Friday, April 29, 2011

On what day did God create tornadoes?

"We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen ..."
—The Nicene Creed

Why did God ever create tornadoes? That has to be on the minds of millions of people who have witnessed, even vicariously, the destruction left across Alabama and much of the South by this weeks' killer tornadoes. More than 200 people died senselessly as air masses collided into a roiling, rotating, whirling wind that hit puny man-made structures and towering trees with a power that seems unimaginably evil but that is, in fact, natural. America's heartland is where tornadoes are born, where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with cold, dry air from Canada, and the concentrated power of gentle winds unleash a destruction that rivals the combined power of the world's military arsenals. It is a scientific phenomenon that we have learned to study and predict. Heartbreaking images and the awful facts of shattered lives are scattered behind these fast-moving funnels of destruction, leaving survivors and distant observers to wonder why.

If we believe, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, that God is, indeed, the creator of all things, visible and invisible, good and bad, then these deadly tornadoes were, like us, the creations of God. And though we might wonder why God ever created an evil person, the creation of such a destructive weather phenomenon seems among the most unfathomable of mysteries. The problem of evil has vexed theologians for ages. How can a loving God allow such tragedy and such evil to exist, even in an imperfect and sin-scarred world? This week, especially, as we see the images of the arbitrary destruction of powerful tornadoes that scrape away everything along their paths while leaving nearby structures unscathed, the creation of such destructive and tragic phenomena seem more like the work of whimsical Norse or Pagan gods than of the loving Judeo-Christian God.

As in any tragedy, it would be wrong and theologically flawed in the wake of these deadly storms to say, "It's God's will." The loving God of Scripture, willing to sacrifice his Son for the salvation of mankind, does not choose tragedy over life or grief over happiness. But even this understanding does not settle the question of why God created a world in which tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning and earthquakes shatter the lives of the people He loves.

I find some reassurance in the experience of the prophet Elijah, who stood at the mouth of a cave and witnessed the presence of God, not in the whirlwind but in a soft whisper:

"Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave."
—I Kings 19:11-13.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More tornadoes, more destruction

On April 16, North Carolina caught the onslaught of the worst series of tornadoes this state has see at least since 1984. Wilson was in the path of at least one tornado, which skipped along a northeasterly route destroying whole buildings, tossing vehicles like matchsticks and toppling dozens of trees. Other areas of North Carolina saw even worse destruction and a total of 22 deaths statewide.

Just as we are recovering from that storm, with trees and debris removed from roadsides and tarps stretched across damaged roofs, we learn of an even more destructive series of tornadoes that ripped apart portions of Alabama and other states. Anyone who has lived through a tornado has terrifying stories to tell. Since 1996, when I lay in bed as Hurricane Fran roared overhead through the September night, I have listened more acutely to the sounds of the wind and watched more closely the color of the sky. Nature's destructive force is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. The post-disaster comment that "it looks like a war zone" is more of a commentary on the power of modern weaponry than a measurement of nature's power. Wartime bombardment photos and the aftermath of a tornado do have similarities, but nature's destructive force is often more widespread and unpredictable than any one conventional bomb.

Tornadoes seem to be occurring more frequently but probably are only getting more attention from the 24-hour news cycles and instantaneous communications of today. But whenever the wind blows and the sky darkens, I — and millions of others — will feel the unease in our gut.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Supply and demand drive oil prices

Like other presidents before him, Barack Obama has criticized rising gasoline prices and has called for an investigation into possible price fixing and manipulation. Like other presidents, however, he has little to go on. The Justice Department will look into gasoline prices, which are now pushing $4 a gallon nationwide, for any evidence of conspiracy or fraud. It is not likely to find much evidence.

Obama's announcement might make good politics and might defer some criticism of his administration, but it makes little economic sense. High gasoline prices are the result of high crude oil prices, which are soaring as the result of two primary factors: the decline of the dollar and unrest in oil-producing countries in the Middle East. Markets are uneasy over volatile situations in Libya and other oil-rich countries. Uncertainty breeds price spikes. Add to these factors the increasing demand as the world recovers from recession, the emergence of higher energy demands in developing countries and the onset of the vacation season in the United States, which always increases demand for gasoline.

The price of any object is the result of supply and demand. The market price is that amount which a willing seller and a willing buyer agree upon. In times of shortages or increasing demand, buyers are willing to pay more, and sellers are motivated to demand more. That, rather some nefarious conspiracy, is why gasoline prices are spiking.

Obama has few choices when it comes to moderating gasoline prices. He could release oil from the government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but that would have minimal impact and might jeopardize the U.S. oil security the SPR was designed to protect. He might take some actions to strengthen the dollar, such as reducing the federal deficit, and he could try to increase domestic production through tax incentives or eased environmental rules. But the results of these actions would be slow in coming and might not amount to a lot. Settling the volatility in the Middle East, something that is likely beyond the ability of the United States to achieve, would do more and more quickly than any domestic policy shift.

It seems likely that gasoline will climb past the $4 barrier and frighten American consumers out of buying so much or driving so much. Those decisions should reduce demand for gasoline and, eventually, lower the price of gasoline. Obama can only hope that this moderation comes well before he faces voters again in 2012.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Six-word memoirs can say a lot

I heard an NPR story recently about the fad of "Six-Word Memoirs," which has attracted interest from some celebrities as well as ordinary folks. The concept reputedly comes from Ernest Hemingway's boast that he could write a novel in only six words. Hemingway's six-word novel: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." The memoirs or epigrams have been compared to epitaphs, as some of them sum up a lifetime, such as "Three wives. Three children. Happy life" or "Got a bachelor's. Still making $8.75."

As I listened to the NPR report while driving home, I began writing six-word memoirs in my mind. I came up with a few:

"Met girl. Found wife. Got Nana."

"Three children. Six grandchildren. My legacy."

"Grow old along with me. Done."

"Writer, editor 33 years. Laid off."

"Forty years together. Better and better."

"Mother died. Daddy followed. I'm orphaned."

"Life is better than I deserve."

"Having family all together. Joyous happiness."

Try it yourself. Might like it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tar Heels found a winner in 1971

When Woody Durham took over as play-by-play announcer for the Tar Heel Sports Network 40 years ago, I was skeptical. Durham announced his retirement Wednesday.

Woody, who was just a few years older than I, was a tepid puddle compared to the roaring stream he was replacing, Bill Currie. Currie, who was sports anchor for WSOC-TV in Charlotte, reveled in his moniker as "Mouth of the South." He was the kind of guy who would say almost anything on the air and get away with it. Sometimes the action on the court moved faster than his tongue and mouth could follow, and he'd say, "You shoulda seen it!" In those days, few games were televised, so UNC fans had to rely on radio broadcasts to keep up. Currie was colorful. "He just faked him right out of his athletic undergarment," he'd say. Currie was a personality, and my friends and I would listen to games partly just to hear what outlandish thing Currie might say next.

When Currie left for fabled KDKA in Pittsburgh, Woody, then the sports director at a Greensboro television station, got the job. Durham was the antithesis of Bill Currie, and I wasn't sure at first that it was a good trade. Woody approached the job differently from Currie. Where Currie wanted to entertain and be the center of attention, Durham wanted to disappear into game action. He always seemed to have his background information at his fingertips and could do a credible job of keeping pace with the action on the court. He was as sophisticated as Currie was outlandish. And although I tired of hearing all the plugs for commercial sponsors that he worked into his game commentary, I thought Durham did as good a job as any team-affiliated announcer in staying objective and giving the other team, its coaches and its star players their due.

After 40 years of listening to Woody Durham, I'll miss him, and I'll admit I was wrong. Though he's not as funny or as outlandish as the Mouth of the South was, Woody has been more professional and more descriptive, all that you can expect from a game announcer.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tornadoes are another twist of fate

"I can replace my house, but I can't replace my babies."
—Bertie County tornado victim

Wilson and much of North Carolina has begun recovering from a cluster of tornadoes that killed 22 state residents Saturday, the deadliest storms to hit the state since 1984. Most of us, like the Bertie County resident quoted above, feel fortunate to be spared death or serious injury. The deadly winds hopscotched arbitrarily across neighborhoods and streets, ripping one house to shreds while sparing the one next door. Incidents such as these leave us seeking some rational explanation — Why was I spared but my neighbor wasn't? — when there is no rational explanation. It is the same quandary we face after an automobile accident — "If only she had left two minutes earlier or later ..." — or a fatal disease diagnosis — "Why me, Lord?" Some take comfort in blaming God — "It's God's will!" — but this explanation turns a God of love into a God of evil. No loving God prefers such suffering for his creation.

There is no explanation. Things happen. A simple misstep can prove fatal. A tornado can strike one home and not another. We want to "seize the day," but sometimes the day seizes us, and there is no reason and no escape. The only comfort is knowing that even in tragedy God's love prevails.

Saturday's tornadoes were quite different in one way from the 1984 tornadoes that killed dozens, including some in Greene County: These tornadoes have been chronicled in online postings of pictures and video. In 1984, when I sent a reporter to Snow Hill to report on the tornado damage, there were no cell phones, digital photos or hand-held video cameras. Our reporter was out of touch for hours until she finally found a working pay phone and called in her report, which had to be read over the phone and painstakingly transcribed. Photos would have to wait for another day when film could be processed in the darkroom. Saturday night and Sunday, I looked at scores of pictures online and several videos showing a tornado bearing down on Wilson. One effect of this change is that people who have been spared the destruction feel more closely connected to it. Perhaps that connection will help as we try to recover from these storms with their online presence.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"April, come she will ..."

Several years ago, I wrote a column rebutting T.S. Elliott's line about April being the cruelest month. After a long day of working in the yard, I sat on the deck and looked out at the newly greening lawn, the bright azalea blooms and the neat white dogwood blossoms, and I could find nothing cruel in my view, nothing to complain about. Life seemed about as good as it gets.

Now it's April again, and the azaleas glory in the sunlight filtering through the trees. The early morning sun shines in beams between the fence pickets and between the tree trunks, spotlighting the fresh, colorful blossoms. Neighbors' lawns have turned bright green, shimmering like a thick, flat emerald and highlighting the colorful blossoms all around.

After the long, ceaseless grays of winter, when we shivered against the wind and sought refuge indoors, the outdoors beckons, the colors lift our spirits, and the warmth gives us comfort. April in all its glory has quietly retaken the world from the forces of dark and gray. It is spring again, and the world stirs with hope and promise.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

150 years ago today ...

On this day 150 years ago, the Civil War officially began. Over the next four years, the war would kill more than 600,000 Americans, destroy the wealth and economy of the Southern states, free the African-American slaves, sow bitterness on both sides and empower the federal government as the pre-eminent political power in this union of sovereign states. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of this war, which is a source of intense fascination by history buffs and others, debates about the origins of the war will rage on, as they have for 150 years.

The secession movement was about slavery, but it was also about economic policy. It was also about interpretation of the Constitution and the perceptions of the not-so-long departed Founding Fathers. The Constitution does not forbid secession, and it hints that "these United States" comprise a voluntary alliance. But the secessionists were determined to "cut off their nose to spite their face." Secession might not have been an act of treason, but it was was an act of foolhardiness — with tragic consequences. At the end of the war, the South was laid waste by a military policy and a personal bitterness that was unprecedented. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was torched from one end to the other. Gen. William T. Sherman's destructive path through the South was so cruel and complete that generations of Southern mothers threatened misbehaving children with the omen of Sherman. Although slavery was the spark that ignited the war, most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves and had no stake in the economic system that left many of them with little more economic power than slaves. My great-great-grandfather,
who died at Third Winchester on Sept. 18, 1864, had worn U.S. blue in the War with Mexico. He owned no slaves and no real estate. He was tenant farmer with five children. His widow would sign an application for a Confederate widow's pension with her "X."

The Civil War was a tragic failure of a young and fast-growing nation's political system. A political compromise of almost any description would have been preferable to the four years of unmitigated tragedy that ensued. Whom to blame? Surely, the hot-heads of South Carolina who lit the fuse in Charleston Harbor on this day in 1861 deserve a large share of the blame. The staunch abolitionists who sought immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all slaves failed to understand the investment Southern agriculture had in slave labor. Surely the moderates of both sides should have been more assertive in seeking a middle path.

I, too, am infinitely fascinated by the Civil War, sometimes described as the first modern war with its introduction of ironclad naval vessels, a submarine, repeating rifles and trench defenses. I have stood in awe on many of the battlefields and marveled at the bravery of men with no real stake in the political issues of the war who obediently met their deaths. The Civil War is worth remembering, worth commemorating and worth learning from. Moderation and compromise can avoid the tragedies of extremism.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Government shutdown looms again

In less than 18 hours, as I write this, the federal government is expected to go into partial shutdown. The reason: Congress has not passed a budget for the 2011 fiscal year (that's the one we're now halfway through), and the interim spending resolution is expiring. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for the impasse, and it appears that a budgetary dispute will lead to a governmental closure for the first time since the Clinton-Gingrich game of chicken in the 1990s.

The thing to remember about this impasse is that it is not about next year's budget. This dispute is over the current fiscal year budget, which began Oct. 1, 2010. This budget should have been passed last summer and should have been in place before Oct. 1. Once this cat fight is out of the way, which it surely will be sooner or later, Congress faces the much more daunting task of passing the budget for FY2012, which begins Oct. 1.

Passing a budget, one can argue, is the primary, fundamental duty of Congress. But Congress has consistently failed to pass budgets on time. Call it attention deficit disorder on a massive scale. Congress can't seem to concentrate on its primary mission — setting a spending plan for the federal government. This is not a new phenomenon. I was on the federal payroll (as a Coast Guard officer) when the federal government changed from a July-June fiscal year to an October-September fiscal year. That year, we worked with a 15-month fiscal year. The extra three months, we were told at the time, would give Congress the additional time it needed to pass a budget on time. Ha!

Last year, when the FY2011 budget should have been passed, Democrats in control of Congress didn't want to pass a budget that could become a political hot potato in the 2010 elections, so they let government slide through a continuing resolution. That strategy didn't work out too well in November. With Republicans now in charge of the House and holding more votes in the Senate, they are determined to use the overdue budget to win ideological points. The year-round campaigning and 24-hour news cycles (which must be fed with controversy day and night) have made any legislative agreement more difficult. But if Congress cannot agree on how to fund the last six months of this fiscal year, how will our representatives ever find common ground to steer a new fiscal course in 2012?

Both sides, it seems to me, would be better off yielding on FY 2011 and saving their energy for the FY2012 fight. Rep. Paul Ryan has already thrown down the gauntlet with a radically different FY2012 budget plan that would fundamentally change Medicare and Medicaid and sharply reduce federal spending. The fight over Ryan's plan and alternatives yet to be revealed will make tonight's threatened government shutdown seem inconsequential. There is a growing consensus that the federal deficit and debt are much too large and must be trimmed. The fight will be over where and how to cut spending and whether to include some tax increases (or sunsetting of tax cuts), as the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission had proposed, in the budgetary solution. The battle over Ryan's plan or some alternative to it could be the political fight of the decade. Both sides should stockpile some ammunition for that fight and not waste it all on today's interim measure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

There are other ways of looking at a blog

Here's a neat new feature on Blogger that my wife showed me. If you go to the URL of this blog's main page and type view after the .com/, you will discover some new ways of looking at this blog's 589 (and counting) entries.

At upper right you'll see a link that says "sidebar." Click on that, and you'll find a dropdown menu that allows you to see each blog post as a flipcard, with the headline or photo that flips, when you touch it, to reveal the date of the post. If you select "mosaic," you see a collage of all the blog posts. If you select "snapshot," you see a photo gallery of pictures from the blog (sorry, I don't post that many photographs). It's a different way of looking at the blog, and the casual reader might more easily find a topic that interests him.

Have at it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

What if we'd had talk radio and cable in 1961?

John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, but Kennedy had the advantage of not having to face the criticism and whining of talk radio and 24-hour cable news pundits. How would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck react to Kennedy's speech? I can only imagine.

You know, you really have to look deeply into this speech to catch some of the obscure meaning the new president has hidden in it. Just look at this — "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life ..." Can he be serious? Does he really think we can wipe out humanity? And as for poverty, he's apparently never heard that Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you." Is he expecting us to join hands with the commies and sing Kum-bay-ya while we give away our wealth to the stone-age tribes in the undeveloped world?

And look at this: He says he wants to "bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations." He can't be serious! Does he want America to ask the United Nations' permission to fight back if we come under attack by the Soviet Union? That's what he says right there in his speech! "All nations" are going to control how we wield our military power. You've got to remember, this is a guy who lost his PT boat in the Pacific, but instead of going down with the ship like a good skipper, he skedaddled to a nearby island to sit out the war. Anybody whose daddy wasn't a millionaire former ambassador would have been court-martialed, but he gets a medal. And 16 years later, he wants to ask for other nations' permission before fighting back! If we do what he says, we are no longer a sovereign nation. We might as well go back to 1776 and say, "Long live King George III"!

The new president says, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." Since when is it government's job to save anybody? A free society saves those who want to save themselves. It's a free market. It's competition. That's what has made this "free society" so great. But now he wants to ruin all that by declaring that we should "save" the poor. That's a contradiction, my friends. You can't be a "free society" and give special favors to one group. You do that, and it's no longer a free society.

Now here's the clincher, Kennedy wants us to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." He's got it exactly backwards. Thomas Jefferson had it right: Governments are "instituted among men" to serve their best interests, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." We made the government. It should serve us, not the other way around.

This new president has it exactly backwards. Now you say, he's young, the youngest man ever elected to the White House, but, friends, we don't have time for him to grow up and learn his way around, maybe read the Declaration of Independence for once. We've got to do something now to straighten out the mess he's created with his first presidential speech!

I'm old enough to remember watching Kennedy's inaugural address 50 years ago. I'm glad I got it straight up without the critiques.