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For an UPDATE on this issue, scroll down to the section heading that reads UPDATE: September 9, 2010.

After an extended summer break, I’ve returned to the blogosphere with a story that has been burning up the airwaves … or whatever passes for them anymore. Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, has fallen into the media spotlight with his ultra-controversial plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 (and for the uninitiated, the Koran is Islam’s holy text, equivalent to Christianity’s Bible). This bonfire is set to take place on the grounds of his church, the Dove World Outreach Center, and he has encouraged the participation not only of his congregation but of any and all Christian persons. Now, this has raised two main issues: 1) does he have the right to burn a holy scripture, and 2) should it receive media coverage.

I say “yes” on both counts. First, the Amendments to the United States Constitution (the Bill of Rights) clearly allows the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That includes religions you don’t agree with, like radical factions that preach intolerance and sow the seeds of hate. Likewise, the freedom to express oneself should be recognized. If protestors can burn the flag and I can rally a group to burn, say, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology doctrine, then Jones should be allowed to burn Koran.
Second, I think this is a good topic for media coverage, when done properly, as it shows the ugly face of intolerance within our borders. Every nation and every religion has its extremists, its radicals, its zealots. I think it’s good to expose them for what they are, to publicize their inexcusable acts so that we can try to move forward, to progress away from narrow-minded bigotry and toward goals of common decency and respect.

Islam gets a lot of bad publicity but let’s not forget that Christianity has a long and sordid history of violence, prejudice, and intolerance despite the peaceful teachings of its prophet Jesus. Does that make every Christian violent, intolerant, prejudiced? Of course not. And not every Muslim is a terrorist. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. And I think Jones’s plan is completely reprehensible. What would he say to a group of Muslims burning Bibles and denouncing the Christian faith as evil? I dare say he wouldn’t care for it. I think he is, at best, a misguided fool and, more likely, a religious zealot with more mouth than brains. That this pageant of prejudice is set to occur on the nine-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy further illustrates his poor judgement. Instead of focusing on the people injured and killed, he wants to focus on those who perpetrated the attacks, a radical faction that preaches intolerance and sows the seeds of hate. Hmm, sounds familiar.

It’s obvious to me that Jones isn’t familiar with Islam. Nor am I, actually, but I’ve spoken with several Muslims and read part of the Koran (or Quran, as it’s often known) and not once was there mention of bombing people. It advocates spreading the word to others, of course, as religions generally do, but Islam is as peaceful a faith as Christianity. Perhaps moreso. At any rate, I think the best advice for Jones comes from the New Testament when Jesus says all the teachings of all the prophets boil down to two commandments: 1) love God. 2) love your fellow man. In taking those two things to heart, you cannot fail.

UPDATE: September 9, 2010
My local evening news reported that Pastor Jones has cancelled the Koran bonfire. I find that good news indeed. An ABC news article relates that the change in plans came after Jones spoke with Imam Abdel Rauf, the Muslim leader proposing a mosque and multi-faith religious center near Ground Zero in New York. They are due to meet Saturday, September 11th, in New York but Jones said the Imam has agreed to move the planned center elsewhere. The proposed mosque and cultural center has become a point of contention, with some saying a Muslim-based center should not be allowed so near the site of the Twin Tower tragedy. (Which I think is bollocks, but freedom of speech clearly allows them to say so.) Other sources do not agree that the Islamic center is being moved, and the ABC Evening News reported that the Imam had not yet even spoken with Jones. So we’ll have to wait for more information and clarification on that. But as long as there aren’t any organized book burnings this Saturday, I think it will be a step in the right direction.

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If you’ve watched the world news or read a bit online, you’ve probably seen something about the riots in Kyrgyzstan, a former USSR republic that borders China and just tried to oust its president. Protesting masses took to the streets demanding a change in government, the president fled, hundreds of police were summoned to quell the riots, and many people were hurt and killed. President Kurmanbek Bakiev maintains he is still in power. An interim government spawned by the riots and headed by Roza Otunbayeva also claims leadership and openly seeks Bakiev’s resignation. So, you’re up to speed on the basics. Now for the nitty gritty.

This is all about corruption and political malfeasance. A head of government makes some questionable appointments, arrests some influential people, utilty prices skyrocket, a populace feels cheated, and suddenly dozens of people are dead and hundreds are wounded. It’s an old story, but one we seemingly never learn from. I’ve done little research on the heart of the matter (this article seems a good place to start if you want to) but I did catch a Nightline spot which mentioned police firing into a crowd of protestors. Which is really why I’m posting about it. Because I find that disgusting.

I don’t really care what the government and or President Bakiev did. Yes, it was probably dirty, and almost certainly unfair to the Kyrgyz people … because that’s what governments are good at. But to allow, and even encourage, armed enforcers to use live ammunition on an unarmed population is inexcusable.

And I’m not talking handguns, or sharpshooters taking out the small number of protestors armed with weapons taken from other guards/police/etc. Witnesses describe them as automatic sub-machine guns, and video clips show them firing full-tilt in the direction of protestors. A government that will permit such an excessive use of force on its people cannot be endorsed with any moral conscience whatsoever. With various non-lethal choices available, there is no reasonable explanation for such an action.

An ABC News article reports that initial protests in the capitol city of Bishkek were met with just that sort of non-lethal force: rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, concussion grenades. But the attempts to break up the crowds were not focused and angry protestors fought back with rocks, sticks, and sheer numbers. They overpowered some policemen and took their weapons, even their vehicles at times. When they congregated at the government headquarters known as the White House (no, that’s not a typo), things turned ugly.

The ABC article does not discuss why the police didn’t concentrate their efforts on the White House to begin with. It seems logical to me, especially with a demonstration in the western city of Talas the day before where protestors entered a government building and took control, purportedly holding a governor hostage. With a clear voice, the opposition was calling for the president’s resignation, so it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later the protests would center on the White House. It would not be difficult to encircle the building with police and keep non-lethal weaponry at the ready.

Whatever the reasoning, police forces were scattered ineffectually around the city as protests became riotous and protestors grew violent. An armored vehicle, seized by protestors, threatened to ram the gates of the White House. Six men in the crowd reportedly fired shots into the air as the people decried the government. Then a group of police opened fire on the crowd.

It wasn’t clear if these police were stationed at the government building or pushing into the protestors from another direction, and to the dozens killed I doubt it matters. It also wasn’t clear why no effort was made to disperse the crowd using non-lethal means. That group of police purportedly numbered 200, were classified as “elite,” and yet never sent so much as a single canister of tear gas into the protestors before they “began firing, pushing the crowd back.” In retaliation and further protest, a government office was set on fire and several others damaged.

Protests and demonstrations in other cities deposed local heads of government. Media outlets were overtaken to spread the word of protest and opposition. And so the president fled. An interim governing body was assembled. Protestors calmed and divided. And the country – the world – waits for resolution.

I applaud the Kyrgyzstani people in standing up to what they believe is an unjust and corrupt government. I admire their determination and resolute push to see change. I hope the resolution is fair and sets the nation on a road with less upheaval and more freedom and justice. And I hope the United States stays out of it.

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The American Cancer Society estimates there were a total of 254,650 new diagnoses of breast cancer in 2009 (actual records are only available until 2005; newer information has not been compiled). As a member of the female population, I am very aware of these numbers. Television commercials, full-page magazine ads, and a virtual who’s who of celebrity sponsors make it hard not to be. Everywhere I look is the ACS “pink warning,” in ribbons, scarves, posters, bumper stickers, etc., trying to “raise awareness” about breast cancer. (Personally, I’m wondering what rock a person could be living under to not be aware.) And, as usual, I felt the need to question the authorities that be and look into these numbers more closely.

First off, let’s take that number of expected new diagnoses – 254,650 – for the 2009 calendar year and compare it to the female population of 2009: 154,000,000 (roughly, estimated from Census Bureau population charts). So with no more than a pocket calculator, I can conclude that, in 2009, any given female’s chance of being found to have breast cancer was essentially 0.00165%. There are other factors, of course, especially age and family history, but this wasn’t exactly the death sentence I was expecting. From all the media hype and social awareness I had expected much higher numbers. But 0.00165%? That means you’d have to get 1,000,000 women together to find 17 with new breast cancers (and that’s rounding up). That means if the entire metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee, were female, less than twenty would have been diagnosed with breast cancer during the year. I’m as likely to be killed in a freak accident involving jalapeno poppers and a road grader. Okay, maybe not, but it’s still pretty remote.

Now before anyone gets their bra in a bunch, I understand that it should not be dismissed. Like any disease, I think it should be kept in the back of your mind and those more likely to be affected (women over 45, smokers, of African heritage, or with family history of breast cancer) should take whatever steps they feel are necessary to protect or treat themselves. Breast cancer contributes to some 40,000 deaths each year; that cannot be ignored. Period. But I don’t believe it’s the plague it is played up to be. For instance, according to the National Safety Council, women under age 45 are more likely to die of accidental poisoning than to develop breast cancer.

So – to continue poking around these ACS estimates – women under 45 were expected to comprise only 25,100 of the new diagnoses. Which drops the chances to a whopping 0.00027%. Did you catch that extra zero in there? Now scrounging up 27 new diagnoses would require 10,000,000 women. That’s only slighty less than the entire Paris metropolitan complex … or the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix combined. And this is supposed to be a major concern? I’m more likely to be shot; to drown in a swimming pool; to die in a plane crash or from heatstroke; or even to suffocate in bed (according to the National Safety Council). I don’t see a lot of warnings about the dangers of bed-clothes. But maybe Martha Stewart has more up her sleeve than white sales and stock tips, eh?

The American Cancer Society’s own documents state, “95% of new cases and 97% of breast cancer deaths occurred in women aged 40 and older.” In fact, most breast cancers occur in women 70 and older, when chances of being diagnosed “skyrocket” to 0.016%. And one last percentage to throw at you … taken as a whole, over an entire lifetime, the average woman has a 0.125% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

So why the media frenzy? Why the pink and celebrity sponsors and full-page ads? Why are they worrying college students and the MTV generation about something that really begins to pose a threat only at retirement age?

I don’t know, but it has provoked me to look into other concerns and do some digging. Consider this post the first of a series exploring medical concerns. And remember to take media “warnings” with a grain of salt.

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As you probably heard, Michael Jackson died yesterday. The proclaimed “King of Pop” suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived. Flowers and memorials crowd the Hollywood Walk of Fame near his star and headlines around the world pay him tribute.

But why all the fuss? I liked Thriller, too, but let’s face it, Michael Jackson was a mess. The biggest surprise, for me, was that he didn’t die on an operating table getting yet another cosmetic surgery of some kind. For the last decade or so he’s looked like death warmed over and, I don’t care what his fans say, there was something inherently wrong with him.

I never wished him harm, and certainly never wished him dead, but I honestly don’t think it’s that great of a loss. He recorded some good songs and… Well that’s really all I can come up with on the “pro” side of things. As for the “con” side, well, that’s a little easier, isn’t it? He was so emotionally and psychologically unstable that he bleached his skin, had numerous cosmetic surgeries on his lips and face, and changed his nose more than a Mr. Potato Head toy. He was implicated in molestation cases, endangered his own son by dangling him over a balcony railing, and perhaps worst of all, married Lisa Marie Presley.

If not for his singing career, if he were just a “normal” man wandering the streets of say Topeka, Kansas, he would likely have been institutionalized. I’m sure a lot of people called him a freak, a pedophile, maybe even an abomination … but whatever your thoughts, it is clear that he had serious issues. And it was perhaps his very stardom that kept him from getting the medical treatment he needed. He was too accepted, too revered, his sometimes grotesque eccentricities too quickly disregarded. The news reported that Michael Jackson had recently passed a thorough physical in preparation for his planned tour, but when was the last time he passed a thorough rundown with an objective psychiatrist? When did he last speak with a psychologist or therapist who wasn’t star-struck or paid to not make waves? Never, I would venture. I don’t think he could have spoken truthfully to any decent medical professional in the last thirty years and not been hospitalized or committed.

And now he’s dead. His heart stopped. And, you know, it’s probably better for him that the CPR didn’t work, that the hospital couldn’t revive him. He’s been killing himself for years anyway. If anything, it’s probably overdue. But maybe wherever he ends up will finally satisfy him, comfort him, and he’ll find peace without screaming crowds and flashing cameras.

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The media splashes violent scenes of people being beaten and a young woman dying in the street and calls it news. It’s sensationalism, but I suppose that’s what it takes to get our attention any more. If you’ve watched a news program at all in the last week or so you’ve probably seen some of it: foreign crowds with strips of green cloth tied around their wrists, wearing green shirts and masks and headbands, green paint or dye on their hands, fingers held up in an almost painfully ironic symbol of peace and victory. Of course, we know that neither peace nor victory has found either side of the conflict. And instead of green, a growing number of people are wearing red.


Photos credits, left to right, top to bottom: Getty, urbanministry.org, AP; Getty, Donald Douglas.

I don’t know what to think of the situation in Iran. I do think the election was, at best, mishandled … but it’s a messy affair. And no one in authority seems willing to recount the votes, investigate the cases of blatant fraud, or otherwise try to resolve the issue through acceptable procedural means. Instead, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is backing up the election results, denouncing protesters, and threatening action against anyone speaking out against the government. Equally problematic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is digging in his heels, insisting he was re-elected fair and square, and trying to break up protest after protest with public announcements and brute force. A lot of brute force. Thankfully, serious bloodshed has been limited so far. Though I doubt that comforts the families and loved ones of the dozens who have been killed. And if the protests continue, I think it’s clear there will be a great deal more bloodshed.

The scenes filling Twitter and Flickr and Tehran Live are both inspiring and heartbreaking. And I am torn between wanting to grab a green flag to join in and just turning my back to walk away. The Idealist vs. The Pragmatist. But in a country that already hates the US, in a region that all but despises the US, I can’t help but think that getting involved would be a mistake. I hate to say that but it’s what I honestly think. A lot of people in Iran are getting mistreated (and not just since the election) but the same could be said of dozens of countries which we have also not helped. In truth, the same could be said of our own country, if not to the same extremes.

I find the violence disgusting, aimed at unarmed people doing something US citizens have (theoretically) had the right to do for well over 200 years. But a country in upheaval will always experience violence and henceforth bear that scar. It is both unfortunate and unavoidable. And who is to say the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi would be any better? (Who is to say he is still alive, having disappeared some days ago…) Politicians the world over are notoriously dishonest, corrupt, and easily swayed by money and power. In any case, I fear US intervention would only cause more problems. Iraq has been a rather pathetic endeavor (I fully support the troops; I do not support the politicians behind the war) and Afghanistan is hardly better. With North Korea starting to test the waters across the Pacific and a US economic/financial implosion underway, I can’t think of anything less reasonable than an intervention.

For once, Barack Obama and I agree.

But I hope beyond hope that the Iranians get what they want and need and deserve as a good but mistreated people. I hope we all do.

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