Thursday, January 21, 2010

Terrorism, Real and Imagined: Let Us Pray

Tefillin or TNT? Bomb or Biblical Blessing?

To say that the threat of terrorism has America's airline passengers a bit goosey is an understatement. Today, Jan. 21, 2010, a US Airways Express flight from New York to Louisville, Kentucky was diverted when passengers saw a young man attaching two small black boxes to his body, example above, lashing one to his forehead and the other to one arm with long black straps. He then began chanting in some foreign language. Passengers were sure they were about to be blown up by a fanatical suicide bomber.

In fact, a teenage Orthodox Jewish passenger from White Plains, N.Y was merely doing his morning prayers as prescribed in Deuteronomy and Exodus in the ancient Orthodox Jewish Torah.

Passengers and crew, like a majority us, were no more familiar with the "Mitzvah of Tefillin" than they were with the "mixture for teflon." The imagined, seemingly menacing "little square suicide bombs clearly showing four embedded detonating circuit wires on their sides" immediately put the plane into terrorist mode. The pilot diverted and landed in Philadelphia just to be sure. He didn't realize that he had elected to unnecessarily land "on a wing and a prayer."

More on the little black boxes and the long black leather straps used to bind them to the body in a minute.

How ridiculous would it have sounded just six months ago if someone had warned you that the person in seat 14-C could could be wearing deadly explosive underwear? Well, by now we have probably all seen the close-up photos of the young Nigerian's underwear loaded with a Play Dough-like substance after his foiled attempt to blow up an Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, flight on Christmas Day December 25, 2009.

The stuff in the underwear was the same thing that was inside Al Qaeda terrorist Richard Reid's infamous shoe bomb. It was packed with PETN but failed to detonate on a December 22, 2001 American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. PETN or pentaerythritol trinitrate, is one of the most powerful explosives known.

Just researching this stuff is frightening. A tiny 100 grams or 3.5 ounces of it will destroy an automobile. A box of Jello weighs 3 ounces. And PETN is stable enough to carry around an airport boarding lounge without exploding. But a hard shock or secondary chemical can set it off with deadly effect. Reid had worn the PETN-laden shoe a whole day before his flight and investigators say that the fuse to start the ignition got damp from his sweaty feet and fizzled when he tried to light it. Passengers pounced and Reid is doing life in prison today.

The young Nigerian Muslim fanatic, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, mercifully also botched his attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 and the 289 souls on board on Christmas Day December 25, 2009. An eagle-eyed passenger saw smoke coming from the man's lap and physically restrained him while other passengers and crew used a fire extinguisher and then immobilized the would-be suicide bomber.

Here are illustrations from from an Orthodox Jewish web site showing precisely "how to lay tefillin" or how to properly put these prayer-assist items onto the head and arm. They are also called "phylactery," or small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts:

Clearly your average American airline passenger and lots of Reform Jews are probably not up on the incredibly complex kosher rules for "laying tefillin" or properly donning the little black cubes in order to do morning prayers.

And it took a little poking around to find out what the "V" shaped four "circuit-board" lines going down into a single point are. It is the embossed letter "Shin" from the Hebrew alphabet that stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God ... not detonator wires to set off PETN.

The 17-year old on the US Airways flight and his 16-year old sister were completely cooperative as they explained the innocent daily morning religious ritual. Officials said the kids, "were more alarmed than we were."

In 2008, Jordanian border officials refused to allow a group of Israeli tourists carrying religious objects, including the little tefillin black boxes, to enter their country saying it was "a safety measure" to avoid potential terror threats. So go figure . . . clueless Americans saw the chanting kid with the little boxes strapped to his body as a threat. Who knows what the Muslim Jordanian's reasons were other than possible religious harassment?

The legendary Bob Dylan put on the ancient tefillin and a religious shawl while performing in Israel and an enterprising Jen Taylor Friedman is notorious for having created a Tefillin Barbie. Photos of both are below.

My apologies to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his helpful web page on Tefillin for any shortcomings in my cursory research to help us understand this ancient Orthodox Jewish parallel to rosary beads, swinging incense censers, wearing religious medallions and other similar physical devices used as prayers are offered.

Photos from The Jewish Life Series, Tefillin Barbie from and Jerusalem Post online

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brown and Palin : Photogenic Pols a Panacea for 'Independent' Anger?

Politicians Scott Brown and Sarah Louise Palin All Smiles and Skin

Nice looks and shallow platitudes seem to be a winning combination for attracting disaffected voters with short memories and little understanding of complex concepts. That group of so-called 'undecided' voters claiming no political party preference seems not to decide because that might take too much serious thinking. Easier to stick with what they don't know.

That at least seems to have been the case in the narrow election of an unknown but nice looking Massachusetts state senator to fill the remaining three years of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. Good looks, white teeth, political generalizations, and national magazine spreads showing lots of skin are easier to like than a serious visage and plain old nose to-the-grindstone ability. Brown and Palin's political convictions certainly seem to be only skin deep .

Brown's Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley is a very private, straight laced legal scholar and public servant. It was lots easier for independents to see her cold, and stand-offish manner as dumb and klutzy than it was to have taken time to review her impressive qualifications and to look beneath her exterior. She recently brought home $60 million after Goldman Sachs agreed to pay up after she took them to task for promoting unfair home loans in her state. This past December Coakley handily defeated three opponents in the Democratic primary with 47 percent of the vote.

But her lackluster campaign and a couple of foot-in-mouth, seemingly insensitive comments was all the opening it took for Republican spin doctors to pounce and go after independent voters. The Brown campaign reported raised $5 million including a so called 'money bomb' of $1.3 Million from some 16,000 donors in the last days leading up to the election. And Brown's campaigning provided the required outrageous Tea Party prattle for the disaffected and deluded. Brown earlier suggested in a TV interview that Obama was born out of wedlock so the birther nuts were already on board.

But the strongest indication I see that Brown's 52% to 47% win over Coakley was mainly from disaffected independents came from an email exchange with my very conservative Republican cousin late last night literally seconds after the win was confirmed. He wrote to needle me:
First email: Oh my Lord, look at the long faces on CNN !!!!!!! Everything but black arm bands on the reporters ! ha ha, its the message Larry, the message, they already have health care in Mass. they still voted her out!

My reply: Brown didn't win ... the Dem. candidate lost because of her personality . . . a real charmer. The Repugs helped shake up lots of $ for Brown. (And Brown didn't even have on an armband when he posed in a nude centerfold cuz.)

Second email: oh ok, wait, wait, wait, I will take it all back, lets have the election again, my God, they ruined it all on FOX that IDIOT Sara is doing a commentary, pleeease give me a break ... grrrrrrrrrrr we do agree on that one cuz, she has nothing to offer, except on SNL maybe ? Not even sure about that ... they got the gal with the crooked mouth talking to Sara Palin on FOX. Lord help us all !

Before I could reply . . .

Third email: I just threw up all over the floor, turned the TV Off.
Never thought I would ever hear this from my well-off Fox watching conservative cousin with whom I have parried politically for years. And I wonder if his fed-up reaction could in any way be a signal? Might other intelligent Republicans who dislike Obama more than they really dislike Democrats finally call a halt to what a handful of hard core Kamikaze Republicans have been doing not only to their party but to this country?

They now have that one spoiling vote in the senate. Never mind that he is a shallow and embarrassing neophyte ... there are lots of those on both sides of the aisle, but his election kills the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Brown in the buff years ago in a Cosmo centerfold is no real embarrassment in these times, unless photos of him walking nude the Adirondacks surface. But the GOP does have a long list of other real party embarrassments. Topping the chart is their out of control solo black man whom they put in charge of their Republican National Committee and whom they are afraid to fire because of his self-serving outrages. Their embarrassing former GOP Vice Presidential candidate now is able to make an ass out of herself regularly with her own FOX cable TV appearances as a commentator.

When Mr. Brown comes to Washington he will add to the dismal Republican political gene pool, at least for three more years. And the GOP is stuck with Sarah Louise for whom the difference between her and a Pit Bull is not her lipstick, it is that a pit bull is taken seriously when it attacks.

Composite graphic by Larry Ray / Cosmopolitan and Vogue Magazine photos / GOP Mickey Mouse Logo, Thomas Fuchs

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Disasters Past and Present: Haiti's Horror Hits Home

Many of my fading memories of scenes of destruction, death and total loss have come back into sharp focus as I watch the constant news reports from Haiti. The video of dazed, thirsty, injured and frustrated disaster victims who have lost everything is still painfully familiar.

The photo above is not of the magnitude 7.3 earthquake damage in Haiti. It is a NOAA satellite photo of my hometown on the Mississippi gulf coast taken just after hurricane Katrina slammed ashore almost five years ago pushing a 30 foot storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico over our coastal communities. The tidal surge pushed back up into inland bays, rivers and bayous forcing water into houses up to their ceilings just a few blocks from my home. I was grateful to have only lost a side roof.

Along the beach front, homes and belongings, large buildings, automobiles and those souls unable to escape the wind and rising water were smashed together and broken apart in the powerful deep wind driven tidal swirl. The splintered debris washed inland or was sucked back out into the Mississippi Sound. Stark, bare foundations are all that remained of stately homes, churches and businesses for more than 50 miles along the coast. Only a few centuries-old Oak trees remained, still defiantly claiming their ground.

Haiti's earthquake took 300 years to slowly build up sufficient energy for the fault zone beneath the island to finally vault violently upward. Mighty seismic ripples heaved up and down, racing outward with energy said to equal to 35,000 atomic bombs. In a blink, structures in and around the capitol city of Port-au-Prince were leveled or perilously damaged.

Thousands died instantly, and untold thousands more were buried beneath impenetrable debris. As I write this it has been five days since the quake hit at about ten o'clock in the evening. The epicenter was beneath one of the island's most populated areas.

While Haiti's death and destruction happened in less than one minute, those of use who rode out Katrina in our homes were hammered for eleven hours with heavy rain and sustained winds reaching more than 140 miles an hour. Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States with damage estimates well in excess of $150 billion. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane along the Mississippi gulf coast and in resulting floods in New Orleans from levee failures. Haiti's death toll has reached 50,000 as I publish this article and will possibly go into the hundreds of thousands.

While trying to compare the victims in Haiti with the American victims of Hurricane Katrina may seem a real stretch, there are, nonetheless, some valid commonalities. Regardless of skin color, rich or poor, educated or not, thirst is thirst and hunger is hunger. Broken bones and painful injuries feel the same in Haiti today as they felt here five years ago when roads were blocked and help had to be coordinated while we waited, doing the best we could do.

The desperation and suffering in New Orleans where effective rescue and help was very slow in coming was more like what we are seeing in Haiti today. Across New Orleans survivors sought shade and drinkable water in the sweltering August heat for days on end. Many large residential sections of the city were flooded beneath a dark putrid swill that reached the rooftops and remained there for days.

National news coverage quickly shifted from the much more extensive hurricane damage along the entire Mississippi Coastline to the crisis in New Orleans. Flooding in large areas of the bowl shaped city, below sea level, did not result directly from the hurricane, but from inadequate protective levees too long ignored by our Federal Corps of Engineers, and the politicians who approve and fund their projects. But the media suffered little deprivation. The undamaged French Quarter and Bourbon Street was open in a matter of days. There was no flooding or serious damage in the metro center of the city.

But after the dead are buried, debris is removed, and urgent aid is finally provided, there is a huge difference in long term recovery between Haiti and America.

A majority of Haitian citizens live on one dollar a day and governmental control was only recently becoming effective after decades of dictatorial rule and unchecked violence. There is no concept of FEMA in Haiti. Violence and sporadic looting has reportedly broken out in parts of Port-au-Prince. People have not had food or water for almost five days. The dead are putrefying in the streets. Tons of food, water and medical aid from the USA and around the world are piling up at the only airport waiting for Haitian bureacrats, the UN, and many other countries to agree on an aid distribution plan. Desperation is spreading in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

We must remember that violence also broke out in New Orleans after several days when it was clear that no immediate help was coming. Lawlessness, frustration, hunger and opportunistic looting broke out. Shameful racial barriers went up with blacks seeking safety, food and water being turned back by white sheriff's officers on the bridges crossing the Mississippi river over to the basically undamaged West Bank.

It was not a pretty picture. One Parish President near New Orleans was screaming and weeping on national TV because of the seeming total lack of coordinated Federal assistance. Some New Orleans police officers helped themselves to several Cadillacs from a local dealership and did not return them for weeks till the cars were finally located and the cops identified. Haitian looting will not be surprising.

Then there are the political promises too often quickly forgotten after the debris is cleared away and the news media have left in their TV trucks. I can still see Jackson Square in the partially darkened New Orleans French Quarter all professionally illuminated under careful White House direction so George W. Bush could go on national television to make promises. He promised that government would "do whatever it takes" to help those in the Katrina disaster area completely recover assuring us he "would not forget you."

Mr. Cheney walked the streets of Gulfport with local officials nodding and promising. Ultimately, government FEMA money did help many individuals here. But the inflexible, poorly managed bureaucracy allowed wide scale fraud to flourish while red tape prevented many from getting needed help. Basically, strong local leadership has led us to a notable recovery in our major coastal cities. Mr. Bush's well staged promises have had little to do with our hard earned recovery so far. The $11.3 trillion national debt he left us only makes things more difficult for everyone.

Truth is that many smaller towns up the coast west of here are still begging for a grocery store. Whole sewer and water systems are being rebuilt, keeping streets torn up. Detours are legion. Doctors and many other professionals who left have not returned. But a new kind of life goes on.

New Orleans, however, still has huge problems with entire sections of the city nothing but block after block of sagging, mildew and varmint infested homes surrounded by overgrown weeds. The leadership vacuum there is palpable. What happened to millions of recovery dollars for Louisiana and particularly New Orleans remains a mystery.

So now try to imagine the total rebuilding that Haiti faces. The horrible irony is that Haiti was finally enjoying an end to violence through effective police protection and people were united for the first time in recent memory. Schools had opened, street markets were busy, and long-shuttered clothing manufacturing factories had just opened again. Name brand companies from around the globe were visiting almost daily to take advantage of Haiti's well trained sewing and fabric cutting work force. Then in an instant it was all gone.

The world is being extremely generous with millions of dollars pouring in daily to help Haiti. Promises to rebuild the country are coming from many nations. Can the downtrodden Haitians, raised in a failed state, surrounded for decades with the cruel realities of oppression and poverty believe these promises? It is difficult for the very poor to do. But this could be the rebirth of a vital Haiti if strong leadership and close supervision insure all the promises are kept.

A future article will visit what has happened to the promises and money designated for the poor here in Mississippi after Katrina. It is not a nice story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pat Robertson says Haiti quake "deal with devil"

700 Club: Faustian Deal Reason for Haiti Disaster

Former United States Presidential candidate and Conservative right wing televangelist, Pat Robertson, is clearly going further off his religious rocker. It could possibly be that neuron-devouring plaque is now invading the far-right side of his brain. Whatever it is, it is more than disturbing.

Today on his cable TV Christian Broadcasting Network, the loopy Robertson, chatting with his co-sidekick told viewers,

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it, they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince, true story."

True story folks! More outrageous details on the pact with the devil bedtime story in the incredible video above. What is even more frightening than Rev. Robertson is that a substantial national audience never misses his story time, and seems to love his deluded, outrageous claims.

He has also been reverently supported by the hard-core remnants of the Republican Party leadership who seemingly have no problem with his twisted delusional language.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands are reported to have been killed in the violent, damaging quake. Untold thousands with untreated broken limbs and other grave injuries are without help with existing emergency resources depleted. Reports from those there say the disaster is indescribable. The dead, just 24 hours after the quake, are stacked in the streets.

Robertson's devoted, responsive audience could have been immediately urged to invoke their Christianity and donate generously, not to the 700 Club, but directly to international aid agencies to speed direct help to the devastated Haitians. Instead he told his viewers that the 7.0 magnitude earthquake was a Faustian payoff for the poor souls in Haiti whom, he clearly suggests, had it coming for Haiti's "deal with the devil."

Sweet Jesus . . . .