TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS: It’s amazing what you can stumble upon when you’re not reading a newspaper. While walking my dog a few weeks ago — plastic bags dutifully poised for action — I happened upon one of my more industrious neighbors engrossed in one of his many driveway projects. I asked about the two plastic roaring dinosaur figures he’d perched playfully on top of a long wooden plank held up by two sawhorses. They were props, it turns out, for a talk he’d just given to illustrate the history of life on earth. If every 10 million years of planetary existence could be reduced to a single square from a roll of toilet paper, he explained, Planet Earth would have exhausted 40 squares to date. If you took a magic marker and drew a line only one quarter from the far edge of the 40th square, he added, this would illustrate just how briefly Homo sapiens — which means “humans who think they know everything” — have reigned as top of the food chain. To drive home the point, he grabbed a toilet-paper roll he happened to have nearby, unfurled it, and drew a fat black line down the right hand side of square 40. That was us. In the great scheme of things, a dark squiggly line scrawled down the side of a Charmin square of double-ply. A few days later, I found myself standing in line at the Book Den preparing to celebrate the Baby Jesus’ birthday by buying unto others books that I wish someone would buy unto me. Is that not the Golden Rule? The woman behind the counter, whom I knew to be a suspected accordion player, was explaining to a friend how recent scientific evidence suggested humans could have walked across the fabled “land bridge” that once upon a time linked Siberia to North America as long ago as 35,000 years. This totally messed me up. I’d always been told this giant step for mankind took place 12,000 years ago, which, according to all my strictly off-the-record archeological sources, is when the party really started for what passes as human civilization. To hear it might have been otherwise was the cosmic equivalent of forgetting to reset my clock for daylight saving time.
Such expansively infinite time frames should be very much on everybody’s mind. This week, American authorities ceremonially observed the official end of our military invasion of Iraq, a war that lasted almost twice as long as our involvement in World War II. Yes, it’s true a whole lot of government officials should be brought up on criminal charges. They suckered us, premeditatedly and in the first degree, into a bloody conflict that cost 4,500 unlucky Americans their lives, 32,000 their health, and the rest of us about one trillion bucks that we could certainly use right now. But in some ways, that’s like complaining that tobacco company executives have lied and cheated to “trick” otherwise unsuspecting people into smoking. While that’s undeniably the case, some things are so obvious that anyone endowed with a 98.6-degree body temperature should simply know better. That so egregious a cretin as George W. Bush could stampede us into battle under so flimsy a pretext should cause us all concern. Still, it’s big news that the war is over. And while it may not qualify as the “Peace on Earth” some might like, it will do as a reasonable facsimile, especially for the poor souls who would otherwise find themselves stationed there.
The war, we were told, was fought to protect and to project American values. But while I was hurrying out of the downtown library last weekend, I happened to run into longtime photojournalist Kevin McKiernan and his wife, Catalina McKiernan. “Say,” asked Kevin, in that insinuating way that suggests a real doozey is coming, “have you heard that the Senate just passed a bill allowing the military to arrest U.S. citizens and hold them indefinitely without filing charges?” Even though I religiously read The Paper every day, I somehow managed to miss this. I must have been distracted with the Baby Jesus’ birthday. Or maybe it was the debate over born-again Denver Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow and to what extent his success indicates that God exists after all. But buried in the voluminous fine print of the $680-billion Defense Authorization Act is disturbingly vague language that gives the U.S. military the right to arrest U.S. citizens suspected of being or aiding terrorists associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban or any of their agents and detain them until “hostilities cease.” But in the war on terror, as everyone knows, hostilities never cease. And no charges need ever be filed against those detained. The Senate passed this bill last Thursday, which happened to be the 220 birthday of the Bill of Rights. While some may debate whether God is dead, clearly irony — one of the earliest casualties of 9/11 — is alive and well. This bill was never reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The FBI is extremely nervous because it gives brand-new police powers to the military to investigate domestic terrorists. It’s worth noting that supporters of the bill — which now include President Barack Obama — argue whether the new language actually allows the military to arrest U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. But it’s also worth noting that when Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced an amendment that explicitly prohibited the military from doing just that, it was voted down. It’s also worth noting that the Constitution explicitly bars the government from holding people without charging them except during times of rebellion or invasion. This concept, known as habeas corpus, could not be more fundamental. It’s rooted in the geologic magma of English law, dating back — depending upon whom you ask, to either 1215 or 1305.
I’m not sure on which square of toilet paper my neighbor would place that, but I’m sure glad I brought my plastic bags.