"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 January 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Messenger Service



You can't try too hard in a

relationship or things become

awkward between you and the

object of your affection. Billy

Cumby, for example, had a pretty

good thing going with his Lord

and savior, until he took the

creator's personal advice and

ran way too far with it. Cumby

is a dwarf — not quite three

feet tall — who overcame a

long series of medical crises

that had impaired his ability to

walk. Following his last round

of leg surgery, things got

interesting: God, Cumby says,

swung by the recovery room to

suggest that he check out the

lifestyle of the traveling

preacher. Cumby thought this

sounded like a pretty good idea

and hit the road.


And the road delivered; the

congregations who heard Cumby's

impassioned sermons —

preached from a tiny portable

pulpit — felt inspired to

help the peripatetic parson with

his living expenses and the

problem of finding a house for

those occasional breaks from

spreading the gospel. Sharing

the wealth, Cumby generously

made room in the church-provided

home for a fellow adherent,

19-year-old Mary Lou Carpenter.

During Cumby's reign of

righteousness, however, a

curious thing was happening in

the same rural Southern counties

that the preacher visited in his

line of work: A series of

churches and revival centers

were losing their public address

equipment and musical

instruments to burglars. Was it

the work of the devil, trying to

silence the sounds of worship?

Just the opposite, apparently: A

December report on the

burglaries, written by a

Knight-Ridder reporter, explains

that other Southern preachers

were "helpful in leading

authorities to Cumby," who, it

seems, was just trying to

facilitate his message of

salvation. After all, you can't

play Paul Revere without a



Treutlen County Sheriff Wayne

Hooks, who sat down for a

personal talk with Cumby, told

reporters that the preacher had

admitted to taking donations for

his traveling church without

asking for them. "We like swift

justice in Treutlen County,"

Hooks cheerfully added. Mary Lou

also faced earthly judgment in

the burglaries. Heavenly

intervention against the

couple's captors hasn't been

reported, suggesting the

possibility that God isn't

really an ends-justifies-

the-means kind

of guy. Well, not anymore, at




But you can't really blame Cumby

for fudging the rules of man; he

was, after all, serving a higher

purpose. And the

preacher-turned-prisoner can

take comfort in the knowledge

that the old Ollie North

defense has very much become the

social norm — and not just

in the United States: Former

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl

— who stands accused, quite

credibly, of having maintained

secret campaign funds worth a

million US dollars — is

among those who appear to

understand the nobility of

criminal behavior. Considering

the old German talent for the

creative excuse before the bar

of justice, it's not especially

surprising to hear Kohl's

reasoning as he declines to

provide critical information to

his nation's prosecutors: Well,

I promised my secret

contributors that I wouldn't

tell anybody who they were....

Crooked politicians make the

most honorable citizens when the

cops show up and start asking

questions: I would never break a

promise.... (Presumably Kohl is

protecting the proprietor of a

popular Arkansas restaurant.)


Better yet, Kohl has the

pleasing get-out-of-jail-free

card of criminal immunity; as a

member of Parliament, he can't

be prosecuted. German

authorities believe that the man

standing on Kohl's front lawn,

shouting, "You lucky

bastard!" is a US citizen,

tentatively identified as a "Mr.

Rostenkowski from Chicago."


And anyway, Kohl insists, he

never used any of the money for

his personal needs; it was all

for the good of the party, which

of course was mostly concerned

with the good of the nation.



Similarly, Kohl's current

immunity-backed silence is

necessary to protect the ability

of Parliament — one member

in particular, you'd have to

guess — to govern

effectively. Note to Helmut

Kohl: Just remember the phrase

"no controlling legal



The logic of bad deeds toward a

greater good isn't always a

question of lawbreaking.

Sometimes it's the reasoning

behind the law itself. In

Kuwait, for example, sexist

repression turns out to be a

gift to women. Legislators in

that country — a bastion of

freedom, liberated from Iraqi

oppressors a few years back

rejected a plan late last

year to allow women to

participate in political

decision making by voting and

holding elective office. But the

guys didn't keep the ladies on

the DL so that they could continue

to hog all the power; they did it

to protect the women from sexual

predators. "How would you have

expected me to feel," asked

lawmaker Saadoun al-Otaibi, in

comments quoted in a New York

Times story, "if a candidate

called to tell me, 'I need to

speak with your wife and

daughter?'" (Explains the

candidate: "I have lowered my

trousers, madam, because it is

primary season.")


Proponents of political equality

helpfully explained to those on

the other side of the debate

that US-style political

empowerment doesn't necessarily

turn the gals into big whores

right off the bat. "I wish to

convey to all my colleagues,"

wrote former oil minister Ali

al-Baghli in a newspaper op-ed

piece, "that all Western women

do not work in bars and strip

clubs." And this is correct:

Some of them intern at the White




The much-noted dynamic at the

end of a spectacularly bloody

century was the attempt to

purify our past by apologizing

for it and offering to make

amends: Bill Clinton traveled to

Africa and apologized for

slavery, Swiss banks grudgingly

made noises about making

reparations to Holocaust

survivors whose stolen money

ended up nestled in Nazi

accounts in Zurich, and David

Talbot admitted that Salon has

always been kind of lame. (Well,

no: David Talbot has never

admitted it.) But the neat punch

line comes from the National

Defense Council Foundation, a

kind of hawkish but reliable US

organization that tracks armed

conflicts around the world.

One-third of the 193 countries

on the planet are currently

embroiled in active military

conflicts of some kind, the

foundation reported in the final

days of 1999 — generously

defining "conflict" to include

things like chronic border

skirmishes and serious internal

unrest — which adds up to

roughly double the number of

active conflicts at the height

of the Cold War. The rise of

political violence, they add,

can be explained by a "reverse

wave" that is rolling back

democratic advances and throwing

the mechanism of government up

for grabs in charming places

like Kosovo and the

optimistically named Democratic

Republic of the Congo. Last

year, a military coup in

Pakistan was explained by its

leaders as an effort to create

stability in that country;

Iranian hard-liners jailed (and

generally harassed) prominent

moderates to keep a lid on the

social corruption that would

obviously come with a burgeoning

Western attitude; the

spectacularly pathetic Russian

military blasted the bejesus out

of the few thousand


septuagenarians left in Grozny

(and somehow managed to take

plenty of casualties doing it)

so Vladimir Putin could look

presidential in time for the

presidential election.


And so the idea that the

sophisticated occupants of the

newly enlightened planet can

apologize for all that old

brutality stuff and go marching

bravely into a superior new era

of peace and stability kind of

doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

And the instinct behind that

reasoning is the same instinct,

or at least part of it, that

leads to the kind of behavior

for which we end up feeling

obliged to apologize: If we own

the franchise for peace, love,

and understanding, then it only

makes sense that we would want

everyone else to hear our

beautiful, important message. It

only follows that everyone would

want to be governed the correct

way and taught the perfect

doctrine and spoken to with just

the right words. And if we have

to seize control of the tools we

need to deliver all that gentle

beauty — a little lying, a

little sneaking, a little

authoritarian control and

political violence — then

the ends will probably justify

the unfortunate and entirely

necessary means. The microphone

may be stolen, but doesn't the

choir make some heavenly music?

courtesy of Ambrose Beers
picturesTerry Colon