Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Most Important Election in History, again

Below is my column from the November 2016 issue of the Sturbridge Times Magazine.  

The Most Important Election in History, again

By Richard Morchoe

On November 8th, America goes to the polls to elect a president.  On Long Hill, we have found the whole exercise depressing.  It is not just the rancor of the campaign that has been disheartening.  Rather, what is daunting has been the hopeless nature of the debates.

In truth, the meetings between the two candidates are not even close to debates.  A debate is two sides expressing views on a question.  In a formal debate, there would be an affirmative and a negative.  Each side makes opening statements that are rebutted in closing remarks.  When I was a debater back in high school, in the Jurassic era, the teams would question each other midway through the contest.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are American history lore.  Though for a senatorial contest, the meetings could be considered a prelude to the 1860 presidential election.  The two candidates spoke for hours and the audience’s attention never wavered.  Such events could never happen today.  Our attention spans started to decline with the age of television.  In the internet era, it will not be long before we cannot concentrate on anything longer than a few nanoseconds.

The modern era of presidential debates began with the 1960 election.  Having seen it as a ten-year-old, I remember it more for the structure.   Two of the four clashes had eight-minute opening statements by both men.  After that, they were questioned by a panel with two and a half minutes to answer and one and a half for rebuttal.  Thereupon, each man would get a three-minute closing statement.

The videos and transcripts are extant and can be viewed online.  To my generation, it was a golden age.  Back then one had to be able to follow arguments and counter arguments as opposed to the steady stream of sound bites.

The current format seems to be copying one of the lower genres of televised entertainment, reality shows.  It should have served Donald Trump well.  He actually was a reality show host and his business has been as much show biz as anything.  During the primaries, he was able to run rings around his opposition.  Now he seems to be floundering.  A true debate might work better as it could force him to be more disciplined.

His problems have helped Hillary Clinton as she was not going to be the warmth candidate.  Also, she has the difficult task of having both to defend and distance herself from the administration.  The former Secretary of State is not the first politician to have to sort of say, “Things are great, but I’ll fix it.”  The Donald should have been able to blow her out of the water, but he is on the defensive.

Instead we have had only charges and countercharges of corruption and skullduggery.  We yield to no one in wanting to believe all of them, but we can’t keep up.  

The partisans of each nominee love to speak of them as near deities.  Having been around the block, the thought that the new duet of demi-gods is even better than the previous set is difficult to swallow.  Somehow, it is hard to picture Donald as Zeus or Hillary as Athena.

At this point in the history of the Republic, one should hesitate to say that the format is not an insult to the intelligence of the viewing public.  If there were truly an outcry, the defects would have long ago been corrected.

The founders feared direct election of the president for reasons that should be evident during the current round.  They foresaw the demagogic agitation.  Their answer was the electoral college.  Each state would get a certain number of electors based on congressional representation.  The state legislatures were to appoint the electors who would then meet and decide on a president and vice president.

Sadly, the system quickly broke down.  The Constitutional Convention did not see the rise of parties.  In the third election, Jefferson and Burr, presidential and vice presidential nominees of the same Party, both received an equal number of votes.  It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to decide the issue with much bad blood resulting.

Over time, “reforms” made the system what it is today.  The Electoral College still exists, but it is, however, the popular ballot that decides how the state electors vote.  

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist Papers who convinced many that a federal government was a good idea would be disappointed in our seedy carnival of an election.

As the November Sturbridge Times Magazine comes out before the election, we could be brave and make a prediction.  That is not going to happen.  Instead, we want to extend the same solace we take in the event to everyone.  The good news will be that one of them lost.  The bad news is the other won.



Sunday, November 6, 2016

War is hell, then you come home-Review of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

My review from the July, 2016 Sturbridge Times Magazine.

You may have heard the statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves a day.  From that stat, one may get the idea of a national crisis and the depth of the problem, or maybe not.  It turns out that the majority of that number are Vietnam vets.  As a qualifier, that changes the discussion from an immediate problem for recent servicemen and women to something that could have other reasons.

Still, a number around ten is a problem here and now.  Is anyone noticing?  Sebastian Junger is.  Junger is a well known author of many books on various subjects from his most famous The Perfect Storm, to modern warfare and other subjects.  He has been embedded many times with military forces and is a man of adventure.  His personal encounter with horror led him to publish Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

Junger found himself not immune to the stress of life following a stint as a combat reporter.  Almost a year before 911, he suffered a panic attack in the New York Subway.  Junger had been in Afghanistan covering battle between the Taliban, of whom you have heard of by now, and the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud.  It was a a brutal war well before we became involved.

Yet here back home, in maybe not the world's most pleasant venue, but still not a war zone, he fell apart.  Sebastian has been thinking about it, to say the least.  As bad as the momentary event was, he recovered.  Junger had had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which is in the news lately so you might have heard about it.  His occurrence was short-term (acute) and he had several over time and then they stopped.

The author did not know what it was and did not connect it to his time in a combat environment.  It was in a conversation with a psychotherapist at a picnic that he realized what had happened.

PTSD is part of the evolutionary tool kit.  Heightened awareness in an emergency situation is just what one needs.  On the subway, though, it might not be as helpful.

The author also found out a lot facts about combat and PTSD.  Some of them are surprising.  Only about 20% suffer it long term and chronically.  Something else he discovered, American troops take a third as many casualties as in Vietnam, but now claim three times the number of disabilities.  He has other stats about the problem, but also many insights.

If you go through battle and end up with the chronic form of the disorder, you probably had problems before combat.  In fact, combatants are no more likely than vets who have not been under fire to kill themselves.  So what is it all about?  Why would we go to pieces after coming home?

Junger explores a “civilization and its discontents theme.”  We who live in a so-called civilized society would seem to have it better than the “savages.”  Not all felt the same.

The author cites the writings of Ben Franklin on the subject.  According to Dr. Franklin, as quoted by Junger, “”White captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home : “Tho' ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life...and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.””

In case you are wondering, the operative word here is the  title of the book.  The aboriginal inhabitants of the continent lived in tribes and Junger wants to make a point.  Men in wars live and fight with comrades in cohesive groups, depending on each other for survival.  He does not call them tribes exactly in that situation, but why not?

They come home to “Thank you for your service” and some rah rah stuff, but little else.  That unit esprit is gone and they are on their own.  Many lose it.  Junger has seen it elsewhere.  The Siege of Sarajevo saw solidarity amongst the besieged.  That camaraderie evaporated with peace and is mourned.

The author cites Israel as a place with little diagnosed PTSD.  That most of that nation are at some time in the army and have a greater fellow feeling has something to do with it.  Men and women are both subject to service.  Somehow it does not seem that universal conscription is going to happen here.

That would be a solution to PTSD in the military.  After all, if all the kids of the rich and powerful and the politicians were drafted and had to learn to low crawl through the mud with the sons and daughters of trailer park denizens, our wars would end before Ivanka or Chelsea lost a nail.



Sunday, July 31, 2016

Is there a serial killer on the prowl in Boston?

Below is my column as submitted to the editor of the Sturbridge Times Magazine for the July 2016 issue.  Please note, the title is different from the one published.

The young lady broken the story has done a lot of work.  If, after reading, by some miracle, someone has some information about what has happened, please leave a comment at the CryptidAntiquarian blog.  She has written a number of posts on the subject:

Post #1  Boston’s Mysterious Vanishing Men  February 20, 2016

Murder Most Foul?

It was more than two and a half decades ago that a horrible murder rocked Boston and everybody got it wrong. A devoted couple were driving home from childbirth classes at a Boston hospital when they were carjacked at a stop light. The husband was shot in the stomach and the pregnant wife's skull was pierced by a bullet.

The husband, Charles Stuart would recover. His wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart would die at the hospital and the baby would perish 17 days later.

Following Charles' description, Willie Bennet, a local black man was arrested.

It was a heartbreaking story. A prosperous hard working couple suffering tragedy as the perfect life evaporated. No one could help but feel for the surviving husband.

Then it fell apart.

Charles' brother Matthew went to the police and admitted his part as accomplice in his brother's murder of Carol. Before he could be arrested, the murderer jumped off the Tobin Bridge.

There would be no end of recriminations. Innocent Willie Bennet was released and the authorities were pilloried for the rush to judgement.

I was one of the multitude who wrongly bought into the scam. I like to think I am no naif, but there was one big extenuating circumstance that convinced me a crime had been committed.

During wartime, it is not unknown for someone to fear being killed in combat, and shoot themselves such that they are not badly hurt but are unfit for action. Such an injury is known as “the million dollar wound.” Had Mr. Stuart pointed a gun at his leg and pulled the trigger, one likes to think we would have been a bit more skeptical.

Stuart did not do that. Putting a bullet in one's stomach is a dangerous thing to do, even if one had studied anatomy. In the annals of self-inflicted wounds to avoid combat or anything else, it is doubtful anyone has tried it. The man threw the police and the public off the track. What else could they've missed?

Or, be missing...now?

Over the past thirteen years 11 men in Boston have gone missing and ended up found dead in water. The police and regular media have not noticed anything untoward, but someone has.

Blogger Elise Soper is the first person to see a pattern.

Elise is a young woman of wide ranging interests and is curious about much. In fact, she refers to her blog, CryptidAntiquarian, as a cabinet of curiosities. She is inquisitive where the authorities and the Fourth Estate see nothing.

Ms. Soper stumbled on a Reddit post and it led to learning about the work of a David Paulides. He was onto pattern recognition in cases of people who after disappearing are found dead in national parks. Her interest in what he wrote led to her being more aware of such cases.

Like the detective she was becoming, she noticed something in November of 2015,

After my obsession with unexplained missing persons cases was sparked by David Paulides (as chronicled in my last post) I couldn’t help but begin to notice them more, and then Dennis Njoroge went missing. I saw flyers posted all around Boston, his eyes following me daily, and my heart fell. I had a bad feeling in my gut as I began to connect him to other cases. I remember telling friends gravely that if the precedent was correct, he would be found dead in the Charles River.”

Sure enough, the young man was found in the river. The police suspected nothing un-toward and made little information public. Elise intimated she had made an effort to pry some loose.

She built the list of 11 and posted the pertinent information about the men and the circumstances, as far as is known.

The latest one was this past February. You probably heard about it as it was much in the news. Zachary Marr was celebrating his 22nd birthday with relatives at the Bell in Hand, the country's oldest tavern in the Government Center area of downtown Boston. It was during our warm winter this year on a Saturday evening. The district is usually lively on a weekend.

Around 1:30 a.m. Zachary went outside for a cigarette. He sent a snapchat to his cousin to tell her they would not let him back in. She agreed to come to him, but he was gone when the cousin came out with the others. The bouncer says Marr did not try to come back in and CCTV does not record an attempt. About a month later, he was noticed in the water by the Museum of Science. To quote Elise, “Why he left the Bell in Hand and walked a mile to the Charles is unknown.”

Elise also has a map with where the victims were last seen alive and where they were found. It is all more than curious and one has to wonder about the blithe attitude of the constabulary. Ms. Soper does.

I have known BPD detectives and one was a relative. Yes, a police officer is a government worker with all that entails good or bad. My acquaintances have not lacked for subtlety. One should hope, forlorn as that may be, their lack of interest is feigned and they are playing close to the vest to protect the investigation.

Despite little help from the authorities, Elise Soper has done an excellent bit of sleuthing. In fact, it is even bigger than Boston. I am going to pay attention to CryptidAntiquarian going forward.

I've never been a Doors fan, but a line from what is probably their most known song, Riders on the Storm popped into my mind as I read about the case, “There's a killer on the road, His brain is squirming like a toad.” Whoever or whatever is out their may not be “on the road”, but this is hauntingly disturbing.