Sunday, June 22, 1997 — Please, Dad. Tell Me the Answer.

A sweltering, gloomy day. I went alone to Fort Mott, a derelict turn-of-the-century gun battery – now a ramshackle state park – that sits on the Delaware River shore opposite Peapatch Island. A ferry run by the Delaware River Authority carries sightseers to Peapatch and its Civil War era fort from Fort Mott and Delaware City. Having seen the fort on a previous visit, I elected this time to visit Delaware City, which was also billed as having a fort to look at. But upon disembarking, I encountered no sign or mention of Fort DuPont. After a listless 30-minute walk through the old but featureless town, I returned to the dock and waited for the boat.

For a quarter of an hour, I shared the dock space with a curious little boy and his patient father. I feel about children much the way I feel about dogs. In general, I approve of them and am quite prepared to like and even love them individually. When I was younger, I thought I liked all dogs, but the years have convinced me that this was a naive position. There are dogs who annoy, dogs who smell, dogs who don’t have much going on in their eyes. I no longer feel compelled to make friends with every mutt I come across. Children, too, are mixed bag. The mere fact of their youth does not charm me particularly. In the company of their parents, they do not strike me as innocent little bundles of potential so much as unformed – dare I say larval – versions of the adults who bore them. It doesn’t takes much imagination as a rule to see the sour-faced weed that is the father already blooming behind the smooth cheeks of the son. If this sounds bitter or cynical, I don’t mean it to. It’s simply that I am out of step – as I am in so many matters these days – with the contemporary mythology that underlies our public pronouncements. Thus, I do not subscribe to the myth that children constitute a natural perfection that can only be contaminated through contact with us. The process by which they become imperfect adults is not necessarily a sad tale of innocence betrayed by the ugly and poisonous intrusions of the world. Inevitably the world will intrude. And the world is what they will have to live in. Perhaps it is laudable that we desire to remake the world in the fictitious image of perfect children who do not exist. But I think not. To me, it is not only unreasonable but wrong to want for all our little darlings that they experience no heartbreak, no unfairness, no temptation to vile and corrupting influences, no assaults on the fabric of their individual selves. For these are precisely the experiences that will, over the course of a lifetime, sculpt their characters and inspire their accomplishments. If we lived in a world that couldn’t break our hearts or sap our will to live, what meaning would still attach to the words ‘courage,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘perseverance’?

The urge to protect and shelter children from all harm is a naturally maternal one. It is no more realistic than the mother’s belief that her baby is more beautiful than every other. And it is an urge that all parents have to suppress if they are either to prepare their children for adulthood or live with their own mistakes in child-rearing. Again I am reminded of dogs – specifically of puppy books, which preach above all else the virtue of consistency. The puppy won’t learn what you want him to do, they say, if you let him jump up sometimes and not others. Consistency is a nice idea, of course, but it’s also a fantasy. Inevitably there will be different sets of rules for different moods. When you’re happy and unstressed, the puppy is going to get away with murder. He’ll jump up on you and you’ll dance with him. He’ll beg at the dinner table and get a tasty morsel of roast beef. He’ll refuse a direct order to lie down and you’ll pat him on the head, saying ‘Okay. Don’t lie down then.’ When you’ve had a bad day, though, the puppy won’t get away with anything. You’ll tell him he can’t bark at the squirrel. You’ll insist that he lie down, right now, in an imperious tone of voice. So does this mean that your puppy is destined to become a ruined neurotic who can’t ever figure out what he’s supposed to do? No. He becomes adept at reading your moods. He learns to recognize when it’s a no-nonsense time and becomes appropriately submissive and ingratiating. Inconsistency breeds in him a capacity for subtlety and for sophisticated emotional interaction which has always seemed, to me, preferable to the eagerly obedient automatons paraded before us by dog trainers.

In our home lives, we know this about children, too. We may want to shelter them from cusswords, but then there’s the day you hit your thumb with the hammer and a very bad word escapes before you can stop it. Is the child who hears it – this unsullied little angel – spoiled forever by the experience? No. He is encountering a necessary part of his learning process. When he begins to argue, as he will, that he is not allowed to do something he has observed you do – i.e., he charges you with inconsistency – and you counter with the news that he’d better get used to it, the first step is taken in the bruising life-long business of changing root assumptions that affect both behavior and personal identity.

The milestones of the loss of innocence are not, therefore, some microcosm of the Fall of Man. The tabula rasa may be pure, but it is at best a simple-minded purity, a literal blankness that is innocent of sin, yes, but also of accomplishment, experience, and meaning. The act of writing on the blank tablet is to imbue it not with a stain, but with a unique identity that did not exist before. If our children are angels, they are angels by default, and unless they are miraculously atypical, they will not remain angels for very long no matter how pure our intentions may be.

Moreover, if we believe our own science of genetics, even the purity of the tabula rasa is a fiction. The sense of seeing the flawed parent waiting inside the tender shell of childhood is not an illusion, but a demonstration that many propensities, for good and ill, are built into the basic design. The propensities need shaping, and again, the shaping process is not akin to contamination but to cultivation.

I can’t think that all these ideas are alien to most Americans. What then is the source of our saccharine national sanctification of ‘the kids’? I hasten to declare that I am not suggesting a conspiracy. Nothing as pervasive as the new religion of child protection could be a conspiracy. It is, must be, a response to basic conditions in the culture as a whole.

But where was I? On a boat dock in Delaware City, watching the interaction of a plump, hairy-legged dad and his relentlessly inquisitive son. All the thoughts I’ve just related flashed through my mind as I observed them. The boy – are there nerd angels? – had the same engineering bent that probably earned his father’s salary. What does that black box in the boat do, Dad? What does that sign say? Where is our boat, Dad? Will it be bigger than those boats? What’s ‘no wake’ mean, Dad?

Unhurriedly, Dad answered every question. He pointed out a boat that was making a wake as it approached the channel our dock overlooked. ‘Do you see that?’ he asked. ‘The way the water is splashing out the sides behind the boat? They don’t want you to make a wake because it can disturb the soil and the wildlife.’ He didn’t explain who ‘they’ might be, or why you had to do what ‘they’ wanted. This much was already known. While we were playing twenty questions, a marine patrol boat growled into the dock right in front of us, and the boy folded the event into his field of curiosity. The police officer was wearing a holster with a forty-five automatic and half a dozen clips on his Sam Brown belt. He was also wearing a Kevlar vest, color-keyed to the brown and olive drab scheme of his uniform. I looked out toward the river, half expecting to see the high-speed drug boat which had occasioned such apparel, but it was just a hot day on the waterfront of a small town. Dad answered questions about how the little whaler’s outboard was switched on and off, why the motor was still running even though the boat was already tied up, and when the life preserver attached to the gunwale might be employed. Throughout, the officer, who was perhaps eight feet from the father and son, never looked up, never deigned to notice the conversation he had to have overheard. A cop is a cop.

I wondered what Dad thought he was raising his son to be, what kind of life he envisioned for this young variation of himself? Did he want the boy to be continuously safe from every conceivable threat to his health, virtue, and self-esteem? Or was he – as it looked to me – self-consciously intent on raising one more soldier in the necessary army of those who have to do the real work? And would this be enough for him, that his son would find a well paying job and do it reasonably well – despite the burgeoning temptations to sit down and demand accommodation from everyone else?

I found myself imagining the set of questions the boy didn’t know to ask and wondered how Dad would answer them. Will there be more and more forms to fill out forever, Dad? Will it be more fun to have a house and a car and a family than it costs in taxes and insurance and compliance with federal, state, and municipal regulations? Will there ever be a time, Dad, when I’ll have the peace of mind to think about what everything means and why it’s so important for me to go to work and obey the rules and invest all my discretionary income in financial instruments that still won’t save me from the tax man? Is there going to come a day when anyone in a position of authority can take a magnetized card out of my wallet and know everything about me right away – including the name of my mistress and the amount of my unpaid parking tickets – and decide whether or not I can be allowed to travel from Delaware to New Jersey? Is there any way you know of that I can get through the next sixty years without winding up in a state-controlled nursing home that will swallow up all the money I saved so carefully in my productive years? Or is it really the case that no matter what choices I seem to be making, I am only doing what I’m required to do because whatever it is that’s calling the shots is way too big to resist, and maybe even too big to see? What do you say, Dad? Can I get through the next sixty years without making a wake of some kind that will bring the whole wrath of the bureaucracy down on my neck? Can you keep me safe from all that? Can anyone keep me safe from all that? Please, Dad. Tell me the answer.
Then the boat came, and we all got into line without being told and clambered aboard, dutifully sitting down when the captain’s loudspeaker reminded us, for our own safety, that regulations required all passengers to remain seated during the trip to Fort Delaware and from there to Fort Mott. Like all the rest of them, I obeyed the regulations to the letter.

Saturday, June 21, 1997 — Your Body is a Federal Asset

Another day at the Pet Palace. A rumor that the vicious German shepherd is being peddled to the county prison. Let him do his berserk act on any criminals who get loose in the yard. How appropriate.

Dinner at Patrick’s house. We discussed the tobacco deal, $360 billion over 25 years to keep the states from filing lawsuits for the purpose of recovering the costs of medical care for smokers.

‘What about all those excise taxes?’ Patrick asked. ‘What were they for?’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘they weren’t for anything. They were discouragement from smoking. Sin taxes aren’t about money; they’re a sign of government disapproval of naughty behavior.’

‘You’re saying they just spent it.’

‘Of course.’

Patrick laughed. ‘God. The states have to have made more money from cigarettes than the tobacco companies have. A company makes money on its own products. The state gets to profit from all of them. And now they want another $360 billion. It’s amazing.’
‘And they’re sanctimonious about it to boot. It’s ‘for the kids’.’

‘Right.’

‘The excise taxes are going up again too. A lot.’

‘Man,’ said Patrick. ‘The tobacco lobby is the most powerful of all. They’ve got money, lawyers – ‘

‘ – and politicians,’ I interjected.

‘Bunches of them, ‘ Patrick agreed. ‘So if they have to take this deal, then there’s nobody who can stand up to government extortion. I mean, that’s what it is, just a giant holdup.’

‘What I can’t figure, ‘ I said, ‘is why nobody seems concerned about the implications. This isn’t just about cigarettes.’

‘It’s about cigars, too,’ said Elizabeth, pointing at the one Patrick was smoking.

‘And what about the day when your medical insurance goes up because you bought a pound of bacon at the supermarket?’

‘Yes,’ said Patrick, ‘we can hit up the red meat pushers for a few hundred billion, I’ll bet. All that colon cancer. Somebody has to pay.’

‘Who would ever have thought that the government’s desire to help people with their medical bills would lead to state ownership of your body? Because that’s the truth of it. The motorcyclists who oppose helmet laws can’t use the argument that it’s their own business whether they get a head injury or not. Not anymore. Now it’s ‘the people’s’ business because it’s ‘the people’ who are paying the hospital bill. And they’ve been making the same kind of argument about smokers, suggesting that anyone who smokes shouldn’t get insurance coverage for smoking-related diseases. Think about that. The government takes over the health care business. Then they set about denying coverage to everyone for exactly the ailments they’re most prone to get. So maybe fat people won’t get coverage for heart disease. Drinkers can’t be allowed coverage for liver disease. Women who won’t drink their milk can’t be covered for osteoporosis. They have the right to tell you how to live.’

‘Your body is a federal asset,’ Patrick said. ‘It has to be maintained so that it can keep working, which is to say generating the tax revenues that are needed to pay off that $15 trillion national debt. If you get sick and die of something like lung cancer, you’ve cheated them out of their money. What chance does the Fourth Amendment have when the government’s got to come up with $15 trillion? Sorry, we own your lungs just like we own your house and your children.’

‘So the only part of the human body anyone owns anymore is the uterus, which just happens to be the only part on which somebody else might have a legitimate claim.’
Patrick laughed. ‘Right. The last and only corner of the world still protected by the Fourth Amendment.’
We discussed the irony, as we had before, but I have been developing for some time a perspective that might explain or even eliminate the irony. I didn’t get into it tonight, though, because it’s a big subject and will take hours, maybe days, to explore.

Thursday, June 19, 1997 — Nothing He Can Do

Today, an extended business conversation in Patrick’s office. We’re planning the opening of a new business office in Newport, DE, and we’re very much in need of a sign out front to alert passersby of its existence and hours. Our associate in the venture explains that the township has harsh regulations concerning signs. The owner of the building we’re leasing was fined for putting a ‘For Rent’ sign on his own property. Permits are required, no sign can be within 40 feet of the street – although our building front is less than 20 feet from the street – without an exception that involves an architectural study and other rigmarole. All this in what looks like a lower-middle class neighborhood. Townships in Pennsylvania, it turns out, are just as difficult. A new Italian restaurant on Rte 202 – one probably containing every dollar of its owner’s savings – had to replace the attractive awning displaying the name across the front of the building because the owner had already exceeded the maximum signage allowed in the zoning code. I protested that all this was restraint of trade. Patrick smiled and brandished his well-worn copy of the Constitution.

‘It’s also in violation of the first amendment,’ he pointed out.

‘Yeah, it’s nuts,’ our associate said. ‘You’ve heard about the underground oil tank thing?’
We told him no. He explained that the Pennsylvania EPA had issued a regulation making it illegal to sell a house with an underground fuel oil tank. Acquaintances of his had been trying to sell a house for $180,000. They had a buyer and were ready to close when a real estate agent who didn’t like the commission split informed the EPA that the sellers had an underground oil tank, put in maybe 40 years ago, long before they bought the house. To date, they’re out more than $12,000 for four different ground studies at $3,000 apiece, with no end in sight. They still can’t sell the house, the buyer’s gone, and their equity has basically been consumed by the EPA requirements. Patrick read the part from the Constitution about no seizure of private property without just compensation.

‘If they are destroying the property value of a place on behalf of the public good,’ he said, ‘then they have an obligation to compensate the owners for it.’

‘Owners!’ our friend exclaimed. ‘If they can take away a half million-dollar house for nonpayment of $4,000 in property taxes, then there isn’t any ownership. You’re just renting it from the state.’

I thought of the unpaid $4,800 annual tax bill on my own house in New Jersey, which had languished on the market last year at a giveaway price of $135,000 with no takers. Taxes.

Our friend was getting heated. ‘Did I tell you about my friend John Gridley?’ he asked. This was a guy, he told us, who had a nice small business of his own, paid his taxes, broke no laws. Then he hired an employee who proceeded to embezzle $150,000. He trusted her to deposit the company’s receipts, and so she took her power of attorney to the bank and proceeded, over the course of a year’s time, to cash every large check that came in. The bank never asked any questions, had no legal liability. When Gridley belatedly discovered her crime, he still couldn’t believe she had done it.

‘This was the most innocent-looking girl in the world, apparently, ‘ our friend said, ‘and come to find out, she’d done this at least a couple of times before.’

While Gridley was struggling to recover from the loss, the IRS arrived to hand him a tax bill for the embezzled money. He explained what had happened, but they didn’t want to hear it, and they padlocked the business.

‘Now,’ our associate concluded, ‘every cent he earns from his new job goes into an account controlled by the IRS. There’s nothing he can do about it.’

Nothing he can do. Is he one of the ones who insistently repeats the two-part national mantra? America is still the greatest nation in the world. At least it’s still a free country…

Patrick was responding to the Gridley story. ‘The IRS has been exporting its methods to other parts of the government, too. Did you know that in this country, the feds can seize all your assets if you are suspected of engaging in drug trafficking? And it’s illegal to use money you are suspected of having earned from drug trafficking to pay for your legal defense against drug charges. Where’s the ‘due process’ in that?’

‘Or the presumption of innocence,’ I put in.

And then, of course, we wound up talking about the police. I hadn’t heard that thanks to Clinton’s new law enforcement bill, there were no longer any meaningful boundaries between townships. The cops could set a speed trap and pursue suspects as far as they wanted.

‘A cop is a cop?’ Patrick inquired.

‘A cop is a cop.’

And America is America. Whatever that means anymore.

Wednesday, June 18, 1997 — “A Strictly Personal Disillusionment?”

NPR was hot on the trail of the tobacco story. Their angle featured discussion of tobacco sponsoring of auto races, and the irresistible glamour to kids of seeing cigarette brand names on sexy race cars. Obviously this has to be stopped. In another continuing story there were reports that the U.S. Congress is speeding to pass a bill making it impossible for a veteran who receives the death penalty to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Take that, McVeigh.

Also, the Southern Baptists were deciding to boycott Disney products, claiming that the company is encouraging homosexuality and other forms of immorality. On WWDB, talk show host Susan Bray (aptly named) was soliciting opinions from those who’d seen The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. The Baptists were claiming that the minister who performs the wedding ceremony for the mermaid and her beau becomes sexually aroused during the ceremony. They further asserted that two of the characters in The Lion King are gay. I listened to two or three calls before I couldn’t take any more of Susan Bray’s loud Aussie accent. One caller disputed the charge about the characters in The Lion King, saying that they’re obviously modeled on pre-adolescent little boys, not gay adults. Another caller quoted from the Bible and endorsed the Southern Baptist position. Go figure.

Today I told Patrick about my idea for the diary – already started. He liked it. I also expressed my reservations.

‘A lot of it will be just you and me talking the way we do,’ I said. ‘And we’re pretty easy to dismiss. I’m a divorced and childless bankrupt, a burned-out corporate consultant, a failed writer whose satire is too controversial to get published. And you – well, you’re almost as bad. You’re a lifelong churchgoing Christian, a CPA who’s eternally at war with the IRS, a former pro-life activist, a former tax reform activist, and you carry a handgun almost everywhere you go. You home-school your kids. You don’t let your wife have a career. And you read far more than is good for you.’

‘All true,’ replied Patrick, smiling.

‘And neither one of us is from New York, Los Angeles, or inside the beltway. There’s no way anyone could consider us experts about anything.’

‘But the way you’ve described the diary,’ Patrick said, ‘I don’t see a problem. We’re American citizens, which is a group that doesn’t get heard from very often. We just happen to be out here in it every day, trying to make sense of what’s going on. We’re on the receiving end of the regulations and the tax laws and the government policies that the ‘experts’ are pretending they can explain to us. Maybe there are other people out there who’d like to eavesdrop on somebody who’s really trying to think about it all and doesn’t have all the latest facts and figures anymore than they do. I think it would be interesting.’

‘There’s another thing,’ I said. ‘Something I have doubts about.’ I explained that even to me, it seemed possible that my perspective was poisoned. There was so little about life in America that I enjoyed anymore, so little that I wanted other than to be left alone by all the bureaucracies and authority structures. I certainly didn’t feel any desire for ‘things,’ the great American pastime. I was desperate to dispose of the big house you’re supposed to want, even though this one had been in my family for three generations. I was no longer captivated by any part of popular culture – not movies, not music, not NFL football, not sitcoms, not talk shows. It had been more than a year since I’d been able to read an issue of Time Magazine, and I had recently canceled my newspaper subscriptions. ‘What if my critical observations about America are merely the reflection of a strictly personal disillusionment?’

“All I can tell you,’ said Patrick, ‘is that I talk with you nearly every day, and I don’t believe that’s true. I know you’re still passionately interested in ideas. It’s what you’re observing about America that’s causing your loss of interest in all these other things. And part of your disillusionment is that there doesn’t seem to be anybody to tell.’ .
‘Other than you,’ I said.

‘And it’s the same for me,’ Patrick replied. ‘So maybe we both are crazy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our craziness is irrelevant. Aren’t Americans supposed to be opinionated and individualistic?’

‘Sure,’ I agreed. ‘Sure they are.’

Tuesday, June 17, 1997 – 25 Years After Watergate

One of the media’s favorite anniversaries – twenty-five years ago today, the Watergate break-in began the decline and fall of Richard Nixon. In a bizarre segment on NPR, some history professor put forward a ‘what-if’ theory that Watergate had, over the long run, produced an ironic outcome.

Without the distraction of the scandal, he argued, Vietnam wouldn’t have fallen and the Washington establishment wouldn’t have suffered the twin disgrace of Republican corruption and Democrat culpability in the first-ever American military defeat.

Democrats would still probably have regained the White House in 1976, he said, but the candidate would not have been Jimmy Carter, who ran and won on the basis of his ‘outsider’ status. Thus, the disastrous Carter presidency – 13 percent inflation and the hostage crisis humiliation – wouldn’t have occurred, and Reagan would not have been swept into office in a conservative landslide in 1980. And so, the prof concluded, America’s sharp turn to the right (?) would have been prevented and the liberals would not be as weak as they are today.

Yes, I can elaborate on the question mark I inserted, but I want to postpone the whole Democrat-Republican, Liberal-Conservative topic for a while because my view of it will seem eccentric, at least at first.

At the Pet Palace, I saw my first irretrievably vicious German shepherd. He was scheduled for neutering in a last ditch effort to reduce his aggressiveness and save him from being put to sleep. It took four of us to inject him with the anesthetic, and half an hour later – barely able to stand – he was still growling and snapping through the cage in the vet’s office. No surgery today. Maybe no life tomorrow.

Depressed about the dog, I drove to Patrick’s office. He was down, too. The CD player was whispering Exile on Main Street. Patrick reported that Microsoft’s Windows won’t download the new Netscape Internet product. I made a face at him. We have talked about Bill Gates and Microsoft’s business conduct before. Gates parades around the country taking credit for the computer revolution as if he were some benevolent technology seer. The reality couldn’t be any more opposite. He overtook IBM by becoming IBM and appropriating all of that company’s rawest monopolistic trade practices. Microsoft’s operating system software is junk, its application software is full of bugs, and as its market share has grown through user ignorance, the company is now, it appears, deliberately sabotaging the ability of competitive products to run in the fatally flawed DOS-Windows environment. But Gates goes on David Letterman’s show wearing a sweater and a smile, and he’s treated with the reverence that belongs by right to a man with $9 billion. But he strikes me as an old-time robber baron. J. P. Morgan in a crewneck. Neither Patrick nor I said a word more: he knows my lines and I know his on this subject.

We reviewed the status of another business venture we are trying to start. Everything is in readiness for a truly innovative service offering but we can’t find salespeople. Last weekend, Patrick ran an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer. No response. We explored other possibilities. I suggested that we contact the placement office at Goldy Beacom, which used to be a secretarial school but – thanks to the institutional inflation of the 1970s – now bills itself as a business school and even offers an MBA. We both think that pretty women are the best substitute for actual sales ability. Maybe not all of the Goldy MBAs were being snapped up by the Fortune 500. A thought anyway.

It was one of those days when nothing is happening. Nothing good anyway. We checked on the Columbus attorney handling the collection of a large sum of money I am owed. This was the second straight week he hadn’t called after he said he would call every Monday. His secretary said he was in conference and would call back. Right. We checked on the West Chester attorney who still hasn’t called regarding my bankruptcy. He was out of town.

‘How hard is it to knock off an armored car?’

‘It can’t be as hard as trying to get lawyers on the phone,’ Patrick said.

‘Or people who want to take the risk of selling something,’ I added.

We tabled the dreary business talk. Patrick confided that his kids were undergoing state testing this week. The Raymonds have recently moved to a new house and since they home-school their kids, the local school board has been showing up on their doorstep at regular intervals. Now the Raymond children have to be formally tested by their new school district to make sure they are keeping up(?) with the public school kids.
‘Will there be a penalty because they know how to read?’ I asked.

‘Probably, ‘ said Patrick. ‘I know what,’ he added, brightening. ‘Let’s go to the cigar store.’

Driving home after the cigar expedition, I heard on the radio that New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman was again leading in the polls for reelection after a temporary slide in popularity. Voters gave her good marks for lowering the state income tax, and poor marks for controlling the rise of property taxes and car insurance rates. I guess that makes her ‘good enough.’ There followed an announcement of Carl Sagan’s posthumous book ‘Billions and Billions’ – presumably not about the money New Jersey residents are paying in taxes and insurance.

At home on CNN, there was a five-minute segment on the dangers of tobacco and young people. They previewed a weird new commercial – design inspiration à la Trainspotting, it seemed – in which filthy magic toilets danced around a men’s room floor yelling at kids about smoking. The punchline of the story: tobacco companies are going to be liable for billions as 36 states seek compensation for costs of smoking-related health care. On a lighter note, CNN ran excerpts of commencement speeches. Madelyn Albright spoke up against isolationism. Hilary encouraged graduates to join the Clintons in pursuing ‘the ideals we hold dear’ (including a juster’ society). Hubby Bill for everything, as usual.

A perfect day moved toward its end with another creditor call at 8 p.m. I let the machine pick it up and turned the volume higher on the TV. Then Patrick called at 10 p.m.: HBO was running a piece on the World Trade Center bombing – almost as funny as McVeigh.
‘I’m on it,’ I said. I watched for ten minutes but my heart wasn’t in it. I turned it off and tried to get some sleep.

Monday, June 16, 1997 – Ronald on Taxes

After getting home late, up very early to get to work. I bought a cup of coffee at the local convenience store and turned on NPR as I headed toward the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The news featured the newly traditional press conference with the big trial’s jury. Most of the air time was given over to the woman who described the emotional reactions of the jurors.

‘When we voted guilty, we all cried,’ she said.

She and others made it clear that they were no Simpson jury. They went carefully through all the evidence before voting guilty on the first ballot. They praised the judge, the lawyers, each other. One big happy family.

Also, the federal government was in the headlines again. Some new independent panel has concluded that Desert Storm vets were exposed to chemical weapons and that the Pentagon knew it early on. They tried, however, to blame the syndrome on stress rather than admit the truth.

Then, a Philadelphia Story. District Attorney Lynn Abraham announced that fugitive Ira Einhorn, a local hippy-guru-celebrity of the early 1970s, had been arrested in France. Convicted in absentia over a decade ago for the murder of his girlfriend, Einhorn was expected to fight extradition. Legal experts reported he might have a case. France does conduct trials in absentia but always grants a retrial if the fugitive is apprehended. They do not have to grant extradition if they decide Einhorn’s human rights are being violated. But a retrial is not probable in this case, according to Philadelphia sources. Einhorn has already been sentenced in absentia – I think with the death penalty. Police found the girlfriend in a trunk in his abandoned Philly apartment, long dead and horribly decomposed. A neighbor had called the police because of the smell. Einhorn was apparently quite a brilliant con-man and everyone at the time was as embarrassed about having been taken in by his charm as they were outraged about the crime. Then the DA’s office and the police were embarrassed by his successful and amazingly lengthy evasion of capture. If I read Abraham’s tone of voice aright, there’s no second chance in the cards for Einhorn. Vengeance is mine, saith the DA.

The spell of the weekend was broken almost immediately at the Pet Palace. I’ve been instituting some changes to improve customer service and hopefully increase sales, but the growing realization that I’m serious about what I want the employees to do is creating resistance: they don’t have time; they forgot; this will never work. Oh well. I’ve been through this before. They’ll come around eventually. I’m not as optimistic about the PP computer system – old hardware struggling to run Bill Gates’s Windows, and my workstation doesn’t want to execute the timed backup. The error messages claim that it didn’t have time, that it forgot, that the program will never work…
At three o’clock I took the day’s receipts to Patrick’s office. His summer intern of several years standing, Andrew Carmody, was there. So was Ronald Mackenzie, who runs the computer side of the business. Andrew is young and earnest, a bookish college student who works part time installing computers and software. Ronald is consistently glum, the half-willing hostage of a technology he has come to loathe but can’t bring himself to leave. I told him about the backup problem at the Pet Palace. Neither one of us wanted to talk about it. He remembered something he had to take care of in his office, and Andrew drifted out after him.

After some business preliminaries, Patrick informed me that Clinton had been present at the U.S. Open, probably in the NBC tent we’d been sitting next to. Then he showed me a postcard he’d bought in Washington, a color picture of the President, casually dressed and smiling. A printed message on the back conveyed his greetings to the card’s recipient.

‘Cool,’ I said. ‘Proceeds to the Clinton Defense Fund? There’s an idea. But would you ever have expected to see something like this? Do you suppose FDR did postcards of himself? Smiling and waving from his wheelchair? I expect this is another Clinton innovation,’ I said.

Ronald drifted back in. He was carrying a book. I cocked my head to read the title: For Good and Evil. He explained that it was an exhaustive critique of the U.S. tax system.
‘You read it?’ Patrick asked in astonishment. He looked at me. Neither of us had been able to nerve ourselves up for such an ordeal.

‘Yes. I did.’

‘What did it say?’ I inquired.

‘A lot of stuff.’ We waited. Ronald starts such conversations slowly. ‘I guess the key thing is that he defines the historical criteria for the kinds of tax systems you find in tyrannical governments. There are things that are pretty consistent. The tax system operates outside the normal judiciary and outside normal credit and bankruptcy law.’
‘How do we stack up?’ Patrick asked, with an ‘as if we didn’t know’ expression on his face.

‘Pretty much right down the line with the tyranny model,’ Ronald conceded. “Our income tax system operates outside the judiciary and outside the Constitution. If you’re hauled into U.S. tax court, you don’t get a jury of your peers. A judge simply decides your case. And if there’s a dispute, you still have to pay the levied taxes and then win before the government will make restitution. Even if you go bankrupt, that doesn’t clear your tax debt, which is eternal.’

Patrick was nodding. Ronald paused, resumed. ‘There’s also the issue of government abuse of the tax system to persecute enemies and undesirables. The feds have a pretty strong track record of doing that over the years, too.’

‘Does this guy think there’s such a thing as a good tax system?’ I asked.
‘Well, he cites the standard tax system of the ancient world. Based on the decuma. One tenth to the government. It seems to have worked for a long time.’

‘The tithe,’ Patrick said triumphantly. I had heard him expound, particularly with religious friends, on the Church’s default of social responsibility and the Christians’ unquestioning acceptance of it. He was fond of asking the devout whether they were morally comfortable with giving four times as much to the government as the Church had once asked. Was the government four times as righteous? He rarely got any answer but a blank look.

Ronald went on, like a tractor slowly plowing a field. ‘There’s another interesting constitutional point besides the usual Fourth and Fifth Amendment problem. It seems there’s a strong chance the income tax is illegal. When they went to ratify the fifteenth amendment, there was some funny business about it. A state that didn’t ratify but got counted anyway. That was the margin by which the Amendment became law.’
‘Tell it to the tax court judge,’ Patrick said.

‘Anything else? ‘ I asked Ronald.

‘Yeah. One of the key parts of a fair tax system is that it rests on willing compliance. That’s the problem with graduated tax systems. By definition, they operate more by extortion than willing compliance, because there’s a big percentage of the population that complies because others are willing them to. The truth is, they really can’t fight back. It’s related to the old truism that a democracy fails when the people discover they can vote themselves money out of the public treasury.’

Patrick spoke up. ‘I had a funny conversation with an IRS agent this morning. He was after more payroll taxes for the Pet Palace, and I told him I was working on it. He asked me to call him in a week or two and let me know how it was coming. Now, normally these guys are completely one-dimensional. ‘Give us the money. Give us the money now.’ So I said, ‘I know you guys really need the money, so we’ll do our best to get it to you soon.’ And then he said, ‘One thing you can count on – Congress is going to keep on spending more money than we could ever collect.”

‘An IRS agent said that?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Patrick confirmed. ‘The first time in my whole career when one of them has ever said anything like that to me.’

Is the edifice starting to crack? We wondered. It wasn’t humanity they were displaying. But it might be that the necessary ruthless fanaticism is winding slowly down. Maybe the American people are a stone that just can’t produce much more blood. And maybe the IRS is starting to figure that out.

Saturday, June 14 — The U.S. Open

Patrick, his wife Elizabeth, and I attended the final round of the U.S. Open at the Congressional in Washington, DC. It was a glorious day for golf, the sky bright and dappled with cirrus clouds, the course warmly brilliant in multiple shades of green. We arrived at one o’clock and made our way, with thousands of the casually affluent, to the outskirts of the spectator tornado that swirls constantly these days around Tiger Woods. It was impossible not to know approximately where he was on the course. At regular intervals, a deep roar or moan would inform everyone that Tiger had succeeded or failed on some distant green. But it wasn’t to be his day. The match came down to a tense trading of the lead on the final three holes, with Tiger long retired to the clubhouse, ten strokes down.

For us it was a day of easy good fortune. After a stint at the fifth hole, we obeyed a mild urge to visit the eighteenth and arrived just in time to see Jack Nicklaus complete what may have been his last round at a U.S. Open. He swept by us on his way to the green, doffing his cap to a long powerful ovation, and smiled his farewell to cheers after a crisp two-putt finale.

‘I can’t believe it,’ Elizabeth said, beaming. ‘That’s history. And we were here.’
We moved on to station ourselves near the eighteenth tee, where drives were a simple win or lose proposition, landing either on the dish-like green or in the sprawling lake that also lay in wait for those who overshot the seventeenth hole. It was a strategic perspective we shared with the main NBC Sports booth and several broadcast equipment tents, as well as hundreds of fellow spectators. We watched also-rans executing flawless iron shots that fell tediously true within yards of the pin. Meanwhile, like a swallowed animal making its way through the body of a snake, the bulging gallery of Tiger Woods distended the boundaries of hole after hole until it arrived at the nearby fourteenth green, where I crept to within yards of the young master and felt the surround-sound gasp of the crowd when he missed a two-foot putt. Alone of all the golfers I saw at the Open, Tiger seemed to retain in person the star quality he exhibited on television. The famous smile was warm and infectious, and the ritual of sighting the putt from various angles was a study in efficient grace.

We saw him again at the eighteenth, where Elizabeth stood within a few feet of his passage along the path by the lake to the green. She caught his grin and flashed it at us as he strode away. After Tiger holed out, we awaited the inevitable exodus, which diminished but did not decimate the crowd. By then there were rumors that President Clinton would be arriving later to bask in the green glow of tournament’s end. Patrick and I exchanged wry glances at the news. At the hotel the night before, the three of us had stayed up too late to watch Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power, a movie so transparently based on Clinton’s reputation for womanizing that it was impossible to watch without adding out loud the omitted references to Hilary, Arkansas, and various White House scandals.

Uncharacteristically weak for an Eastwood effort, the movie was nevertheless continuously appalling as its own dull reminder that the premise was more believable than the plot tricks used to rig the happy ending. We watched it all and then turned in at four a.m. unable to believe that we’d wasted the time.

So it may have been Clint Eastwood’s fault that Patrick and I experienced approximately the same cinematic thought. It was fresh in our minds that we had passed through no metal detectors or security checks of any kind when we arrived at the course. Now there were maybe 50,000 people roaming loose, while men with sunglasses and earpieces scurried in and out of the NBC tents.

They were probably only NBC technicians, but that’s not what some of the spectators thought.

‘Secret Service, ‘ I heard one whisper. ‘Look.’

‘If we’d only known,’ Patrick said. ‘It would have been so easy.’

‘Yeah, ‘ I agreed. ‘What could these guys possibly do now?’

‘What are you two talking about?’ Elizabeth asked, detecting a familiar tone of voice.
‘Nothing,’ Patrick told her. ‘You know us. We’re crazy.’

We wandered away from the NBC booth in the direction of a refreshment tent that was supposed to be selling ice cream and water ice. En route we passed a caravan of gleaming utility vehicles with blacked-out windows.

‘Clinton?’ Elizabeth asked with faint distaste.

‘I doubt it, ‘ I said. ‘I think he’s supposed to arrive by helicopter.’

‘They wouldn’t let us walk this close,’ Patrick said. ‘Would they?’

But the water ice was refreshing and we began a pleasant tree-shaded odyssey toward the fifteenth green, where the tournament leaders arrived less than ten minutes later. The golf was more real than a presidential visit, and we followed the action to the sixteenth and from there back to our old vantage point at the eighteenth. We managed to see several of the shots that decided the tournament.

As soon as the final putt had been sunk by the winner, Ernie Els, the gallery fled the hillsides around the eighteenth green. We elected to wait out the traffic jam, though, and retreated to a park bench located next to the NBC booth, where we had a panoramic view of the awards ceremony and occasionally used the binoculars to see whether or not Clinton was in attendance.

We watched Els hold his trophy aloft for the crowd and then for the photographers. We watched speeches that were being made, apparently, only for the network microphones. Slowly the golfers and dignitaries slipped away up the hill to the Hollywood-style clubhouse, and like scavengers the green-shirted maintenance people crept out of the woods to begin gathering up the tons of trash the fleeing gallery had left behind. To our left, the NBC people had started dismantling their equipment, and one by one the sportscasters stole away in golf carts. Dick Enberg, looking funereal despite his dapper blazer, had his own driver. Johnny Miller drove himself, snubbing a fan who wanted only a word of conversation about a supposed common acquaintance.

‘It’s like watching them strike the set of a play,’ Elizabeth remarked.

‘Something about all this and TV,’ Patrick said.

‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. What is it?’

We talked. Patrick said a friend of his had predicted that the words ‘virtual’ and ‘virtually’ would take the place of ‘actual’ and ‘actually.’ Soon it would be commonplace to say ‘the virtual truth of the matter’ and ‘Virtually, I disagree with you.’
Had we ‘actually’ or ‘virtually’ experienced the golf tournament today?

It wasn’t as easy a question as it seemed. I had seen Jack Nicklaus play golf probably hundreds of times, but until this afternoon I had never laid eyes on him in person. Which was the more ‘actual’ event in the course of my experience? Patrick recalled seeing a clip a few nights before of an early 1960s U.S. Open won by Arnold Palmer. It was played on the same course, but it was difficult to imagine that version of Arnold Palmer – black and white and slightly blurred – playing in living color on this course.
There were definitely ways in which the remote video view of life was more familiar, more intelligible, and even more authentic than ‘actual’ life. There was no possibility that we could have seen all the great and important shots that occurred on this day at the U.S. Open. When the lead changed hands, it was usually due to events at another hole, and we – the ones who were ‘actually’ present at the event – had to wait sometimes minutes while the scoreboard attendants slid out the old numbers, rummaged in the box for new ones, and slowly worked them into place. At home, between commercials, the TV viewers could have seen it all, including the constantly surrounded Tiger Woods, without craning their necks to see past the tall fat man who wouldn’t stand still.

In all likelihood, the majority of spectators would rush home tonight to watch the TV reports about the Open, seeking confirmation of their ‘actual’ experience from the video footage. A session with the boob tube, for example, would be the only way we’d learn whether or not Clinton had been here today. Has ‘actual’ experience been reduced to mere sensation while ‘virtual’ experience was acquiring all the authority for conveying information? And is the statement ‘I was there’ being slowly transformed from a boast to an excuse for not knowing what ‘actually’ happened?

Having out-stayed all the other Open spectators, we were probably – by now – the most uninformed of the nation’s golf fans about what had happened here today. We took our sensation-glutted ignorance to the parking lot and drove home.

MISCELLANY: There were other highlights of the Washington outing. Driving down to join the Raymonds on Saturday afternoon, I made the acquaintance of the grandest highway I’ve seen in years, the Maryland portion of I-95. With plenty of wide lanes and long gradual bends and hills, it puts the Autobahn to shame as a platform for high-speed driving, except that it’s located in one of the most notorious speed-trap states in the union. At intervals, for no apparent reason, the speed limit would change from 65 to 55 or vice versa. Along the way I saw a sign that made me laugh: ‘KEEP THE FREE STATE LITTER-FREE.’ Id never heard that nickname before. I told the Raymonds about it and they laughed too.

Saturday night we undertook the adventure of the DC Metro, a brand new subway system whose stations looked to have been designed in East Germany, identical vaults of brown, paneled concrete at every stop. Our destination was the Federal Triangle, site of the restaurant we’d chosen and, by coincidence, also the site of IRS headquarters. This inspired us to speculate about how much nitrate fertilizer a subway car would hold, and we congratulated ourselves for pioneering the concept of the ‘train bomb.’ The restaurant was French and unexpectedly supportive of smoking. The ashtrays were huge, designed for cigars, and Patrick for once didn’t have to prop the unlit end of his Maccanudo on the tablecloth. The pommes frites were delicious, too. We took a cab back to the hotel because the Metro closes at 11 p.m.(!) The driver had pasted a sticker right in the middle of the windshield: I VOTED. I came up with the idea for a new bumper sticker: NOT ME. It seems like a good all-purpose announcement to make.

Sunday morning, we gathered in my room again (Patrick could only get a non-smoking room) and watched CNN for a while. A new poll claimed that 80 percent of U.S. citizens think the government is not telling all it knows about UFOs. It probably won’t be long before the Clinton administration pulls some stunt designed to improve that figure.

Friday, June 13, 1997 – The Verdict

On my way to a meeting in Philadelphia, National Public Radio (NPR) was announcing the return of the McVeigh jury and promising immediate live coverage of the verdict. Then, in other news, five minutes were allotted to the passage of draconian gun control legislation in the United Kingdom. The bill will put an end to all private gun ownership in the U.K., it seems, including those used for target shooting. A Conservative MP described Parliament’s action as a hasty and emotional response to the murder of Scottish schoolchildren by a madman. He bemoaned the rising specter of ‘nanny governments’ and asked, rhetorically, why we don’t simply outlaw everything that could possibly injure anyone, including motorcycles and tobacco and alcohol products. It struck me that that such questions would not be taken rhetorically in the United States.
The verdict had still not been announced by the time I arrived in the city for my meeting. Two hours later, when I began the drive home, it was already old news, a second shoe that had dropped to everyone’s relief and short-lived satisfaction. The only slightly discordant note was the continual quotation of the prosecutor’s call to punish the ‘coward,’ separated by mere moments from the description of McVeigh’s reaction to the verdict – an ambiguous wave to the jury and a respectful nod to the judge as he was led from the courtroom.

This evening I finished In Flanders Fields, an historical account of the 1917 Allied campaign on the Western Front. A million casualties in a single horrifying year of incompetent military command. It went round and round in my head along with the lamentations I’d been hearing all week for the Oklahoma City victims. It’s too early to tell how I feel about it all.

Saturday, June 6 – They’re Going to Burn McVeigh

Today, after finishing up at the Pet Palace, I met with my friend and partner Patrick Raymond. As it often does, our conversation moved rapidly beyond business and personal matters to current events. The penalty phase of the McVeigh trial is underway, and we talked about it seriously for the first time. Patrick and I tend to be catalysts for one another’s thinking. Jokes and smart remarks serve as trial balloons. Is this an interesting topic? Does it mean anything? Should we do some digging here? Frequently the answer is ‘no,’ or ‘not today.’ But if the topic recurs, sooner or later it will be discussed. The McVeigh story had been in the joke column for months. We had both been aware of the trial without following it deliberately or formulating any strong opinions. This afternoon, though, it suddenly blossomed into fascination. Maybe the date had something to do with it. ‘D-Day’ is an evocative term. For McVeigh, obviously, it suggests all manner of connotations.

I was the one who brought it up. ‘They’re going to burn McVeigh,’ I said.
‘That’s decided, is it?’ Patrick asked.

‘No,’ I told him, ‘but yes.’ I explained what I knew of the way the defense attorneys were going about the job of trying to save their client’s life – an apparent about-face on the subject of guilt accompanied by a tepid argument that the convicted man was not altogether a monster. Waco had been introduced as an excuse, a presumably mitigating factor whose precise intended impact on the jury remained unclear.

Meanwhile, the prosecution was pulling out all the stops on the emotional pipe organ of the Oklahoma City bombing. I recounted a radio report that at one point in the prosecution testimony, tissues had been handed out in the courtroom.
“Wow,” said Patrick. We shared an image of several hundred people snuffling and dabbing at tears while the defendant sat stony-faced among them. ‘Not a good sign for Mr. McVeigh.’

‘No.’

‘You say they’re acknowledging guilt?’ His brow was furrowed.

‘Yes. So it seems.’ We looked at one another, aware that there was something about the whole affair that needed to be addressed.

‘I haven’t been paying much attention to it,’ Patrick said. ‘I don’t know why. I guess I just regarded the trial as a foregone conclusion.’

I reviewed my own passive experience of the story. ‘I’ve heard some of the coverage on NPR. Mostly they seem to be presenting it as some kind of antidote to the Simpson trial. Like it’s a vindication of the American judicial system. A model trial. But it doesn’t altogether add up that way. Not to me.’

‘What about it?’

We got into it. There were several sore points as far as I was concerned. I articulated them as best I could for Patrick. I didn’t understand the defense strategy. I didn’t understand the posture of McVeigh. I was troubled by the emotional pyrotechnics in the courtroom.

For quite a long time before the trial, the impression I had gained from the media was that McVeigh and Nichols were definitely involved in the bombing. That they were exacting revenge for Waco seemed to be everywhere accepted as the reason for their actions. How could this much be known – or speculated about to this degree – -if there remained any serious doubt about whether or not the accused were guilty? Yet the defense attorneys had pleaded not guilty, then proceeded to swallow without protest the debatable assumption that this was an ordinary criminal trial in which each bit of evidence would have to be challenged, countered, explained away. According to the journalists, the attempt to mount such an ordinary defense had been swept away by a relentlessly traditional criminal prosecution, leading to the expected unanimous verdict of guilty. Yet the defense attorneys had also drawn praise during the trial, as if they were doing all that could be done. Was this, in fact, true?

I remembered the Chicago Seven trial a quarter century before. Abby Hoffman and company had been just as obviously guilty of incitement to riot as McVeigh was of the Oklahoma City bombing. But defense attorney William Kunstler had not made much attempt to argue the evidence. He had positioned the case as a political trial, cast the judge and the prosecution as mouthpieces of a tyrannical state apparatus, and in general did everything possible to make a farce of the proceedings. In so doing, he accumulated a record number of fines for contempt, but he also commanded headlines day after day in the nation’s press. Whether it deserved to be or not, the Chicago Seven trial had been transformed into a political event, and Kunstler had actually succeeded in putting the judge and the American judicial system on trial to almost the same extent that his clients were.

The McVeigh trial seemed tailor-made for just such a strategy. The Oklahoma City bombing had been a political – as opposed to a personal – act, and its target had been the federal government itself. A defense that was doing ‘everything possible’ for its client might therefore have made the argument that the judge and prosecutor of a federal court were not disinterested representatives of ‘the people,’ but members of the very institution that had been injured by the defendant’s actions. Indeed, it was not much of a stretch to claim that the U.S. government was, in this case, akin to a plaintiff in a civil trial. For if McVeigh was indeed motivated by a conviction that federal law enforcement agencies were operating in violation of the American Constitution, his actions could be construed as an act of war against an enemy of the American people. The legal implication would be that the federal government not only had no right to try him, but also had no right to be regarded – in this context – as anything more than a gravely suspect witness. From a McVeigh perspective, the government had demonstrated itself capable of malice in the Richard Jewel case, of reckless disregard for the rights of U.S. citizens in the Ruby Ridge showdown, of falsification of evidence (i.e., perjury) in the FBI lab scandal, and of outright murder in the Waco affair. And if the same performance standards could be expected from the federal investigation and trial of McVeigh, how could a jury be assured that it was participating in an honest process? Every witness for the prosecution might have been pressured into perjury, every particle of physical evidence might have been manufactured or altered by federal technicians, and every ruling by the judge might have been pre-ordained by the hidden agenda of a malicious federal power structure. In short, a Kunstler-type attorney would have had more than adequate pretext for putting the federal government on trial alongside his client.

There was yet another potential benefit to the defendant from such a strategy. As a criminal act, the bombing had to be viewed as mass murder of record proportions. But as a political act, it was akin to warfare and therefore occupied a different context altogether, one in which the loss of lives had to be seen as an unfortunate by-product of the need to overthrow an enemy oppressor. Otherwise, there could be no excuse for a president of the United States shaking hands with Yassir Arafat – or even Menachim Begin.

The flip side of the latter issue was evident in the strategy employed by the prosecution, so much so that one could almost see it as a tacit awareness of vulnerability. Considering that McVeigh was being tried in federal court, strictly for the murder of 16 federal employees, it is hard to resist the notion that there was something disingenuous about the prosecutor’s insistence on the identity of the victims as ‘people’ – which is to say, by implication, ‘people like you and me.’ If this were true, their assailant would not be subject to a separate trial. The entire rationale for a federal case lay in the fact that federal employees are not ‘people like you and me,’ but rather part of an organizational structure that is deemed even more sacrosanct than ordinary citizens. The exact nature of the difference between federal employees and the rest of us may be debated at length but whatever that difference consists of, simple humanity is not one of its components.

A federal employee may have lovely children, a touching homelife, an inspiring biography, and hundreds of devoted friends and acquaintances, but none of these are relevant to the part of his identity that occasions a federal trial when he is injured or killed. What is relevant here is a set of abstractions, principally the notion that as a servant of the people of the United States, the federal employee is entitled to the kind of special protection we are supposed to extend to other American ideas and principles, most notably to the Constitution itself.

A trial framed around this conceptual identity would, if it proceeded out of integrity, most likely have an antiseptic flavor, deliberately eschewing appeals to sentimentalism of any kind. The observed record of the trial in Denver is so opposite to this that it is as if the conceptual identity were being systematically concealed – as would be the case if the federal government had indeed become hypersensitive to the suggestion that it is more overlord than servant of the citizenry at large.

And with all this on the table, what of Timothy McVeigh? If he conceived of his bomb as a political act, then how could he be content to be tried as a common criminal, defended as a common criminal, and pleaded for in the shadow of the gallows as a common criminal with the usual extenuating human circumstances? Worse, how could he not understand that to forego the bold strategy of politicizing his trial would be more fatal to his hopes of avoiding the death penalty than any courtroom outrage he could perpetrate to underscore his defiance and contempt for federal authority? Surely, he must have known from the outset that capture was possible, if not probable, and that the drama of a trial would provide a better forum for the fomenting of revolution than any bomb could ever do. And so, given the fact of capture, here was a golden opportunity. The alternatives were clear: plead silently not guilty and receive a sentence of death for sure; or fight like hell to command the stage and use every possible means to render the government too embarrassed to execute him.

In its totality, then, the situation that Patrick and I were looking at made no sense. All the participants other than the federal government might have been sleepwalking through a charade, including the mass media legal experts who were so misty-eyed over the ostensible grace and dignity of the proceedings.

After chewing over these matters at some length, we looked up the transcript of the summations on the Internet. As we suspected, the performance of the defense on behalf of their client was pitiful, a few weak protests about the Fortiers and the handling of an insignificant piece of physical evidence. The demeanor of the lead counsel for the defense was propitiatory, as if his prime objective was personal absolution for having been put in the position of defending such a miserable specimen as McVeigh. The summation of the prosecution, however, was a surprise. The amount of evidence amassed against the defendant was overwhelming. It seemed inconceivable to us that anyone of sound mind could have considered pleading not guilty in the face of such evidence in a merely criminal trial.

What was going on here? We tabled the subject for the day. But I know we will keep thinking about it because the roots of this kind of absurdity are not confined to the Oklahoma City affair. We have stumbled over them before, and will again, in many other areas, personal and otherwise. Which causes me to think, yet again, that the time has come for an effort to document the ongoing process of our encounters with the America that is coming to be. The subject is so big, though, that it can’t be tackled at a purely symbolic level (as in fiction), or in the misleading isolation of individual essays. Perhaps the only fit form is a kind of diary, one not unlike the journal compiled by William L. Shirer during his pre-war stint in Berlin. For Patrick and I both share the conviction that what we are experiencing in the land of our birth is a transformation of accelerating speed and ominous consequence – even if most of the populace is engaged in a desperate effort to avoid seeing it.