Friday, July 15, 2005

Juvenile Deliquency - 21st Century Style?

In the July 11, 2005 edition of the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) online, there was an interesting observation regarding Islamic recruitment among the young people of England. The article observes that "one leading analyst of the Islamic diaspora even compares the lure of extremist Islam to 1950s teens listening to Elvis in an attempt to shock their parents." Apparently, some recruits to radical Islam have tried other ways - the example used was a Pentecostal preacher's son who first tried to get attention by "being a rapper" - to shock their parents. With today's insanely "understanding" (is that an oxymoron?) parents, children apparently will go so far as to be a suicide bomber to have their parents' full sedulity.

Has it truly come to this? Far beyond window-shattering sub-woofers, sexual promiscuity and unprotected intercourse, drug abuse and alcoholism, tattoos and piercings, children now must declare their independence and "adulthood" by blowing themselves and, more tragically, others up. Well, that completely tears it. Apparently, we have achieved a spirit of aloof, isolated procreation that mimics the guidance and supervision given to the offspring of the sea turtle. We fertilize the ovum far out in the murky, detritus-filled waters that are our modern world, swim through the 9 months of gestation in our own preoccupied and distracted lives, and leave our eggs on the beach and in the hands of whoever and whatever may befall them. That beach, with it's clutch of unattended hatchlings, is a breeding ground of despair, false prophets and hateful, racist, shallow thinking. These forsaken and abandoned children are, for all practical purposes, on their own, lest we - collectively, the parental units - "interfere with their process of discovering themselves." The pendulum of parental detachment and "Nanny 911" mentality is now, irrevocably, off its natural path. Pushed forward by the children of the 60s and 70s - regardless of ethnicity, religion, or race - the bob has swung wildly off its course.We are far past the apogee of the bell curve that plots the rise and, inevitable, fall of our civilization.

In reports from ABCNews.com, there were the following descriptions of the bombing suspects: "Every week, 22-year-old Shahzad Tanweer joined friends for games of soccer and his beloved cricket. Hasib Hussain, 19, was a charmer who liked to flirt. He wore blue contact lenses and hair so long that one friend said it "fell like a curtain" atop his lanky frame. Thirty-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan worked as a counselor in a youth center. He seemed to spend more time in the gym than the mosque." Elsewhere, I read that Tanweer often cruised the streets of Leeds in a red Mercedes.

I see a patten that I hope is merely an aberration - a mirage - that only I see. Youthful rebellion - be it against parents or society or governments or religions - has become much more than a simple pursuit of getting an inattentive parent's or peers’ attention; it has become murderously de rigeur. The rich, materially-privileged but parentally-rudderless lives of many of the current generation has bred an infestation of discontent and ill-fated behavior. But, among a small number of advantaged - through the sweat of the preceding 2 or 3 generations - Muslim children, apparently this restlessness has transitioned to deadly, self-annihilating jihad.

My generation may have rolled lawns with toilet tissue, or egged homes or even bashed mail boxes down a rural road. The latest generation begat the madness of drive-by shootings and now, cross-culturally, become even more murderously inventive. Now, no longer content with self-mutilation, these misguided youths must make a horrific demonstration of their religious fanaticism. Blog Bloke on BlogCritics.org calls it "Death by Stupicide." He couldn’t be more correct.

The youth of today - be they Christian, Muslin, Buddist, or Jewish or Druids - seem to be desperately seeking a higher purpose- a calling. When they can’t find it within the superficial, vain, materialistic society in which they live - and is anyone surprised by that? - they turn to fanaticism. They may be as actors on our traditional stage of life but, when they remove their makeup, they are monsters.

"The boy next door" has taken on a new, wholly-frightening, meaning.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Remembering America's Hannibal

O that a soldier so glorious, ever victorious in fight,
Passed from a daylight of honor into the terrible night;
Fell as the mighty archangel, ere the earth glowed in space, fell--
Fell from the patriot's heaven down to the loyalist's hell!

- Thomas Dunn English, Arnold at Stillwater


Had he been killed in one of the numerous military encounters of his career as a Revolutionary War patriot, he would have gone down, undoubtedly, as one of the 3 or 4 greatest heroes of the Cause. But, surviving - though crippled from his wounds as he was - he instead became the most reviled of any soldier in American history. The journey from the most celebrated of patriots to the very name his countrymen use, even to this day, to condemn the most vile acts of cowardice and betrayal is one that, unfortunately for those seeking the truth of his motives, will forever be shrouded in mystery. But, far from a story of simple villainy, it is a prism that, when subjected to the light of scrutiny, emits a spectrum of light that commands deeper inspection and scrutiny. As his infamy lurks even in the scant treatment of history in our schools today, all should appreciate by now I am referring to Benedict Arnold.

His ancestors can be traced back to 1635 when his namesake sailed with other Puritans, led by Roger Williams, and settled in Rhode Island in the Pawtucket River region. While the first iteration of the name Benedict Arnold rose to succeed Williams as governor of Rhode Island and served several terms until his death in 1678, subsequent Arnolds found progressively less prosperity. By the time of the birth of the fifth in the line of this once-esteemed name, fortune and esteem had passed from the Arnold family. Benedict V, the subject at hand, was born on January 14, 1741 to Benedict and Hannah Arnold in Norwich, Connecticut. He was the second child to the marriage; the first, also christened Benedict, had died in infancy, as so many of this time did.

Tragedy seemed to reside in the lives of the Arnolds, steadfastly anchored with the death of their first male child. Its dark cloak, all told, took three (Mary, Elizabeth and Absalom King) of the four children born subsequent to young Benedict. Only his oldest sibling, his mother's namesake, Hannah, remained in the once-happy Arnold home by the time Benedict reached the age of 13.

The psychological impact on the oldest child was clear to those who knew and wrote of Benedict in adulthood. Young Benedict's parents instructed him in the Calvinist doctrine, specifically, a vengeful, omniscient, but sometimes-capricious God whose wrath was not so much directed against the sinner but to those innocents whose death might serve as a more powerful warning. For if God will take an innocent, what might He do to those who would truly offend? With the tragedies of his siblings, the oldest child of the family disavowed any such arbitrary power, heavenly or earthbound, and continued to challenge it as an adult.

Adding fuel to his personal fires, was his father subsequent alcoholism and fall from social grace after the death of the majority of his offspring. Shunned by the church (whether or not he was formally excommunicated is unclear) and in financial ruin, Benedict's parents were both disgraced, dead and penniless by the time the boy reached 20 years old. Witness, as he was, to the Norwich community's abandonment and dismissal of his parents in their sorrow, one might see how the young man would come to despise those who were so unforgiving of human frailty. With little insight, one can imagine the anger the young man could harbor for those he would encounter later in his life. Those who, holding themselves aloft - buttressed only by artificial social or, more relevantly, political status - could abandon those of lesser standing with such sorrowful consequences as befell his parents. These are the experiences of youth that so often, for good and bad, chart the path of the adult life.

As he sought to salvage his family name, young Arnold rose from apprentice (with his late mother's brothers) to a prosperous New Haven merchant and owner of his own small, but active, West Indies merchant fleet. Driven by a passion to reclaim his family name from indignity, he became a true American success story. As available history recounts, he suffered no man impugn his name and was not one to avoid confrontation if honor was in question. As fate and the times would fall into place, Arnold was among the first to challenge New Haven's loyalists "old guard" when British taxation and disregard of the New World's colonies' began to boil in the late 1760s.

But, even with the demands of a growing mercantile and his constant feuding, driven by Benedict's disdain for the "establishment," a young man's nature will find its way through all distractions. Benedict married Peggy Mansfield on February 27, 1767. The young couple had three children before tragedy again fell at Arnold's doorstep. Peggy's untimely death in June, 1775 set her widowed husband on his fateful path in American history.

At the word of the disastrous day in April, 1775 of the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, it was Benedict Arnold who organized 64 men into a militia company in New Haven. Arming and supplying themselves, they were, through the exhortations of their leader, formally established as the Governor's 2ns Company of Guards. Allowed to vote on their own officers, the group elected Arnold, known throughout their ranks as a champion of American liberties, as their Captain. Later in the month when Arnold proposed to march to Massachusetts' aid, the loyalist "elders" forbid the Footguards access to the town's magazine and arms store. Arnold delivered the retort, "None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching." Delivering a 5 minute ultimatum, Arnold and his men were promptly given the keys to the armory and, weapons
secured, his band were off to help the Bostonians confront His Majesty's General Gage in Boston.
That is was Arnold's idea to confront the British at Fort Ticonderoga and secure the precious cannons there is of little historical dispute. That the idea was also acted upon by Vermont's Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys virtually simultaneously is also a matter of historical record. Regardless of the timeline, Arnold's idea was accepted by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety upon his arrival in Boston and he was granted a colonel's commission. He left his new Haven Footguards and rode west in early May, 1775, recruiting his assault forces as he went. Within 10 days and, joined by Ethan Allen's forces, the audacity and boldness of Arnold's plan was substantiated. Fort Ticonderoga fell in less than 10 minutes. The some 200 artillery pieces captured there were subsequently part of the grand saga of Henry Knox and his amazing caravan of the precious cargo eastward to the Boston. The story of their "miraculous" appearance of these same cannon on Dorchester Heights in March, 1776 led to the British evacuation of Boston, retreat to Nova Scotia, and their triumphant reappearance in New York harbor months later.

As the rebels took command of the Fort and it's surprised British forces, he took one of the first of many steps in defense of his principles of honor that would bring him continued confrontations with others less chivalrous. As Ethan Allen's rowdy mountain men began to loot Fort Ticonderoga, Arnold stood against this unmilitary and most ungentlemanly behavior. He was, standing with a much smaller force of troops, roundly and aggressively shouted down, to the point of being shot at by drunken Vermont troops at least twice. It was Arnold's first but not last experience with louder voices and higher placed civilian patrons.

While Allen and his 'Boys dispersed back into the hills that were their homes, all the way telling all who would listen including the Continental Congress, how it was their initiative and bravery that conquered the British, Arnold had grander plans. His eyes were on Lake Champlain and, ultimately, the British fortress of Quebec. He moved decisively onto Quebec not knowing that his initiative was frowned on by the tentative Continental Congress who disavowed any offensive actions, especially into Canada. Though Arnold's name was bandied about as a renegade, a "loose cannon," he forged ahead. His disregard for his "betters" in the civilian sector were to be the seeds in Arnold that grew his doubts in the incompetence of those who would lead the new country.

Arnold, unaware for the most part of those working behind the scenes (including Ethan Allen) to minimize his martial talents, wrote a letter outlining his proposed campaign on Quebec to the Congress in June, 1775. After several months of personal lobbying, not the least of which was dedicated to convincing George Washington, himself, of the worthiness of the northern assault, Arnold was given command, from Washington, of around 1000 volunteers and set off across the treacherous wilds of Maine for Quebec. The journey would earn Benedict Arnold the title "America's Hannibal." The "famine proof" force of Arnold has lost too many men from disease and dissertion to attack the city when he finally scaled Abraham's Heights outside the city in November, 1775.

Nevertheless, Arnold, wisely, steadfastly laid siege to the city and its military leader, Sir Guy Carleton. He effectively bottled up the city and the British forces it contained, even though commanding an inferior (in almost all senses of the word) force, for nearly 2 months. With the arrival of General Montgomery, flush from his conquest of Montreal, the combined forces finally assaulted the city on New Year's eve, 1775. It was a disaster. Montgomery was killed in the first charge and Arnold was shot in his left ankle soon after. Leaderless and thoroughly undisciplined, the assault forces retreated. The great northern adventure was eventually abandoned. As he retreated from the failed Quebec campaign, Arnold further claimed widespread fame at the Battle of Valcour Bay where, with little more than canoes and rowboats, he kept the British fleet on Lake Champaign from proceeding south to trap Washington in New York.

Of course, in the halls of the civilian leadership, there must be someone to blame, as it always must be. And, as it would be throughout the remainder of his career as a citizen soldier - one not in leadership by wealth or land but by commitment and passion - it would be Benedict Arnold. Those who served with him - the honorable and the truly patriotic including Washington - would speak only of his passion and leadership. Those who would bring him to heel, the infant government with its petty power struggles and inconstant purpose, would constantly deny Arnold the recognition and acceptance he so passionately desired.

It was to remain so even after he almost single-handedly saved the day at the Battle of Saratoga for General Gates by leading the charge at Bemis Heights, Arnold was to still find no glory or appreciation. At the very moment the pompous Gates (who would, later in the war, be recalled from South Carolina by Washington, himself, for incompetence at the Battle of Camden) accepted British General Johnny Burgoyne's sword in surrender, Benedict Arnold lay near death in a field hospital with a left thigh completely shattered by British grapeshot. He would never physically nor, as history infamously reports, psychologically recover.

I do seek to change history. One cannot dismiss the significance of the act of ultimate treason Arnold committed. However, neither should we dismiss the life of Benedict Arnold as one of simple treachery and betrayal. His truly is one of the most complex and fascinating lives ever lived. It deserves all Americans' inspection. The contradictions - fervent patriotism versus heinous treason, military genius versus self-serving egotist, endurance through immense personal tragedy versus greedy perfidiousness and deceit - are many and will remain inexplicable in the haze of 250 years past. However, he - and the lessons his life teach us - cannot be simplified as some would have us believe. He suffered much for the Cause of Liberty and he cannot be dismissed, simply, as a ungrateful traitor.

Ironically, when all is examined, the name and fate of Benedict Arnold lay solely with a single misplaced bullet on the scorching fields of Saratoga. For if the bullet had been true to its mark, the death of its recipient would have undoubtedly secured his place in the esteemed pantheon of Revolutionary War heroes. But, striking as it did, sparing life but securing infamy, it did it's victim no service. I wonder if Benedict Arnold, as his lonely final years passed in London's exile, ever wished the bullet had been truer to the mark? I suspect, in my heart, he did.

On the Saratoga battlefield there is a monument consisting of only the left boot of an unnamed officer. The inscription, which fails to identify the boot's owner, poignantly reads:

"In memory of the 'most brilliant soldier' of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, the sally port of Burgoyne's 'Great Western Redoubt', 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive battle of the American Revolution."

One Little Shred of Humanity Left

I don't expect this entry to get much attention and probably even fewer comments but, as is true of about half the BLOGS I write, this one is for ventilation. Yes, the kind required for blowing some fresh air over my nostrils but also in the sense of ranting about a topic that just drives me up the wall. The subject in question is pet abandonment.

A little background may shed some light on the murky waters that are this crime. I have an office in a "professional office complex." It borders some woods, an area that stretches about 100 yards deep behind our building and a half-mile or so down the parkway, moving west. The wooded area and a 8 foot chainlink fence separates our complex from Highway 59 which runs on higher ground behind my clinic.

After I moved in the office, some 6 or 7 years back, I would get occasional, early morning (I get to the office between 4:30 and 5:00) glimpses of feral cats. These hearty buggers have, I assume, been living in those woods long before I got here. They are the most feral animals one can imagine: avoiding all human contact at any cost. Undoubtedly this is a learned response, sensing - as only animals can - that humans are not to be trusted. They know, perhaps firsthand, the capabilities and tendencies of our species.

It is a useful survival trait. For, if they were to be tame, they would dare to approach cars, moving or not, to beg for a handout. They would, if they were so naive, be crushed in the parking lot or on the street or, if they are lucky, just have someone throw rocks (or anything else handy) at them. Being the intelligent creatures there are, they have learned and they learned quickly. They scurry back into the woods and safety. I have been here for some years now and I see their ghostly images in the predawn hours. I can sometimes see then observing me from the safety of their woods, eyes reflecting the fading morning streetlights or in the headlights of my car. They know that potential evil and even death lurks out on the pavement.

I think, often, about where they once might have been. In the lap of their former owner or curling, figure eight-style, between their owners' legs while they are at the sink or opening up a can of wet cat food. Perhaps, they once purred in contentment, that motorboat purr that signals sheer contentment. Maybe once, they actually kneaded their claws into a rug (or some soft furniture) as I understand this is how they display ultimate feline bliss. But, for these cats, the days or purring and curling up in a warm lap are long over. Now, they run with the speed only a "flight-or-fight" adrenalin rush can fuel.

Last winter, I started feeding them. I couldn't stand, as an old man with all the sentiment that entails, to see their starvation-ravaged frames skulking about in search of the birds (that had long since flown further south) or rodents (who were hibernating), the staples of their usual scant diet. I would place a bowl of cheap, dry cat chow and a bowl of water at woods' edge in the pre-dawn hours. It would be completely gone a mere hour or two later. It cost me about 10 dollars every couple weeks; the reimbursement to my heart paid in full, many times over.

I have heard the arguments against this behavior. "You'll only allow them to bred more cats!" "You're not doing them any favors; they'll stop hunting." And the laughable, "You'll make them tame." My brain initially agreed with the naysayers. But, fortunately, in retrospect, my heart had a stronger voice.

A few cups of dry cat food a day is certainly not going to change their miserable existence. They are only a salve to the heart of someone who has seen too many animals killed on roadsides everywhere. Maybe, my heart tells me, if they have a regular - if meager - source of food, they will not be forced progressively nearer the roads, desperately trying to avoid starvation in the leaner times. My heart always wins the argument.

The first of the admonishments mentioned above, though, has come true. One of the female strays did have a litter of kittens this spring. I saw them, following their mother one early morning, as she showed them where the "emergency rations" were placed. The kittens, a marvel of evolution and strength of breed, were beautiful, typically-curious and playful kittens. That was in March and, while I don't see them chasing their mom much any longer - their time as adolescent cats give them leave to hunt alone now - I do know they are all still alive. I saw them all, for the first time in weeks, last Saturday morning, playing and chasing each other at the edge of the woods. Kittens are kittens, wild or domesticated.

Their mother, who is about as domesticated as she will ever be, does greet me most mornings. She keeps a distance of about 20 feet but she lets me know she is there and that it is time to serve breakfast, her only sure meal of the day. She watches, at a safe and unwavering distance - she is and never will be, tame - and sits. I trudge up to the woods, a plastic drink cup full of Purina, and exhange greetings. When I turn and walk back to my office, I glance back over my shoulder and she, incessantly cautious, approaches the food. I smile and I go back to the work of the day.

Sometimes, I am amazed at their strength and will to live. With the southern summer, comes fleas, ticks, biting flies, fireants and other plagues on the animals of the wild. But, somehow, they manage to survive. I know several generations of these ferals have died. A couple years back, there was an orange tabby who, I presume, was one of the earlier generations. He was truly a splendid specimen. I am guessing about 12 pounds and with an impressive bearing. I have to assume he was the patriarch of the clan for his time. I don't see him anymore. I also haven't seen his sidekick, a smaller male, a white tabby, either. I don't think of those two much anymore as I suspect they died from the elements or were killed on the highway in a lean time of distance foraging.

At least for now, "my" mom and her kittens live. I am realistic enough to know that they probably will not all last through the brutal summer and, certainly not through the more brutal winter. But, for their time, they will take what life gives them and, even if they could, probably not complain.

While I try and avoid it, sometimes I let myself think of the original owners of these animals. The ones who originally took the parents (more likely the grandparents or great grandparents) of these animals home as kittens and gave them a home. They fed them, petted them, maybe even took them to the vet for shots and the like. I wonder, when I am calm enough, what changes occur that allows abandonment of their pet - any pet? When there are so many - admittedly strained to capacity and beyond these days - facilities willing to take in unwanted pets, what goes through someone's mind when they leave a pet to the wilds or the side of the road? When animal shelters go so far as to place cages outside their buildings for anonymous, no-questions-asked nighttime drop-off of unwanted pets, what can these individuals be thinking? Do they actually have that capacity? What mind can rationalize this? The more I dwell on the subject, the more cynical I feel. So I don't allow it often.

Please, before you fire off your missives of censure and castigation for the audacity and superficiality of one who dares complain about the plight of dumb animals when people are suffering worse fates elsewhere in the world, I understand your prioritization and your point. The thoughtlessness and cruelty of mankind knows no bounds. Clearly, it is not species-specific. People, certainly, do come first in our thoughts and our concerns. Starvation of people is worse than starvation of animals. Yes, my $10 every couple of weeks could (at least, according to the commercials) feed a starving child somewhere in the world. Yes, yes, I do understand, more than I might have led you to think. Many may think, but polite enough not to write it, what a piteous, misdirected, and egocentric - yes, even eccentric - old man I am. After the recent "Live 8" concert, I realize this sort of writing is merely a flyspeck on the enlarging blot of humanity's indifference. Truly, there is no need to waste your time telling me that which I
already know.

Perhaps, it is all interrelated. If we don't give a care for the millions of refugees dying around the world of starvation, abandonment, and displacement, why should we even spend a few minutes of thought about stupid pets? Well, maybe we shouldn't. If we don't do anything about starving people, we shouldn't expect any concern whatsoever for lesser creatures. And, sadly, I really don't.

However, I will do what I can for the unfortunate orphans in my woods. Nature will, as nature always cruelly does, take care of the rest. Despite the inevitable I will not begrudge myself this simple, selfish and very personal pleasure. In a world where indifference and callousness grows exponentially everyday, I will enjoy to my own minuscule stand against apathy. It is a reminder that life will find a way, even in the face of - and in usually in spite of - humanity.

For more information about helping save feral cats, see this site.