Sunday, April 29, 2007

American Mercenaries

The word "mercenary" evokes unsavory images—first of individuals who care only about money—as much money as they can wheedle out of whatever job they perform, no matter how repulsive; second of hired guns—professional killers who do the lethal work of soldiering not out of patriotism or honor, but, again, for the greenbacks. No wonder, then, that the Bush Administration and its Pentagon have been so careful to describe the current incarnation of the type as "contractors." The implication then becomes: Iraq needs American know-how, and our 130,000 "contractors" are doing the necessary and dangerous work of nation-and-infrastructure building.

Trouble is, it’s all a sham, a cover story we wouldn’t know much about were it not for Jeremy Scahill’s recent book, Blackwater. Blackwater is a name familiar to many Americans, but again, with connotations of innocent Americans, "contractors," four of whom were viciously attacked, killed, mutilated, and strung up from a bridge in Fallujah. This outrage became an instant cause celebre, an act for which the whole city was righteously punished, destroyed by righteously vengeful American marines. Yea for our side! Only that Jeremy Scahill explains that the cruelty and disproportionality of that response really marked the beginning of the full-scale insurgency that has turned Iraq into a graveyard of American hopes. In doing so, he portrays a reality that most Americans would rather deny.

America is, after all, the good guy nation fielding not just a good guy military, but one so lean and efficient and high-tech that it can conquer an entire country with only 140,000 troops, all volunteers, not a draftee among them, hence no need for complainers, no need for big mouth, pampered, college-educated draft dodgers with pampered parents and friends to demonstrate against the good and just wars that must be fought.

Except that, once again, the "good boy lean mean military" sham fails. It fails because there’s Blackwater, Scahill tells us, one of more than 100 private "security forces" operating in Iraq. And these are decidedly not volunteers, or patriots. These are mercenaries—paid thugs, as many as 100,000 of them, who do the sensitive jobs the military either cannot or will not do. Guarding the VIPs who come to see Iraq’s progress themselves. Guarding, when he was our bumbling pro-Consul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. Guarding, even today, the Commanding General in charge of the surge, General Petraeus.

Wait? Is this a joke? The head of our vaunted military, the putatively most powerful military machine ever assembled, being guarded by private mercenaries?

That’s right. The land of the free, the land of the liberty-loving patriot willing to die for his country, the land distinguished by a military which is, because of its control by civilians and its corps of citizen-soldiers, the fairest and most intelligent and inventive armed force in the world—that land has become the land of the mercenary. Where once our revolutionary founders condemned the nations of Europe as despotisms headed by cruel monarchs who led their huddled masses into war and death for their own profit and glory, now our putative leaders betray that tradition by "privatizing" their vicious little wars for profit and glory. And they privatize for the same reasons monarchs once did: citizens soon grow sick of dying for the exclusive benefit of their rulers. Only by paying their troops can kings and emperors maintain their military machines. Hence the term, "mercenary." It was, and is a term of opprobrium, a term that conjures up images of cold-hearted killers engaging in slaughter purely for the money.

So we have Blackwater. An army for hire. An army of ex-special forces, green beret, navy seal rejects who now command salaries many times that of a poor volunteer in our all-volunteer army. And they have roamed free of oversight and accountability not only in Iraq, though that is their defining mission. They also showed up on the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, strutting their stuff as self-defined protectors of property allegedly endangered by the riff-raff rendered homeless and desperate. According to Scahill, these Blackwater guards were making $350 a day, while their blackguard company was picking up $950 a day from the United States Government for their services.

A nice little windfall for their founder and CEO, Erik Prince—as well as for George W. Bush, one of Prince’s major beneficiaries, along with the Christian Right’s Gary Bauer and James Dobson. All of which makes for a nice circular windfall. Because it’s not only that our American empire now hires mercenaries to bilk the public into thinking its military’s losses are less than they are, its footprint smaller than it is, its war expenses orders of magnitude less than they really are. It’s that the circle of nepotism and collusion and privatization and political payoffs runs deep into the heart of the entire crooked, putrefying enterprise. Including the fact, Mr. and Mrs. America, that this private mercenary army includes not just the profiteers siphoned from our own military, but also gangs of imported killers trained by our infamous allies in places like Colombia and Chile. Chile, which refused to participate in our disastrous venture into Iraq, but whose support is secured through the back door by the now-rejected military spawn of Disgusto Pinochet—all hired and cozy with Blackwater.

So beware. When a republic is transformed from a citizen army to an army of mercenaries—as Rome was late in the days of its rotting empire—the end is near.

PS: a late news story on Friday April 27 in the McClatchy newspapers reported that "House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Rep. David Price of North Carolina, both Democrats, asked the Government Accountability Office to provide details on the use of private security contractors in Iraq," this because Congress has literally no idea what these people are doing.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Like most people, my mind has been seized by the massacre at Virginia Tech this week. But rather than dwell on the insanity of America’s obsession with guns or the overwhelming percentage of the world’s gun murders that take place in the USA (over 80%, with America also accounting for 41 of 52 worldwide school shootings since 1996), I have been mulling over the notion of bullies. The killer at Virginia Tech armed himself with two automatic pistols and a legion of bullets, which overwhelming firepower enabled him to pick off 32 defenseless schoolmates trapped in classrooms or dorm rooms. And though he ranted and raved about his animus towards the rich and powerful, whom he blamed for "making me do this," he avoided attacking any authority figures. Rather, he targeted those who had no chance whatever to fight back. And when the police finally threatened to reach him, he shot himself to death rather than confront those who were comparably armed.

He was, in short, a coward and a bully (intensely resentful, apparently, of having been bullied himself). The two often go together. And the sad thing is that the nation in which he created his mayhem has often, in recent years, provided him with a model for such behavior. George W. Bush, the man who sets the tone for the nation as a whole, could hardly contain his eagerness to strike out at someone, anyone, in response to 9/11. First he sent American forces into Afghanistan, a beleaguered, impoverished nation with no air force and virtually no army. Within a matter of days, and with the help of warlords in the north of the country, American forces had overrun the country and ejected the ruling Taliban from power. This was not enough to satisfy Bush’s blood lust, however; another punching bag was needed. And so, in March of 2003, Bush unleashed the overwhelming power of America’s military—missiles, bombers, the whole panoply of satellite-directed munitions including tanks equipped with uranium-tipped shells—for a "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad.

What was seldom mentioned in all the commentary about this unprovoked invasion, was the condition of the nation Bush was flattening. First, at full strength Iraq is a nation of only 25 million people, a puny number when compared with the 300 million in the American behemoth opposing it. Second, thanks to 12 years of devastating American-instigated sanctions which deprived it of medicines, water-purifying equipment, and virtually all technology (not to mention the WMD which were alleged to be the reason the US had to "defend itself"), Iraq had been reduced from the most prosperous nation in the Middle East to a third-world basket case. Almost daily bombings in the so-called "no-fly zones" in the north and the south for a dozen years had crippled its minimal defenses even further.

These, then, are the two nations our macho leader decided to attack. And the conclusion cannot be avoided: rather than risk conflict with Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where most of the 9/11 hijackers originated, the United States focused its wrath on two of the poorest, most devastated nations in the world.

If such "kicking the wife or the family dog" could simply be attributed to the cowardice of George W. Bush and his "chicken-hawk" war team, one might come away with a general principle for American voters: don’t choose pusillanimous bullies (and draft dodgers) as Presidents. But a look at recent American foreign adventures shows that Bush’s behavior was but an extreme instance of a common pattern. Ronald Reagan, that great movie warrior, did much the same when he sent American forces to knock off the "powerful" nation of Grenada. And George H.W. Bush did something similar when he dispatched a powerful American force to nab our one-time ally in Panama, Manuel Noriega. Before that, of course, there was our decade-long devastation of Vietnam, and Cambodia; and still earlier, our invasion and long occupation of Korea; with, in between, our dismantling of nationalist governments in Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Bosnia, to name a few.

In each of these places, the bully principle holds: attack with modern armaments, making sure that the nation or people you attack are not equipped with even remotely comparable weaponry. Indeed, this is the principle behind our current threats towards Iran. The United States has by several orders of magnitude the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, besides being the only nation to ever employ such a weapon, having dropped two of them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, at the end of World War II. It has established alliances with most of the nations it has allowed to also develop nuclear weapons: England, France, Russia, China, and more recently India, Pakistan and, of course, Israel, the latter three having developed such weapons in violation of the U.S.-inspired Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, by contrast, signed on to that treaty, and so far has abided by its terms. Most estimates calculate that even if it were moving towards a weapon, it would be at least 5 and probably 10 years before it could construct one. And yet, Bush and his Israeli allies have evidently planned devastating strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities because…yes, because Iran cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted with nuclear weapons.

The reason is clear: the United States will not tolerate such a weapon in the hands of a potential adversary. Such a weapon, in the event of a conflict, would be too much of a threat, too much of a deterrent. Deterrent to what? A deterrent to the type of bullying that the United States insists on reserving to itself. This is always the case with bullies: nothing like equality of power can be permitted or even contemplated. The bully must always reserve to himself the overwhelming preponderance of force. Otherwise, some upstart might manage to land an injurious blow, and that could hurt. Nor is it coincidence that this principle has actually been articulated in the national security posture as announced by the Bush Administration, to wit, that American power must be increased to such overwhelming superiority, particularly in outer space, that no nation would be foolish enough to even think of challenging it, much less resisting its demands.

Nor is this to say that the United States stands alone in this posture. The sad fact is that every modern nation state takes the same stance, if not with regard to rival nations, then most decidedly with respect to its own population. Indeed, the state can be defined as that entity which arrogates to itself the sole right to employ violence. No civilian can take another’s life (unless that murder is sanctioned by war with an enemy). The state alone can take life, the state alone can exact revenge or impose punishment. And individuals who dare to transgress this most fundamental of laws are condemned as criminals, hunted down, and punished. Most humans agree to this social contract in exchange for the order and putative justice a state brings to human society. But increasingly, in modern times, the state has become the greatest threat to both individuals and to justice. Increasingly, the organized violence of the state is directed at its own population in the effort to control opposition to its injustices, in order to put down protest or rebellion by its long-suffering population. And the rule of the bully operates here even more dramatically: the state brings enormous and irresistible firepower to bear against essentially defenseless civilian populations.

In the same vein, modern wars are almost exclusively waged in our time by nations employing overwhelming weaponry against civilian populations. The attack on civilian populations, indeed, has become the most common tactic of modern warfare—all in the effort to so demoralize the enemy government that it will give up rather than sustain such damage to its people. This was the announced rationale behind the atomic bombings of Japan. It was the rationale behind the firebombing of German cities like Dresden as WWII neared its end. And it is the rationale behind Israel’s attacks on mostly unarmed Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as its recent depradations in Lebanon.

The lesson is obvious: bullying by gun-toting cowards has become the norm in our time. Should we, then, be surprised to see this pathology playing out in episodes like the one at Virginia Tech? Hardly. Nor, for that matter, should we permit ourselves to sanctimoniously condemn that insane behavior without examining our own part in what we have allowed to become, more than baseball, a national pastime.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

War Between the Sexes

Today’s news reported that the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, upheld the so-called "Partial Birth Abortion Law." Though anti-abortion advocates like to pretend that this law is meant to preserve "life," in fact, it and the decision just announced represent new attacks by male-dominated institutions (both the Supreme Court majority and the Congress that passed the law are male preserves) in the continuing war between the sexes.

"War" in this context may seem a bit old-fashioned, but consider some of the scientific evidence in Robert Sapolsky’s book, Monkeyluv. First, fruit flies exemplify one of the most extreme forms of this war, a war that turns on the knotty fact that the genetic interest of males in reproduction differs from that of females. Fruit flies, that is, mate serially and with multiple partners. This being the case, males have no interest in the well-being of the female fruit fly, except to get their genes passed on to her offspring. Thus, male fruit flies deposit their semen in the female, and fly off. This would be fine, except for the fact that the male fruit fly has a ruthless way of protecting his investment: his semen contains a component that is toxic to the sperm of any other fruit fly. So when another fruit fly tries to mate with the same female, its sperm is killed, allowing the first male’s sperm to bear fruit. Not a bad system if you’re male. The problem is that the toxic element in male semen is also eventually toxic to the female, and she will die from it. As Sapolsky wryly comments at his conclusion: "Caveat emptor, baby."

Of course, one might take comfort from the fact that insects are, thankfully, not mammals, except for the fact that mammals, specifically humans, have evolved a somewhat comparable system. It concerns the placenta. Scientists now understand that the placenta is only partly related to the mother, that, indeed, it can be seen as on some level "invading" her body like an octopus. It actually dispatches tentacles to the mother’s blood vessels so that they can divert nutrients from her body to her growing fetus. More than that, the placenta is described as the locus of a battle between paternal genes, driving it to invade more thoroughly, and maternal genes attempting to inhibit placental development. In fact, in abnormal cases where paternal genes are absent, female genes inhibit placental growth so much that the fetus cannot grow. Contrarily, where maternal genes are absent, the paternal genes create such exuberant growth that they result in a cancer called choriocarcinoma. The point here, again, is that males have an interest in a larger, healthier fetus, even at the expense of the mother, whereas females necessarily are keen to keep fetus size down, and their own bodies healthy.

It would seem, then, that women in our time should recognize that beneath the rhetoric and religious pretense, the abortion battle is simply another instance of the continuing genetic war between the sexes. Men—at least those in fundamentalist communities—can be seen as having an interest in continuing high rates of birth. Nations run by men have an interest in keeping the birth rate high, both to provide fodder for armies, and to keep replenishing the ranks of workers, consumers, and so on. Hence, the male-sponsored laws to outlaw or regulate abortion. Females, contrarily, seek to maintain control over their bodies, both to maintain bodily health, and to increase their life choices beyond the restrictive one of bearing children. Hence, the freer use of abortion as a method of control would be of greater moment to women.

Whether most members of the opposing sexes are aware of these biological battles taking place at the genetic level is not the issue. The issue is realizing that the battles are real, they are serious, and women, especially, need to become educated about the critical and life-threatening dynamics that are in play.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The President at "Work"

I have just started reading Bob Woodward’s State of Denial: Bush at War Part III. And though it’s far too early to make a definitive statement about either his account of the rush to war in Iraq, or of the Bush Administration overall, one thing is already clear: the theme throughout will be massive incompetence on the part of a President and an administration that simply had no idea what they were getting themselves or their country into when they invaded. Every attempt by professional military men to warn about the need for more troops or more detailed planning, every attempt by professional postwar officials to insist that the Baathists should be retained or that the Iraqi army should be used to maintain law and order and keep armed Sunnis from turning idleness into mayhem, every single such attempt was dismissed, derided, or simply ignored. The main concern throughout, it seems, was either public relations, the domestic political effect of military decisions, or an obsessive concern with putting "yes-men" in key positions to make sure no one disputed the ideological basis for every action.

Worse than this, however, is the feeling one gets from each scene in which the President himself plays a part. That feeling amounts to the horrified certainty that the man-boy playing the part of President of the United States, the alleged leader who controls the most destructive military force ever assembled, is a mental midget with zero reflective ability about the enormity of the task he is faced with, one who concerns himself, almost invariably, not with deep strategic or moral or political questions, but with frat-boy social trivia. One example should suffice.

In the runup to the war, on February 28, 2003, General Jay Garner, the man selected to lead the critical postwar restore-and-rebuild operation in Iraq, is invited to a White House meeting. It is clear from the start to Garner that the President has no idea who he is. Only when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld introduces him with high praise does the President finally nod. Then Garner passes around an 11-point presentation in which he lays out what he thinks are the basic needs he will have to address. He goes through everything, point by point, including the startling admission that his small team was not capable of dealing with at least four critical postwar tasks, including defeating terrorists, dismantling WMD (if ever found), and reconfiguring Iraqi security. No one asks a single question.

Then, as Garner is going into more details about his plan to divide the country into regional groups, the President finally interrupts, asking "Where are you from?" Garner tells him Florida. "Why do you talk like that?" the President persists, trying to place Garner’s accent. Garner admits he was born and raised on a ranch in Florida. "You’re in," says the President, apparently satisfied.

Garner goes on. He talks about using the Iraqi army, some 200,000 to 300,000 of them. Again, no questions, no challenges. He talks about wanting to internationalize the postwar effort. This is the only place Garner feels resistance, discomfort. But still, no questions, no challenges, so he has to figure it out himself: this is to be a U.S. operation exclusively; no outsiders needed. He ends by noting that he will be sending an advance group to the region in 10 days, with the rest to follow. No response, until the President says, "Thank you very much."
Garner can now tell his part in the meeting is done, so he begins to leave, but before he exits, the President catches his eye.

"Kick ass, Jay," Bush quips.

And that was it. From the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, no questions, no request for more specifics, no conceptual clarifications or musings about difficulty, or the challenges to be faced, nothing but "where are you from?" and "why do you talk like that?" and "Kick ass, Jay." Oh, and as Garner waited outside, and the others walked past him, one more quip from the President: "Hey, if you have any problem with that governor down in Florida, just let me know."

If anyone still needs an explanation for why the Bush adventure in Iraq has turned into a fiasco of incompetence and casual destruction and white male hubris, this tiny portrait of the President at "work:" should do very nicely.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, April 6, 2007

Wal-Mart Nation

Wal-Mart’s predatory merchandising practices have become fairly well-known in recent years to those of us paying attention. Wal-Mart employees are paid minimum wages and denied sufficient health care, to the point where many employees have to use Medicaid, at taxpayers’ expense. At the other end, Wal-Mart suppliers are squeezed to such an extent that many have had no choice but to relocate their factories to China or other low-wage countries. The case of the Rubbermaid Corporation illustrates what happens when a well-known supplier of quality products, with a factory supporting over 1,000 workers in the United States, refuses to meet Wal-Mart’s demand to lower its wholesale prices below its manufacturing costs. Wal-Mart stopped buying Rubbermaid products, and the factory owners, resisting the move to China where they could pay wages low enough to meet Wal-Mart’s demands, closed its operations within a year—with the loss of 1,000 American jobs. Meantime, Wal-Mart-owned or -subsidized factories in third-world countries are booming.

Of course, the workers in such factories do not fare so well. For one example, at a factory in Bangladesh—the Beximco factory making shirts and pants for Wal-Mart stores—the workers are paid wages of 9 cents to 20 cents an hour, denied health care and maternity leave, and forced to work 87 hours a week without overtime pay, all in violation of Bangladeshi laws requiring a minimum wage of 33 cents an hour and overtime pay for anything over 48 hours a week. For rush orders, workers are forced to work throughout the night without a break, on top of their normal 7:30 am to 8:00 pm day.

Now we find out, from an article by Barbara Ehrenreich on (4/6/07), that the great merchandiser—with annual income exceeding that of many nations—has begun to think and act like a nation. It has instituted a massive "security" operation that employs ex-CIA agents and similar types to spy on and harrass employees who violate its protocols. As Ehrenreich describes it, one such employee, James W. Lynn, was followed by a Wal-Mart spy throughout Central America. The spy finally managed to find proof of his prey’s perfidy in Guatamela City, where he heard Lynn and a female companion "moaning and sighing" in their room. All this to "get the goods" on Lynn, who had apparently violated company secrecy by "openly criticizing the conditions he found in Central American factories supplying Wal-Mart stores." In other words, James Lynn’s "crime" against the Wal-Mart nation was reporting the truth about his company’s gross exploitation of workers throughout the world.

Ehrenreich makes the national connection explicit: in a nation in which the federal government routinely empoys spies to foment revolution, bring down uncooperative governments, kidnap and torture suspected enemies, and spy on its own citizens, its largest corporations (apparently Target stores have their own "security" goons to intimidate employees suspected of straying from the fold) see no reason why they shouldn’t follow suit. As she notes,

"When companies start imagining that they are nation-states, entitled to spy on, stalk, and imprison their own employees, then we are well down the road to an actual, full-scale dictatorship."

Indeed. And if it comes, the dictatorship will be enabled and implemented by each one of us who jumps at yet another "great bargain" while ignoring the exploited, intimidated, spied-upon and spat-upon fabric of which it is made.
Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Iran Captures

The signals from the latest "crisis" with Iran over its capture of British sailors in the Persian Gulf are both good and bad. The good news is that the Brits, unlike our wannabee cowboy President, have clearly opted for diplomacy rather than military threats. The Blair government, despite its initial tough talk, has been exploring ways to satisfy the Iranians without overtly admitting a territorial violation. In response to such "girl-talk," of course, the Bush administration fumes and sputters that appeasement is dangerous. What they mean, of course, is that America’s most steadfast ally in its Persian Gulf adventure has now begun to abandon ship, leaving the U.S. under Bush more isolated by the hour.

The bad news lies in the underlying and perilous dynamics that are revealed by Iran’s capture. These dynamics have been revealed in detail by Seymour Hersh’s several New Yorker articles about the American plans being put into place to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, probably via air strikes. But they have also been revealed in a stunning article by Patrick Cockbun, "The Botched Raid that Led to the Hostage Crisis," that first appeared in the British newspaper, the Independent, on April 3 (reprinted on Cockburn maintains that the Iranian seizure of the British sailors was really retaliation for the earlier American raid in Iraq resulting in the seizure of five Iranian officials. The United States, at the time of that raid on January 11, claimed that the five were "intelligence agents" aiding or instigating the insurgency in Iraq. This went along with the Bush administration’s latest attempt to blame someone, anyone for its Iraq debacle. And since Bush could no longer blame Saddam Hussein, or al Quaeda, it had to be the evil Iranians who were responsible for spoiling his "mission of freedom." Hence the raid in the northern Kurdish town of Irbil. Wholly illegal and dangerously provocative, netting only five minor officials, and failing to provide evidence of Iranian guilt, the raid seemed stupid.

What Cockburn reveals, however, is that the raid was actually meant to capture two high-ranking Iranians on an official visit to the Kurdish-born Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, among others. The two were Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Fortunately, the two avoided capture. But such a raid, coming at the very time President Bush was attacking the Iranians daily as the greatest threat America faced, now seems intended at the least to provoke a crisis, and at the worst, the all-out war that Seymour Hersh had been predicting. The administration, in short, needed a casus belli, and appears to have gambled that with the capture of two high Iranian officials, Iran would be provoked into some foolish over-response, and the attack on its nuclear facilities could be launched.

Now it becomes plain why the Iranian government may have felt obliged to capture the 15 British sailors. Some response to America’s outrageous raid on Iranian diplomats was required. The Brits provided an easier and less dangerous target than a comparable American target might. And in the light of recent developments (one Iranian released so far, with reports that an Iranian envoy will be allowed to see the five captured Iranians in U.S. custody), it appears that a prisoner exchange might have been anticipated by the Iranians all along as a diplomatic way out.

As of this writing, hopes are high that the British sailors will be released: Iran on Wednesday announced that they would be released as an Easter gift. But the underlying tensions, initiated by the Bush administration’s maneuvers and provocations (the U.S. has never sent aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, mainly because sea space is so limited that aircraft carriers can barely maneuver there, making the chances for a disastrous error extremely high), continue.

The real question now is whether the United States and the world will be lucky enough to survive the next two years, or whether our weakened, trigger-happy, boy-President will yet manage to plunge us all into his teen-dream ‘nucular’ armaggedon.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, April 2, 2007

Fatal Attraction

Just in case I haven’t offended enough people, I thought this bit of scientific marginalia about my least favorite domesticate might help, especially as it has some referents to the wonders of nature to soften the blow.

Begin with the amazing instance of brain control exhibited by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This tiny protozoan invests its all in the relationship between cats and their rodent prey. To begin with, the mouse (or other rodent) ingests the Toxoplasma, which then forms cysts within the mouse, notably in its brain. When a cat in turn eats the rodent, it also imbibes the Toxoplasma, which thereupon reproduces in the cat gut, and is eventually released in the cat feces. The cat feces are in turn nibbled at by other rodents, which ingest the Toxoplasma, and the cycle continues. Of course, the cat feces can be ingested by beetles or other creatures, just as the rodent can be eaten by a hawk, but this would interrupt the cycle—the Toxoplasma can only reproduce inside a cat, and in biology, reproduction is everything.

Now comes the amazing part. Rodents of all kinds are hard-wired to be wary of cats, to avoid them like the plague. If it wants to land inside a cat, which it must, Toxoplasma has to "do" something about this. And what it does (as described in neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s fascinating new book, Monkeyluv), is astonishing. Toxoplasma gondii has evolved the ability to control the brain of its rodent hosts in such a way as to inhibit their inborn aversion to the smell of cats. Instead, rodents infected with Toxoplasma not only lose their aversion to cat pheromones, they become positively attracted to them. This is like someone being drugged with a potion whose only effect is to generate a fatal attraction to its mortal enemy.

The point for you and me in all this lies in the aforementioned potential of Toxoplasma to infect other species besides rodents—humans for example. Remembering that cat feces carry the parasite, it becomes clear why pregnant women in particular have long been advised to be wary of cats. It’s not that cats can "take the baby’s breath away" as my mother used to insist. It has to do with those parasites in their feces. For if Toxoplasma from a cat’s feces finds its way into a pregnant woman (either via her garden, or via the litter box), it can migrate to her fetus’s brain, and cause neurological damage.

All of which makes one wonder: does the Toxoplasma in cat feces have something to do with the cat allergy exhibited by many humans, including myself? And, contrarily, is the inordinate, even obsessive appeal of cats for countless pet owners at least partly attributable to the action of some variant Toxoplasma which has, in an evolutionary accident of species-hopping, somehow managed to imbue millions of humans with a fatal attraction to feline pheromones?

Which leads to my final speculation. Can the day be far off when deviant geneticists, fiddling with Toxoplasma in the bowels of the DOD, find a way to fabricate a parasite that causes the human brain to lose its suspicion of political humbug, and become fatally attracted to idiot Texans and musclebound Teutonics instead? Or, more omninously, is such a cerebral deviation no longer necessary?
Lawrence DiStasi