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Bush, Saddam and Climate Change

Tuesday March 07, 2006

[I thought I would re-run this from 2003 because it is still appropriate today.]

Bush, Saddam and Climate Change: What Might Have Been

Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2003 As the hunt for Saddam's WMD begins to look as promising as OJ's search for the real killers, it becomes tempting to think about what might have been. If only, for instance, the Bush Administration had adopted its posture on global warming when considering the evidence justifying the invasion of Iraq and vice versa. Instead of fighting a lonely battle amid hostility and near anarchy in Iraq, the U.S. might have let inspections and containment continue to hobble Saddam forever, while we mustered a real coalition to confront North Korea, which is all but televising its efforts to build nuclear bombs. Instead of dismissing the overwhelming evidence that climate is changing, and alienating the 111 nations that have ratified or acceded to the Kyoto Treaty, the Administration could be leading the way to promote the technologies and policies that will be necessary to come to grips with a real threat to civilization. In attempts to muster support for the March invasion, the Administration took a worst case scenario view in estimating Iraq's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and then, in the State of the Union Address, President Bush credulously trumpeted bogus evidence that the Saddam was buying uranium from Niger. With climate change, however, the Bush Administration grasps at every whisper of doubt and demands a standard of proof that would make it difficult to prove that the earth orbits the sun. In this world of what might have been, imagine a conversation between UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, last fall: Blix: "We need at least a year to complete our inspections." Powell: "Take 10 years; better yet let's wait until Saddam uses them." Blix: "I'm not sure even the French will be willing to wait that long." Powell: "Well the U.S. isn't going to waste money and risk lives on some hypothetical threat. Democracies don't invade other countries without incontrovertible proof of an imminent threat." Blix: "And if we find that proof?" Powell: "If it's a real threat, I'm sure Old Europe will unite behind us." Imagine the conversation between VP Cheney and representatives of the coal industry: Coal rep: "The science is uncertain!" Cheney: "We'll be making tea by dipping Earl Grey in the Potomac before there's absolute certainty. When the threat is a potential calamity for the global food supply and economy, we have to act!" Coal rep: "Fixing the problem will bankrupt the American economy." Cheney: "Wrong, global warming will bankrupt the economy. Taking action will be the biggest stimulus since the end of WWII. Imagine the capital spending!" Coal rep: "OK, OK, but the transition will still cost money. How much is the Administration prepared to spend?" Cheney: "Will $3.9 billion a month help? It's a figure we think we can sell to Congress for dealing with extraordinary threats to stability."

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]


The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.

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