Thursday, January 26, 2006

Good-bye, Privacy and Freedom

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor, Zenger's Newsmagazine
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

A shorter version of this article appears as the "First Word" editorial in the February 2006 print edition of Zenger's Newsmagazine, to be released January 26, 2006.

“With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for 24 hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of information closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.”

— George Orwell, 1984

On January 19, America’s Internet users learned that federal investigators had obtained reams of data from Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online showing how people used these Internet providers’ search engines. “The information turned over to Justice Department lawyers reveals a week’s worth of online queries from millions of Americans — the Internet Age equivalent of eavesdropping on their inner monologues,” Los Angeles Times reporters Joseph Menn and Chris Gaither wrote in the paper’s January 20 issue.

The disclosures came in response to sweeping subpoenas that initially demanded two months’ worth of those records, and as with most of the Bush administration’s innumerable assaults on Americans’ privacy it was done in complete secrecy. We only know about it because the fourth company the feds subpoenaed, Google, refused to comply and instead used their right to challenge the subpoena in the courts.
What’s more, instead of using their usual all-purpose justification for assaults on the privacy rights and civil liberties of Americans — the “war on terrorism” — the administration this time invoked another bugbear they’ve propagandistically conditioned most Americans to hate: pornography. They said they needed this information to defend Congress’s latest statute trying to keep children from accessing porn on the Internet — two previous versions of which have already been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

The government defended its subpoenas — and AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo defended their acquiescence — by saying they weren’t asking for the names and search records of individual Internet users. But, as Google’s executives said in their letter to the government, “One can envision scenarios where [search engine] queries alone could reveal identifying information.” In other words, tell the government what I search for on the Internet, and the government can work backwards and stand a pretty good chance of figuring out who I am and where I can be found.

Coupled with the recent disclosure that President Bush personally authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap U.S. citizens suspected of contact with so-called “terrorists” and flagrantly disregarded the 30-year-old law designed to regulate such spying, the search-engine subpoenas reveal the current U.S. government’s visceral hatred of the right to privacy. Though so far they haven’t gone all the way the way the “Inner Party” of Orwell’s fiction or real-life Eastern European Communist governments did — routinely recording every phone call and spying on “every citizen important enough to be worth watching” — the administration’s clear intent, embodied in the USA PATRIOT Act (under whose authority they issued the subpoenas to Google and its competitors in the first place), is to do just that.

What’s more, the advent of the Internet and the sweeping advances in computer technology that made it possible have made it feasible for the first time to spy on an entire population. Those Eastern European governments that routinely recorded everyone’s phone calls couldn’t possibly have enough people listening to the tapes to nail everybody who said anything against the ruling elite. (Their intent was to scare their people into watching what they said by the possibility that your call might be the one they listened to that day.) But, armed with word-recognition software, a modern repressive government can search every single e-mail and Web query for whatever so-called “key words” they decide are incriminating — from “bomb” (even if you only meant it to describe a particularly bad movie) to “Osama bin Laden” (even if you were researching him for a school paper on 9/11) to the words the Chinese government looks for on its searches of its citizens’ Net use: “freedom” and “democracy.”

The attack on privacy is part and parcel of a broader assault not only on civil liberties but on the entire concept of political freedom. Its aim is nothing less than to make the President of the United States a virtual dictator, no longer constrained by the careful system of checks and balances those old fogies in Philadelphia in 1789 worked out in the Constitution. Few people have critiqued this more eloquently than former vice-president Al Gore, who in 2000 became the second person in U.S. history (after Samuel J. Tilden in 1876) to win a Presidential election and then have the office stolen from him by legal chicanery and judicial activism. On January 16, Gore spoke to the Liberty Coalition in Washington, D.C. and said:

"This administration has come to power in the thrall of a legal theory that aims to convince us that this excessive concentration of presidential power is exactly what our Constitution intended. This legal theory, which its proponents call the theory of the unitary executive but which ought to be more accurately described as the unilateral executive, threatens to expand the president’s powers until the contours of the Constitution that the Framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition.

"Under this theory, the president’s authority when acting as commander in chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary, cannot be checked by Congress. And President Bush has pushed the implications of this idea to its maximum by continually stressing his role as commander in chief, invoking it as frequently as he can, conflating it with his other roles, both domestic and foreign. And when added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of this theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can imagine.

"This effort to rework America’s carefully balanced constitutional design into a lopsided structure dominated by an all-powerful executive branch, with a subservient Congress and subservient judiciary, is ironically accompanied by an effort by the same administration to rework America’s foreign policy from one that is based primarily on U.S. moral authority into one that is based on a misguided and self-defeating effort to establish a form of dominance in the world. And the common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control."

What’s more, the U.S. Senate is about to freeze that theory of the “unitary executive” into constitutional law by confirming one of its principal exponents, federal appeals court judge Samuel Alito, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Once Alito replaces Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court, Bush will have the fifth vote he needs to assert the kind of dictatorial power he has claimed ever since 9/11 to run the “war on terror” exactly as he pleases and put anyone — whether U.S. citizen or foreign national — in prison anywhere in the world for as long as he wants, and order them subjected to any type of treatment, including torture or summary execution, he deems appropriate.

And once 85-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens retires or dies, Bush will have the power to get rid of that other nagging leftover of Americans’ right to privacy that pisses him off: women’s right to reproductive choice. Americans have been arguing about abortion long before Roe v. Wade and they will undoubtedly continue to argue about it long after that decision becomes history — either through an outright overruling or the death by a thousand cuts anti-choice legislators and judges have already largely inflicted on it. But what most of them don’t realize is that the foundation of Roe was a 1965 Supreme Court decision called Griswold v. Connecticut, which creatively used the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment to argue that Americans had a constitutionally guaranteed right to personal privacy even though the Constitution never said that in so many words.

Whereas a few state constitutions — including California’s — do specifically guarantee a right to privacy, the U.S. Constitution still does not. A Right-wing Supreme Court packed — as Bush promised to do in 2000 — with clones of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas may well decide that the Griswold Court overreached, and then the personal sexual choices of Americans will become fair game for government enforcement. Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark 2003 decision guaranteeing the right of American adults to have consensual sex in private with whomever they pleased, including partners of their own gender, will be swept into the historical dustbin along with Griswold and Roe.

Orwell’s 1984 seems to be the role model for the Bush administration in more ways than one. Like Orwell’s fictional ruling regime, the Bush administration has declared a war that will last forever and therefore provide a permanent excuse for suppressing civil liberties and human rights. Like Orwell’s dictatorship, Bush’s imposes on its citizens an order that not only represses their sexuality but even dictates to them whether, and on what conditions, they can live or die. Like Orwell’s, Bush’s regime abuses language in ways that make its programs seem like the opposite of what they are: a “healthy forests initiative” that encourages clear-cutting, a “clear skies initiative” that encourages pollution, a “prescription drug benefit” that actually makes it more, not less, expensive for senior citizens to buy the drugs they need to survive, and an “ownership society” that abolishes social safety nets and entrusts individuals’ ability to survive in their later years solely to the stock market and their luck in playing it.

And so far, the American people are supporting their Führer President all the way. A Pew Research Center poll released January 18 showed 48 percent of the respondents saying that “monitoring Americans suspected of terrorism without court permission” was “generally right,” while 47 percent — a statistical tie — thought it was “generally wrong.” Even more frightening, when the same poll asked whether people were more concerned that the government hadn’t done enough to protect the country from terrorism or had gone too far in restricting civil liberties, 46 percent said the government hadn’t done enough and only 33 percent said it had gone too far.
Based on those results, the Republican party’s leadership believes that Bush’s brazen defiance of law in ordering the NSA wiretaps will actually work in their favor politically. “One of the big choices before the American people in 2006 is: Where do your leaders stand on this important tool?,” said Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman. He added that he plans “to talk a lot about it this year.”

In 2002 and 2004, the Republicans won the Presidency — rightfully, this time — and increased their majorities in Congress by making the “war on terror” the paramount issue and scaring American voters into thinking the Democrats would be too “soft” to be trusted with running the country and protecting them from terrorism. The Pew poll results suggest that — regardless of the growing unpopularity of the President and Congress on issues like Social Security, Medicare, ethics and the origins of the war in Iraq — the Republicans may be able to do that again.

In the early 1960’s William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, predicted that the U.S. would be the first country in the world to go fascist by free election. More and more, it looks like it already has.
With Whips, Hardware He Makes “Art That Can Hurt You”

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Mark O’Keefe has been a prominent figure in the San Diego Leather-S/M community for over a decade — he was Mr. San Diego Leather in 1997 and helped organize many of the annual Leatherfests when they were still held here — but in the last couple of years he’s developed an unusual sideline. He’s taken up abstract painting with an unusual tool: whips. Billed on his Web site,, as “art that can hurt you” — a slogan he and his friend Michael McKeon worked out — his paintings are made with whips as his brushes. O’Keefe’s works are strong, slashing abstracts, many of them surprisingly small (his canvases are usually one foot square, though he’s worked on larger ones) and often decorated with bits of metal from hardware stores.

O’Keefe showed some of his “art that can hurt you” at the San Diego League of Gentlemen’s January 6 meeting, which featured various merchants in the Leather community exhibiting their wares. Zenger’s interviewed him at his University Heights apartment five days later.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you telling a little about yourself, your background, and how you got into all of this: being Gay, being part of the Leather community, and being an artist?

Mark O’Keefe: I grew up in Pennsylvania. I was born on June 16, 1964. I came from a very poor family — two brothers and a mother — and had a pretty normal wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid’s life.

When I was 7 I had an uncle who went to Texas and brought me back a black-and-white wooden-handled whip. I learned to play with it, to crack it and hit targets with it. I didn’t think much of that; I just played with it for a while, like every seven-year-old, and then threw it to the side. A few years later, I had a dog that found the whip and chewed it all up. So it was kind of ruined at that point. Years later, when I was doing a scene with someone, all of that information came back, and it was like an epiphany.” I had completely forgotten about that until I had this realization during a scene and thought, “Oh, O.K., this is where all that started.”

When I was about 18 or 19, I had a boyfriend that I used to tie up. That was when I started getting into the scene. I mean, I’d had fantasies much younger than that, probably at 12, 13, 14. But it started to come out more when I turned 18. That’s when I look at the start of it because I physically did something to someone else at that point. So I’ve been in the scene for 23 years at this point. That’s a long time.
In 1986, when I was 21, I moved to San Diego and started with the Leather scene here, because there wasn’t much in Pennsylvania. I used to go to the old Pecs a long time ago, with Dennis Long. In 1988 I got clean and sober, and in 1989 I got involved in the Knights on Iron. I don’t know if you remember them. They were the clean and sober Gay motorcycle club here in town.

We had a fundraiser, a Leather boat cruise that went around the bay, and I was put in charge of doing all the coordinating for that. It came out in the black, and after that I started getting involved with Leatherfest. A friend of mine, Bob Goldfarb, asked me to help him out with it, so I did. The next year he put me in charge. I was the co-director for Leatherfest III, IV, V, VI, VII. For Leatherfest VIII I did registration, so I was still on the staff. In 1997, I took a break to run for Mr. San Diego Leather, which I won, and then I co-directed again for Leatherfest X.

Zenger’s: How would you explain the appeal of S/M to you to someone who isn’t part of the scene?

O’Keefe: I would say that it’s part of my core being, as opposed to something I learned along the way. There’s always been an S/M side for me. It’s a part of my makeup, just like being Gay is part of my makeup, whereas being clean and sober is something I learned to do. Some of what I do in the Leather community is also learned. learned to do different things in the Leather community. Other things, like knife play and canes, I’ve learned along the way. But whipping is a pretty core thing for me.

I started using whips full-time in 1990. I had a friend in San Francisco say to me, “Well, what do you want to learn about?” I said, “How about whips?” He said, ”O.K.,” and I picked it up really naturally, probably because of using them when I was a kid. So I started buying more whips and experimenting more, setting up more scenes, and learning a lot about them. I’ve had a lot of experience since then, almost 16 years of continuous whipping.

So almost two years ago, after I moved back to San Diego from spending two years in Oregon, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to whip a piece of canvas?” A friend of mine, Michael McKeon, who’s also an artist, gave me a great deal of encouragement to try this. He said, “You can use my backyard to paint,” because I really couldn’t do it in my apartment. I thought, “Well, the paint’s going to kind of go all over” — which it does.

I started out with canvas two years ago. I can tell by the progress of what I’ve done that things have changed along the way. It’s not just whipping canvas and coming up with pretty colors anymore. There’s sometimes a concept or a feeling behind it.

Originally some of the paintings were really flat, but when I started pulling from my darker side, my S/M side, that changed. I did some where the themes behind them were corsets, and I had one that was done with the intention of piercing, kind of with the hanky-code colors. Also, sometimes what kind of hardware I put on them will change the whole concept.

Zenger’s: Had you been involved in art before that? Have you done more conventional kinds of paintings?

O’Keefe: I had not painted before. I had drawn a little bit and used charcoals when I was a kid. I was kind of an artist at heart as a kid, but I had not really done painting or anything like that. Also, at one point in my life I studied special-effects makeup artistry. So there’s always been art in my life, whether it’s appreciating it or doing it myself. I’ve also been working on an art history degree for a couple of years now.

Zenger’s: When people look at your work, do they absorb it as just another abstract painter, or can they guess without your prompting how these paintings are done?

O’Keefe: It depends. People who are into the scene and know me know how it’s been done. Most people are quite surprised when I tell them that it is done with a whip, so I don’t think people outside of the Leather community quite “get it.” They do just think they’re abstracts, but once I tell them they’re done with a whip, they’re amazed, going. “How can you do this with a whip?”

Most of them are abstract because I’m limited with what I can do with the whips. I can’t make circles and things like that. Everything has to be straight lines. It all depends on color and placement. [He points to a painting on his wall that’s a stylized representation of a tree.] That 30” x 30” canvas took around 20 hours to do, because there was no color on that canvas before I started. \Every color that you see on there is color that I put into it.

Zenger’s: How do you maintain control? That’s the part I think would amaze most people: how can you control the whips well enough to get the colors where you want them?

O’Keefe: I like to joke and say that I can hit the side of a barn, but actually I have really, really good aim, which is one of the things that I’ve always worked on. Not only is hitting a canvas that’s only 12” x 12” or smaller and making things come where you want them to go hard to do in itself, but when you’re playing with a person, you only have a limited amount of space too. So doing that for so many years, I had a really good aim, and that was able to give me enough control to put it on the canvas.

I mean, sometimes the 12” x 12” canvases are big compared to some of the spaces I do on a person. But on most people, their back is going to be pretty much that same size space. On trying to get the color where I want it to go, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Because there are really no mistakes in art, it could be intentionally placed there — which most of the time my paintings are — but once in a while I’ll have something that will fly off into a wrong section, and there’s not much I can do about that.

Zenger’s: And probably some of your partners would say, “Better it fly off into a wrong section on canvas than on me.”

O’Keefe: Right, right. It’s been kind of a learning process. I know how it affects the body, but canvas doesn’t talk back to me. Actually, because I’m able to see what it’s done after I’ve put the color on it, in a sense it does talk to me, just like a person.

Zenger’s: How do you get the paint on the whips in the first place?

O’Keefe: It depends on the color. If I have to mix the color, I’ll do that on a paper plate and then run the whip through it. I’ll use a plastic knife to make sure it all gets on the end, on the cracker part of the whip. If I want it to spray, I just whip at that point. But most of the time I don’t like the spray, so I’ll just knock off the first two strokes and throw them to the side. That way I get a clean strike with the next three or four, and then I have to reload. A lot of it is like pointillism. I like to call it “whipillism.”

Zenger’s: Do you know if there’s anybody else doing paintings with whips?

O’Keefe: Not that I’m aware of. I’m just trying to put my name out there a little bit, and maybe someone will like what they see. I’m having fun doing it, so that’s the point to it. I really enjoy doing it. But I haven’t heard of anyone else doing it at all.

Zenger’s: What inspired you to come up with the slogan “art that can hurt you”?

O’Keefe: Some of the metal that I put on the pieces is hardware that I get at hardware stores. One day I was playing with the concept of using barbed wire, and saying that would be “art that can hurt you.” My friend Michael, who actually designed my Web site, said, “That’s great.” I said, “O.K., well then let’s use that.”

To contact Mark O’Keefe about his “art that can hurt you,” e-mail him at or visit his Web site,
Tiresias the Harlot at 6th @ Penn: Flawed Greek Pastiche

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Give the folks at 6th @ Penn Theatre in Hillcrest credit not only for running shows seven days a week — presenting one production on the prime theatergoing days, Thursday through Sunday, but another on the traditionally “dark” nights of Monday through Wednesday — and also reawakening San Diego to the dark beauties and undying insights of the classic plays of ancient Greece. Alas, their “dark night” productions and interest in all things Greek take a bit of a wrong turn with Tiresias the Harlot, a sporadically compelling but overlong original pastiche by modern-day playwright Edwin Eigner that uses an ancient Greek setting and characters to tell a story of modern-day sexual politics.

Years before this play begins, Tiresias (Hilary White) was a hero, a companion of Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece, and engaged to marry the virginal Marpessa (Wendy Savage). Then he happened to catch a glimpse of the goddess Athena skinny-dipping. She caught him and, furious, changed him into a woman — thereby establishing herself as the world’s first gender-reassignment surgeon. Making the best of a bad deal, Tiresias became a high-class prostitute, selling herself to (among others) the warrior Idas (Eric Trigg). Eigner’s script deals with Marpessa’s search for her former fiancé, her understandable shock at finding out what’s happened to him (her), and the dark motives of her traveling companion (Tom Hoeck), who represented himself as “Adrastos” but who is really the insatiably horny sun god Apollo.

At a shorter length (like about an hour) and with fewer vertiginous plot twists, Tiresias the Harlot might have been more entertaining and achieved the wry commentary on sexual mores then and now Eigner seems to have intended. Alas, at 90 minutes (10 minutes longer than 6th @ Penn’s current — and marvelous — “bright nights” production of a genuine Greek play, Sophocles’ Ajax) it really starts to pall well before it ends. It doesn’t help that Eigner puts some of his characters, Marpessa in particular, through some barely believable changes, or that he invokes the old deus ex machina gimmick — a god steps on stage to resolve the dilemmas of the human characters — so relentlessly that by the end we don’t know which gods are involved in the action or what their agendas are.

It’s a pity the play isn’t more worthy of its production. Director Raab Rashi, the mastermind behind the “Instant Theatre” productions at 6th @ Penn (in which a group of volunteers are randomly assigned to groups and charged with writing, casting, rehearsing and performing original short plays in a 24-hour period), does his best to keep the show from getting dull by pacing it quickly and getting energetic performances from his principals. Hilary White never convinces us she’s Transgender but otherwise delivers an eloquent performance in the title role. The other women in the cast, Savage as Marpessa and Sherri Allen as Pythia, do the best they can with their highly stereotyped roles — innocent virgin and crazy prophetess, respectively.

The men fare better. Eric Trigg is properly hunky and swaggering as Idas, particularly powerful when the script calls for him to attempt to rape Marpessa. Tom Hoeck stands out even more; his rather airy attitude and tall, clean-shaven, blond good looks make him seem properly otherworldly and believable as a god. Costume designer Kandice Guzman deserves credit for doing convincing “Greek” on a budget, as does lighting designer Elvira Perez for figuring out effects that make all the supernatural interventions at least somewhat credible. The sets are mostly recycled from the Ajax production and serve the action well. No prop person is credited, but the weapons — Idas’s straight dagger, Apollo’s twisty one, and the bows they are issued for their climactic duel — are solid and believable.

6th @ Penn usually deserves credit for doing the best they can with what they have, both in picking scripts and producing them. This time, they’re having “off” nights in more ways than one. If you’re an insatiable live theatre addict, Tiresias the Harlot might be worth seeing — but if you only have the money and time for one of 6th @ Penn’s current shows, Ajax should be your choice.

Tiresias the Harlot plays at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, through Monday, February 6. Performances are at 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays. Tickets are $15 for all performances ($12 for students and seniors and $15 for members of the Actors’ Alliance). For reservations or information, please call (619) 688-9210 or visit

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cygnet’s Biedermann: Great Production, Great Play

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Who would have thought that a little-known playwright like Swiss-German author Max Frisch (1911-1991) could do what “name” authors like Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson weren’t able to: give the Cygnet Theatre a first-rate script on which to lavish their excellent production style and skills? Frisch’s Biedermann and the Firebugs, playing at Cygnet’s space at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in east San Diego (an unassuming venue from the outside — it’s part of a shopping mall and looks like just another hole-in-the-wall outlet — that opens up into a spacious and surprisingly well-appointed community theatre), is a mordant satire, at once hilarious and oddly dire, that offers Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray (who directed this production) and an excellent local cast the opportunity for an imaginative and wickedly entertaining theatre experience.

Written first for radio, then adapted for TV and stage, Biedermann and the Firebugs was premiered in 1958 but takes place 30 years earlier, in the waning days of Germany’s Weimar Republic five years before the Nazis took power. The play is essentially a reworking of Moliére’s classic Tartuffe, a story of an unscrupulous, exploitative houseguest in which the laughs are at the expense of his credulous host. In Frisch’s version, Biedermann (Tim Irving) is a typical middle-class head of a household in a German town that has been beset by an epidemic of arson. The pattern behind these fires is always the same: a seemingly harmless peddler comes to the door of someone’s home or business, pleads for help, is let in, settles himself in as an employee or guest and ultimately burns the place down over some imagined slight from the host.

Biedermann, his wife Babette (Laura Bozanich, who previously acted under Irving’s direction in Diversionary’s Valhalla, another loopy comedy tapping German history and culture) and their maid Anna (Lisel Gorell-Getz) find themselves confronted by the mysterious stranger Sepp (Daren Scott), who pulls enough of a variation on the firebugs’ usual routine — instead of a peddler, he bills himself as a wrestler who’s just walked out of a job at a circus — to get himself in the door. For most of the play, the joy of it is in watching Sepp and his confederate Willie (Joshua Everett Johnson) play the Biedermanns like an instrument, alternately appealing to their better natures (“The humanity!” is a frequent motif in the play’s dialogue) and intimidating them with veiled threats. Thus the Biedermanns look the other way and rationalize even as the strangers fill their attic with gasoline, build a detonator and, in one of the play’s most trenchantly ridiculous scenes, even enlist Herr Biedermann’s help in fixing the fuse that will ignite their home.

This being an Expressionist drama with overtones of Brecht (Frisch met Brecht in 1947 and they stayed friends for the nine remaining years of Brecht’s life), there’s also a “chorus” in the form of three firefighters (Joshua Harrell, Jerry Lee and Kim Strassburger) who issue dire warnings about the impending action but are powerless to stop the catastrophe. There are also several other characters, “doubled” by the chorus members: a constable (Harrell), a professor (Lee) who had something to do with the arsons early on but now frantically tries to dissociate himself from them, and Frau Knechling (Strassburger), widow of an inventor who claims Biedermann did him out of the royalties due him for his hair-restoring tonic. (“It’s just a commodity!” Biedermann insists, showing off his own bald pate as evidence that Knechling didn’t deserve royalties because his product didn’t work.)

Cygnet has given this loony play a first-rate production. Murray’s direction keeps the characters in the sort of constant motion any farce needs to get its laughs, and he also designed the effective set, which appropriately borrows from the eccentric Expressionism of Hermann Warm’s famous sets for the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Eric Lotze’s lighting design is strong throughout and at its best when suggesting the fires. M. Scott Grabau’s sound design is even more creative: from the recordings of Weimar-era music used to set the mood (some of which sound like re-creations from Frisch’s time) to the brilliant surround-sound effects used in the play’s most tense moments, everything we hear adds to the overall mood and power of Frisch’s script. The directional effect is aided by some of Murray’s blocking decisions — notably having Frau Biedermann make an unexpected entrance from the Cygnet’s lobby. Shulamit Nelson, whose costume design credits seem ubiquitous in San Diego theatre, has come up with some quite funny clothes, notably the shabby, torn red rag of a dress Biedermann has Anna wear in a misguided attempt to show his family’s “humility” by serving Sepp and Willie an “informal” dinner.

The cast is near-ideal. Tim Irving — who’s credited, along with Murray, with “adapting” Michael Bullock’s translation of Frisch’s script — is not only physically ideal for the comfortable middle-class German he’s playing (his resemblance to the famous German actor Emil Jannings helps a lot), he brings the same comic timing to his performance he has to his direction of Diversionary’s Valhalla and other local productions. Scott and Johnson make a marvelous comic team and hit just the right combination of sliminess and seeming honesty for the firebugs. Under Murray’s direction, Bozanich is calmer than she was as the two mothers from hell she played in Irving’s Valhalla production, but still funny, especially when she lets her husband talk her out of her glimmers of understanding. Of the choristers and supporting players, Strassburger’s Frau Knechling stands out: her impassivity as she sits in Biedermann’s living room and knits (someone even calls her “Madame DeFarge,” after the famous character who knitted during the French Reign of Terror while the guillotine did its thing) while waiting to confront him over her husband’s suicide adds to the piece’s grim humor.

Biedermann and the Firebugs — billed by Frisch as “a morality play without a moral” — can be enjoyed as pure farce without reference to its political allegory, though (as in some of Brecht’s plays too) the allegory does get a bit heavy-handed at times. But the cruel irony that the firebugs undo Biedermann precisely by appealing to the most noble parts of his nature — and their sheer obviousness about their intentions — make the play relevant far beyond the still-lingering debates that inspired it over how much, and to what extent, the German people were responsible for the Nazis’ crimes. At least one line in particular, obviously part of the Murray-Irving “adaptation,” hammers home its present-day resonance: when the firefighters buttonhole Biedermann on the street and try to warn him, he tells them, “You’re doing a heckuva job.”

Biedermann and the Firebugs plays through Sunday, February 12 at the Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, suite N. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $26 for Saturdays and $22 for all other performances. For information or reservations, please call (619) 337-1525 x3 or visit
Sophocles’ Ajax: Intense Drama at 6th @ Penn

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Usually, when a play or a movie is described as a “thrill ride” it means it’s a piece of mindless entertainment you can pretty well stay away from — unless you like seeing things being blown up or people spurting blood or getting their heads chopped off with little or no plot justification. But Sophocles’ Ajax, as translated and adapted by Marianne McDonald and playing at 6th @ Penn Theatre through February 5, is a “thrill ride” in the best sense. It’s got action galore — most of it takes place off-stage but the blood leaves its marks on the actors’ bodies — and its central character lives (and dies) so intensely by the sword even Schwarzenegger or Stallone at their career peaks might have blushed at the thought of playing him, but it’s also packed with food for thought. This is a drama about the conflicts between law and faith, between order and freedom, between responsibility and license. It’s also about war and the degree to which it makes monsters out of all who participate in it; about the petty ego issues that lead men to fight and die; and about how violence dirties every cause, no matter how noble initially, in which it is invoked.

The 6th @ Penn company has explored the dramas of ancient Greece for some time now, usually as staged readings under the collective title “Grass Roots Greeks,” but Ajax is a full-scale production (at least by 6th @ Penn standards) and it’s the main play on their late January-early February schedule. (On their “off nights” — Sunday through Wednesday evenings — they’re doing a modern play by Edwin Eigner, but one whose title, Tiresias the Harlot, suggests a Greek connection.) Those familiar with Greek tragedies will know pretty much to expect plot-wise: a character feels slighted in some way and extracts a terrible revenge, which in turn provokes worse and crueler counter-measures until by the end of the story it takes one individual who’s retained his or her sanity through all this — usually a god, though sometimes (as here) a human — to offer the other characters a reasonable way out of the cycle of violence and terror.

Ajax takes place in the later days of the Trojan War. Ajax (Laurence Brown), known as the strongest man in the Greek army and their go-to guy when one of their other leaders was trapped and needed someone with brute strength to get him out, is having a major hissy-fit because he didn’t win the weapons and armor of the recently slain Greek hero Achilles. Instead the arms went to Odysseus, not a particularly effective combatant but a master strategist, because the Greek commanders Agamemmnon (Fred Harlow) and his brother Menelaus (Patricia Elmore Costa) —whose wife Helen started the whole mess in the first place by running off with the Trojan prince Paris a decade earlier — rigged the process in his favor. Ajax decides to extract his revenge by murdering the Greek commanders — only the goddess Athena (Erin McKown) forestalls this by making him delusional, so that he kills a bunch of cattle, sheep and other livestock thinking they’re the Greek leaders.

The play’s main issues arise when Ajax regains his sanity, realizes what he’s done and tries to figure out what to do from there and how he can accept responsibility for his crimes. The matter is complicated by the fact that Ajax and his forces weren’t part of the major Greek army in the first place, but a junior partner in the ancient world’s version of the “coalition of the willing,” and therefore Ajax, his brother Teucer (Brandon Walker), his slave mistress turned wife Tecmessa (Morgan Trant) and his sailors (Zach Guzik and Tara Donovan) start questioning whether Agamemmnon has any right to give them orders. Eventually Ajax commits suicide, but the fighting doesn’t stop with his death; like Creon in Sophocles’ better-known play Antigone (also staged at 6th @ Penn with Laurence Brown in the cast), Agammemnon and Menelaus continue their bitch fight against him by giving orders that Ajax’s body is not to be buried. Instead it’s to be left outside to rot and serve as food for dogs — a major insult to a person’s memory according to the mores of ancient Greece.

The 6th @ Penn production of Ajax manages to make this 2,500-year-old story live for today’s playgoers. McDonald’s adaptation sometimes gets a little too colloquial — I doubt if anyone in ancient Greece ever said their language’s equivalent of “What goes around comes around” — but for the most part she’s able to cast Sophocles’ text in living English that modern actors can speak easily and modern audiences can absorb. Aided by a quickly moving script that cuts the original’s choruses (in Greek drama a “chorus” meant a single person who served as narrator) and presents Ajax in one continuous 80-minute act, Forrest Aylsworth’s direction makes the play a maelstrom of action, from the roaring scream Ajax emits as he runs down the theatre aisle to enter the action to the confrontations that continue even after Ajax is dead.

The first half of the play is dominated by Laurence Brown’s Ajax. He’s everything we’re told the character is: big, strong, powerful, intensely physical. Brown fearlessly throws his body across the stage, and his booming wounded-animal voice makes both Ajax’s rages and his remorse real. In the second half, Walker as Ajax’s brother Teucer essentially takes over his role, more or less standing in for the dead Ajax as he finds his own strength and literally gets in the faces of the Greek commanders. Trant manages to turn Tecmessa into a figure of real pathos, scared shitless that with Ajax dead she’ll lose whatever status she had as his wife, be thrown back into slavery and given the most humiliating tasks Ajax’s enemies in the Greek army can think of piling on her. Gusik is effective as one of Ajax’s sailors, though it was a mistake to cross-gender cast Donovan as the other sailor and an even bigger mistake to have a woman play Menelaus. It’s one thing, especially in the 21st century, to accept white actor Walker as the brother of African-American Brown; it’s far more jarring to see a woman attempting to impersonate a man, especially an authority figure who started this war because his wife left him for another man.

Amanda Stephens’ physical sets are appropriate, suggesting on a 6th @ Penn budget the battlefields of ancient Troy. Paul Savage’s projections work surprisingly well to suggest the shedding of blood, less so when they attempt the rather coy effect of casting Ajax’s son as a silent silhouette to whom the live actors talk. Jeannie Galioto’s costumes are well done and looked properly lived in,and Elvira Perez’s lighting design is properly moody.

Overall, 6th @ Penn’s Ajax is a fine production, throbbing with action and getting across the parallels between the Trojan quagmire and more recent events without hitting the audience over the head with them. (Menelaus’s line about how rulers must keep their people in fear to control them and maintain order seems especially timely in post-9/11 America.) It’s fast-moving and intense, but also touches the heart in ways that will seem quite surprising for a play that’s fundamentally about men at war — against both an enemy and each other.

Ajax plays at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, through Sunday, February 5. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $23 for all performances ($20 for students and seniors and $15 for members of the Actors’ Alliance). For reservations or information, please call (619) 688-9210 or visit

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Diversionary’s Beautiful Thing a Beautiful Thing

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is — dare I say it? — a beautiful thing, a 1993 play about two young lads in the Thamesmead housing project in London brought together more by their dysfunctional families than anything else, forced to share the same bed and ultimately becoming lovers. It’s playing at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, through February 5 in a production fully faithful to the piece’s quietly rambunctious spirit and truth.

Jamie Gangel (Matt Barrs) is a 15-year-old Thamesmead student who hangs around his home a lot, frequently cutting school on Wednesdays because that’s the day the schoolboys are supposed to play soccer, which he can’t stand. (The script refers to the sport — properly, for the British setting — as “football.”) His mother Sandra (Jillian Frost) makes her living as a barmaid and is driving Jamie crazy with a personality at once free-spirited and maternally demanding. The two, occasionally joined by Sandra’s boyfriend Tony (John DeCarlo) — a chronically unemployed hippie type with pretensions of being a painter — live in the middle unit of three row houses.

On one side of them is Leah (Rachael Van Wormer), a precocious teenager whose antics with sex and drugs have got her expelled from school and left her plenty of time to stay at home and listen to records by her idol, the 1960’s American singer “Mama” Cass Elliott. On the other side is Ste (Joseph Panwitz) — pronounced “stee” and short for Stephen — the Thamesmead school’s star soccer player and a frequent victim of domestic violence at the hands of his father and older brother. (We never see the beatings but we hear enough of them via off-stage recorded voices that we know what’s going on.) One night, after a particularly vicious attack, Ste seeks refuge in the Gangels’ home, and ends up sharing Jamie’s bed and, after a properly awkward flirtation, considerably more than that.

Beautiful Thing is a script that’s been mostly associated with women directors; Hettie McDonald did both the 1993 London stage premiere and the 1996 film version, and Rosina Reynolds helmed the Diversionary production. She’s especially good at this sort of material, particularly in handling the rather diffident scenes with the two young men in bed first psychologically, then physically, feeling each other out. Reynolds gets just the right sort of tentativeness out of Barrs and Panwitz in their playing, and she and the two actors make the scene completely believable.

Comparisons of this scene to the sexual encounters of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the film Brokeback Mountain are perhaps inevitable — though the Brokeback characters are adults and at least one already has a girlfriend, the scenes are similar in the seemingly accidental ways the protagonists drift into a sexual relationship, the “I’m not Queer” speeches they give after they’ve done the dirty deed, and the wrestling and other physical horseplay with which they try to defuse their mutual attraction. But the sensitivity of Harvey’s script and Reynolds’ direction are a far cry from the in-your-face style with which Brokeback Mountain’s makers projected this situation — and it helped that Beautiful Thing’s creators didn’t carry on the pretense that these things had never been shown or done on stage or film before.

Oddly, for a script written by a man and presented as a Gay male love story, it’s the female characters who are the most strongly drawn. Jillian Frost plays Sandra as a force of nature, driving Jamie crazy with her rapid alternations between trying to be his best buddy and suddenly pulling “mommy” rank on him. Rachael Van Wormer almost steals the show as Leah, whose tough, brittle exterior inevitably hides her vulnerability and whose obsession with a pop star who died young would usually be assigned to one of the Gay male characters. (Kudos to playwright Harvey for avoiding that cliché.) John DeCarlo does what he can with a pretty milquetoast character.

As Jamie, Marrs is a miracle; he actually looks 15 (he’s young — his bio describes him as a third-year theatre major at UCSD — but not that young), and his innocent, pretty-boy face (considerably prettier, not surprisingly, when he takes his glasses off) is utterly right for the role. Panwitz partners him well in the less compellingly written role of Ste. The character seems to have surprisingly little angst at being a victim of domestic violence; his only reaction seems to be a desire to avoid the embarrassment of letting other people see his bruises. He’s the more butch of the two, though not so much more that we can’t believe in them as a rather gawky teenage couple, and he’s the one we get to see “in the flesh,” as it were, though just in boxer shorts instead of totally nude.

The entire cast deserves a special compliment for doing the working-class British accents so perfectly. (Did Reynolds coach them herself? No dialogue coach is credited in the program.) The accents are so well done that throughout the play it’s hard to believe we’re watching American actors. Even when Barrs has to recite dialogue from the Cagney and Lacey TV show, or Van Wormer impersonates Mama Cass in the middle of a bad drug trip from which the other characters have to talk her down, they managed the difficult feat of sounding like Britishers trying to sound like Americans surprisingly well.

Harvey’s script is peppered with British slang terms, some of which (like “git,” meaning “idiot” — as in Sandra’s line to Leah, “You can’t devote yourself to a dead, fat American git all your life”) are familiar to anyone who’s seen a Beatles’ movie or enough Monty Python episodes, while others had to be defined in a glossary in the program. (One entry is for “spotted dick,” which is actually a food — a dessert made of steamed sponge cake and raisins — though a typo in the program leaves out the word “cake” and will probably have a few theatergoers scratching their foreheads.)

Beautiful Thing has its faults, notably in the unbelievable speed with which Jamie and Ste mature from adolescents tentatively exploring each other’s bodies to fully identified and committed Gay men. The idea of 15-year-olds merrily breezing their way into a Gay bar without having to worry about ID’s seemed a little strange — don’t they have limits on how old you have to be to go to a bar in Britain? David Weiner’s set design is effective when it shows us the exteriors of the row houses, less so when Jamie’s bed pops out of the wall like a jack-in-the-box and Barrs has to rub a spot on the brick wall behind him to pantomime turning out the light in his bedroom. The rest of Diversionary’s physical production is solid — this isn’t a company that just buys a few pieces from thrift stores and asks us to believe it’s lived-in furniture and clothing — and the technical side is all it should be.

Overall, Beautiful Thing is a solid, unpretentious piece of Queer-themed entertainment, believably scripted and beautifully staged in Diversionary’s production. It’s not being offered as something that will change your life or remake the world as far as its treatment of Queer people is concerned, but it’s genuinely heartwarming and funny in a nervous, edgy sort of way. This is Diversionary’s 20th anniversary season — and they’ve picked this production for a church-like collection-plate passing at the start of the second act of every performance — but their recipe for success, (mostly) good scripts sensitively and intelligently produced, makes their continued existence, and whatever you can contribute to it, well worthwhile.

Beautiful Thing plays at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, through Sunday, February 5. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $27 ($23 for students, seniors and military). For reservations or more information, please call (619) 220-0097 or visit
“Osama Bin Laden in His Own Words”
Randall Hamud Promotes His Book, Discusses “War on Terror”

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

“You defeat an enemy by knowing and understanding him.” At the First Unitarian-Universalist Church January 11, attorney Randall Hamud offered that quote from Chinese military historian and philosopher Sun Tzu to explain why he had published a book called Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words. According to Hamud, the Bush administration has not only ignored the actual public statements bin Laden has made to explain why he sponsored the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., it got dangerously sidetracked by its attack on Iraq. “Osama bin Laden is so rarely mentioned by the Bush administration or the media, I call him ‘Osama bin Forgotten,’” Hamud said.

Hamud went on to argue that the U.S.’s military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — plus its down-the-line support for the unilateral actions of Ariel Sharon’s government in Israel to “settle” the Israeli-Palestinian issue on Israel’s terms — have not only ignored bin Laden’s central role in anti-U.S. terrorism but have actually played into his hands. “The ‘war on terrorism’ got off to a bad start when, on September 16, 2001, Bush referred to it as a ‘crusade,’” Hamud explained — and the Muslim world heard the word “crusade” as an attack by Christians and Jews in coalition, which to a lot of ordinary Arabs and Muslims just reinforced bin Laden’s contention that the U.S. and Israel together are “one of the great contagions in the Middle East.”

Ironically, Hamud said, Osama bin Laden didn’t start out targeting the United States. In fact, his relatives and the construction company his family founded were among the biggest beneficiaries from U.S. and Western European involvement in their home country, Saudi Arabia. “The bin Laden family are the largest contractors and best friends of the Saudi royal family,” Hamud explained. “Osama bin Laden was involved in the construction company in his early years” — where, he sardonically added, he learned not only how to put up buildings (including most of the installations built by Western oil companies to run their operations in Saudi Arabia) but also how to bring them down.

As bin Laden grew older, Hamud explained, “he foreswore his wealth and became more religious.” He also started to read the works of Islamic political writers like Al-Azzam and Sayyid Qutb, who in the aftermath of World War I — particularly the collapse of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the colonization of the Middle East by Christian European countries — called for a Muslim response that would include revolutionary violence against the leaders of Muslim countries. One obstacle to this strategy was the teaching of the Quran that Muslims must not kill fellow Muslims — but Azzam and Qutb worked their way around this by saying that if a government wasn’t following correct Islamic principles, it could be declared “apostate” and then it was O.K. for Muslims to overthrow it and kill its leaders.

Ironically, bin Laden’s commitment to revolutionary violence at first put him on the same side as the United States in the war in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, Hamud explained. Bin Laden and Azzam went to Afghanistan in 1979 to organize a resistance movement, the mujahedin (“freedom fighters”), against the existing Soviet-dominated secularist government. The CIA got involved and the U.S. and Saudi governments each put $600 million into bin Laden’s Islamic revolution, Hamud explained. “Islamic fighters were recruited from all over the world,” he said. “Saudi Arabia funded madrasas [religious schools] on the Afghan/Pakistan border and taught the conservative, fundamentalist Wahabi version of Islam, which believes in the use of force.” As a result of the Afghan revolution — which ended with the fall of the Soviet-backed government and the murder of its officials — Osama bin Laden became a rising star in Saudi Arabia and Prince Turkai, an influential member of the royal family and now Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., called bin Laden “our man in Afghanistan.”

All that changed in 1990, when bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia just before Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. “Bin Laden offered his forces to defend Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi regime rejected his offer and instead accepted help from the U.S.,” Hamud explained. The U.S. set up military bases in Saudi Arabia from which to launch the first Gulf War in 1991 — and, to bin Laden’s horror, kept them there after the war ended. “By 1991, bin Laden was exponentially angry that U.S. and coalition forces were occupying land in the country where Islam’s two holiest shrines [the cities of Mecca and Medina] are,” Hamud said. Bin Laden called the U.S.’s continued military presence in Saudi Arabia “a Crusader plot,” and the Saudis responded by stripping bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship and expelling him from the country. Bin Laden wrote a blistering letter to Saudi King Fahd, who “suffered a debilitating stroke after he read it,” Hamud said — implying cause and effect — and was incapacitated for the remaining 30 years of his life.

“By 1996, Osama bin Laden’s attention was more focused on the U.S. because of its support for the ‘apostate’ Saudi regime,” Hamud explained. “In 1996 he issued a declaration of war against America, targeting our forces in the Middle East. By 1998 his focus shifted and he issued a fatwa [religious decree] calling for the killing of Americans, civilian or military, wherever they were found. That was when the alarms should have gone off in Washington. The people in the U.S. who were the least surprised by 9/11 were the ones who were monitoring Osama bin Laden. I really believe 9/11 could have been prevented had we been more aware of who Osama bin Laden was and what he stood for.”

But Hamud’s criticism of the U.S. “war on terror” doesn’t stop with the failure to prevent 9/11. Even worse,he said, is the way the U.S. has responded to 9/11 by unwittingly playing into bin Laden’s hands. “He has discrete complaints that are shared across the Middle East and the Islamic world generally,” Hamud said. He argued that the West’s ongoing legacy to the Middle East was the post-World War I policy of establishing autocratic puppet states throughout the region. “Osama bin Laden gets a lot of traction when he attacks these autocratic regimes that don’t allow parties or elections,” Hamud argued. “He speaks more freely than the populaces of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya or Egypt are allowed to speak in those countries. He plays to that and says the U.S. has been supporting those regimes” — which is accurate: Saudi Arabia is kept alive mostly by U.S. and European payments for its oil, and Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (Israel is first and Colombia is third.)

According to Hamud, U.S. support of authoritarian governments in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt gives bin Laden the opening he needs to argue that the U.S.’s stated reason for invading Iraq (at least once it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction) — to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime and establish “democracy” — is hypocritical. “The U.S. supposedly wants ‘democracy’ in the Middle East, yet Bush congratulated [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak on the rigged elections he held recently, and embraced [Libyan dictator] Muhammad Khadafy after he gave up his nuclear program.”

Bin Laden was the right man with the right message at the right time in the Middle East, Hamud argued. “Osama bin Laden, who predicted a U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1995-1996, gets a lot of traction when he says the U.S. speaks out of both sides of its mouth,” he said. What’s more, he argues that just about any Muslim or Arab country that makes a transition from autocracy to “democracy” is going to elect an Islamist government — as has happened in Algeria and Turkey as well as Iran and Iraq — “because the governments have repressed all other centers of organizing except the mosques. The U.S. has to lose its phobic fear of Islamist governments and not assume they will be anti-democratic.”

Hamud also said that bin Laden wasn’t especially concerned about Israel — despite his pre-9/11 rhetoric lumping together “Crusaders and Jews” among his enemies — until George W. Bush became President in 2001 and “basically lost any sense of neutrality for the U.S. with regard to Israel and the Palestinians,” Hamud explained. “Bush basically sided with Sharon and let him impose unilateral solutions on the Palestinians, including building a barrier down the middle of Israel, taking 20 percent more Palestinian land, cutting people off from their families and keeping East Jerusalem from becoming a Palestinian capital. This is not a recipe for peace. Neither is turning Gaza into the world’s largest prison or building Bantustans in the West Bank. Bin Laden continues to get traction because of Bush’s support for Sharon’s activities.”

But of all the U.S.’s mistakes in prosecuting the “war on terror,” the attack on Iraq was “probably the most inexcusable failure to neutralize Osama bin Laden,” Hamud said. “The U.S. invaded iraq by choice, and when the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down the Islamic world saw it as a Christian army taking down the seat of the [former] Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad. This morphed the ‘war on terrorism’ into a war of religions. … The war gave tremendous traction to Osama bin Laden’s message: a Christian country invaded a Muslim country that was not a strategic threat.”

What’s more, Hamud said, the Bush administration makes the “war on terrorism” look more like a holy war against Islam with each new justification it comes up with for invading Iraq. The latest rationale, he explained, is “to prevent the establishment of a new Caliphate from Spain to the Pacific Coast. Number one’ it’s up to Islam whether or not to re-establish the Caliphate. Number two, the Caliph had only secular authority, not religious authority. Number three, a lot of Muslims think the Caliphate should be re-established because it would have more authority than the discredited governments of the Middle East and the religious leaders associated with it could say, ‘Osama bin Laden is not a religious scholar and therefore has no authority to issue a fatwa.’ But Bush’s administration is religiously driven and Muslims all over the world see it as a new Crusade. There are 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world — and if only one percent of them follow Osama bin Laden, that’s a real problem.”

So how can the U.S. work itself out of the pickle it’s got into, where its policies seem only to add to bin Laden’s popular appeal? First, said Hamud, “we need to be a more fair arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians. A Palestinian state has to have control of its airspace, ingress and egress. In Iraq, we need to get out as soon as possible. They’re in a civil war and we are the catalyst. Iraqis are fighting as part of the insurgency and they’re also fighting each other, and the Bush administration is lying to the American people when they say things are going well. … We need to end our presence in Iraq immediately and let the U.N. put in a peacekeeping force. If we get out and let the Iraqis develop their own government their own way, we’d do a lot to undercut Osama bin Laden.” If we withdrew from Iraq, he added, “we could redirect all the soldiers in Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistan border” where bin Laden is probably located now, and stand a far better chance than we do now of apprehending him.

One of Hamud’s more radical suggestions is that we “call Osama bin Laden’s bluff” on the matter of responsibility for 9/11. Bin Laden has said on several occasions that he would be willing to be judged by a court of Muslim judges applying the Shari’a, Islamic law. Hamud said the U.S. should call for just such a court to try him. What’s more, Hamud added, such a court would have the power to impose the death penalty — and an Osama bin Laden formally tried, found guilty and executed by Muslim clerics of murdering 3,000 people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 would cast a far weaker shadow over the Muslim world than a bin Laden captured or killed by U.S. forces. “It would discredit him, rather than turn him into a martyr,” Hamud explained.

Hamud’s book, Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words, consists of 20 of bin Laden’s public statements from 1994 to 2004, along with summaries, a preface, extensive footnotes to put bin Laden’s words in context and explain some of his historical references (familiar to his intended Arab and Muslim audiences but almost totally unknown to Americans). Since Hamud’s command of Arabic isn’t anywhere near what would be required for the project, he enlisted various scholars he knows and agreed to keep them anonymous because, though they live in the U.S., they have families in their Middle Eastern countries of origin and frequently fly back and forth to visit them. “It’s not a book you should be seen with anywhere around an airport,” he grimly joked.