions, maybe billions out of Marvel’s host of super heroes, and are popular throughout the world. And what are super heroes, if not modern versions of the classic gods and heroes?

Wouldn’t you bet that ten times as many kids, anywhere on earth, know who Spider-Man is and don't know who, say, Donald Rumsfeld is, and many more have even read about Thor, who is not so popular as Spidey, than have read The Three Musketeers, Shakespeare or even the Bible.

Thor has also come down to us in a softer, more magical and familiar form who we call Santa Claus (and no, I’m not trying to make this an All-Santa, all the time blog – it was just one other posting). Although the Santa we are used to is a composite character, this isn’t stretching at all. Consider these overwhelming facts.

Let’s start generally and get more specific. Santa and Thor are both are both big bellied, bearded Northerners who wear hats; Thor preferring a helmet and Santa a cap. Santa wears a belt, Thor a magic girdle. It gets better.

Some of Thor’s other names are Donar, Thunor or Donder. That last one probably sounds familiar and it should. We’ve all grown up hearing about Santa’s reindeer Donder. Could it be just a coincidence? Its not at all, because hooked up next to Donder is Blitzen, their names meaning thunder and lightning, one Thor’s name and the other a related attribute. So not only is a day of the week named for him, but so are two of Santa’s reindeer as related in A Visit From Saint Nick a/k/a The Night Before Christmas. The author of the poem didn’t call the reindeer Thor, because he used the familiar Dutch versions Dunder and Blitzem in the original version of the poem before publisher’s made their own revisions.

Ah, but Santa flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by Donder and Blitzen and the other magical four legged horned reindeer. Can we say that about Thor? Pretty much yes, except they weren't reindeer, they were goats. That’s plenty close enough. But it's not all. The modern version of Santa Claus probably starts with Washington Irving's Knickerbocker Tales. He correctly put Santa in a wagon, which was soon after changed to a sleigh by others.

What about Santa’s toys made by magical elves. Piece of cake. Thor carries around a magic hammer, Mjolnir, made by magical dwarves. Dwarves? Elves? Who cares? Magical little folk who peopled Norse mythology.

Now maybe it would be more convincing if Thor ever had an experience with, say, a magic sack like Santa carries his toys in, or something like that. In fact, he did that too, though never pictured with it now in modern renditions. In the relatively few stories we have of this mighty god, he is involved with a sack in one story and a box of provisions he carries on his back in another.

You might point out that Santa Claus is a jolly fellow and that Thor was a pretty serious guy, if not in serious need of anger management. That is true, but St. Nick’s jolliness is a 19th century American creation, and the older Santa or Sinter Klaas, as the Dutch called him, was quite dour.

Thor was a god beloved by the common people, and Scandinavians still name their children after him. He was possessed of immense strength, and was virtually unstoppable, just like the Greek Hercules. And also like Hercules, Thor found himself on many a risky adventure. He could not easily be defeated, although he was twice of note. Once he wrestled an old servant woman named Elli, and despite his divine gifts, was unable to defeat her. In fact, she brought him to one knee, a humiliating loss to the great killer of giants. Unbeknownst to Thor, Elli was old age personified, and even the most powerful of the great gods could not defeat her.

His other defeat, really a fatal draw, was far more consequential. It was at Ragnorak, the Norse Judgment Day, where he met in furious battle with his greatest nemesis, the Midgard serpent, a titanic and devilish creature which encircled the earth. It was their third contest and third draw, the god and the enormous worm both perishing in the end.

Thor’s other consistent nemesis and occasional companion was Loki, a figure part trickster, part devil. Although sometimes the other gods punished Loki horribly for his misdeeds, they often showed great restraint with him, particularly Thor. Bad idea. Loki, his demon children and their allies the fire beings, eventually destroyed these mortal gods and middle earth in the last great battle.

Poor dead god of thunder. At least his two boys, Magni and Modi (strength and anger) survived to carry on in the new world -- the one you and I exist in. We can imagine that it was these children who made sure that we probably all say their father’s name at least once a week if not more, just as we would this morning if someone asks us what day it is. Just tell them it’s Thor’s Day, and we are all the richer for it.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .